Is Art Dishwasher Safe?

After long correspondence (both in years and text length), I finally had an opportunity to meet with Carter Gillies over Thanksgiving weekend.  On at least one occasion I dubbed Carter “potter-philosopher,” because he has studied and practiced both disciplines.

Carter has been a big proponent of measuring the value of the arts on their own terms rather than their instrumental value to stimulate economies, raise test scores, cure cancer and bring world peace.

We spoke and debated for many hours on these ideas. However, the really challenging conversation was the one I had with myself days later. It is a conversation that millions have had and never concluded satisfactorily.

Before I left Carter’s house, he took me back to his studio and told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I grabbed a bowl that caught my eye and Carter discussed why he liked the glaze he applied to it, pointing out the subtle golden flecks that dotted different places.

A few days later he wrote me thanking me for visiting and hoping I enjoyed eating out of the bowl.

I was mortified. How could I eat out of that bowl? It was a piece of art that represented the culmination of our relationship to this point. I had it prominently displayed on a table in front of my sofa.

But then when I thought about it, I have two mugs given to me by one of the directors of the art museum back where I previously lived in Ohio. I drink out of those all the time. In fact, I am drinking out of one of them right now, totally unplanned. To leave them in the cupboard and not use them would be a small betrayal of my relationship with her, implying they were not good enough to eat out of.

I have endowed both the bowl and mugs with value derived from my relationship with the makers. My conclusions about what the appropriate treatment of each are completely opposite and pretty illogical.

I am not even sure the question here is “what is art?”

Does mundane and common use diminish an object’s identity as art while preserving it in an untouched and stationary state except to dust it impart greater identity as an object d’art?

The makers are both in my mind and heart when I see and use these objects which is part of the value for me. Does sentimentality contribute or detract to the objective value of these items?

These are questions that can be addressed forever. But this also illustrates why it is so much easier to talk about the value of art in terms of instrumentality. Instrumental measures are things people can grasp on to much easier.

The big problem, however, as Carter points out is that we never really try to introduce the conversation with policy makers about why we value the arts.  It can be really easy to talk in a passionate way about why you value the bowl on your coffee table and the mugs in your cupboard as well as the stuff hanging on your walls.

Yes, there is no facile way to empirically say the bowl is more valuable than the mug. There is a whole lot of complicated factors that contribute to record breaking auctions at Sotheby’s .

People value art and creativity in their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with what they can sell it for or enhancing their test scores.

The first step is opening your mouth to mention that the true value of a creative expression is divorced of these measures and potentially even divorced from another person’s perception of that creative expression.

“Change Starts From Within” Means You

Cyndi Suarez wrote a piece for Non-Profit Quarterly that bears considering as non-profit organizations make an effort to have the demographics of their staff and boards better reflect that of the communities they serve.

In writing about the challenges faced by people of color entering organizations predominantly staffed by Caucasians, she notes, (my emphasis)

“…they’re expected to both bring a particular value as a person of color and fit into the dominant culture. This puts the person in what one described as being at odds with “the truth in my heart.” The organizations don’t expect to have to change, and it’s extremely difficult for these people of color to address the challenges from within the organization, in isolation from others like themselves or any other support.”

Seems a little silly doesn’t it given how often the phrase, “change starts from within,” is blithely thrown around?

While I have heard discussions about the disconnect between wanting to expand involvement and participation by groups without considering that it will mean changing things about the organization, I hadn’t considered that the following problem also exists:

“…even though that person of color is a symbol of the potential change that often ushers in the money, she usually has no decision-making authority over how that money is used, and it is rarely presented as a budget at her disposal. Or, even worse, as with Carlos, the person is expected to take the lead in identifying the money himself.”

An organization in the initial phases of trying to expand involvement and participation may not be in a place to put a new hire in direct budgetary control of funding, but there should be consideration of creating a strong relationship between the funding and the scope of the new hire’s responsibility/decision making in its use.

Suarez makes other worthwhile observations about the changing dynamics in the work place in her piece. These are the ones that primarily jumped out at me.

Unexamined Initiatives Are Not Worth Implementing

It is no news flash to even casual readers of the blog that I am involved with Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection program to build public will for arts and culture. Last week, they ran a webinar just to present the basic research and program. In recent months they have been featuring two case studies where people talk about how their organizations are putting the research and messaging into practice. This session was aimed at giving people more complete information about the program.

As much as I have been a fan boy cheer leading the program, what I really appreciated about the webinar last week was the number and type of questions people were asking of the presenters.

It was an indication of just how serious people were thinking about implementing the research that webinar attendees were questioning the research methodology. I think people in arts and culture field are wise to scrutinize whether a new approach to doing business is a popular fad soon to fade or has some rigorous thought behind it. They have little enough time and resources as it is and don’t want to waste it on initiatives lacking substance.

What I really appreciated was when one person, identified as Zi Li, asked about case studies on failed programs because they were interested to learn why those program failed.  My friend Carter Gillies often mentions the problem of survivorship bias  where you only study the successful cases rather than gaining insight from those that failed.

The music on the Awesome 80s radio station is always going to be better than the music today because you are comparing the cream that rose to the top and endured the last 30 years to all the music being performed today, both good and bad.

If you are new to the concept of Creating Connection or just want a refresher, take a look at the video from the webinar which includes all the questions and comments made that day.

Non Profits & Buying Locally – Good For The Community vs Bad For Overhead Ratio

Back in September, Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ) pointed to a new research study which has found overheard ratio is not a valid measure of organizational effectiveness. In fact, it there is a slight negative correlation between overheard ratio and commonly used measures of efficiency.

“…but our work is the first to approach it using efficiency theory—and we were able to demonstrate the problem using real-world data.”

….“In short,” Coupet says, “this demonstrates that not only is the overhead ratio bad at assessing efficiency, but also that using it to assess efficiency may actively mislead donors. We argue that nonprofit scholars, managers, and donors should move away from concepts and measures of efficiency based on financial ratios, and toward ones that embrace maximizing what nonprofits are able to make and do.”

NPQ says according to the study, overhead ratio is a poor measure of effectiveness because it doesn’t reflect what organizations are doing with their resources or what they “are accomplishing with their non-overhead spending.”

In other words, like I have written so often before, the value of what a non-profit does is not reflected by transactional data, economic impact numbers or test scores.

This being said, another part of the article raises the intriguing idea that if a non-profit is supposed to be working for the benefit of their community, shouldn’t they be focusing on buying locally rather at chain stores or wholesale warehouses? If so, the higher cost of buying locally would raise their costs a bit and impact their overhead ratio. But it may be worthwhile to do so.

Should we stop looking for cost savings that benefit our bottom line but lead to purchasing that harms the greater community? In other words, should nonprofits be considering (and be supported to pursue) their own “buy local” policies?

‘Nonprofits should be shouting about how much of their spending happens at locally owned, minority-owned, women-owned, veteran-owned or disabled-owned businesses. There is a multiplier effect in spending locally that shows that for every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $45 of that is re-spent locally, while national chains only spend $14 of that sale locally.’

This is an intriguing idea that has this author (a nonprofit executive who manages purchasing) feeling the financial pinch of a cogent ethical argument: If buying local supports healthy communities, and the mission and values of my organizations are tied to relevant healthy community outcomes, why am I doing my shopping at big box (including online) retailers?

This broadens the scope of what it means to be a non-profit in service to the community. Touting how much is being spent at locally owned business won’t necessarily smother the use of overhead ratio as a standard, but it has the potential to blunt the ratio’s use in an argument of a non-profit’s worthiness.

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