It seems like a good time to think about regeneration. By regeneration, I mean a conscious effort to re-imagine, re-design, re-structure or re-orient yourself or your organization so as to achieve greater alignment between work and desired outcomes. It is a journey, for sure, not a destination; the pursuit of it is its own reward. In fact, our entire field is regenerating in many ways, as my colleagues note in their respective blogs.

As consultants, we are constantly seeking renewal in the quest to solve old problems in new ways, generate deeper insights, and bring more diverse voices and contexts to the table. We regenerate when we are challenged to think beyond our frame of reference, and when old ideas take on new meanings.

People regenerate, and organizations regenerate. But organizations can’t regenerate without visionary people with diverging viewpoints about what the future looks like.

The boardroom drive to quickly reach consensus and have cocktails is strong. Exceptional leadership at both the board and staff levels is required to create the space for real dialogue about alternative pathways – a space where diverging views are not just tolerated but welcomed. I’d go out on a limb and say that a strategic planning process that doesn’t allow for discussion of alternative pathways to mission fulfillment isn’t really strategic at all, but rather a tactical exercise in organizational maintenance. Are we mistaking certainty for leadership?

So long as everything is going well, there is little impetus to reimagine all or part of a nonprofit arts organization. Yet, this is precisely the time to ask uncomfortable questions about strategy. I realize that regeneration at the organizational level is extremely difficult to engineer. It requires simultaneously squeezing harder on the current business model while thinking about new ways of doing business. Yet, it is somehow still shocking to me how many boards allow CEOs to operate on structural deficits year after year without honest talk of downsizing if not wholesale regeneration. If we ever expect our audiences to regenerate, our organizations must lead the way.

Then there is regeneration on a personal level.

We are an industry in need of regeneration – plagued by high turnover and debilitated by loss of institutional memory. Productivity standards are so high that day after day I observe that nonprofit managers are just plain tapped out, routinely working beyond their capacity, particularly people working in mid-level positions.

People sign up for things and then opt out. On important conference calls, people are answering private text messages. It seems that we’ve been running on fumes for a long time now, in a sort of shadow economy of volunteerism.

The next big push in our field really needs to be a holistic focus on nurturing our human capital. Without thoughtful, dedicated, motivated people who are appropriately compensated and not chronically overworked, our field is unsustainable.

The biggest leaps I’ve made as a professional came when someone I admired bothered to challenge me in a way that was both direct and constructive. Those pivotal moments in our lives – and we all have them – may arise from hardship or confrontation, but they may also spring from an instinct to nurture – to take a chance on someone whose talents are not yet in full view.

Organizational regeneration is a long and arduous course, but the resolve to ask hard questions is a precious human trait that springs forth in a moment.

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When International Women’s Day rolled around this spring, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) did much more than move the Louise Bourgeois postcards front and center or open Nan Goldin’s photo books for display. Instead, the ICA rejuvenated the usual nods to women artists by inviting any and all members of the community to help close the gender gap in who authors and edits Wikipedia pages on the female artists included in their collection and exhibitions. The Museum provided computers, wi-fi, and reference materials in addition to digital and research training. In exchange for their contribution, participating researchers and writers got free admission.

The March efforts at the ICA and other museums were part of Art & Feminism; a campaign that has been working since 2005 to “improve the coverage of cis and transgendered women, feminism, and the arts on Wikipedia.” The organization was founded in response to the fact that only 10% of the editors of Wikipedia are female and the researched accounts of all but a few women artists are sparse, at best. The organization is having an impact, in 2018 alone, 22,000 pages were created or improved by over 4,000 participants at more than 275 events around the world.

This is not a blockbuster exhibit with banners and press that will open, host crowds and then close. It is “just” rapt attention to re-wiring how much people know about women as artists – for years to come.

