Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wading In...

Although there are so many voices in the whole debate about ballet dancers and body image issues right now, as a former dancer, I feel compelled to weigh in and say my piece. Over the past several days, I have read the National Post article on Alastair Macaulay's comments in the New York Times about one of the Sugar Plum Fairies in New York City Ballet's The Nutcracker, I have read several comments on-line and from colleagues and friends, I have read and heard the hype about the new film, Black Swan, and this morning, I listened to the interview CBC's Jian Gomeshi did with Suzanne Gordon (author of the 1984 book Off Balance) on his show, Q. Following are my comments.

On Mr. Macaulay's view:
In my opinion, the comments made in that review about Jennifer Ringer were just wrong. The dancers in the photo that accompanied the National Post piece showed beautiful artists with healthy, athletic bodies. I cannot fathom what could be wrong with that. They are gorgeous people and in no way anywhere close to overweight.

On the interview with Ms. Gordon on Q:
I cannot deny that eating disorders still exist among some dancers. As a former dancer who currently works in the arts and has a close relationship with dance, I can say that things are different. Where I work, I see healthy dancers who are very careful about maintaining that health and I see Artistic Directors and dance companies who support that. Things are changing.

Ms. Gordon's statements that many dancers (especially young girls) are coerced into staying in ballet by their parents and do not feel they can quit absolutely do not reflect my experience and that of my friends. I trained in Toronto and Montreal with young men and women from across North America. By the time we were training seriously, almost all of us had to fight for our passion. Instead of coercion, we faced opposition from our parents, our schools, and our friends and neighbours. Becoming an artist was not considered a viable career and we had to work very hard to convince those around us that this was the right thing for us to do. Ms. Gordon should not sell dancers short. They are intelligent, passionate people and to imply that they are in dance for anything but the love of it is almost insulting to these artists.

On the Black Swan film:
I need to be clear that I have yet to see the movie, or even the trailer. However, I do know that it is a fictional story, so I believe it is important to remember that whatever is or is not portrayed on screen may or may not be a true reflection of reality. Like any film, it is a director's interpretation of a story, so perspective is important.

And on the subject of perspective, I will only say in closing that it is important for anyone who really wants to know about ballet and dance to take the time to form their own opinions. So ultimately, my recommendation would be to go and see a ballet - or any dance - and form your own opinions about the art form. For me, it is an art form that transcends all boundaries of language and can convey the deepest, most profound emotions in the simplest of gestures, allowing dancers and choreographers to communicate in the universal language that is human movement.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Some Good Information

An analysis of the latest reports on Canadian consumer and government spending on Arts and Culture was recently released by Hill Strategies. If you haven't already seen it, you can find it here. the figures, from 2008, create some very interesting comparisons and highlight some even more interesting trends from just before the economy started to rapidly decline. Despite the size of such an undertaking, I hope that a similar survey can be done for 2010. Some of the figures and trends are likely to be very different in the current environment and the comparison would be very revealing.

Also, for those who completed the Business for the Arts annual Performing Arts Survey last spring, you will probably have received your personalized reports via e-mail. I have to say, I LOVE this aspect, as well as the tools available to survey participants for further analysis and comparison. I know we all get deluged with surveys and requests for information, but I definitely recommend taking the time to do this one. Because so many organizations participate, the results are very comprehensive and quite representative. Using this as well as the data which is available in the CADAC (Canadian Arts Data/Donnees sur les arts au canada) we have some very solid numbers to use in a variety of ways: to make us better within our own organizations, to back up any arguments on the positive influences we have on society as a sector, and so on.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thinking Strategically

I recently read David La Piana's book, The Non-Profit Strategy Revolution, and had the opportunity to hear him speak. I have never been one to jump on bandwagons, but I am beginning to think this is one that I want to join - the bandwagon of Strategic Thinking. Before I came across Mr. La Piana's work, I had often wished for "five minutes of thought," so that the pros and cons of a given opportunity could be weighed, and thought I was old-fashioned, or even just old, for doing so. It turns out that I was neither alone nor behind the curve.

Strategic Thinking is nothing new-and in and of itself, it really isn't. For years, decades even, the non-profit world, including the Arts, has been engaged in devising Strategy. This has often been referred to as Strategic Planning. As Mr. La Piana so aptly pointed out in his book and at his talk, this practice has become something that many of us see the value of, but rarely see returns from in terms of its actual implementation. As I listened to him speak and read his book, I nodded in agreement with his statements about how pleased we all feel when we finish a Strategic Plan and how discouraged we feel when, several months later, we find that it's already hopelessly out of date and that half of the things we planned to do are either impossible or no longer relevant because circumstances have changed in the meantime.

