Seeing Value In The Arts

Seeing Value In the Arts is the fourth in a series of six essays taking a critical look at innovation culture, its assumptions, influences and impact.

If one of the fundamental flaws of the Innovation Agenda is mistaken underlying assumptions, one of those assumptions is the definition of innovation itself. The current accepted definition of innovation in the arts is one developed by EmcArts:

Organizational innovations are instances of change that result from a shift in underlying organizational assumptions, are discontinuous from previous practice, and provide new pathways to creating public value.

It is no small irony that the proponents of the Innovation agenda have yet to apply this process to themselves, but more on that later. Given that this definition was created as a guidepost for the Arts Innovation Fund, I thought I’d look for earlier, pre-existing definitions of innovation.

According to Wikipedia, “Innovation is the development of new value through solutions that meet new needs, or adding value to old customers by providing new ways of maximizing their current level of productivity. It is the catalyst to growth.” And in their book Making Innovation Work: How To Manage It, Measure It and Profit From It authors Tony DavilaMarc Epstein and Robert Shelton assert that systematic programs of organizational innovation are most frequently driven by, among other things, the creation of new markets, reduced labor costs, improved production processes and reduced materials.

If innovation in business is defined as the development of new value through solutions that meet new needs or adding value to old customers by providing new ways of maximizing their current level of productivity to serve as a catalyst to growth, it behooves us to interrogate those terms and their applicability to the arts sector.

At the same time, if, per Davila, et al, “systematic programs of organizational innovation are most frequently driven by, among other things, the creation of new markets, reduced labor costs, improved production processes and reduced materials.” We ought to examine these assumptions as well.

Let ‘s start with productivity, since it is low hanging fruit.

We’ve known about The Baumol Effect since William Baumol first published Performing Arts, the Economic Dilemma; a Study of Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music, and Dance in 1966. (h/t to Nick Benacerraf)

Baumol points out that you need the same number of musicians to play a Beethoven string quartet today as you needed in the 19th century – there’s no increase in productivity or efficiency. So while automobile or microprocessor manufacturing can see increased productivity spurred by technological innovation, it just won’t happen in the arts, and probably not in education, science or the humanities, either. These things just take time, a lot of time and human resources, and you can’t speed them up without unacceptable sacrifices in quality.

But it is worth questioning the corporate definition of productivity and its overvalued role in our society, particularly in relation to creativity and innovation. Science has proven, again and again, that letting the mind wander stimulates creativity. Creativity, imagination and daydreaming, reflection, introspection, unstructured mental time – all these things lead to the kind of unexpected insights that lead to invention and innovation. But in order to do those things, you need “unproductive” time, excess time. David Masciotra wrote a great piece in The Atlantic this summer about Morris Berman’s critical take on America’s “Culture of Hustling”, Spinning Straw Into Gold.

I’ll suggest that it is unlikely that the arts sector can, or should, increase productivity. Nor can it really improve production processes. The first reason for this, as I’ve previously discussed in my essay “The Politics of Cultural Production In Theater (Or, Devise This!) Part III”, is that the frameworks of industrial production are inappropriate to cultural production. You can’t make a performance on an assembly line, you can’t mechanize the production of performances or create interchangeable parts, you can’t streamline the process or maximize efficiency. Making art is a messy, intuitive, often illogical, iterative process that requires research, investigation, trial and error, and experimentation. Yes, technology can improve production, but those “improvements” tend to raise the costs and increase the production time significantly. And technology requires skilled labor to operate it; skilled labor that  usually won’t work for the low wages the arts offers (See Baumol, above).

And while the arts sector is always seeking new markets, or seeking to create new markets, the effect of treating the public like a market and using the language of business to sell them arts products tends to create the opposite result from the desired outcome. The flawed underlying assumption here is that the arts are a product at all, much less one to be marketed to consumers. This framework fundamentally misconstrues the function, social processes and value proposition of the arts. (More on that in a moment).

Given the state of most of the arts sector today, it is pretty difficult to reduce labor costs because, well, most artists work for little or free as it is. Ditto materials. It’s pretty hard to reduce materials since most artists are working with nothing or whatever they can beg, borrow or steal to begin with.

But what about growth, you ask?