We might – at last — have a big picture discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion in arts and culture in the U. S.: how musicians of color are missing in orchestras; how theaters and directors have to confront color conscious casting; how ballet companies need to invest in earlier and more equitable pathways for young dancers; how archivists have to know their holding in Black oral history and early photography of Native American communities.

But what we don’t have is a commitment to re-wiring the entire DEI house. Taking off from the ICA’s edit-a-thon, what if cultural institutions took on “No choice too small” campaigns, asking about the daily, nearly invisible, practices that comprise their institutional DNA:

  • Who edits the web page? Whose picture is up there? What are they doing?
  • Who makes the list of on-call photographers and videographers?
  • Who heads the ticket office?
  • How are auditions conducted? What feedback do applicants get?
  • Who is on the sound crew? How are individuals promoted? What are the apprenticeship opportunities?
  • Who gets prime time slots as a docent? Who listens to the narratives they tell? Whose questions they answer?

“One should consider equity a process, not a thing. It is an ongoing and sustained course of reflection, discussion, and inquiry of courage, compassion, and creativity to seek out and act on blind spots due to power, privilege, and bias.”[1]

[1] Don Long, National Association of State Boards of Education & Ace Parsi, National Center for Learning Disabilities, in Student Self-Advocacy Requires Deeper Policymaking” EdWeek, May 15, 2018.
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When I originally wrote my nonprofit textbook in 1979, it was in the form of a series of mimeographed chapters duplicated and shared with a class of Harvard University students.  There was no book that included what I wanted to teach, so I wrote my own material.  In 1983, when Prentice Hall published these chapters in book form, I assumed that I and others would use it for the few years the volume stayed in print.  Now in 2018, as I contemplate whether I might need to come out with a fifth edition to supplant the one from 2012, I marvel at how the field of nonprofits has had to reinvent itself over and over again and I have had to keep up.

There are countless examples over those 35 years, but let me share a few:

  • The most obvious is technology.  The original edition of the book had a chapter on the use of computers in nonprofits.  I soon realized that it made no sense to include such material in a book that would be used for many years. Can you even remember when punch cards were used for recording information or when a word processing machine came with its own built-in chair? Changes in technology have outstripped the pace of rewriting textbooks. Perhaps my favorite change is that administrators no longer have to worry about a systems crash denying them access to critical data files the night before that important board meeting.  Now, instead of storing data in a giant server in the office, files sit safely in something called a “cloud” that is exponentially more reliable.
  • Of the chapters that did survive, none went through more revisions than the marketing chapter.  From outlining how to place press releases in print media in the 1983 edition to discussing how to gain attention through social media in the 2012 edition, every facet of marketing has evolved.  While these changes have democratized the process of reaching the public, they have also exponentially increased the “noise” above which a nonprofit’s message must reach.
  • Institutional funders like foundations have changed over the decades as has the way nonprofits interact with them. Remember the good old days of “responsive grant-making” when foundation published guidelines and welcomed proposals from anyone. Today that has given way in many cases to “initiative grant-making,” where much of a foundation’s giving portfolio is pre-assigned to organizations that can carry out an initiative on the funder’s behalf.
  • Many funders have also shifted their emphasis from ensuring the health and “excellence” of nonprofit organizations to placing greater emphasis on analyzing the constituents these organizations serve. Organizations’ value is increasingly measured by its effectiveness in reaching a broad constituency.  Some have described this shift as moving from supply-side to demand-oriented grant-making.
  • A related development is the changing approach to community-based programming.  In the 1983 edition, I reflected what the field referred to as “outreach” – a benevolent image of nonprofits providing largesse to disenfranchised populations – a kind of charitable act of giving on the one hand and taking on the other.  Today, the field talks about “connecting” with communities – a transaction in which both parties gain.

Do you have more examples of reinvention to share? Please share your examples in the comments below.

