Invention, Innovation & Creating Real Change

Invention, Innovation & Creating Real Change is the last in a series of six essays taking a critical look at innovation culture, its assumptions, influences and impact. Some of the ideas proposed here are derived from research conducted as part of The Brooklyn Commune Project and will be examined in more detail in a report to be released in January 2014. All six essays, including this one, can be downloaded as a single PDF here.

CHANGE HAPPENS SLOWLY…THEN ALL AT ONCE

The Performing Arts in a New Era, a 2001 RAND report written by Kevin McCarthy, Arthur Brooks, Julia Lowell, and Laura Zakaras and funded with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, when viewed in retrospect, is remarkably prescient. The research brief presages many cultural shifts among audiences, artists and arts organizations. It is remarkable that twelve years later the sector as a whole is still wrestling with these issues as if they were new conditions and has made little progress despite the efforts of the innovation agenda.

As to audience, the report indicates “a number of sociodemographic trends that are likely to further dampen future demand for live performances. Although education levels are expected to rise — a trend that should create more demand for the arts — Americans are placing an increasing premium on flexibility in their leisure activities. They favor art experiences that allow them to choose what they want to do, when and where they want to do it. (This preference helps explain record levels of attendance at art museums.)”

As to artists, the report indicates that between 1970 and 1990 the number of self-proclaimed professional artists double to 1.6 million about 261,000 of whom are performing artists. The report goes on to say that “there are also more amateur performing artists — those who pursue their craft as an avocation with no expectation of being paid for it — and they are estimated to outnumber professionals by 20 or 30 to 1.”

This trend shows no sign of abating, in fact, “performing artists continue to dedicate themselves to their art even though their pay and job security have scarcely improved since the 1970s. On average, performing artists earn considerably less, work fewer weeks per year, and face higher unemployment than other professionals with comparable education levels.”

At the same time, “the presence of superstars continues to tilt the arts market toward a select few.”

And as for arts organizations, we have previously noted that the past 30 or more years have seen not only a proliferation of arts organizations but also an unsustainable building boom in the performing arts. The report tells us that “most of these organizations are tax-exempt, and many receive strong financial support from local governments. Many theaters, symphony halls, and all-purpose performing arts centers, for example, are financed by community development block grants. It is not clear, however, who will use these facilities or whether their day-to-day operations will be affordable to many performing groups.

So we have an audience that is increasingly disinclined to choose arts activities that adhere to the conventions of the performing arts (season subscriptions, reserved seating, set curtain times, etc.); a population of self-identified artists that has grown by orders of magnitude yet are increasingly divided between unknowns and a select few superstars; and a glut of buildings draining civic dollars (or being defunded as local governments lose revenue) with no-one to fill the seats and no content providers (artist) able to afford the costs of self-presenting.

It seems like we need to go back to the drawing board and question all of our assumptions. If this seems daunting and impossible, look at recent changes in the museum world, prompted in part by Harold Skramstad’s seminal 1999 article “An Agenda for American Museums In the 21st Century” (published online here). It is an incredibly thoughtful and powerful article and deeply influential in the current trends in the museum world’s rediscovery of performance. In the conclusion of his essay Skramstad writes:

The great age of collection building in museums is over. Now is the time for the next great agenda of museum development in America. This agenda needs to take as its mission nothing less than to engage actively in the design and delivery of experiences that have the power to inspire and change the way people see both the world and the possibility of their own lives. We have many practical institutions to help us work through our day-to-day problems. We have enough educational institutions that focus on training us to master the skills we need to graduate from school and get a job. Yet we have too few institutions that have as their goal to inspire and change us. American museums need to take this up as their new challenge. Up to now much of their time has been devoted to building their collections and sharing them through “outreach” to the larger world. Now they must help us create the new world of “inreach,” in which people, young and old alike, can “reach in” to museums though experiences that will help give value and meaning to their own lives and at the same time stretch and enlarge their perceptions of the world.

