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Being Well Rounded Is Not A Back Up Plan

Last week Drew McManus wrote a post about the value society places on arts practitioners. He referenced an article he saw in a You’ve Cott Mail newsletter about a teacher who urged kids who wanted to pursue creative careers to have a back-up plan and asked if anyone could provide a link.

I did remember the article and tried my darnedest to find it again. I didn’t have it bookmarked as I had thought, but had done so with a similar article on Salon that started with an anecdote of a parent who was panicked when her son said his favorite subject in school was art.

That article noted that while people assume innovation comes from the science lab, it is the artistic habit which often fuels that innovation.

The external binaries of right and wrong don’t exist in art as they do in most subjects. In math, the answer to the problem is correct or incorrect. In history, a sequence of events is true or false. In art, only the student can decide what critique to listen to and what to ignore. Art is the arena of activity where we develop the skill most required to innovate — the ability to harness our own agency.

Artist and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard P. Feynman put it this way as he distinguished between teaching science and art: in physics, Feynman said, “we have so many techniques — so many mathematical methods — that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, ‘Your lines are too heavy,’ because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines.” In that moment, the art student is learning the validity of their choices, their own direction, and innovative results.

This particular section resonated for me because it seems that education is promulgating the idea of answers being right or wrong as testing becomes more prevalent and valued.

The Salon article goes on to cite a number of scientists who have artistic avocations which they credit with contributing to their scientific accomplishments. This isn’t new, we have often heard about how Einstein played the violin. Probably the biggest failing of the arts community is constantly going to Einstein as their example rather than citing a wider variety of scientists like astronaut Mae Jemison who is quoted in the article saying that the imagination that fueled the creation of sculpture and dance got the space shuttle flying.

To my mind, saying artists need a back up plan is really just an indelicate way of saying they need to be well rounded. I am not trying to inject some political correctness here because the truth is, everyone needs to be well rounded. I think it is Sir Ken Robinson who points out we have no idea what skills people will need 30 years in the future so it is best to teach everyone to be curious and teach themselves.

While there are plenty of artists who engage in a myopic pursuit of their discipline, in my view, the liberal and fine arts education community on the whole does a better job of making its members well rounded than science and business disciplines. Perhaps because few people tell science and business students they need to broaden their experience by having a back up plan.

Just last week a student was sitting in the lobby telling her music professor that she wanted to go to a conservatory so she wouldn’t have to take English and Philosophy courses. He informed her that wasn’t necessarily so since he attended a conservatory and had to take those classes. There was also the issue that as an acting student, those courses would actually inform her work down the road.

Only a week or so earlier, this same student listened to a pianist who had performed a concert for us talk about how she double majored when she was at the Peabody Institute both because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a pianist and she had many other interests. While she ultimately committed to the piano, she said she felt that her other course work gave her an advantage over her other classmates in terms of the opportunities she had available.

But last week our student was thinking about the difficult time she was having in class, not about this bigger career picture. Students need to be pushed to take a wide variety of classes rather than taking the path of least resistance. Framing this in terms of “a back up plan” does a disservice to their interests because it diminishes their passion for the arts.

But it also diminishes the “back up plan” by playing into that binary sense of right and wrong. If you think the arts taste sweet, then setting up anything else as the “back up” option when you fail at being an artist makes it the bitter pill that has to be swallowed.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea that an interest in the arts results in a zero-sum outcome is what feeds the purist idealism that allowing yourself to be interested in anything else is a sign of lack of seriousness about your art or selling out.

If you really wanted to be an artist but were told you needed a back up plan, wouldn’t you perhaps unconsciously redouble your efforts toward your art and avoid any involvement with any possible back up option?

Then when you succeed, it is your single minded passion and talent in the face of nay sayers that won out. If you fail, then I guess they were right all the time. You meet their expectation of being a failed artist since you never allowed yourself to exercise your other interests.

When you are young, there often is no conflict between an interest in reading Popular Science, making plays to entertain your family, playing baseball, running a lemonade stand and learning to program a computer. But then you are asked to choose…

If you “correctly” choose law, medicine, business or science, there probably won’t be a societal perceived conflict in continuing with your interests. It is only when you choose the arts that you may be pressured to choose one of your other interests instead.

The truth is, interest in the arts is not a zero sum game. If there are physicists who feel their artistic pursuits enhance their practice of science, there are certainly artists who can find their pursuit of science and technology will enhance their creative output.

I am sure there are accountants who also feel their professional practice is informed by their artistic hobbies. Its just that no one believes accounting can be made more interesting. (Though there are unfortunately too many stories of accountants getting creative in the wrong ways.)

If anything, Drew McManus is great example of being able to cultivate interests and strengths in multiple areas as a musician who has built an arts related business on an understanding of technology and analysis of business practices, including financial filings.

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Rememberances of Lost Opportunities

Via You’ve Cott Mail comes a NewMusicBox article on how the Mondavi Center is using Google Hangouts as a way to connect with audiences and perhaps as an update of the traditional concert talk.

Author Dustin Soiseth starts out talking about the ill-fated Concert Companion and the resistance to its use which helped to keep it from spreading.

In the context of my post yesterday decrying how social media was allowing people to escape from boredom and uncomfortable situations yesterday, when I read the article I thought, “now this is social media I can support.”

I know it can seem hypocritical to be against using social media devices unless people are reading what I want them to read, but having them semi-engaged is preferable to being entirely disengaged.