The things that make David La Piana's methods different are:
  • his methods create a flexible structure that can be quickly updated when things change, so that an organization can be pro-active in responding to that change (or in choosing not to respond, if that's appropriate), and
  • the concept of Strategic Thinking is normal - in other words, taking a certain amount of time to think something through and determining whether it fits with an organization's mission, vision and goals.
This may seem like common sense, and it is. However, in a world where there are constant demands to say "yes" to everything for fear of being left behind, or worse, not surviving in an era of significant challenge and change, the reminder that it's possible to use strategic thinking and still come out ahead - and in fact, better than ahead - is truly refreshing and reassuring.

David La Piana's ideas may or may not be appropriate for the needs of every organization, but the concept of taking the time to think strategically about whether they are surely is.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fascinating Reading

I've been reading some fascinating things recently, each in its own way pointing to the value of the Arts in our society.

1. Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy

In the chapters featuring Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, de Botton points out the importance that both philosophers place on the role of Art and Artists. As Schopenhauer struggled to find a way to explain and cope with the pain caused by love, he turned to Artists. As de Botton explains it, from Schopenhauer's point of view, "Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt...they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognize as our own. They explain our condition to us and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it...through creative works, we can at least acquire moments of insight into our woes..." Exactly.

Nietzsche used the evolution of great Artists to illustrate his philosophy that one cannot experience true pleasure without also experiencing true suffering. One can have all the talent in the world, but without the pursuit of that talent in the face of adversity (such as Stendhal's perseverance with writing - it took more than a decade of producing "poor plays" before writing one his masterworks, Le Rouge et le noir), success is not possible. Whether you agree with Nietzsche or not, the central place of Art and creativity in his arguments is impossible to miss.

2. Archein, by Joe Costello

This blog is about political economy, and concentrates on the situation in the United States, but what makes Mr. Costello's point of view different than most is its holistic nature. In analyzing the current economic and political situation, he doesn't simply focus on the movements of economic indicators and the actions of politicians. Rather, he writes about the implications of these things to society as a whole. As a result, he often brings in points about history and the social consequences of economic and political developments, including the vital need for creativity.

In his essay-length post, The Design Economy, Mr. Costello points out that in the future "...people as both individuals and collectively as associations are going to be valued as creators, editors, communicators and decision makers, in short we must revalue the citizen." Who better to lead the way in this than Artists, who foster this idea in everything they do? I believe Mr. Costello would support this notion.

3. Hill Strategies Arts Research Monitor, Vol. 9, No. 3, October 2010

This latest bulletin includes a summary of results from recent Canadian and US studies on arts participation and public perception. Of greatest interest to me were the results of the The Arts and Heritage in Canada – Access and Availability 2007 (link provided in the bulletin itself) study from Canadian Heritage, which said that 91% of Canadians believe that "Governments should provide 'support for arts and culture in Canada' ". This speaks to strong public support for the maintenance of government support for what we do and its value to Canadians, especially since the same study showed that Canadians strongly believed that it was Government's responsibility to assist with maintaining accessibility to the Arts. (Note that I place the onus here not on organizations to maintain this accessibility at the expense of financial responsibility. Rather, it is important for governments to assist with making the Arts accessible via helping to defray the cost of producing the Art that Canadians value as an intrinsic part of their society.)

Wolf Brown "On Our Minds", October 6, 2010

On the subject of revenue streams and support for the Arts, among the subjects of Wolf Brown's bi-weekly bulletin is the topic of Diversification of Revenue, something that is often required of Arts organizations by various funders and is regarded largely as a positive. An interesting perspective on this topic is provided via the link to Carla Miller's blog post on the subject. Ms. Miller is head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund in the US. The focus is not specifically on the Arts, but on all types of non-profit organizations. However, what she writes about is certainly relevant to anyone in the Arts. The comments by others who have read this post are also extremely interesting and indicate that there is no definitive opinion on this topic. Reading through these comments also reminded me of some of the key differences in the "culture of philanthropy" between the US and Canada.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bill C-470 Update

I thought I would include an update about bill C-470 this time. As things get going again this fall, Bill C-470 is in committee. While it isn't getting the media attention that the possible demise of the Long Gun Registry is, this bill is still of great concern for many of us.