So what we have, then, is a wholesale re-imagining of the purpose and function of the art museum. The performing arts as a sector – presenters, producers, organizations, institutions and funders – should do the same. Ironically, the mission that Skramstad spells out for museums is the same mission that, theoretically, performing arts organizations have been pursuing for years. Before we cede ground once and for all to the museums, can we discover how the performing arts have lost their way and work to recover?

To begin, it is helpful to remember that the vast symphony halls, regional theaters and civic cultural institutions that are assumed to characterize “the arts” in every city across the country are a relatively recent phenomenon. It was really during the post-WWII era that America, reveling in its role as the unquestioned dominant world power, felt compelled to demonstrate its cultural equivalence to the Old World it had just saved. At the same time a robust economy, technological advances like air conditioning, infrastructural projects like the highway system and a larger educated middle class population (thanks to the GI Bill) created a large, aspirational audience for the arts.

Most of the arts infrastructure that we’ve inherited is still predicated on the postwar model of large, civic institutions intended to serve a (mostly fictional) general audience presumed to be culturally homogeneous or assimilated into the traditions of European culture. The cultural changes of the 1960’s may have introduced some programmatic shifts to include greater diversity or more “popular” culture, but the economic assumptions underlying the arts ecology remained largely unquestioned.

However, as mentioned in a previous essay, “Change happens slowly…then all at once”. Gradual demographic and socioeconomic changes have reached a tipping point, rendering the old models obsolete and drastically changed the game with no new systems in place to support the failure of the legacy system.

One of the misunderstandings of the legacy system was that the multiple subcategories of the arts were discrete enterprises rather than an integrated whole. Another fatal (but understandable) mistaken assumption was that the U.S. would continue to produce an educated, aspirational, upwardly mobile middle class that would be the audience for symphonies, operas and ballets.

Recognizing that “The Arts” writ large is an interdependent system, we must undertake a project of strategic integration to maximize resilience and achieve sustainability. With the arts ecology so fatally atomized, how can we support the development of a more integrative system?

CONCEPTUAL CHANGE

A colleague once pointed out that all art is “culturally specific”. Symphonies, operas and ballets are culturally specific to Western Europe. Considering that America is a country of immigrants (most by choice, some by compulsion) and, theoretically, a representative democracy, the arts in America should support a similar diversity of voices.  We should intentionally expand our horizons and create a bigger tent, using thoughtful programming to place seemingly disparate voices in juxtaposition.

An argument can be made, at least in NYC, that this kind of programming is common, especially when we look at the music world. (Basically anywhere Bill Bragin has ever left his mark). But outside of world music it is rare to see programming that reflects both a diversity of cultural voices and a diversity of socioeconomic levels.  Theater and dance, especially, remain tragically segregated in cultural, regional and socioeconomic diversity.

As I have discussed extensively in previous essays, we need to shift our frame from being “arts presenters” to being “experience providers”.  If, as mentioned early, we view ourselves as creators of social objects, we see that the performance is merely a single, specific moment in a long arc of engagement. We are called to move from a short-term event-based transactional relationship with “the audience” predicated on ticket sales and move towards developing life-long relationships with our communities as providers of meaningful, transformative experiences.

In making this shift, we have to widen our area of endeavor beyond mere presenting and into contextualization and meaning-making. In addition to supporting the creation, presentation and distribution of live performances, we must also support thoughtful, creative intercultural initiatives where the arts functions as an engagement platform for negotiating cultural difference, identifying likeness where possible and confronting the unassimilable where necessary. It is not enough to present performances, it is necessary to cultivate lively, candid and meaningful discourse.

This, of course, has been central to our efforts at Culturebot.org since the beginning, as expressed most recently in my essay on 21st century criticism and the rise of citizen criticism.

That means adjusting our funding to provide more meaningful support for artists and organizations at all levels and in all communities. Rather than trying to “diversify” audiences for legacy institutions and attract wider audiences to symphonies, operas, ballets and regional theaters, we should support the arts initiatives indigenous to communities, providing the necessary resources and professional development opportunities need to build vital, engaged local culture.

Rather than the Kaiser model as proposed by the BAM Professional Development Program, where community organizations are indoctrinated with corporate management models, we should rather look to meet people where they are, support them within their communities and existing systems. Yes, provide access to professional development opportunities, but create curricula that address their conditions, not impose the failed frameworks of Big Culture from the postwar 20th century.

