It’s no secret that creativity and innovation are highly valued commodities in industries such as advertising and software development. As a result, companies in these fields have developed a number of practices designed to maximize the creative output of their employees. For those of us who work in the arts, it should come as no surprise that corporations in these sectors turn to art as one means of inspiring their employees and that artist in residence programs are often seen as means of bringing the creative energy of artists into corporate headquarters. However, I was intrigued to find that some major employers in sectors such as retail, in which the value of employees’ creativity is less obvious, appear to be getting in on the act.

Photo credit: XiXinXing / Envato Market

Recently, I came across a special issue of a magazine that a “big box”discount retailer produces for its employees, in which the company celebrated the creative talents of a handful of individual employees: a visual artist who works as a janitor at one of the stores, an accounting associate who also works a music therapist, and a sales clerk who is a published novelist. The magazine also reports on the annual company-wide talent contest, and there is mention of the company’s choir. Is this a case in which the arts are being grossly appropriated for the purpose of boosting workforce morale and increasing the company’s bottom line? Absolutely! But it also suggests that the company’s executives believe that their employees benefit from arts in some way (which in turn benefits the company) and that such activities are worth celebrating and supporting.

Americans for the Arts has recently released a series of essays addressing why businesses might want to integrate the arts in their workplaces. One article cites research on the importance of employee engagement in reducing staff turnover and increasing productivity, and maintains that arts programs can keep employees engaged. Another argues that involvement in the arts increases critical thinking skills and leads to more creative problem solving.

Understanding the relationship between employees’ arts participation and their working lives seems particularly pertinent to me, since lack of time is the most common reason people cite for not attending the arts more frequently. Like it or not, our bosses control a significant portion of our waking hours, and if you consider programs like employer-supported sports leagues, volunteerism, and gym memberships, it’s clear that they also have some influence over our leisure time. If employers recognize the arts as something that is vital in the lives of their employees — either because it increases productivity or because it provides necessary balance — it could go a long way towards changing whether workers think about the arts as an indulgence or a worthwhile investment of their time.

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Photo credit: camema / Envato Market

My wife and I attend a lot of galas, as a way to spend time with friends and colleagues in our community and to support a variety of great organizations and causes. To be successful raising money from a gala while also burnishing an arts and culture organization’s reputation, these events must be run with the same high level of planning and execution as any high-quality artistic program. Since some of the events we’ve attended have been more successful than others in meeting this standard, I thought it might be useful to share notes on suggested “do’s and don’ts” of well-executed arts galas:

  • The Cocktail Hour: Keep it to that hour, giving people time to mingle but without making the evening too long. Try to have enough hors d’oeuvres, so people are not drinking on an empty stomach, and enough bartenders, so lines are not too long.
  • Photo credit: vvoennyy / Envato Market

    The Dinner: Preset the first course and bread on the table. Offer poured wine as people sit down and during the main course, but — to save costs and preserve our livers — do not automatically fill glasses all night. Choose a dinner location where noise won’t interfere with conversation. And, if there’s a dance band, ask them to play softly while the meal is served.

  • The Speeches: Keep the number small and the length short. If many people desire a chance to express appreciation of an honoree, create a short video tribute. Find an honoree who is committed to your mission. And avoid having multiple honorees, which requires many introductory and acceptance speeches and may make your organization appear desperate to attract attendees.
  • The Purpose: It is to raise awareness as well as money for your organization. So, don’t just talk about your mission; include a short video or live demonstration that showcases what you do. If attendees have paid a lot to attend, thank them for their support rather than begging for more. If you do a live auction during dinner, limit the number of items. Though it is now becoming fashionable to do live paddle fundraising challenges, balance the need for money with consideration for the feelings of those in the room who may not have the resources to participate, as doing otherwise may counteract the communal goodwill that galas should engender.
  • The Time: Start cocktails by 6 PM, sit down to dinner by 7 PM, and end the formal program by 9 PM. Those who want to stay later for more dancing, drinking, or dessert can do so. The rest of us want to go home, even on a weekend, to get ready for the next day.