On August 19, Imagine Canada sent a letter to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Opposition parties (Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe) outlining the potential consequences of the legislation as proposed and again calling for dialogue. I highly recommend everyone take a look. Aside from the capping of staff compensation at $250,000, there are several issues of particular interest to arts organizations. Among them is the potential invasion of privacy, given that charities would be required to publicly disclose, on their annual Charitable Tax Return, the names of the five staff members earning the highest salaries and their total compensation. I can think of many arts organizations where that would be most or all of their staff. Their salaries, for better or worse, would be posted on the CRA website, alongside their names, for anyone to see.

I'm sure that this invasion of privacy was not uppermost in the minds of those who wrote the bill originally, but I believe it is something that needs to be carefully considered now, along with all of the other issues raised in Imagine Canada's letter. I share all of these concerns.

I want to reiterate that I don't know of any Arts organization (or any charity, for that matter) that has a problem with being accountable for the donor and taxpayer dollars it receives, and that many, many hours are spent ensuring just that. I sincerely hope that Imagine Canada and the rest of the signatories of the letter (among them representatives of several Arts-focussed organizations, including Business for the Arts, the Canadian Arts Summit, the Canadian Conference of the Arts, and Compagnie de danse Marie Chouinard) are successful in securing the dialogue that needs to happen around this bill.

I would also call on all of us to take every opportunity to remind politicians of all political stripes and at every level of government, whether they are campaigning or already in office, that THE ARTS MATTER TO OUR COMMUNITIES. The Arts are an intrinsic, vital part of our societies and society would be a shadow of its former self if the Arts did not exist. Please encourage everyone you know to have an open, positive exchange, a constructive dialogue, and simply let our elected officials know that when they support the Arts, they are doing a really, really good thing for all people.

Monday, August 2, 2010

An "Art-Full" Organizational Development Process

I have just finished reading a fascinating report from Demos titled "All Together: a creative approach to organisational change." It chronicles organizational development and change at the Royal Shakespeare Company from approximately 2003 to the present (the report was published in March, 2010). I won't go too far into the details of the report here. It is quite long, at 180 pages, but if your time is limited, I found chapters 4, 7, and the note by the Organizational Development Consultant, Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, at the end the most interesting.

While it seems that this report may have much to do with large organizations (at 807 employees, the RSC is MASSIVE - the biggest I've ever heard of), there is a lot in this report that is of wider interest. The best things about it, however, were that a) the organizational development model/concept that the RSC used was based on the principle of "ensemble", an idea that comes directly from the Art the organization produces, b) the fact that the report clearly states that the model adopted by this organization was not touted as a "one size fits all" solution, and c) the amount of time that was allowed for the process to happen: this process started not less than seven years ago, and the RSC's Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, is quoted as saying that he believes they are only 50 percent of the way to the point where he would feel the model/concept has been fully adopted.

As those who have read some of my previous posts will be aware, I am a big fan of both process and of allowing time for process. Don't misunderstand, I'm not in favour of endless process that leads nowhere. What I am in favour of is considered, thoughtful change, which, in order to be sustainable, needs to take some time. Change in a organization's culture, such as what the RSC was and is attempting, must be fit in amongst everyone's day-to-day tasks and challenges. In organizations as dynamic as those in the Arts, this type of change takes not only commitment on everyone's part, but a great deal of patience.

Another aspect of the RSC's solution that I admired was that everyone, including external consultants, realized that a unique, custom-made concept was required in order for any change to be sustainable. This model discussed in this report is a model made by and for the RSC, not another organization's model grafted on. It recognizes that each place is unique and therefore requires its own solutions. The report also concludes that while the "ensemble" concept adopted by the RSC has many possible applications within the Arts and beyond, it does not advocate widespread adoption of ALL the concepts to other organizations.

And finally, I found the ultimate humanity inherent in this organizational development process and its desired outcome extremely refreshing. Throughout the report (and the process itself) there is a recognition that the Art is made possible by all 807 people in the RSC - human beings, with human passions and human desires and human emotions and that it comes down to their relationships and their methods of working together that makes it all work. We all know this, and we likely experience it to various degrees in our work - I believe that's one of the reasons we all work in the Arts in the first place - but to see it in writing and particularly in the context of a report on organizational development was a welcome change. I say, "Bravo" to all involved.

I hope you have time to read even a little bit of this report. Even if it raises more questions than it answers, it certainly stands out as an endorsement of the uniqueness of what we do and how we do it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

On the Importance of Creativity

People forget how creative they are. So many times, I've heard colleagues say, "I'm not very creative. The creative people are the artists." I don't believe that for a second. I think that Arts Administrators are some of the most creative, resourceful people I've ever met and I believe that's why we are all drawn to the work we do. It's not just about being close to the creativity that makes Art, it's about working in a field that honours that creativity and allows us to think and work creatively to facilitate it.

