Taking Arts & Culture’s Measure

I have been cautioning the non-profit arts community about citing the economic value of the arts for over a decade now. The first time was in 2007. I wrote about it a few times in the interim, but I didn’t really start to devote time and space to the idea until the last 2-3 years.

However, if you don’t put stock in my arguments, perhaps you will find statements by celebrities with English accents to be compelling. Check out the following videos from an Arts Emergency Service convening at the Oxford Literary Festival where author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series) makes the same point cited in just about every piece I discussed in previous posts:

“Keep clear of economic justifications for the arts. If you do that, if you try that, you hand a weapon to the other side because they can always find ways of proving that you are wrong about it, you’ve got the figures wrong. You invite them to measure everything in terms of economic gain. My advice would be to ignore economic arguments altogether.”

Noted graphic novelist Alan Moore chimed in about “…the ridiculousness of, sort of, having to have impact. To appoint words like that to the arts, its criminal, its ridiculous.”

Pullman makes another statement that aligns with the assertions by Carter Gillies I often cite that just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean the measurement is relevant. (Diane Ragsdale also wrote a piece along these lines.)

“The government, you see, asks us to do something and then gives us the wrong tools to do it. [unintelligible] says, ‘Look I want you to measure this piece of wood. And here’s a tool for you.’ And gives you a grindstone. And one thing you can say is, ‘Why do you want to measure this wood anyway? This is firewood, I’ll burn it to keep myself warm.’ Questions arise from that. What is the right tool for measuring the arts and do we need to measure them anyway? What are we measuring them for?”

There is another video on the Arts Emergency page where the panel, which includes Arts Emergency co-founder, Josie Long, discuss the false dichotomy between art and science that is worth checking out.

As I was looking back at all the posts I made on this subject, I found the following tweet I had linked to many years ago.  It struck me that if you can’t entirely control the language your advocates use, request they make this one small change in terminology can help start to shift the “economic benefit” mindset. (Though perhaps not something to use in the context of immigration discussions.)

You Can Have All The Charity Golf Tournaments You Want When You Own The Courses

Generous donations to a non-profit can often become more of a burden than a blessing which is why it is important to have a good donation policy and properly evaluate the impact of the donation upon the organization.

According to a story in Non Profit Quarterly, this is exactly the challenge being faced by the Great American Songbook Foundation in Carmel, IN.  The organization with a budget of less than $1 million was approached with a non-strings attached donation of an estate valued at $30 million.

….includes a couple of golf courses, a pool, a fully furnished 50,000-square-foot main house, and a clubhouse—all set on 107 acres. There are no conditions on the contribution.

The upkeep alone could easily eat up the entire current budget of the organization, what with the nine staff required to maintain the property, and it should be pretty darn clear to any manager or board who have taken a trip or two around the block that such a gift could potentially ruin the organization.

[…]

This isn’t the first time the Simons have tried to move the property, which has covenants that disallow certain kinds of development. In fact, the property has been on the market since 2014 at $25 million with no takers. Additionally, a previous attempt to contribute the property to the Indiana University Foundation in 2008 fell through.

The Songbook Foundation Board is going to take three years to study the use of the estate which is probably a wise course of action. The NPQ article notes that since they accepted the donation of the estate, they will bear the costs associated with maintaining the estate during that time.

There are a number of options available to the Songbook Foundation according to another article.

The foundation could decide to use the main house as a museum and center of operations, subject to a rezone. The golf course land could be sold in a plan similar to Estridge’s but with lot sizes that meet the covenants. That money could be used to support operation of the museum.

The entire property, including the main house, could be sold to a developer. That money could be used to support the foundation or build the Great American Songbook Museum closer to The Palladium, possibly next to the soon-to-be-built luxury hotel, The Carmichael.

[…]

“It’s a very generous gift,” Brainard said. “It’s an asset that could be used by the Foundation to leverage for future donations. It’s very important to include neighbors in any conversation about any use and then proceed in such a way that enhance’s property values in the area.”

…He [McDermott] said charity events could be held on the golf course and added that a donation this size is a signal to other potential donors who were thinking of writing a check.

I have to admit, given the number of fundraisers that occur on golf courses, I was amused by the thought that these guys may be the only non-profit to own part of their “supply chain.”

If they decide to keep the properties, they will almost definitely need to set up a separate administrative body to keep themselves from getting bogged down in the business of overseeing the estates. Not to mention there might be issues that conflict with their non-profit status. The unrelated business incomes from the estates could potentially be 25+ times greater than that of the non-profit. It will be really interesting to see what they decide to do.

I made a post on the ArtsHacker site about two years ago that included lists and links to various resources one can use to create a gift acceptance policy and to evaluate the suitability of accepting gifts when donors approach the organization.

Uncaging The Ticket Office Staff

Ken Davenport made a post last month about the way the New York City subway system is shifting their practice. Since more subway riders are able to pay for rides with their credit cards and even have refillable Metro cards sent to their homes, there is less need for the booth attendants.

But, NYC has been slow to adopt any changes unlike other cities around the country.