A gala serves many organizational goals, but to achieve them, follow Cole Porter’s advice and make sure “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely.”2

 

 

1From “Kiss Me, Kate,” Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
2From “It’s De-Lovely,” Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
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How does one go about teaching principles of fund raising to 40,000 students in over 100 countries? That was the dilemma I faced when I was approached by Philanthropy University, an entity that bills itself as “a free, first-of-its kind educational initiative for change makers in the social sector.” Philanthropy U, which offers courses exclusively over the internet to students worldwide, is associated with the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley.

First, there was the difficulty of dealing with such a diverse group of students living and working in countries with a wide variety of philanthropic traditions. My students in the past, while they may have come from different types of organizations, all operated under a tax system that had produced a unified set of laws and fund raising practices. For this course, I had to spend a good deal of preparation time trying to master how fund raising took place in other parts of the world.

Then there was the challenge of teaching over the internet. In the past, I have always had large blocks of time at my disposal to teach complex concepts (never less than 45 minutes). Now I was told that students rarely wish to stay glued to a lecture over the internet for more than five or six minutes. I ended up rethinking my material, repackaging the concepts into smaller, bite-size morsels. Furthermore, individual communication with tens of thousands of students is impossible, so Philanthropy U developed a peer-learning approach in which students gave feedback to one another’s work and then a staff member proposed a few assignments for me to evaluate that would help everyone master basic concepts.

Finally, I had to decide what level of course I would offer. Would it be basic or advanced? Either way, many people might be disappointed. In the end, I chose to do both, suggesting that the basic material was good review for those who might be familiar with it. I need not have worried. As it turned out, my students were primarily young, engaged in extraordinary grass-roots projects, and eager to learn everything they could. As in all good teaching situations, I learned as much as anyone. If many of my students represent the millennial generation, I can be optimistic about the future.

The course HOW TO CONNECT WITH DONORS with Dr. Thomas Wolf will be offered several times this year. For those interested, click here for more information.

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In June 2015, I gave a presentation on donor motivations to a group of Bay Area fundraisers, focusing on how Millennials are different from others in their giving preferences and behaviors. The presentation drew on research that Alan and I first did in 2010 for The San Francisco Foundation and the East Bay Community Foundation – It’s Not About You…It’s About Them – a study of attitudes towards giving among a cross-section of Bay Area arts donors. The original study identified segments of donors based on preferences and priorities for giving, but didn’t focus on age. So I dug back into the data to see what there was to find, and discovered some key differences between Millennials and other age groups:

  1. Millennials prefer to give to organizations where they know their gift makes a difference. Thirty-seven percent of survey respondents under 35 strongly agree that they need to see evidence their gift is making an impact, compared to just 31% of respondents 35 and older.
  2. Millennials typically like to (or are only able to) give in small amounts. Over half of respondents under 35 said they are likely to give “small gifts where their gift can make a bigger difference,” compared to just 32% of respondents over 35.
  3. Millennials are more interested in supporting local artists and arts programs that aren’t part of the mainstream. Forty-four percent of under 35-year-olds are very likely to support “individual artists who live in their community,” compared to 26% of 35+ respondents. Additionally, 46% are likely to support “art projects that aren’t part of mainstream cultural institutions,” compared to 23% of 35+ respondents.
  4. Millennials prioritize personal connections when considering contributing to a new cause or organization. Twenty-four percent of those under 35 said they need to know someone personally who has given to the organization, compared to 18% of 35+ respondents; another 25% need to have a personal connection to an artist affiliated with the organization or program, compared to 9% for 35+ respondents; and, 63% need to have a personal connection to the art form, compared to 51% for 35+ respondents.
  5. Millennials are driven by personal values. Seventy-one percent of respondents under 35 feel that “social justice and equal opportunity” and “valuing a diversity of viewpoints” are very important, compared to 62% and 56% of older respondents, respectively.

Additional research from the Millennial Impact Project mirrors many of the findings from the 2010 donor motivations study, particularly those related to the importance of values and passions and the desire for deeper and more personal engagement.