However, I don't feel that this creativity is limited to those involved in the Arts, in either the artistic or the administrative aspects. In order to fulfill ourselves as human beings and in order for our societies to reach their full potential, we must engage with our inherent creativity. I have no proof that creativity is innate, but I'm sure that, to an extent, it very definitely is. The Arts are the most obviously creative activities of our civilization, but the Arts also serve the very important role of engaging people with their creativity and inspiring them to use that creativity in other facets of their lives. It is by this means that we progress as a society, that we develop flexibility of mind and open new doors. Thus, while the Arts are often the result of creative thought and activity, they are also the catalyst for it in the wider society.

One of the most interesting ways of exploring the Arts and creativity in a broader context that I have seen is the recent symposium in Pécs (pronounced "Pech", with a hard "ch"), Hungary. At this symposium in one of Europe's current Cultural Capitals, artists and mathematicians gathered to discover the artistic aspects of mathematics and the mathematical aspects of art. From what I understand, it has been a great success and an eye-opening experience for all who attended. And this isn't the first time such a gathering has taken place. In 2009, a similar symposium was held at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Mathematicians aren't people we would normally assume to be creative and yet, a mathematician's capacity for abstract, creative thought can be very similar to that of an artist. And we know that math is not the only discipline where this kind of creativity thrives. Creativity is inherent not only in academia, but can be used, as we know and as many a scholar has said, in every part of our existence.

So why are the Arts - the clearest outlet we have for creativity - still thought of by many as an "extra", as something that isn't essential to people's lives? My theory is that it is because people have yet to connect with their own creativity - even us Arts Administrators, sometimes. I'm not sure how to solve that problem, but I do know that engaging people with the Arts through all of the innovative and creative things that our organizations do, including exhibitions, performances, pre-performance talks, student matinees and in-school presentations, artist in residence programs, and so on, is definitely the way we have to start.

Time for Art; Time to be Creative

Like all of us, I struggle with time - or rather feeling like there isn't enough of it. Perhaps that's why I'm a big fan of Carl Honore. His book, In Praise of Slow, affirms so many things I believe in, and primarily the concept that things need to happen at their own right speed. Sometimes that means that we need to slow down, to give ourselves time to think things through and to be in the moment. More often, it might mean that we need to try to jam less "stuff", fewer things to do, into the time we have. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, but the attempt can teach us much.

I believe that working with and around Artists can also teach us a lot about "slow". While it's often necessary to create Art in a short time span, we as Administrators don't hesitate to do our very best to give Art the focus and time it deserves: think of the making of a piece of visual art, or the writing of a book or play. Even when there isn't as much time as we want for creation (the two week rehearsal period, the short deadline, the one rehearsal with the conductor before the first concert or performance), one thing we almost always manage to ensure is a place to focus and at least try to let things happen at there own right speed. When I am privileged enough to observe a rehearsal, I am always impressed by the focus that envelops the room. That room becomes a place where little else exists and the most important thing is what is going on in that space at that moment.

I think that this can happen from time to time for us as administrators as well. It isn't always possible with telephones ringing and other staff members needing to speak to us and constant e-mail, etc. But sometimes, I can get swept up in making a good case for a grant or report, or formulating a detailed strategy, or completing an analysis that turns my previous thought on something on its head. I believe this happens when I need to be creative and when I can access an atmosphere that allows me the time and space to focus (yes, it's true, grant writing can be creative - in the good way that produces original thought). It is this space to focus that can allow our offices to become places where we can carve out space without interruption and - for a time - nothing exists but the Art. Is it possible to achieve this in our harried lives when things move so fast, the demands are so constant, and the resources so scarce? Perhaps not all the time, but I will argue that in some circumstances, it's actually more efficient to turn everything off, shut the door if we can, and just focus. If nothing else, we are then trying to make the best conditions we can for all of us - Administrators and Artists - to create the best Art that we can.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bill C-470

There is a Private Member's Bill before the House of Commons right now that, in the name of transparency "seeks to empower the Minister of National Revenue with the discretion to deregister any charity, private foundation, or public foundation that paid any employee more than $250,000 annually in total compensation." (Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations website). This is, in effect, a salary cap on the sector - a sector that we know includes most of the organizations we work for.

Many of us in the Arts (including me, at first) may think that this cap will not matter to us. After all, how many Arts Administrators even come close to that kind of compensation? But this cap is grossly unfair to our industry and is based on some false assumptions. Moreover, it makes clear a frustrating double-standard between charities and the private sector.