The corporate definition of growth is inherently exploitative; it demands the relentless identification or creation of new markets to consume products and services. The desire for ever-increasing market share and profitability are the drivers behind business growth, even when it creates a reckless culture that prizes short term ROI over sustainability.

This idea of limitless growth as a measure of success, combined with short-term thinking and a very narrow view of cultural engagement and participation led to the arts sector’s disastrous and unsustainable building boom as detailed in The University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center report “Set In Stone”.  It is not far-fetched to think that it was the same kind of corporate logic fueling the subprime mortgage crisis and financial crash of 2008 that led to so many arts organizations overbuilding and ultimately defaulting.

Which seems like a good time to talk about the value proposition of the arts. I was curious about the origins of the phrase so I did an Internet search and found an article called “Nobody Buys A Value Proposition”, originally published on the Direct Marketing News website.

…the concept of the value proposition has been distorted and stretched well beyond its originally intended role. Given the emphasis that companies place on value propositions, you would think that they have been around since the dawn of business. Actually, a former McKinsey & Company consultant named Michael Lanning coined the term in a 1984 white paper. Lanning said that a business was a “value delivery system” and that system could be articulated in a “value proposition.” Fourteen years later, in his book Delivering Profitable Value, he defined a value proposition as:

The combination of resulting experiences, including price, which an organization delivers to a group of intended customers in some time frame, in return for those customers buying/using and otherwise doing what the organization wants rather than taking some competing alternative.

So here we are confronted with a challenge – how do we use the language and logic of business to articulate the value proposition of the arts, when the value of the arts resides almost entirely in its defiance of the market?

The arts, like places of worship, are meant to provide respite from the busy-ness and petty to-and-fro of everyday life. The arts are meant to educate and enlighten, provide time for reflection, connection and perspective. The value of the arts is their ability to widen our frame of perception, to provide encounters with the immense unknown, to place us in conversation with the imaginings of those who came before and to leave a legacy for those who will come after. The arts take us out of vernacular time and into the timeless, fill use with awe at what we can understand even in this short, limited, difficult human life. How do you put a price on that? Let’s give it a shot.

 The Wikipedia definition of the value proposition includes these ideas:

  • promise of value to be delivered and a belief from the customer that value will be experienced.
  • Satisfying customers is the source of sustainable value creation.”[1]
  • It is also a positioning of value, where Value = Benefits – Cost (cost includes economic risk).[2]

All too often we spend our time trying to demonstrate value to our funders and boards. We use economic impact studies and data projects and all kinds of schemes to create quantifiable proof of our value in demonstrable material terms that traditional corporate businessmen understand.

But if we look at the definition of the value proposition, value derives from the customer’s belief that value will be experienced, that the benefits the product delivers outweigh the associated costs, and that this will be satisfying to the customer. Our sustainability depends on our ability to reliably satisfy the customer’s expectations of value repeatedly over time, encouraging them to return regularly for pleasurable, satisfying experiences. If we can demonstrate our value to our customer, maybe it will be less difficult to demonstrate value to our shareholders/funders.

On October 6, The New York Times Magazine ran an article titled, “And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be An iPhone’”. In the final part of the essay, this is how author Fred Vogelstein describes the iPhone launch event:

When Jobs started talking about the iPhone on Jan. 9, 2007, he said, “This is a day I have been looking forward to for two and a half years.” Then he regaled the audience with myriad tales about why consumers hated their cellphones. Then he solved all their problems — definitively.

Let’s take a moment to think about that. Jobs listened to the public, considered all the reasons that they hated their cellphones, and solved their problems.

Too many arts institutions of all shapes, sizes, styles and origins, are unable to articulate what problem they are trying to solve. Their mission and vision statements are filled with meaningless bromides and philanthropic-sounding vagaries cobbled together to create the appearance of … what? Some unspecified “intrinsic value” that we’re supposed to accept a priori? That’s poppycock.

If we follow the logic from above, value is derived from creating a product or providing a service to solve a customer’s problem, whether they know it’s a problem or not. Fortunately for us, we don’t even have to make one up. Do you remember that book Bowling Alone? Well, it has only gotten worse. Have you seen this Louis CK video about kids and smartphones?

Now I love my smartphone, I do. But I also resent it, because I grew up before the Internet and I remember being able to pay attention for long periods of time. I remember reading books without pictures and listening to music without videos and just sitting around thinking in long, uninterrupted arcs of lazy, unproductive meditation. I remember talking to friends in cafes and heated debates at family dinners, leading song circles in Jewish youth group and all kinds of things that, as far as I can tell, are going the way of the Dodo.