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As a nation of immigrants, much of the arts and culture offerings of interest to U.S. audiences have been based on the cultural heritage of their ancestral homelands. It is human nature to find comfort in what is familiar. In the last third of the 20th century, the expansion of the nonprofit arts and culture sector was fueled by the increasing appetite of white European descendants for Eurocentric arts experiences. With inexorable U.S. demographic changes on the horizon, these Eurocentric arts and cultural organizations are now struggling to find ways to serve many communities in which people of color will soon be in the majority.[1]

The major arts service organizations have devoted considerable energy to trying to motivate their members to develop diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. The League of American Orchestras has an extensive Diversity and Inclusion Resource Center and recently formed an audition preparatory partnership with the Sphinx Organization and the New World Symphony to increase diversity in American orchestras. A key focus of OPERA America’s recent annual conference was a forum on “Recognizing and Undoing Racism.” And, Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute is a multi-year effort to transform the national theatre field into a more equitable, inclusive and diverse community.

These are all laudable initiatives to help mainstream organizations serve more diverse audiences, by becoming more diverse and inclusive themselves. What is not clear, however, is whether these efforts can overcome the root cause of low participation rates among people of color in traditional arts and culture organizations. According to Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH), “having the intention to be welcoming is not enough…If you want to be for everyone in your community…the most effective way to do that is to be representative of them and co-created by them.”[2]

While many mainstream arts and culture organizations have embraced initiatives to be more representative of their communities, very few have taken the leap to allow community participation in the creation process, except perhaps in the ghettoized sphere of community engagement activities. The authority and control for what happens on the mainstage still rests almost exclusively with professional artists, who may be disdainful of even the occasional involvement of untrained amateurs.  As in a real democracy, however, an arts organization’s stakeholders will feel real ownership only when they have meaningful power and influence.

At MAH, Nina Simon realized that the democratization of her arts organization – to be of, by and for the community it sought to serve – was not only the right thing to do, it was the only viable way to turn around its financial fortunes.  In the 7 years since Simon took over MAH, the annual operating budget has increased from $700K to $3M, the number of staff has increased from 7 to 32 and the number of annual visitors has increased from 17K to 140K.

The success of MAH’s micro-organizational efforts led Nina Simon to spearhead the launch of a nationwide OFBYFOR ALL initiative, the goal of which is “to engage 200 organizations serving 10 million community members by the end of 2020” by adopting new practices based on the belief that:

  • The more an organization is reflective OF its community, the more people feel represented.
  • The more programming is created BY the community, the more people feel ownership.
  • The more programming is FOR the community, the more everyone will want to participate.

To learn more about the OFBYFOR ALL initiative, check out the video of the launch announcement or use the free online organizational self-assessment tool.


[2] “Nina Simon: OFBYFOR ALL” from MuseumNext on Vimeo at 10:58, June, 2018.
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Leap by Lawrence Argent (Photo: Ed Asmus Photography)

We’re all familiar with the public art installations and exhibits that line concourses in airports around the world. San Francisco International (SFO) actually has an American Alliance of Museums accredited art museum with exhibitions and collections throughout its terminals. Airports have iconic works that create recognized landmarks functioning as wayfinders while providing unexpected moments of discovery for the weary traveler. Think of Sacramento International’s (SMF) Leap by Lawrence Argent (left). Known to frequent SMF travelers as the Red Rabbit, it not only provides a visual cue that directs passengers to the escalators but can delight, create a memorable moment, and provide a landmark for meeter-greeters.

At one time, public art programs in airports were a new and innovative way to support the airport’s goals for ambiance and superior customer service. It’s no secret that airports can be stressful places – security checkpoints, long layovers, tired kids, unfamiliar terminals – and public art programs are one way airports help travelers relax and shift their focus to something that brings them pleasure. San Antonio International Airport’s Art, Music and Culture Specialist, Matt Evans was recently quoted as saying “Flying is famously not an experience we look forward to, but we’re working to reframe that narrative with art.