The Liberal MP putting this bill forward, as well as the other MPs in the Liberal Party, the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP who support it, are supporting the overall effort to improve transparency among charities. What they fail to acknowledge is the high degree of transparency that already exists. All of us spend significant portions of our time not only applying for funding and/or soliciting donations and sponsorships - there is nobody in the Arts who hasn't been involved in this work in some way. We also spend significant time reporting on this money. There are seemingly endless grant reports at all levels of government and for any foundation grants received, as well as the T3010 Charitable Return and the annual independent financial audit. The latter two become matters of public record, available to anyone who searches for them on the Canada Revenue Agency website (in the case of the former) or who requests it (in the case of the latter). This type of reporting is not required of private sector organizations - even those in receipt of public funds.

Even though much time is spent reporting on grants and donations, I don't think very many of us begrudge having to be responsible to the public for the money they give us. It is, after all, their money, and we have committed in our mandates to performing a service to our communities. We should be accountable for that. What I have problems with are those who are quick to point the finger at our sector, without looking at the levels of accountability we already have.

The Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations has a link to Imagine Canada's very good, concise brief on this bill, as well as links to Carters Professional Corporation's and Mark Blumberg's writing on the matter (direct links to each are included here as well). All are very interesting and offer some good alternatives to the issues Bill C-470 seeks to address.

In light of this, I believe it is time to follow Imagine Canada's example as outlined in their brief and begin to educate our MPs and those who work for them about the high level of professionalism and accountability we have already attained, and about the concerns we have about Bill C-470. Imposing a salary cap will not help us to attract and retain the highly skilled professionals we need to manage our sometimes complex organizations, and publishing the names, titles and exact salaries of the top 5 employees of each of our organizations (which in some cases will mean the salaries of the entire staff of an organization will be published) will not help the sector. It can be a very frustrating process, I know, but conversation instead of confrontation is the only way to have our voices really heard.

On another front, we can also begin to open a dialogue with our donors and sponsors, engaging them in a dialogue about these issues. Many of them are our biggest supporters and letting them know that they can help us by joining the conversation with their politicians will - I hope - begin to develop the kind of grass roots support that will sway those who depend on these supporter's votes. Many of the donors and sponsors I work with recognize the level of professionalism required in our relationships. I have developed many relationships that include a high degree of personal and professional respect on both sides of the partnership. I know I'm not the only one. All of us can point to these examples in our own work.

It is too bad that "Bill C-740 has involved no consultation with the charitable sector whatsoever." (Carters Professional Corp) Perhaps if those who drafted the bill knew us a little better, we could resolve many of our issues together and more productively.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Artistic Integrity in a Technological Age

Lately, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how arts organizations can maintain their artistic integrity and growth over the long term, especially as belts get tightened. True, economies seem to be recovering in some areas, but things are still far too uncertain to say that we have turned a corner. So in the face of potentially declining revenue, how do we continue to move our art forms forward? We all agree that it is vital for Art forms to continue to evolve and that Artists must continue to innovate and to risk in order to do that. How can we continue to do this in a time when the stakes seem so high and the resources to take those risks seem so scarce?

There are those who say that technology is the key. Max Wyman (both in his book The Defiant Imagination and in a recent talk at Grant MacEwan University) has made a strong case for the use of technology in various forms as a way to engage new audiences and make the Arts relevant to them. This is entirely valid, given that the use of the particularly social networking is becoming so widespread and there is no cost to the user. But while technology and in particular social networking have had a strong influence on society, in my view, they are really a tool for dissemination. In the case of the live performing arts, for example, internet sites like YouTube can show audiences what happens on stage, or services such as facebook and Twitter can be used to get the word out about what's upcoming on local stages, or even form a part of the artistic experience, but they are not a replacement for a live performance (and it should be noted that Mr. Wyman does not advocate the replacement of live performance in any way). Indeed, one of the other qualities that those who frequent social networking sites seem to have (again according to Mr. Wyman, and I have no reason to doubt him on this) is that they hunger for an authentic experience.

The question then becomes, how do we keep those live performance experiences relevant to our modern society? If we accept that today's audiences not only hunger for engagement and participation, but also for authentic experiences, then the answer may be very simple. Artists will do what they have always done and incorporate relevant elements into their work. They are innovators and explorers. Artists will seek out and use whatever they need to stimulate their creative fire and make their messages clear to their audiences. This is what moves art forward and continuously makes it a vital part of the fabric of society. Our jobs as organizations and administrators is to support this creativity in a sustainable way and to provide mechanisms for audiences to engage off the stages and outside the galleries (or outside of whatever venue an artwork is presented in). Sometimes we should even facilitate ways within the experience to engage our audiences directly with the work - if that is the desire of the Artist. We also need to become as creative as the Artists we work for and with, in order that the work we do becomes both relevant to the Art we facilitate and relevant to our communities.