What does all this research mean for arts organizations seeking to cultivate Millennial donors? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Embrace transparency in communicating about your business, your goals, and your financial needs, in an effort to create authentic relationships.
  • Start conversations with the goal of uncovering personal passions and beliefs rather than income level and giving capacity.
  • Spend more time and effort in the initial task of building the relationship with individual donors to set the stage for varying levels of support over the long term.
  • Connect to local advocacy groups, organizations, and artists to expand your network of participants and supporters and increase community engagement, relevancy, and impact.
  • Communicate how a gift creates value in the community, illustrating to younger donors how they can make a difference, even with a small gift.
  • Voluntarily hold yourself accountable; continually revisit, refine, and report on the impact of funded programs and projects, and don’t be afraid to ask donors for their feedback.

Values, community, and personal connection will continue to drive donors’ motivations and giving behaviors, and even more so for younger donors.

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I always look forward to reports that present a statistical summary of the arts in one form or another, so the past few weeks have provided me with a wealth of numbers to contemplate. The first such report that caught my eye was Guidestar’s report, “Nine Things You Might Not Know about U.S. Nonprofits“. It is overwhelming to read that there are more than 2.3 million nonprofits, only 1.5 million of which are registered with the IRS as tax-exempt. And there has been lots of growth in recent years, with the nonprofit sector growing faster than government or business sectors in terms of number of people employed and wages paid.

And then I read about a recent NEA research report done in collaboration with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that tells us that arts and cultural production contributed $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy, a 32.5 percent increase since 1998. Moreover, people are spending more on performing arts now than they were 15 years ago. For those of us in the nonprofit sector, these numbers are initially quite heartening.

It turns out, however, that those numbers are for commercial and nonprofit spending combined. In fact, the fastest growing industry from arts and culture over this period was in the area of “other information services,” which includes internet publishing and broadcasting. Sound recording is the second greatest growth area.

There is no denying that the nonprofit sector is growing rapidly. But in the world of arts and culture, it seems the for-profit industries are the ones leading the way in terms of growth. Where will this trend take us?

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Most of my work focuses on measuring the immediate impacts of the arts using survey-based audience research. To date, over just a few years, we’ve visualized nearly half a million surveys through the Intrinsic Impact dashboard, processing audience data and feedback for nearly two thousand artistic productions for well over one hundred arts organizations of all sizes. While the bulk of our data collection has been for artistic programs for adult audiences, we are now working with many leading theatres for young audiences as well, including ChildsplayBay Area Children’s TheatreThe New Victory Theater, and Flint Youth Theatre.

In the case of The New Victory Theater in New York, WolfBrown’s Cambridge and San Francisco offices have joined forces to measure the ways in which different kinds of performances (circus, song and dance revues, and narrative dramas) have different profiles of emotional effects. Early data suggests that narrative- or character-driven productions may evoke more intense levels across the emotional spectrum than other types of shows. Our findings may change, though, as we collect more data through surveys of young audience members.

Other companies, such as Childsplay and Bay Area Children’s Theatre, are surveying caregivers and educators for their feedback and are collecting valuable insights into how their work activates creativity and imaginative play among young people after performances. Aggregated data suggest that this particular impact is seen more frequently among younger children, with over half of those with children under 5 reporting some kind of imaginative play inspired by the show. Investigation of how older children may be inspired differently than younger children may yield valuable insights into how TYA practitioners can create even more impactful work for various age groups.

As we continue this work, we will have the opportunity to explore additional hypotheses about the impact of the arts on young audiences. Are there particular characteristics or traits of artistic works that elicit certain short-term impacts more than others? Do productions with more music and more choreography have a different effect, in general, than less musical counterparts? And can data help us better understand why attention to diversity in casting, staffing, and program selection is important for audiences of all ages and backgrounds?

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In my roles as Senior Research Scientist at WolfBrown and Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, I conduct evaluations of educational programs for children — in particular, children at risk.

One of the areas in which I work is early childhood education. Over the last two decades, there has been growing interest among policy-makers and the public in this area. Part of this interest has been driven by the successful use of neurophysiological measures to show how early education programs affect the function of children’s brains. It is one thing to demonstrate that students in high-quality early education programs have better test scores in kindergarten than their peers; it’s quite another to show that these differences are rooted in changes in children’s brains and bodies.