At my home airport, San Diego International (SAN), where I’ve been on a team developing a new master plan for the SAN Arts Program, there are already live performances of music and dance as well as a Performing Arts Residency Program that provides opportunities for artists to create a new site-specific work over a six-month period. Airport customers can watch the artists in rehearsal and see them perform both pre- and post-security. Most recently Astraeus Aerial Dance Theatre (below) took full advantage of the double high ceilings so often found in airports.

Astraeus Aerial Dance Theatre (Photo: Alan Hess, San Diego International Airport )

While researching airport art for the SAN Arts Master Plan, I’ve become very aware that airports are closed environments with limited space for art installations. Furthermore, airport art programs must work to connect with customers in different ways as audiences’ arts engagement desires change. As a result, airport art programs are reimagining what’s possible. Want interactivity? Singapore’s Changi Airport has an Art Rubbing Station for children. Take your experience home with Asheville Regional’s Music on the Fly pop up concerts – some of which are also accessible via podcast. My SFO favorite is the Peephole Cinema where silent film shorts are screened through dime-sized peepholes.

All of this is not without challenges. The airport’s target audience is airport customers who want to get to their gate to wait for departure or go directly to baggage claim and the exit upon arrival. Plus, there is TSA to consider. But what if there were performances pre-security that residents could attend even if they aren’t traveling? How does an airport with an art collection that has many pieces exhibited post-security make that collection accessible to more than the traveling public? And finally, why would an airport want to do this when their primary mission is to provide a safe and efficient environment for air travelers?  The quick answer – today people expect more than superior customer service, they expect a superior customer experience and airports operate in a competitive environment. Imagine choosing your connecting airport based on the arts experience you can have while you wait? Thankfully, I believe that day is not so far away.

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The impact of arts experiences is back on my mind in a big way, this time provoked by a partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts to develop an impact framework that the agency will use to accumulate evidence of the impact of its investments in artists and organizations. Taking stock of impact measurement efforts worldwide has caused us to ask some difficult questions about the plausibility and usefulness of measuring impact in reference to specific experiences versus impact as a cumulative asset that accrues, dissipates and recombines over many years. I hope to share more of those thoughts soon.

Occasionally, all the theorizing about impact becomes astonishingly manifest in an instant, and one such occasion was last night when several friends accompanied me to a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. One of them was Marvin, a retired city worker and life-long resident of Detroit who’s become an indispensable member of my household support team and chosen family. Although he lives only a few miles from Orchestra Hall, Marvin hadn’t been to a DSO concert. Nevertheless, he was primed for the occasion, which was abundantly clear in his choice of attire.

The program was fantastic – a new piece by a young composer, Chopin’s first piano concerto played by Seong-Jin Cho, the 24-year old Korean pianist, and Stravinsky’s riotous Rite of Spring, all conducted by Robert Spano. By the end of the program, Marvin was beside himself, as if he’d witnessed a championship sports game decided in the last seconds of overtime. The rest of the audience applauded heartily, but Marvin stood in a prolonged sort of stupor, trying to make sense of what had just happened. At a complete loss for words, he was, quite literally and uncontrollably, vibrating. His biometric data, I thought, would be off the charts. He’d had what I would term a “peak experience” – something he’ll remember for the rest of his life – the kind of thing that happens maybe five or six times in a lifetime if you’re lucky.

Beyond the joy of knowing I had something to do with this combustion of art and self was the poignant frustration that we, as a field, have yet to figure out how to harness the power of a social invitation to draw people into arts experiences they’d not choose for themselves. Study after study points to the transcendent power of a social invitation to circumvent a host of barriers and unlock participation. We’ve been talking about “Initiators” and “Responders” for almost 20 years now. Yet, the arts marketing playbook does not yet have a page for activating, rewarding and celebrating the audience members who act as personal arts shoppers for their friends. It seems clearer and clearer by the day that taste is socially transmitted, and that people will go to just about anything if the right person invites them. Could it be that the audience itself is our greatest hope for building public participation?