There is no one formula for this adaptation, and in a fast-paced, technology-driven world, organizations can find this incredibly hard, but each Artist and each Arts organization must find ways to use the tools - because that's what technology really is, a series of tools - to facilitate the best, most relevant art possible. We must also realize that these tools and the ways in which we use them are going to change. That is the incredible thing about Art, its ability - indeed, its purpose - to constantly change and move forward, adapting and reflecting our societies.

Edited to add:
Here are two links to check out that are related to things in this post.

An interview on the Nonprofit Finance Fund website regarding adaptation and innovation.

Several papers and resources on the Australia Council for the Arts' website regarding what they term Artistic Vibrancy.

Both are extremely interesting in their ideas about the methods for adaptation to change and the processes that can be used to determine the nature of that change. The first is extremely interesting in terms of the conditions that need to exist for major adaptive change and the time that is needed to undertake it.

On Being An Arts Administrator

I frequently think that Arts Administration is a unique profession, but I really have no hard evidence upon which to base this, never having worked in a field outside the Arts. Every colleague I talk to recognizes that what we do is hard, and many have considered a career change (in fact, a lot of us consider it several times a month). As we frequently like to admit, we will never get rich and we will never get famous. But we stay on. Why? What makes us “tick?”

Here are some of what I think are some of the realities and rewards of Arts Administration:

Reality – Arts Administrators work hard: really hard. There is always a lot to do – often much more than we can get to in the time we have.

Reality – there will never be enough money or human resources to do what we want to do; however, many Arts Administrators make a living wage because many of us (but not all) have long term or permanent jobs, which is more than many artists can say.

Reality – however financially secure an arts organization (of any size or description) may be or seem to be, there is little margin for something to go “wrong”. The unpredictability of revenue is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast. I don't think anybody ever gets used to this, but we learn to live with it.

Reward – Arts Administrators are extremely resourceful, resilient and creative people in their own right. This is something we should celebrate from time to time. This trait grows and expands the longer we work in our field.

Reward – we work with people who care very deeply about what they do; most people work in the Arts because they love it.

Reward – the work we do is meaningful. Let's think about this: every day we will be working on behalf of something that makes humanity and civilization unique and beautiful; we are involved in things that transform people's lives.

Whenever I question why I do this really hard thing called Arts Administration, I try to remember the rewards and even if it seems like the rest of the world really doesn't care, there are some people out there who do. If that makes the world a better place, then I'm in.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Value of the Amateur

A recent report by the Wallace Foundation got me thinking in a very different way about "the Amateur" - or one who practices an art form, but not professionally. The report is actually a summary of a conference in Philadelphia in 2009 attended by representatives from the six cities who received Wallace Excellence Awards (a link to the report can be found via Hill Strategies' Arts Research Monitor here). What caught my attention wasn't that it talked about the need for arts organizations to grow their audiences as well as the need for courageous programming in these hard times, it was rather how and where this report suggested some of those new audiences can be found: in people who already have an affinity with and knowledge of various art forms - the amateurs.

There is a sidebar in the report that explains this very eloquently, so I won't summarize it here, but what I will say is that it made me realize that our greatest supporters in hard times may be those who are actively engaged in the practice of various art forms at an amateur level: those who sing in choirs or opera choruses, who act in community theatre, who danced when they were children, who took art class in high school or who paint in their spare time. All of these people recognize the skill and quality of professional art because they know what goes into that quality and how much it took to get an artwork to that level.

A personal example goes back to an art gallery show (I cannot remember the gallery) featuring various forms of landmines and the destruction they caused. If I remember correctly, there was information and photo images of the harm done by landmines, but the examples of the landmines themselves were all knitted. In various display cases sat life sized, brightly coloured, knitted landmines. The reason I remember the exhibit was because it juxtaposed a craft that we view as comforting against the terror and strife landmines represent. That was the point of the show, I think. I appreciated the work, but at the time I recognized it only as an innovative way to convey the message. I had no idea of the skill involved in its creation.

Now, however, because I am a devoted knitter (although not at all a fibre artist - more a "fibre fan", if you will), I remember the exhibit primarily because I appreciate the skill it would have taken to create these knitted objects in the first place. Now I appreciate the exhibit in more than one way, and in turn would go to see other, similar exhibits. In fact, now, because I am a knitter, I appreciate fibre arts and the entire skill and patience of craft artists much more than I ever did. This is how I am engaged in that art form and the reason that I will willingly go - and pay money - to see the work of those who take this art to a higher level of creativity and skill.