Arts and cultural organizations and their evaluators may feel that using neurophysiological measures is beyond them, due to cost and complexity. It’s true that using neuroimaging techniques to observe the structure and function of children’s brains is tremendously expensive. However, recent advances in technology have made other, non-invasive neurophysiological measures relatively affordable. For example, it is now possible to examine children’s levels of stress by measuring the hormones in their saliva, or to track their engagement in a task by recording their heartbeats.

The investment and partnership can be worthwhile and revealing. One arts-infused early childhood program, Kaleidescope, at Settlement Music School, has begun to use those saliva measures to investigate whether levels of stress hormones are associated with lower levels of negative emotions, and higher levels of positive ones, among children participating in the program.

This work at the frontier of neuroscience and art is still young. But evidence for neuroplasticity in children is part of what is driving organizations as varied as string quartets and art museums to think about how to engage and support individuals who process experiences differently — families with members on the autism spectrum or adults with Alzheimer’s.

Of course, neurophysiological measurement requires specialized expertise and training to be used effectively and responsibly. My suggestion: pool your resources. Even if no one in your organization has this expertise, people in other organizations do, including researchers working in colleges and universities. They may be willing to help in exchange for an opportunity to apply their expertise to the ‘real world.’

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Working with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute of Music, WolfBrown has just published “Why Making Music Matters,” a short, illustrated report summarizing research on the ways in which making live music together can impact the lives of young children and their families:

Grow brains and bodies: Music, especially if you include tapping, clapping, bouncing, and dancing, can develop fine and large motor control. Even simple games, songs, and back-and-forth play build brain and body coordination. If older children play an instrument, these kinds of changes continue. All this builds important connections across the many regions of the brain: just think about all the motor, perceptual, and cognitive skills it takes to play even a simple round.

Build intimacy: Young children build some of the most important relationships in their lives as infants and toddlers. If they are lucky enough to have caring and responsive caregivers, they develop a sense of security — feeling that they will be followed, cared for, and protected, even as they explore new activities, take risks, make mistakes, and recover. Music can support these intimate exchanges. For example, when caregivers sing lullabies, they use pitch, rhythm, and lyrics to soothe, teach language, communicate hope and affection, and provide security as a child goes from wakefulness to sleep.

Communicate and imagine: Humans are wired to be sensitive to sound patterns. Even before babies speak, their babbling and sound play helps to develop the neural pathways necessary for listening and speaking. Infants who hear language directed and responsive to them babble more and have larger vocabularies as toddlers. When they hear and see others singing as a part of daily life, young children quickly pick up the habit, using sound to explore new ways to understand or describe the world around them.

Share and manage their feelings: During their early years, children learn how to express and manage their feelings. They also figure out how to read other people’s expressions and feelings, grasping how other minds work. Through music, children can invent games, songs, and stories that help them harness their feelings. Researchers observing music and movement classes have documented that participation in arts activities correlates with positive emotion for preschoolers and facilitates their ability to regulate their emotions. It may be that experience with musical concepts like stop/start, slowing down/speeding up, and verse/chorus provides children with the motivation to direct and modulate their behavior.

Learn to be with others: In their first five years, young children figure out how to communicate and interact with others their age. Music, with its tempo and rhythm, verses and choruses, provides clear structures that help children to learn the rules and routines for being together. A kindergartener has to watch and listen as she plays a percussion piece with her class, while at home, music can be a way to practice cooperation or to connect across generations. Music can also model the structure of social interaction for children with histories of trauma or conditions like autism.

Create community and belonging: In their earliest years, children learn the languages and accents they hear at home; they absorb the songs and stories of their community, and along with them, beliefs and values. Currently in the U.S., one in four children has at least one immigrant parent, and early childhood care and preschools are a key intersection of immigration and education, past and present. In these settings children learn who “belongs” and who is “an outsider”. Sound play and music can create a space where young children, with the help of families, and teachers, knit together new identities that combine their first languages, and culture with U.S.-anchored identities. When day-care and preschools feature the music of multiple cultures and homelands, they model an inclusive and connected world.

Experience joy: Positive emotions are among humans’ most vital resources: they attract others, lift our mood, and protect us against sadness and even illness. Live music is a remarkable carrier for delight and excitement. In a world where families and children experience trauma from violence, war, and natural disasters, music (along with other arts) can play a powerful role in their healing. It is no mistake that in refugee camps around the world, singing, dance, and play are vital tools in generating health and hope.