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A little over a year ago, I had the good fortune to participate in a symposium hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center entitled “Music and the Brain: Research Across the Lifespan.” Over the course of two days, a panel of experts discussed the therapeutic and educational implications of recent scientific research on music and the brain. A summary of that discussion was recently published in the journal Neuron, and I thought a brief recapitulation of three points in particular might be of interest to our readers, whether they are leaders of music organizations, musicians, or music educators (or perhaps most likely, all three).

The first of these is the potential for musical experience to “foster the development of non-musical skills” among children, from language development to executive function. Much of the discussion focused on topics that may be familiar to anyone who has run a music program, such as the length and intensity (or “dosage”) of musical experience required to yield improvements in a certain domain. The second point is the value of music as a therapeutic intervention for children (and in particular, children with autism or cancer) and adults struggling with mental illness or chronic pain. This work is at the heart of the burgeoning field of music therapy, and as someone most familiar with the educational applications of music, I was gratified to learn about the demonstrable benefits of music for a range of serious conditions. The third and final point concerned the potential for music to sustain cognitive function as we age, and even to restore function that was lost as a result of neurodegenerative disease.

If readers are interested, I would encourage them to read the full article or to go online to learn more about the initiative that grew out of the symposium called “Sound Health.”

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Much of our work for foundations is concerned with assessing the overall impact of grant programs. While many funders realize they don’t deserve all of the credit for the work their grantees do, the basic approach is generally that grantees are asked to measure the impact of funded projects. The foundation then sums up the impact that was reported by its grantees, and that becomes evidence of the foundation’s success.

In a literature review that I conducted as part of a current project, I was intrigued to learn about a radically different way of thinking about the relationship between funders and their grantees. One can argue that a funder is in fact not at all accountable for the outcomes of the work their grants support, but is solely responsible for the quality of the funding decisions that are made. The funded projects may or may not have the desired impact, but that is not a reflection of whether the foundation’s decision to fund them was fundamentally sound.

In the field of Decision Analysis, it is generally accepted that you can’t judge the quality of decisions based on their outcomes (here’s another link on the topic), and what’s more, in speculating on the outcomes of individual grants, funders may be compromising the impact of their grant portfolio as a whole.

Evaluated on its own, a grant application for a project that is likely to fail (let’s give it a 1-in-10 chance of succeeding) is unlikely to be funded, no matter how significant the impact of the project might be if it does succeed. If, however, there are ten such proposals in the pool of applications (each of them with a 10% chance of success), it is actually quite likely that one of them will pan out. So, if the expected return on one high-risk, high-impact investment is high enough to justify the cost of supporting nine other projects that might not succeed, the decision to support that pool of high-risk projects may be better than funding projects that seem like safer bets when considered individually.

In the arts, grants are usually awarded by review panels that are charged with evaluating each proposal on its own merits, but in other sectors, sophisticated methodologies have been developed to select and manage portfolios of grants that promise the best cumulative outcomes. For instance, the RAND Corporation’s PortMan method asks experts to score the risk (probability of success) and value (if successfully implemented) of each project, then uses that data to identify the set of proposals that is expected to have the highest cumulative impact.

While arts funders may not leap to adopt the RAND Corporation’s method for selecting national defense and intelligence contractors, the question of whether the decision-making that goes into selecting grant portfolios could be improved seems worth considering. If funders can indeed increase the performance of their portfolios by improving the quality of their selection processes, foundations could focus their attention on evaluating their funding decisions, rather than worrying about (and asking grantees to report on) the outcomes of individual grants, over which funders have little control.

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There was a sudden crash in the middle of a house concert by the Sixth Floor Trio as the pedals on the grand piano hit the ground. Gasps, silence, and then an audience member, a blacksmith by trade, dived under, and thrust his hand up into the piano’s workings. As one, the audience leaned in watching him figure out the mechanics — almost as if listening to a famous cadence. When the pianist returned and tried the keyboard, there was a burst of applause — just as for any other great performance. The accident cracked open the usually tight and polished surface of the music, showing us the inner workings.