I mean, if you are on a first date with a person, if they are going to be surreptitiously using their devices instead of giving you their full attention, better they be looking up information on Neutral Milk Hotel so they can pretend to be a fan and try to make a connection with you than have them looking up cat videos on YouTube. (Not that I am speaking from experience.)

As I acknowledged at the end of my post yesterday, there is an inevitability to social media’s appearance/participation in arts events so it is important to find a way to make the experience constructive.

Soiseth points out much the same thing.

The use of supertitles in opera, while commonplace now, was quite controversial when it began in America in the 1980s. When Beverly Sills introduced them at the New York City Opera in 1983, she was called a “philistine” in The New York Times. In 1985, James Levine famously replied “Over my dead body” when asked about the possibility of supertitles at the Metropolitan Opera, and yet ten years later there they were, Met Titles in the back of every seat, and in standing room, too.

Concert Companion was rebuffed and now the technology is manifesting itself in performance halls in forms the arts organization doesn’t control. Though that opportunity was lost, other opportunities are presenting themselves.

Even though the Google Hangouts Soiseth attended/researched weren’t well attended, there appears to be some potential in the model the Mondavi Center is using. Some of the difficulties they seemed to face appeared to be related to awareness and lack of familiarity with the experience.

Organizations might even be able to replicate the Concert Companion experience by putting QR codes in their program books that people can scan at the change of each scene or movement in order to access notes on the performance at each juncture. After the performance, people can scan other codes for supplemental videos, discussion fora and the like.

We all know that even without an iPhone in hand, people are going to get bored and turn their attention elsewhere, look at their neighbors, read the program book, clean their fingernails, etc. It is okay to be bored.

Given that people are likely to become disengaged at some point and given that the presence of social media devices are only likely to increase, the prudent thing to do might be to provide an outlet for people’s impulse to grab their phones in the middle of the show.

Take the approach of: we would prefer you don’t pull out your phone, but if you feel you must, here is some interesting material to look at rather than to text your friends about going to the beach tomorrow. That said, this material isn’t going anywhere and you can look at it during intermission or tomorrow morning.

I can foresee that people may use hashtags or chat environments generated by the arts organization to discuss the performance during the show. My sentiment about that is the same as yesterday–encouraging audiences it some time to percolate in their brains and discuss it later.

Not to mention, the audience at large may potentially be upset by people spread throughout the theatre giggling as they try to outdo each other insulting the actors’ costumes.

On the other hand, that interaction may provide the arts organization more feedback about their show than they have ever gotten on a survey.

If you are feeling like I am flip flopping on this topic, I have to answer by saying it is a really difficult thing to address in an objective way. I don’t think the sentiments I expressed yesterday are at all unreasonable. I am concerned about what it means for society at large when people are afraid to be alone with their own thoughts.

But I also know that using a social media device during a performance and honestly facing the truths of one’s life are not mutually exclusive and room must be made for both.

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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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We Have To Destroy Our Arts Organization To Save Our Arts Organization

The news of Hostess Bakeries making good on their threat to liquidate in the face of a baker strike reminded me of You’ve Cott Mail’s “Is bankruptcy the answer for arts money woes” round up from this past August.

Back then Thomas Cott linked to a story about how the Barnes Foundation let everyone believe they were going bankrupt in order to make the case for moving the art collection to Philadelphia easier. Another story recalled how the Philadelphia Orchestra also declared bankruptcy in order to help with their contract negotiations and relieve their pension obligations, suggesting that the stigma of doing so may be dissipating and other orchestras may be following suit.

Cott included an article by Terry Teachout acclaiming the success of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) in getting the citizens of three counties to agree to an increase in their property taxes (called millage) in return for free admission to the museum.

There was some talk that millage might especially be the wave of the future for funding the arts.

Yeah, not so fast. According to Judith Dobrzynski, the DIA might want to give a thankful prayer for their blessings. Residents of Ann Arbor, MI voted down millage to support a comprehensive public art project.

With that in mind, I wouldn’t necessarily count millage out as an answer. I suspect the biggest difference between Ann Arbor and Detroit was that DIA is a specific, visible entity, the benefits of which are easy to experience by walking in the door. If they were forced to close, it was clear what would be lost. Ann Arbor was looking to support art yet to be created which can be more difficult to become mentally, emotionally and socially invested in.

What I would really like to see is an arts organization successfully sell a community on a wide-ranging public support option like millage in the absence of a scenario of imminent demise. I have seen so many appeals in the face of an apocalypse that I wonder if it is even possible to rally significant community support for a healthy, stable arts organization.

Have we trained people only to respond to dire predictions? Or perhaps they have trained us that they will only respond to appeals couched in those terms.

Bankruptcy and tales of woe really isn’t the most constructive way to develop a relationship and confidence from your community. It impacts credibility and people soon become inured to news of financial crises. In this Hostess liquidation, the only person who wins is Little Debbie. (Come to find out, Hostess owns Drake’s Cakes)

The best evidence that you will not mishandle donated funds is that you are never in the position of telling people about the void that will open in their lives if they don’t rally to support you. It is harder to suggest people should have confidence in your business plan and financial practices if you are in dire straits, but more people seem ready to increase their giving in these instances because it is easier to be passionate in short bursts.

Yes, I know Joni Mitchell told us we take the things we love for granted many years ago, but there is nothing to say we can’t rally to change that behavior.

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