Amateurs and those who practice the arts in their communities in their time outside of their regular work can be our best and most outspoken advocates. Who better to explain to others who see the Arts as a "frill" the value those same art forms bring to their lives and the lives of others? Who better to explain how much skill and training it takes to get to that level? There is a symbiotic relationship here that we who are involved in professional arts organizations have yet to fully explore. Many of us understand the value of the Arts in education and in our communities as pathways to better understanding of various aspects of our lives, but have we really looked at ways to engage them as potential audience members? I, for one, haven't really thought about it that way, but would love to hear from others who have.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Intrinsic Value and the Arts

According to, intrinsic is an adjective that means: "belonging to a thing by its very nature..." According to Wikipedia, intrinsic value "is an ethical and philosophic property. It is the ethical or philosophic value that an object has "in itself" or "for its own sake", as an intrinsic property. An object with intrinsic value may be regarded as an end or end-in-itself."

Many people talk about the Arts as having intrinsic value, but what does this really mean? To me, and many I have discussed this with, it means that the Arts are a part of life, and should not be viewed as a separate thing to be enjoyed (or not) as an "add on." It means that once a society gets beyond dealing with its very basic survival (i.e. food, shelter and clothing), it will engage in some kind of creative act that we now refer to as "Art."

There is substantial historical evidence for this. You don't have to look very far to discover that one of the main ways historians, anthropologists, and archeologists learn about various cultures is through the artifacts they find, and through the art these cultures created - the stories, myths, dances, theatre pieces, paintings and sculpture, to name a few examples. We can also see how these examples infused everyday life - in fact they portray aspects of everyday life and this is how we learn about the past now. Therefore we can feasibly conclude that what we refer to today as "the Arts" formed an intrinsic part of the lives of past societies, and by extension, our society today. In my view, we can then refer to art as a "public good", or something vital to our society that everyone needs, and that is therefore more than worthy of public support through government funding. Art then assumes the same stature of health, education, infrastructure, agricultural and even industry funding available from many governments around the world, to various degrees.

And yet, many in North America do not see it this way. To some, the Arts are a frill, an entertainment, an option. Some even see the Arts as a commercial enterprise that should fund itself. How can the Arts rise above these arguments and assume their place in our society? How can we prove what many of us who work in the Arts already know?

There are a couple of approaches we can take: the first is to create a grass-roots awareness of the intrinsic role the Arts play in everyone's daily lives, the second would be to re-frame this debate in terms that those who live by "deliverables" and "measurables" can easily latch onto. I'll return to the first approach in another entry, and continue with the second approach.

Can the intrinsic value of the Arts really be measured? While it is difficult to even conceive of measuring something so subjective and seemingly intangible, there are at least two studies done in the United States that have tried (and I would be happy to hear about more in the US or anywhere else if anyone knows of them).

The Wolf Brown Study "Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance", was published in 2007 and conducted primarily with six presenters over 19 performances. In very brief terms, it measures the intrinsic impact on audience members of various types of live performance. This study is very illuminating in that it successfully proves that it is potentially possible to use some other tangible measure of the success of a performance than the amount of ticket sales, and may help those who produce and present art to make a measurable case in favour of what we feel needs to be seen by our audiences. The study's Summary version also refers to a similar study subsequently conducted by some of its Associate Partners, one of whom is the Ontario Presenters' Network, so there may be a Canadian example of this type of measurement as well.

So far, I'm not aware that any funding agency has used this form of measurement to assess grants, probably partly because engaging in this type of activity is extremely time consuming (and potentially costly) to the organizations involved. However, the fact that it is possible to measure the impact of a live performance in some other way than ticket sales (ie. raw demand), is encouraging. As we all know, good art doesn't always sell well. Nevertheless, it's impacts can often be felt beyond its immediate audiences. But I digress...

The other study, commissioned by the Conneticut Division on Culture and Tourism - Arts Division and published by Alan S. Brown and Associates LLC in 2004 is called The Values Study. Among many other things, this study points out not only that the people interviewed for the study felt that the Arts were a very valuable part of their lives, but why they felt that way, and what kind of participation in the Arts heightened their value. It also defines more than one way of participating in the Arts and refers to the fact that people have an "aesthetic awareness", which they recognize adds value to their lives. However, people don't always recognize this is the case, as the summary points out, and that this awareness is an indication that the Arts are an intrinsic part of their lives.