I really can’t emphasize this enough. We have seen time and again that Kaiser’s philosophy amounts to a form of “blame the victim” regressive taxation on economically disenfranchised arts communities that are disproportionately of color. Arts organizations in resource-scarce environments rely heavily on government support because they don’t have access to an individual donor base, much less the kind of cultural approbation that comes from privilege and is required to develop meaningful relationships with white shoe funders. Yet he castigates them for this reliance. This is the kind of misguided logic Peter Buffett called out in his recent op-ed in the NY Times:

Microlending and financial literacy (now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends) — what is this really about? People will certainly learn how to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?

I propose that more meaningful and substantial general operational support for small and midsized arts organizations and individual artists, especially if they are BoP in a wider sense, will create a virtuous cycle of arts engagement.

Currently the arts sector pursues a “trickle down” theory of arts engagement by concentrating a disproportionate share of its resources in the large, legacy major arts organizations. As ticket prices continue to rise and traditional audiences age, new audiences are harder to attract. The harder audiences are to attract, the more money and resources are poured into “innovation” efforts to try and market these old institutions to new audiences. You might as well just burn the money.

Rather than trying to market legacy institutions to disinterested audiences, we could redirect those resources to increasing arts participation through the support of numerous smaller organizations with wider and more diverse reach. Since we know that the most loyal audiences are those people who have participated in the arts themselves, supporting small and mid-sized organizations and independent artists will help provide increased access points to more people.

If we do the work of strategically contextualizing the arts in a way that favorably links “high art” with “culturally specific” art and “community-based” art, we provide a tangible link between arts participation at the community level, at the pro-am level and at the “professional” level. Shifting the frame to one of inclusion will help counter the implicit (and aggressive) exclusionary cultural position of large, legacy arts organizations and help build a wider, diversified base of stakeholders invested in the system at large.

Another significant conceptual change would be to aggressively encourage the sector to face outward. We are already seeing this conceptual shift through the NEA’s Federal Interagency Task Force, ArtPlaceSTEM to STEAM and other initiatives. This is a promising trend and one that must be aggressively pursued.

The general public largely perceives “the arts”as distinct and separate from everyday life. Though art practice is present in almost everyone’s daily activities – dancing, singing, telling stories, playing music – participation in professionalized forms of these practices is diminishing largely due to the arts sector siloing itself off. A conceptual shift is required on the parts of arts organizations, artists and funders alike to realize that the value proposition of the arts becomes most visible when artistic imagination is placed in conversation with other, wider, concerns. While arts lovers may see the value of “art for art’s sake”, that is a somewhat rarefied position and, frankly, not an easy case to make.

If we truly believe that art is a way of knowing and being in the world, a lens through which we examine our lives, then we need to both bring art out from the institutions and into the world and find the art that is being created everywhere, all the time, outside the institution.

STRUCTURAL CHANGE

We propose that the only way that conceptual changes will result in lasting behavioral changes is through incentivization. Incentives for behavioral change must be built into the system through structural changes that reward collaboration, encourage entrepreneurship and ingenuity, reduce barriers to participation and, generally, create positive beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders in the system.

If we look at artists as entrepreneurs, small business owners running content creation organizations, we have to create favorable conditions for them to thrive. The first step is to de-link institutional funding and project funding.

The current system, by placing an already-beleaguered institution in an intermediary position, is prone to inefficient resource allocation dangerously susceptible to financial instability. The institution must divert a significant proportion of project funding to its general operating expenses, with the result being less money in the hands of the content provider (artist). At the same time, the number of projects an institution must take on to amass the necessary resources for general operating expenses means they don’t have the capacity to provide adequate support to the content provider (artist) for the development and presentation of the work.

Thus the costs of content creation are increasingly passed on to the artist, along with the responsibility for identifying the usually substantial additional income needed to deliver the conent and rarely with any expectation of real revenue either from ticket sales, future bookings or other, related, collateral income streams.

