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First Cut Is The Deepest

Nod to Thomas Cott for calling attention to a post on TRG blog about Mission versus business models.

I will cut right to the chase and say that I honed right in on their discussion of making a “cut list” of things to stop doing that are diverting resources and energy away from revenue generation.

If you’re a president, CEO, or executive director, you must align with your colleagues and focus your team on the sustainability of your business model and getting the revenue results that will support your mission. Insist on a “stop doing” list. Your non-profit status does not mean that you must exhaust staff time and resources with every initiative, regardless of return on investment.

They give examples of three theaters that have started focusing on audience retention in some fashion. Obviously, the area of focus could be anything.

I think the statements with the most impact were made in the comment section by Paul Botts.

During my years as a program director at an arts funder I adopted a habit that was driven by that “stop doing everything” idea. When presented with an organization’s new strategic plan my first question was always, “Tell me something which expresses your mission, which you could do and should do and really want to be doing, but which you aren’t going to do right now.”

If the response was a blank or shocked look then my feedback was that they didn’t have an actual plan they simply had a laundry list. If you haven’t made any actual choices then you haven’t done any real planning, etc.

Botts goes on to say that he follows up relating his own experience as managing director of an arts organization that tried to do everything their mission called for only to end up in bankruptcy. Even having gone through this uncomfortable experience, he still has to remind himself of lessons learned, indicating it is not an easy thing to keep yourself and your organization focused.

In the past I have often posted about diluting your efforts by adding programs as a way to chase foundation funding. But the situations TRG talks about are less clear cut and potentially more difficult to identify. The examples they give aren’t a matter of adding children matinees in order to get arts education funds. They talk about the Guthrie Theater deciding not to flyer the Mall of America in favor of focusing on getting first time attendees to come back for another visit.

Passing out flyers in a busy place is the sort of thing it is difficult to identify as a cut because it is a visible effort that looks like progress. It is the sort of thing audiences and board members will fault you for not doing in the face of declining attendance.

For some arts organizations, it might be the right strategy to increase attendance because the conversations accompanying the activity serve to increase a connection. In other communities, the connection may exist for as long as it takes to find a trashcan for the flyer.

The other thing that makes the cutting decision difficult is that there may be things that don’t appear to be effective because they are less public, more difficult to measure and might be among your organization’s least favorite activities. Just because you are really motivated to cut them may not mean it is constructive to do so.

Like a paper cut, what appears to be the least significant cut may tend to hurt the most.

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Good Reason To Create Art Isn’t Always To Create Good Art

We are often warned that art, and solutions in general, created by committee isn’t any good and doesn’t please anyone. But I wonder, if everyone involved feels ownership in what is produced and it strengthens the community, does it necessarily have to be of high quality aesthetically?

The wide gazing eyes of Thomas Cott fell upon a project sponsored in Mexico by the Scribe paper company. The company attached a small apartment to a billboard to house the artist who would be painting an advertisement for the company.

Over the course of 10 days the artist took suggestions about what to paint submitted over Twitter. The result may never be hailed as a work of genius, but the project garnered a lot of attention for Scribe. (You can see section details here) I am guessing it also strengthened the company’s relationship with a good segment of their customer base.

I am not sure what sort of guidance the artist was given by Scribe about integrating suggestions into her work, but apparently about 50 were used on the billboard.

Let’s pursue art for art sake and strive for excellence always. But for as much as we talk about connecting with our communities, it can often have the subtext of “but only on our own terms.” As Howard Sherman pointed out, there is a lot of disdain for anything tinged as low populism community theatre.

The primary goal of a community theatre production may have less to do with creating good art than spending time accomplishing something in cooperation with your neighbors. Heck, most guys who go fishing don’t want to actually catch something, they want to drink beer with their buddies.

So we may talk about how the arts need to connect with their community, but are we really ready to produce art for community sake, rather than art for art sake, and run the risk of creating really bad art that results in people feeling more connected with each other?

It likely takes starting from a place where you put community connections first and the pride and ego of the organization second. Scribe could have ended up in a situation where they had their name attached to a really ugly billboard in a prominent spot and they had to figure out what was the minimum amount of time they had to leave it up before they could paint it over.

It takes courage to cede control in a very public way. Just as not every masterful artist has the ability to teach what they know to others, not every artist and arts organization has the ability to lead a project like this to a good outcome.

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Want To Pursue A Creative Career?..Uhm, The Brits Will Help You Decide

Finder of interesting things, Thomas Cott, tweeted a link to an article about creative apprenticeships in the UK. While unpaid non profit internships are not against the law in the U.S., they have been something of a hot topic in England.

According to the article Cott linked to, the creation of the National Skills Academy is not a reaction to the internship scandal, but given that many businesses in creative industries heavily depend on unpaid labor, it does provide a response to that problem. Essentially, it allows young people to gain the skills they lack in professional settings and provide organizations with some labor without running afoul the law.

I am not quite sure how this is arranged. Apprentices are entitled to a special apprenticeship minimum wage. Whether the company using their labor pays it directly or indirectly, or the training program does isn’t clear to me.