These are all benefits of live music-making with others. While digital musical games and videos on tablets and TVs certainly grab and hold children’s attention, they are not the same. Humans, especially young ones, learn from other people best: a responsive, reactive, and surprising partner is “the best toy in the store.”

The take-away: Children remind us that live arts, in the presence of others, matter.

Want to learn more? Want to share this research with others? Want to link to this booklet in your next concert program? Download the full report at http://www.carnegiehall.org/Lullaby/.

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While most of my work focuses on research and evaluation, occasionally I get roped into strategic planning work, which is always fascinating. Some aspects of planning work look a lot like research, although the methods tend not to be as robust. Of particular interest to me is the process of stakeholder consultations — typically a series of individual or group interviews — a part of nearly every planning process. By some fluke of scheduling, this summer I’ve found myself neck deep in “stakeholder audits” for three organizations, all of which has provoked me to reach for a higher understanding of stakeholder dynamics.

Identifying stakeholders is the first step in this process, and a strangely awkward conversation for some organizations. What groups of individuals and organizations have a stake in our long-term success? What is their stake in us? What is our stake in them? To what degree are we accountable to them? At the heart of the stakeholder relationship is an implied two-way exchange of value, although the mutuality of benefit is often unclear. In the absence of clarity, dissimilar stakeholders are lumped together, entire categories of stakeholders are omitted, and other erroneous assumptions tend to take hold.

Clear thinking on stakeholders takes a lot of soul searching, and doesn’t happen overnight. In facilitating these conversations I’ve found it useful to make some nuanced distinctions as to the types of stakeholders an arts organization has, and the extent of accountability to each.

 

Public stakeholders are groups or “classes” of people and organizations that the organization currently serves or aims to better serve through its programs.

Arts organizations design programs and seek philanthropic support in order to serve these stakeholders. Much as a soup kitchen operates to feed the hungry, or a cancer research institute defines stakeholders in terms of their need for, or provision of, cancer treatment, arts organizations should define public stakeholders in terms of their needs and connections to the art (i.e., in terms of preferences, tastes, experience level, modality of engagement, etc.).

Typically, public stakeholders fall into two buckets: 1) direct program beneficiaries — “appreciators and participants” — such as ticket buyers and students served through education programs; and 2) individuals and groups of people who benefit indirectly from the organization’s programs (e.g., teachers, parents and families of student participants), and therefore have a long-term stake in the organization’s success.

Consultation with “appreciators and participants” generally takes the form of market research, since they are not organized constituencies with designated representatives. This is where the logic of stakeholders tends to break down. By default, some organizations define their public stakeholders as “anyone who buys a ticket to whatever we produce.” Good strategy, however, requires more intentionality. Are we committed to serving newcomers to the art form? Those with adventurous tastes? Those who prefer to engage digitally?

For example, a theatre company identifies “high school drama teachers” as a public stakeholder group. In this case, the mutuality of benefit is clear. The theatre benefits from the steady stream of theatre enthusiasts who graduate every year and eventually become ticket buyers, and the teachers benefit from having professional artists in the community (who visit their school), and from the exposure their students get to high quality theatre. In fact, the process of considering “high school drama teachers” as stakeholders led this theatre company to realize that it wants to re-shape its relationship with this stakeholder group.

Identifying public stakeholders is a high stakes game, because the organization is accountable to them for the quality and relevance of its programs.

Arts groups tend to talk about “stakeholders” in terms of a demographic characteristic, disadvantage or disability — groups of people they’d like to better serve, whether motivated by a sense of moral obligation or a grant, or both. In many cases, these groups of people are not really stakeholders, at least not yet, because the relationship is not yet reciprocal. I prefer to call them intentional communities — groups of people an organization intentionally chooses to serve. The need is vast, and thus the biggest challenge is agreeing on a set of criteria for prioritizing these communities. When arts organizations develop the cultural competence to authentically and respectfully engage with intentional communities in a two-way exchange of value, then intentional communities can blossom into vital stakeholder relationships. But they are not stakeholders merely because they’ve been singled out as a priority in a strategic plan.