However, it can be pointed out that both studies surveyed and interviewed "the converted." In other words, they studied individuals who are already participating in the Arts in some way. This may be interpreted to mean that these studies don't say much about the way that individuals who don't regularly participate in the Arts value this activity, but there is a moment in Max Wyman's book The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters (Douglas & McIntyre , 2004) that does. In Chapter 6, on page 135, he writes in reference to the outreach programs conducted by the Vancouver Opera in that city's Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest and most challenged neighbourhoods in the country, that "Jim Green, at that time the president of the Four Corners Bank [and a prominent anti-poverty activist and later member of Vancouver's City Council], said, 'Cliches suggest that opera is screaming and yelling and has nothing to do with ordinary people...Opera seems to move Downtown Eastsiders more than anything else I've ever seen...It's transforming them.' " This statement illustrates that when the Arts are available to people, even those whose days are spent striving to get to the next meal or to find a roof under which to spend the night, they can still become an intrinsic and transformative part of their lives - something that is incredibly positive and indeed beneficial to society as a whole.

The two studies mentioned here, as well as the example from Max Wyman's book, point out that participation and engagement are important factors in the way that people value the Arts as intrinsic to their lives, and this becomes a huge influence on the way we as arts administrators need to look at the programming our organizations produce. I'm not suggesting that we fundamentally change what we do, quite the opposite. I'm suggesting that the research highlights and supports that audience engagement activities we undertake both on and off the stage (or in and out of the gallery, as it were) are the key to our future survival and perhaps also one of the keys to achieving the true aim of Art itself: that of transforming societies for the better.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Little About Myself

I have been an Arts Administrator since 1993, when I “retired” from a career as dancer. The funniest thing about this is that shortly before I took an administrative job in the arts, I had declared in all seriousness that I could never be an Arts Administrator because it was “way too stressful.” This was my first lesson in “never say never.” In truth, I have been “hanging around” theatres in one way or another (mostly as a dancer) since I was 11 years old, and I can't seem to let that go.

I've done several things in this career. I've planned tours, done some “general management” (which as many of you know, includes everything from finance, to human resources, to negotiations of all sorts and with all types of people, unions and agents, and many other things in between), written a lot of grants, done a bit of marketing, a bit of fundraising, and along the way have had the very great privilege of working with some incredible artists and being involved in getting some wonderful, transformational art on the stage. I've worked with large and small theatre companies, independant artists, a large festival, and a large dance organization. Each organization has taught me much, and I have had the benefit of many generous and patient mentors along the way.

I have never had a plan or set career goals – something I have only recently learned is true of many, many Arts Administrators – which has often proved to open more doors than it has closed. While not completely a “neo-Luddite”, I tend not to be the first person to try out new technologies (blogging is now more than a decade old, for example, and I am just beginning), but here I am testing the waters because I have a desire to stimulate ideas and discussion and to share my thoughts with others.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


This is a blog about Arts Administration – or at least one person's perspectives and thoughts on it. Although it is meant to be thoughtful it certainly isn't meant to be definitive and I hope it will open doors to more thoughtful comments and insights. I hope it will stimulate discussion of the kind that Arts Administrators rarely seem to have time for, except over the occasional coffee or at a conference. I will also include links to recent and/or relevant research, policy and discussion on Arts and Culture around the internet, and helpful hints, links, thoughts and comments are always appreciated. Part of the process of blogging is, after all, to engage in dialogue with a wider community. The subject matter will naturally be influenced by the aspects that interest me most about Arts Administration these days, in particular public policy, strategic planning, research, and general thoughts on how and why we do what we do. Since I am not an expert on marketing or fundraising (although these topics will certainly arise from time to time), I will tend not to write specifically about these, as there are other blogs and sites out there that address issues in these areas probably much better than I do.

Some of what will be written here may be provocative – in fact, in the name of stimulating discussion, I hope some of it will be. With that said, I will make every effort to ensure that what I say is true to the very best of my knowledge and that I try to credit others' thoughts and ideas appropriately. If there are errors or omissions, friendly reminders are appreciated. All of the opinions that are not attributed to others and that are expressed in this blog are entirely my own and are not intended to reflect any organization's or other person's opinions, except by coincidence. The intention is to be constructive, productive and most of the time, positive. Although there will be times when arguments will be made against certain ideas or practices, the intent is never to whine or allow things to deteriorate into rants or vents.

I hope there are some people out there who will find this stimulating and thought-provoking, and if not either of those at least interesting, and who will read and comment and make a challenging, rewarding and profession even more so.