At the moment programmers and curators control access to both their venues and project creation funds. They also tend to be the ones on funding panels to decide how and to whom resources are allocated. This not only creates a conflict of interest – they will allocate funds to artists whose work they intend to present in order to mitigate institutional expenses – but inhibits creative innovation. Artists are incentivized to adhere to production timelines predicated on grant cycles, and may become risk-averse for fear of losing funding and presentation opportunities.

A healthy system would fund bricks and mortar institutions for general operating expenses including education, marketing, outreach, audience development, community engagement, etc. so they can focus on creating a welcoming, dynamic and supportive environment or “container” for the content. The content creator and provider (artist) should not be dependent on the institution for funding of their work. The work should be funded on its own merits and adjudicated by a diverse group of stakeholders, including peers, who are not subject to the same conflicts of interest.

In this scenario programmers and curators would be able to choose from a wider variety of content and shoulder less investment risk while the artist has more autonomy to pursue their creative vision. This type of structural change would allow institutions streamline their operations and focus on their core competencies.

If bricks and mortar institutions choose to participate in the development and creation of content that they intend to present, then commissioning institutions should provide the entirety, or a substantial amount, of the costs associated with developing the product up front. At the same time systems need to be developed where the content creators (artists) have an equitable stake in the project, its outcomes and any value generated.

We needn’t reinvent the wheel. We could look at legacy models from television and film as well as current trends in content creation and delivery such as Hulu, Netflix, AppleTV and Roku and extrapolate customized models appropriate for live performance.

For institutions this shift would require streamlining and simplifying, for content creators it would require the creation of a more stable development environment that is at once agile and dependable. As the cultural sector – and the economy as a whole – moves towards an entrepreneurial economy of freelancers and independent contractors, new support structures must be created to make the system viable.

My experience in the field suggests a desperate need for skilled independent creative producers who know how to work outside the institution. Arts administration masters train people for working in large institutions, not in the entrepreneurial skills needed to work in the free market. At the same time while the economic volatility and changes in the funding climate of the past thirty years have created a need for this role, no structures have been developed to make this a viable and sustainable position.

More problematic is that since this role is still marginal, there are no mechanisms for evaluation of competency and character. Artists seeking independent creative producers have little more than word of mouth to go on when choosing from a mere handful of independent producers who vary widely in their approaches, competencies and ethics.

Brooklyn Commune has been conducting interviews and research into this and Culturebot has been developing a very program for training creative producers drawn from practical experience and predicated on ideas proposed about criticism as a creative practice comprised of dramaturgy, advocacy and engagement, and the development of 21st century production models originating in the tech sector.

Through our current workshops, Culturebot is prototyping a framework for creating communities of practice for peer learning and knowledge sharing, and developing a pedagogy rooted partially in Ranciere’s notion of “The Ignorant Schoolmaster“. Not only are we advocating for a vision of producing as a creative practice as part of a collaborative process, but we hope to encourage the creation of shared best practices and standards that is as much about values as it is about competency and skill-building.

Rather than creating yet another intermediary between funders and artists, another organization serving as a gateway for knowledge and resources, we propose an open system, a platform to facilitate peer-learning and interdependent systems of mutual support.

A more agile, dynamic and creative content development ecosystem will require similarly responsive and entrepreneurial funding streams. A recent article on Philanthropy.com reminded us that responsive philanthropy is not new and has proven effective in the past:

Almost all of America’s social movements were started with ideas developed by grassroots charities, not by foundation leaders. To their credit, grant makers large and small recognized the importance of the work of such groups and gave them the money they needed to grow. But today that money would be harder for grass-roots groups to find.

What sort of structural changes would it take to free up foundations to seek out innovation in progress, rather than try and jumpstart innovation in large legacy institutions?

In an earlier essay on Jewish philanthropy we proposed that:

Maybe the big corporate funders can look to their for-profit brethren and create smaller, more agile and nimble divisions or foster incubated entities that are accountable to the parent foundation but have enough autonomy to be proactive and responsive, who can jumpstart new projects, facilitate rapid prototyping and direct more resources directly to creative development.