What interested me was some of the things the National Skills Academy was doing to provide training. Whereas getting a degree in the arts is increasingly seen as not marketable in the U.S. given rising tuition, the National Skills Academy has done their research and are working with creative industries to answer the demand. They have even built a training and rehearsal facility.

We’ve encouraged a shift in education away from courses of over-supply towards training that fulfils a clear demand from the industry. In the theatre and live music sectors, our members told us they needed new backstage staff more than anything else (and they weren’t at all worried about performers). But lots of colleges were offering over-subscribed performing arts courses first and foremost. We had a look at this, and our education members now deliver quality backstage courses approved by industry and popular with students.

Our members also felt the live events, music and theatre industries needed somewhere to train and rehearse. Together we made the case for a £13m investment to build an industry-spec new building for industry and students, The Backstage Centre.

The situation in the UK isn’t that much different than in the U.S. in terms of what is needed to do the job. One section of the site observes that even though 58% of those working in creativity industries have degrees, they ironically valued experience over education because there are gaps in the education people are receiving.

They also observe, as in the U.S., unpaid internships are not a viable option for people who don’t have the money to support themselves while they work. They strive to shift that dynamic.

But that’s not what we’re being told – a quarter of employers we asked said they were experiencing skills gaps and shortages in key areas. As a result, we’ve seen a rapid growth in unpaid internships – now much longer than the traditional three-month placement.

We’re concerned that there’s a disconnect here between employers and the education sector supplying them with staff. We’ve also seen that unpaid work is unsustainable for anyone without private support.

The overall picture shows under-employment, unemployment and unfair access.

Changing recruitment culture

Our membership network led the campaign to encourage a change in recruitment culture. In 2009, we created the first specialist apprenticeship frameworks, to supply employers with staff who have the specialist skills they want.

There are whole sections on associated websites devoted to helping young people make decisions about what creative careers they might want to pursue and what opportunities are out there. There are two sites devoted specifically to theatre work and another to music.

It is not just online resources, they have a series of in person sessions around the UK young people can attend. Some are targeted at students as young as 13. Many of them are fully booked.

So if you are like me, your first reaction is probably something along the lines of “Why don’t we have something like this in the U.S.?” I think even with all the talk about how the arts councils are continuing to be defunded in the U.K. and how cultural organizations may have to look to the U.S. model of garnering private support for their work, there exists an immense fundamental gap between how arts and culture are valued in the respective countries.

This program was only created five years ago and it already has 1,800 apprentices and the Backstage Centre built. Now admittedly, it remains to be seen whether there are jobs for all these people. My suspicion is that they expect/hope some of these people to end up creating their own companies and to help drive a shift to a creative economy.

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Fuel Your Growth Or Ignite Your Destruction?

Thomas Cott’s recent round up of stories raising questions about whether arts organizations should accept funding from energy companies which are poisoning the environment through oil spills and hydraulic fracking reminded me of the semi-controversial sponsorship of dance by Altria.

I haven’t been able to find it online, but some years ago there was a feeling that the relationship of tobacco giant Altria, neé Philip Morris, to dance was a little unseemly bordering on co-dependence due to the fact that dancers often resorted to smoking to curb their appetites and maintain their desired weight and figure.

They supported a great number of arts organizations, including Lincoln Center, but had a particular affinity for dance. It might have emerged as an issue in the wake of the anti-corporate sentiment of the Occupy movement last year if Altria hadn’t withdrawn their support of the NYC dance scene a few years back when they moved their headquarters to Richmond, VA.

Altria still provides support for the arts, a theatre in Richmond will be named for them in 2013, but their profile of support isn’t as visible since they have left New York.

It does raise the question about what elements should factor into a decision to accept corporate sponsorship or not. Many times corporations provide the sponsorship to bolster their image in the community. At the same time, an arts organization will be concerned about how the image of the corporation reflects on them in the community.

A theatre in Virgina or North Carolina will probably worry less about how their community will react to them being sponsored by Altria than those in NYC since tobacco has a long history in those places. But then Altria may have less incentive to provide sponsorships in those communities in order to bolster their image.

There is also the funding source to consider. Is there less of a stigma associated when Altria’s employees are directing where the funding goes?

This isn’t about Altria. You can substitute the name of an oil company for Altria and oil rich states like Alaska and Texas for tobacco growing states and the situation will be about the same.

In fact, with the stories about how big banks are mishandling money and putting the screws to people over their mortgages, accepting money from banks in some places may not endear you to the community. And since your community is in poor financial straits, banks may be the only significant source of funding enabling you to provide free and low cost services to the self same community.

Given all these factors, it may be wise for arts boards to draft policies and procedures for assessing sponsorship and donation opportunities which may arise.

If you are thinking these issues don’t really matter or don’t feel you even know where to start in developing criteria to evaluate opportunities, you may want to take a look at the blog post by Chris Garrard that Cott links to. There, Garrard addresses what he sees as the weakness of statements like: “But the arts sector needs the money…”; “But historically, the arts have always taken money from big business or sponsors… Why should things be any different now?” and “If we engage more people in the arts to learn about life and philosophy, then that has to counteract issues with where the funding came from…”

I am not necessarily saying Garrard is completely correct. His responses are highly idealistic. But these are all issues that need to be considered.

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