 

Institutional stakeholders are organizations, businesses, agencies and institutions that benefit from having the arts organization remain strong and healthy.

I like to think of institutional stakeholders as works of art — you can acquire them, and you can also deaccession them when the relationship ceases to be mutually beneficial. Institutional stakeholders might be social service agencies that share an interest in youth development, media outlets that cover the arts, local businesses and shops surrounding a museum, or corporations that recruit talented workers to the area.

Some institutional stakeholders serve as gatekeepers for public stakeholders that the organization values. For example, higher education institutions are gatekeepers of arts faculty and pre-professional artists. Similarly, school districts are gatekeepers for middle school and high school arts teachers. The organization must engage institutional stakeholders that act as gatekeepers to other stakeholders of consequence to the organization.

In setting strategy, an arts organization should consider how it does — or might — create value for its chosen institutional stakeholders and their constituents. Sometimes, when there is a strong mutual interest, the organization will collaborate with an institutional stakeholder to create a new program or festival, for example. Over time, the strength and number of these stakeholder relationships will fluctuate. Accountability is negotiated between the partners, and either party can leave the relationship at any time.

 

Investor stakeholders are individuals and organizations who provide financial support to the organization to further its mission, including individual donors, corporate supporters, philanthropic foundations, and government funders.

Generally, the organization shouldn’t design programs to suit investors’ needs, yet should listen closely to their interests and priorities. Investors may provide unrestricted operating support, or may support specific programs that align with their interests. The organization is accountable to them for good stewardship of their funds.

In reality, many arts groups facing structural deficits turn to the foundation marketplace to chase project grants that may or may not align well with mission. Project grants are absorbed into operating cash as fast as they can be deposited, with overburdened staff left to implement the funded project. In this foxtrot of mutual deception funders believe they are investing change capital while grantees receive the funds as working cash. Suffice it to say that relationships between arts organizations and their investor stakeholders can be complicated. Gaining clarity on how much an organization is willing to be influenced by investors is critical to avoiding disingenuous or co-dependent relationships with these valuable stakeholders.

 

Artform stakeholders are needed to produce the art, and are therefore essential to the organization’s success. Some are internal (e.g., company actors, musicians, dancers, artistic directors, administrative staff — those whose livelihoods depend on the organization’s success), and others are external (e.g., composers, playwrights, peer institutions, venue landlords).

For the most part, artform stakeholders work to fulfill the organization’s commitments to public and institutional stakeholders. At the same time, and to different degrees for different organizations, artistic programs are shaped around the interests, availabilities and capabilities of artform stakeholders, as when an orchestra plays a piece that the players really want to play. In a founder-led dance company, for example, the founder can function as the primary artform stakeholder, with public stakeholders taking a back seat. This can work really well, or not at all — in cases where artform stakeholders are apathetic to the needs of public stakeholders. What matters is the degree of clarity and consensus. As arts organizations grow larger and begin to rely on a diversity of funding sources, accountability tends to shift to a broader array of stakeholders.

 

Board members can be investor stakeholders (especially when a minimum gift is required) or artform stakeholders, or both. There is a powerful argument circulating the field that more artform stakeholders are needed on boards. This serves two purposes; it enables investor board members to understand the artistic imperatives in decisions, but also helps artform stakeholders to recognize the needs of public stakeholders.

Although board members act on behalf of the public interest, their personal preferences and tastes in art are not always representative of the needs and interests of public stakeholders. This is also true of staff and even artistic leadership. While their passion for the art is a driving factor in their commitment to the organization, clarity and consensus around stakeholders is a hedge against emotional decision-making and helps to guide the organization through difficult decisions about how to allocate resources.

While certain kinds of stakeholders are common within certain kinds of organizations, the process of defining stakeholders must be ground-up. Every organization will have a different portfolio of stakeholders, and the dialogue that results in an agreed-upon list of stakeholders is absolutely essential to the long-term strategic health of the organization. What’s at stake in the conversation is not just ‘who to interview’ for the strategic plan, but ‘to whom are we accountable, and for what?’ And that is the smell of burning rubber.