We also proposed that we actively seek out and engage NextGen donors to create a parallel funding stream less influenced by the more corporate funders:

It is increasingly less common that someone possesses both the vision to see as an artist and the resources to realize those visions. But what if the more fortunate artists and administrators among us came out of the trust fund closet and created a Slingshot Fund for the arts? What if they, knowing what it’s like to be an artist, knowing what it’s like from the other side of the fence, to be looking in from the outside, joined together and leveraged their collective influence access to capital and the kinds of people who manage capital, to build a new kind of foundation, (or network of foundations) that was truly transparent, innovative, responsive and new?

It is trendy to reference the VC model here, but that is perhaps imprudent – remember that 3 out of 4 start-ups fail. If for-profit businesses were subjected to the kind of scrutiny and judgment by their shareholders as not-for-profits are by their funders, the world would be a much different place. So rather than creating a false equivalence to the VC model and creating conditions for almost assured failure, let’s propose developing an appropriate framework for what “success” looks like for content creators in the arts. And let’s build structures that enhance the likelihood of successful outcomes.

The key to this is resource sharing and collaboration, building frameworks instead of institutions and organizations. For instance, it’s too early to discuss yet publicly but ART/NY has supported an initiative by Guy Yarden, developed with Sarah Maxfield, David Sheingold and Max Dana, called ArtsPool, that is, basically, about creating shared infrastructure for administration. It is still in development, but I predict this is going to be a major game-changer.

It might also allow the possibility for devising new organizational structures that are project-based, obviating the need for the constant creation of new companies that are so labor-intensive to maintain that they redirect resources from artistic production to administration. If a project-based model were developed using a shared administrative back end that is financially compliant with funders guidelines yet less onerous than a 501c3, then we might finally put an end to fiscal sponsorship, which is yet another instance of regressive taxation of the artist.

My previous essay on Jewish philanthropy explored the relationship of the legacy Federated system and the newly emerged Jewish Funders Network, which offers a clear contrast between hierarchical vertically integrated structures and more horizontal, conditional networked structures:

An argument can be made that many social conditions such as hunger, poverty and disease, require the kind of scale and stability provided by a large, vertically integrated philanthropic infrastructure, while other conditions are shorter term and situational, better served through temporary alliances and smaller, more nimble and responsive actors. In all likelihood, what is needed is a hybrid model.

In Jewish Philanthropy the innovation strategy was to direct resources at a wide array of smaller, “start-up” organizations and initiatives through the network structure. When innovations take hold, they then grow and may feed value back into the larger, legacy system. In a way this is merely systematizing the natural process of cultural change, where new ideas emerge on the margins, gradually gaining acceptance until they enter the wider vernacular.

We can look at this model as well for inspiration in systematizing the organic processes of creative development and diffusion, while incentivizing intra-sector collaboration by optimizing distribution strategies and delivery systems for content both up and down the pyramid.

When we expand our horizons to embrace an inclusive view of an interdependent arts ecology, we open ourselves up to all kinds of extraordinary new possibilities.

In the second essay of this series, “The Appearance of Innovation” I proposed:

…this is the key insight – that “the arts” writ large is an interdependent ecosystem where small and medium sized arts organizations, along with major legacy arts institutions, serve as a kind of circulatory system through which a diverse array of artists flow, providing essential nourishment for the body politic. If we focus solely on major arts organizations, or neglect to develop and steward circulatory systems between organizations, then we perpetuate systemic dysfunction and flirt with macro-systemic failure.

By examining the relationship structures of this complicated interdependent system we can diagnose the circulatory disorders and seek to appropriate remedies. A strategically designed and optimized system of content development, creation and distribution works in support of the goal of facing outward, of introducing the arts more fully into the culture at large, widening audience and deepening participation.

At the same time, a more comprehensive understanding of the system’s complex interdependencies will lead to a strategy for prudent, managed growth. Not all arts institutions or organizations must or should grow; in fact a healthy ecology must include rich loam to fecundate flowering plants and mighty tall trees. (Hippie Dippy Metaphor Alert!).