Starting to sound familiar? Labor intensive? Slow to change? Tickets that can be received at home, or from a “machine.”

However, the booth attendants aren’t necessarily losing their jobs.

In the subway case, they are talking about allowing station agents to help passengers off the train, providing service to the riders looking as they stand on the tracks, etc. They are talking about getting them out of the glass box and interacting directly with our consumers.

Why? Because riders polled LIKE having the station agents. And I bet our ticket buyers LIKE having our box office attendees as well.

As we become more and more cashless, and as we become more print-at-home, maybe an idea is to allow our box office personnel to become even more of an integral part of our promotion and advertising team (they are the few folks that actually talk to our customers). Maybe we just get them out from behind those glass walls that, frankly, are so antithetical to any sales process (ever been to an Apple store? It’s no coincidence that their salespeople walk the stores, conducting transactions from a phone that fits in their pocket).

Davenport draws the line between the station attendant and the ticket office staff which has always been regarded as the first point of contact 95% of people have with an arts and cultural organization.

About two years ago I made a similar post about using technology to unmoor the ticket office from a permanent physical location in a lobby. (Check it out, there were some good comments.) Davenport takes the next step astutely noting that the function of physically transferring tickets to someone is becoming less necessary whereas personal contact with visitors is just as, if not more, important.

Personally, knowing the subway station attendant would be getting out of those booths makes me relieved on their behalf. Ever since I was a kid (this is back to when “Y” tokens were used) those booths made me feel anxious because the attendants looked like they were imprisoned in the claustrophobic cubes while everyone else was free to travel about.

Since it has been pretty apparent in a number of places I have worked that the ticket office was the last space an architect designed, this is probably an experience shared by a lot of ticketing staff.

Getting the staff out among the visitors may bring a constructive psychological and perceptual change to the whole relationship.

Money May Make The World Go Round, But Education Drives Participation

In a recent “Taking Note”, National Endowment for the Arts’  Director of Research & Analysis,  Sunil Iyengar mentioned that in the coming year the NEA will commission some monographs exploring the role of taste and preferences in arts participation.

He later points out a study conducted in Spain that touches on this very notion.  With the obvious disclaimer that the cultural norms of Spain differ from that of the U.S., I wanted to point out a couple interesting observations the Spanish researchers made.

They categorized study participants as either “absolute” or “recoverable” non-attendees. The absolute non-attendees were those who were “impermeable to cultural policy” and would not attend for any reason whatsoever. Recoverable non-attendees were those who had not attended recently but  shared characteristics with people who did. Among the “recoverable” are people who might have had children and will become increasingly open to participating as their kids got older.

The researchers categorized willingness to attend across cultural events, visits to historic/cultural sites or attend cinema.

In all three cases, education works independently of income, in positively affecting attendance. Even the effect of income on arts participation is shown to be “more significant” for people at the higher versus lower education levels.

[…]

The researchers conclude that as education rises, interest in arts attendance grows dramatically. For example, changing a respondent’s education level from “primary education”-only to “higher education” would cut his or her likelihood of being an “absolute non-attendee” by 50 percentage points—for all three arts activities.

Again acknowledging that Spain and the US are different situations, I was pretty astonished to see a 50% reduction absolute non-attendance closely associated with education level. In the conclusions, the researchers suggest cultural policy should be more closely integrated with education policy with an eye to the way technology changes expectations and mode of content delivery.

What I also found interesting was that income level doesn’t seem to have the same impact on attendance that education does for arts events and cultural site visits. Cinema is more price sensitive.

At the same time, the category of “recoverable non-attendee” (that is, a person who just feasibly might have attended an arts event) remains inflexible when income levels are raised, for both cultural-place visits and live performing arts attendance. The authors thus remark on the “clear polarization” among Spaniards when it comes to either high demand or absolute non-interest in these activities.

The way I read this was that people with high levels of education are more likely to attend regardless of income level. Whereas people of low education level don’t take on the characteristics shared by “recoverable” attendees as their income level rises. The first section I quoted above appears to say people with high levels of education become more likely to attend frequently as income goes up, but people with high levels of education and low income will have a tendency to attend at some point.

I scrutinized the original research report (which is in English) for a plain statement either supporting or refuting my reading of this, but I didn’t find a statement that clarified the matter for me.

What I was ultimately hoping to find was something that showed preference (or lack thereof) shaped by education was a greater barrier to participation than price. This would resonate with recent research results from a number of sources that suggest price isn’t as large a barrier as has been assumed.

A caveat to my caveats: While I continue to assert the differences between Spain and the U.S., the Spanish researchers themselves say their findings match that of U.S. researchers so don’t read my disclaimers as a diminishing the validity of the Spanish research on U.S. behavior.  I am just making it clear that I am not ignoring the distinction.

In the three activities, a very large group of absolute non-attendees is observed that it will be difficult to interest in cultural activities, especially in live performances and sites of cultural interest. This result is very general and similar to that obtained by Ateca Amestoy and Prieto Rodríguez (2013) for the United States.

Send this to a friend