In the Art Institute of Chicago, crowds in front of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte walk up and then back from the canvas, squinting their eyes to see how the thousands of tiny dots merge into figures and then dissolve into daubs close up. They approach and back off: turning figures to dots, dots to figures — the work of painting suddenly visible.

At the Natural History Museum at the University of Washington, the staff is packing up the collections to move to a new building. Instead of hiding the chaos of bubble wrap and straw, the staff have installed windows, creating an exhibit that reveals what it takes to pack a Mayan basket or a giant quartz crystal. The day I was there, visitors from five to eighty pressed up against the glass watching a huge stone sculpture wrapped, cradled, and lifted — perhaps experiencing the museum as theater for a first time ever.

There is a reason we speak of “works of art.” And it is not simply because of the hours practicing or the layering of paint. Behind performances or objects lie mechanisms, labor, invention, and risk — a very human wager about what will work. How different would concerts, exhibitions, libraries, and botanic gardens be — if, alongside of moments of perfection, they shared stories of working?

  • Intermission footage of a quartet arguing their way to an interpretation
  • The many steps and failures to save a rare plant
  • The investigation into whether an Old Master drawing is a forgery
Top Image: Study for “La Grande Jatte,” Bottom Image: Close up of Study for “La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington)

 

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In January Hamilton arrived in San Diego on a leg of its US tour and I was finally able to experience what everyone has been talking about. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hadn’t had time to listen to the soundtrack as everyone told me to do. I had enough time to read the synopsis online, so at least I figured I could follow. My concern was that the rap would be hard to understand and that I would miss the story line. But I was wrong. So wrong. I am not a huge consumer of rap or hip hop and have had limited experience with spoken word, but none of that mattered. This was completely accessible and totally engaging. Even my nearly 92-year old mother (who made sure everyone in assisted living knew she had “a ticket to Hamilton!!”) loved it and understood it.

A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda is innovative and inspired as he tells a comprehensive historical narrative with spoken word, hip hop music, and dance. Rhythm and rhyme, prose and poetry, clever and poignant, with that non-stop beat of the art form . . . it was exhilarating and educational. As a political science undergrad, one would think I would remember all those Federalist Papers and the making of the government stuff, but through Miranda’s entertaining and memorable work, I understand our nation’s history now in a way I didn’t before. If someone had used this kind of creative work to teach me … well pretty much anything… I probably would have been more engaged and my education would have been more indelible than it was when I read primary texts in my dorm room at 2:00 AM in the ‘80’s.

Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up attending a magnet school in Manhattan where they would culminate each school year by putting on a musical. In 2016, he was quoted as saying in an interview with Stephen Raskauskas at WFMT in Chicago:

For our sixth-grade play, Mr. Sherman and Ms. Ames basically ran out of age appropriate musicals for elementary school children. They ended up going to a summer intensive for teachers where they worked on writing musicals with the kids. When school started, they said, ‘You’re not performing a sixth-grade play, you’re writing your own.’

In the same interview, Miranda was quoted saying, “Arts education … saved my life” and as for his response following the experience he had writing that musical in sixth grade, “I am doing this for the rest of my life if they will let me!”

Arts education has so many facets, from teaching an art form or using the arts in service to subject matter content, to providing opportunities for young people to experience the power of music, dance, theatre or visual arts through observational or experiential learning. When we advocate for arts education in the schools, we do it because we know that in every classroom in America there is someone who will find a means of self-expression, a reason to come to school, a way to share their story or to tell a story that reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We advocate for arts education because without it we are failing to provide young people with all of the options for finding what brings them purpose or meaning. And we do it because we never know when the impact of a student’s creative experience in sixth-grade will propel them to know what they want to do for the rest of their life. Let’s not “take away their shot”.

 

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