Steve Jobs said, “creativity is just connecting things,” and he’s not alone in attributing true creativity to a combination of the ability to make surprising connections between seemingly unrelated things and then working really, really hard for a long time on the same thing. So we need to get creative in reinventing the performing arts.

A thoughtful redesign of inherited (and dysfunctional) arts structures, predicated on conceptual change, could lead to system-wide behavioral change, creating maximum benefit for all stakeholders.

BEHAVIORAL CHANGE

Inspired in part by artist/writer Amy Whitaker’s notion of “economics as a collective creative design problem” we started The Brooklyn Commune as a project for artists to research their own economic dilemmas and to bring the artistic imagination into the process of redesigning the economics of cultural production. One interesting and unexpected result has been the discovery of vast troves of forgotten knowledge from Baumol and Bowen’s classic Performing Arts – The Economic Dilemma, to the Poor Dancer’s Almanac to the aforementioned 2001 RAND study, The Performing Arts in a New Era. It has been enlightening and a little startling to realize how much work has come before and how little of that knowledge has been transmitted.

The original impetus for Culturebot back in 2003 was community engagement and knowledge management. Working at Performance Space 122 day in and day out, I realized that there was almost no publicly available writing on the work we were presenting or what had come before. Artists were making work without deep knowledge of their historical and aesthetic forebears and audiences had even less information than that. What little writing that existed was buried deep in the Ivory Tower and was written mostly in impenetrable academic jargon.

So I decided to make a living archive, a constantly updated dynamic platform for discourse that would make public the conversations we were having inside the institution; to build a shareable, ever-evolving knowledge base for the field. At the time I went to all of my peer arts organizations and invited them to collaborate. “What is a blog?” they asked me, and demurred, saying they had postcards to print and mailings to prepare and no time for the Internet.

I am still gutted by the complete failure of our sector to engage in any kind of meaningful program of knowledge management, of building a shared history, of taking control of our narrative and telling the story as we have lived it, as opposed to outsourcing our legacy to newspaper reviews and “slice of life” feature articles.

And it is not just our histories, our narrative legacy and the stories we are telling future generations. It is the data itself. Every few years the arts does another data project – “we don’t have enough data!” everyone cries. As if any amount of data will ever prove the value of the arts to a business culture predisposed to dismiss a priori any not-for-profit humanistic endeavor.

At the moment the Cultural Data Project is the industry standard. But will it go the way of the Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive or the long-defunct Center for Arts & Culture? What ever happened to the Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America, which seems to have stalled out before even getting off the ground? What about all the valuable research conducted by Leveraging Investments in Creativity? Will no one connect the dots? And if they do, how will they do it?

SMU seems to be taking the lead on this, but frankly I’m dubious that the right questions are even being asked. The privileged cultural position of the data gatherers may well bias their inquiry in ways that are difficult to parse. And even then, how does this data become actionable and what is the right action to take?

The point is that all of these issues are, fundamentally, about behavior. It’s about competition rather than collaboration; it’s about hoarding rather than sharing; it’s about selfishness versus generosity, it’s about ego and territoriality and pride and privilege and all kinds of deeply ingrained behaviors that drive us to act in ways counter to our collective best interests. But we are all in this together and it is time we started acting like it.

The Brooklyn Commune “about” statement includes the following:

Members of The Brooklyn Commune will model the behaviors we are asking others to adopt: openness, transparency, inclusivity, responsibility, respect & rigor. And we hold ourselves accountable for our behavior as we work to establish a culture of mutual trust, respect and cooperation.

We would like to propose that these are humanistic values worth embracing and worth encoding into our systems and practices.

We believe that artists, audiences, funders, institutions and organizations small, medium and large are all in this together and share a desired outcome: a healthy, vibrant and sustainable arts ecology in America. We envision a diverse and inclusive arts ecology that values all of its stakeholders, that provides opportunities for advancement and facilitates meaningful discourse in the culture at large.

In order for us to collectively achieve this goal, we need to be able to come to the table together respectfully and hear each other, acknowledge our differences, identify our particular challenges and collaborate meaningfully towards our shared goal.

That would be the most innovative agenda of all.

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