I’m not a Luddite, if anything just the opposite, but in a hyper-mediated world we need to remember what it is to just be in real time, with real people, sharing an experience. The arts can do that.

In that routine Louis CK says, “I’m not raising — the children, I’m raising the grown-ups that they’re going to be. I have to raise them with the tools to get through … life.” One of those tools is empathy and another is the “ability to just be yourself and not be doing something.”

If we think about all the things that people complain about in their lives, which ones can the arts help solve? Here are ten I just dashed off:

  1. They can help you turn down the volume and find peace and quiet.
  2. They can help you learn new things about yourself so you’ll be happier and be a positive role model for your children.
  3. They can help you take time off from work and spend it with friends and family.
  4. They can help you meet new friends and people you might not normally meet.
  5. They can help you build social bonds and combat isolation.
  6. They can help you articulate and share the quiet concerns that people don’t normally talk about, either with loved ones or strangers.
  7. They can help you remember there are things more important than keeping up with the Joneses.
  8. They can help you retain a sense of wonder, activate your imagination and practice freeform thinking about life’s mysteries.
  9. They can make you feel good about yourself and the world around you and provide you with some tools to create meaning.
  10. They can help you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than just you, that you play a special role in life’s rich pageant and that you can make a difference in the world around you.

The arts can help us build community, learn to be around each other and ultimately change our lives. Do you think that’s just hippie crap? I beg to differ.

Not too long ago, Atul Gawande wrote an essay in The New Yorker called Slow Ideas, about why some innovations spread swiftly and others slowly. It made the rounds of the arts & culture punditsphere and, predictably, the focus of those articles was the paragraph where Gawande relates a drug salesperson’s strategy called “the rule of seven touches” where one must “personally ‘touch’ the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change.” – meaning buy drugs.

The arts pundits suggested that this was an important lesson for arts marketers, that if you want to sell someone your arts product, you must touch them seven times and build trust.

The more salient point that the pundits seemed to overlook was in the preceding paragraphs:

To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way…

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

As I’ve proposed earlier, a live performance, in particular, can be seen as a dynamic and ever-shifting interdependent social ecology comprised of complex, conditional relationships between artists, audience and institution. The creation and presentation of live performance is a social process, it is the construction of social objects; it is not mere one-directional “presentation”, it is multidimensional engagement; even spectatorship is participatory; it is not a business transaction, it is an ongoing relationship that requires stewardship and mutual respect, not manipulative sales tactics.

The value proposition of the arts is that it is fundamentally not business. We offer our “customers” a service they desperately need but may not know it: humanity.

And let’s not forget that artists themselves are part of the value proposition! They are the ones that know how to create these social processes, who have developed intuitive, innovative and idiosyncratic systems for producing meaningful transformative experiences in an environment of scarcity.

Artists keep being told they need to learn to be entrepreneurs, when really it is entrepreneurs who need to learn to think more like artists.

I’ve worked in the corporate world and the not-for-profit world and I can tell you that artists are actually amazing “entrepreneurial” super geniuses. Andrew Simonet (one of my arts rock star superheroes!) made this point vividly in his presentation at Brooklyn Commune (soon to be a book):

This is the Big Myth.

It started because artists, unlike much of the world, are not primarily motivated or controlled by money.

Artists are actually amazing with money. We usually don’t have enough of it.

In the for-profit world, someone gives you a project and 100% of the budget needed to complete it. If you deliver the project on time, you are a

a brilliant manager
and have a job for life

In the arts, you have a project and somewhere between 0% and 50% of the budget needed, and you still deliver the project on time.

That makes you a double genius.

Making art with the limited resources artists have requires incredible financial skill.

If the corporate consultants and funders so set on “innovating the arts” would try to see artists as “different but equal”, try to see what artists do, see their resilient economies and inventiveness, their collaborative creative processes, and ability to create real value, real change, real transformation out of scarcity, they’d learn a lot. It seems as if legacy arts organizations and funders are unable to see the innovation and value right in front of them while the consultants entrusted with implementing the innovation agenda are more invested in creating the appearance of innovation while conducting business as usual.

We’ll pick that up in the following essay.

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