Too many arts groups define stakeholders in one-way, self-serving terms. If an organization claims to be accountable to public stakeholders but lacks a means of holding itself accountable, the claim is empty. If an organization claims to serve its public stakeholders but allows investors to drive programming experiments, the result can be a net drain of financial resources, brand confusion and low morale amongst staff charged with implementing an endless stream of one-off programming experiments that lack a strategic imperative. What makes the dialogue so rich and complex are the myriad assumptions about accountability on both sides of the stakeholder relationship — some true, some false, and some exquisitely delusional.

The sturm und drang of prioritizing stakeholders leads to an equally dramatic outcome when arts groups actually listen to them. It never ceases to amaze me how much value arts and cultural organizations get from the simple act of sitting down and talking with stakeholders using a good protocol. Asking stakeholders “what value do you get from us” and “what value are you not getting from us that you’d like to get from us,” almost always leads to some sort of revelation. This is qualitative research, pure and simple, typically using structured topical interviews and modified focus group discussions. I have found that training members of the organization’s board and staff to conduct these interviews is far more effective than conducting them myself, although there are situations in which an impartial facilitator is needed to elicit sensitive or candid input. This “action research” approach to stakeholder consultations, if done well, can result in transformative shifts in thinking, but only if the right stakeholders are being interviewed by the right people.

In designing any study, the researcher must question the suitability of the methods for the questions being investigated. If planning work — especially stakeholder consultations — was approached more like research, with stronger design, methodology and synthesis, and probably a longer timeline, I wonder if we would wind up with stronger planning outcomes.

 

I’m indebted to Joe Kluger for his significant contributions to this piece.

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Deep among the formal beds and groves of Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a literal “tree house” built from salvaged tree parts, many of which gathered after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy: twigs, branches, trunks, every conceivable part of a tree. There are wide plank floorboards, “tiles” fashioned from cross-sections, and upright branch struts. On the one hand it is a whimsical monument to imaginative recycling and disaster recovery. On the other hand, artist Roderick Romero’s tree house is a provocative three-dimensional metaphor for how cultural institutions — museums, orchestras, and theaters — might think about using all their resources to draw in new audiences, particularly as they search for ways to engage with the youth who will be the next generation of creators, producers, advocates, and eventually the parents who introduce their own children and grandchildren to the arts as a way of being fully alive.

Roderick Romero Tree House Installation at Brooklyn Botanic Garden 
Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s tree house built by artist Roderick Romero using wood from trees felled by Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene, as well as other salvaged wood from BBG. Photo by Caroline Voagen Nelson.

Open rehearsals are, by now, a familiar example of this principle. The necessary work of preparing a final performance can be transformed into a rare educational opportunity for young people interested in understanding how artistic choices are made and pursued. But institutions could go much further in converting their core needs and operations into resources for engaging their communities. Consider:

  • From Front of House to Invitation: The New Victory Theater’s Usher Corps turns the basic need for customer services into a three-year paid internship opportunity for young New Yorkers, offering them the chance to learn about the inner workings of live theater, gain career skills, and staff the theater’s front of house needs. Their energy and demographically mixed presence sends the message, “This theater belongs to anyone who enters and partakes.”
  • From Thresholds to Initiations: At the Tate Modern in London, visitors are immersed in new conceptions of beauty as they enter Turbine Hall where the huge entrance area is at once mechanical and majestic. At the Dallas Museum of Art, visitors are drawn into an initiating space, the Center for Creative Connections, a 12,000 square foot exhibition where interactive experiences with works of art (imagine a giant magnifier trained on a turbulent seascape) and posted questions invite visitors to “See differently. See unexpectedly. See art in a new way.” Through that portal, a new visitor is reminded of the power of her own curiosity — there is time enough to learn “gesso” from “aquatint.”
  • From Galleries to Classrooms: The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston names youth as one of its target audiences. Backing up that commitment is the most expansive set of youth-focused programs in the US. For example, in the ICA partnership with the Boston Public Schools, the non-profit EdVestors conducts credit-bearing courses for students seeking to fulfill their high school requirement for the arts. In return, the Museum gains a deeper understanding of how to engage visitors ages 14 through 18. This “bi-directional” design features both the “give” and “get”.

The point? Every limb and twig went into Romero’s tree house. Likewise, building new, more inclusive audiences will take every department, service, function, and space a cultural organization commands.

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