Begin with the Middle in Mind

grant bookI was recently turned on to David Grant’s “Social Profit Handbook” by the arts program director at the Tremaine Foundation, which supports some of the research we’re doing in field-based arts business training. The premise is deceptively simple, an organization should ask itself, “what does success look like?” and then step back, or as Grant says “take mission time” to ask: Hey, how are we doing? in a process of formative evaluation guided by a self-generated rubric. Too often, we evaluate success (whatever that means) after the fact: after the workshop, after the program, after the grant activities are completed. Stephen Covey tells us to “begin with the end in mind,” but David Grant suggests instead that we begin with the middle in mind: what does it look like to be on the road to success rather than what does it look like in the rear-view mirror.

rear view mirror

Grant advocates for “assessment practices whose primary focus is to improve outcomes rather than judge them” (p. 4). In the formative assessment practices he describes, “information arrives in time to help improve or adjust performance, as needed” (p. 37). In other words, the practice of assessment happens in the middle, where it can actual do some good to improve performance and, by extension, outcomes.

As a bonus, Grant also explains why the term “nonprofit” is killing the sector and should be replaced by “social profit.”

I really liked this book. Can you tell?

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A Brief Update on my Incubator Research

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that I have been researching arts incubators and how they create value. The research is continuing, but a few thematic commonalities have surfaced through my cross-case analysis of four typical arts incubators. Briefly, these are:

  • Arts incubators lower barriers to market entry for artists or arts organizations
  • Arts incubators offer client artists and organizations a “stamp of approval” that conveys legitimacy to their local arts community and to funders
  • Arts incubators cushion financial risk, empowering artists or arts organizations to take artistic risk

Stay tuned for periodic updates….

Chaunte Howard Lowe clears the bar. Photo by Grzegorz Jereczek, CC-SA license

Chaunte Howard Lowe clears the bar. Photo by Grzegorz Jereczek, CC-SA license

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Supportive Grids, or, “There’s No Ego in a Leko”

RYT logoAt a recent participant parent event at Rising Youth Theatre, a terrific young company for which I serve as board secretary, one of the parents, who happens to also be a work colleague, noted that our discussion of the company’s work to build the social assets of the youth participants reminded her of the grid I had shown her in my office a couple of weeks prior. “Which grid do you mean? I have a lot of grids,” I replied. (She was referring to an inventory of means template that I use with student arts entrepreneurs to help them assess who they are, what they know, and who they know — but I didn’t recall that at the time.) A short time later, the board’s incoming president whispered to me, “I have a lot of grids” was the most characteristic self-description he could think of for me.


USITT Lighting Museum: 1968 Century Leko (6×9) model# 2321. Photo by Josh Williamson

I did not take it as a compliment at the time, but in retrospect, “grids” of one kind or another have been a critical component of my professional life since I first started out as a lighting designer and, especially, an assistant lighting designer. As an ALD, I was responsible for keeping track of hundreds of lights, their positions, colors, focus points, and so on across hundreds of cues as they changed intensity and, later, position and focus too. To do that (especially in the pre-laptop early years) required a lot of grids. Every one of those charts and forms — the hookup, the tracking sheets, the instrument schedules — were 100% in the service of the art on the stage; the grids themselves or the lights they tracked had no value except insofar as the kept the performance looking the way it was meant to. A long time ago, I said to one of my early graduate students in the lighting design program at UW-Madison, “There’s no ego in a leko,” meaning that the work on the stage is what’s important; if you have to move a light, change a cue, re-format a spreadsheet (aka “grid”), it is to make better art. The phrase must have stuck, because when the student graduated, he presented me with a wooden plaque with the saying on it, which I still have to this day.

As an academic administrator in the arts, grids were also an important part of my work, especially insofar as they communicated production schedules or personnel budgets. Again, the grids were deployed in the service of the art. Now that most of what I do is research and teach arts management and arts entrepreneurship, I find that students often have a hard time with grids – especially budget spreadsheets. The gridlines are not worth the paper they are printed on, but the art that they support is priceless. If the grid isn’t working, throw it out and start over. After all, “There’s no ego in a leko.”

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Art, Change, and Small Steps

There is an interesting Op-ed in the New York Times today written by Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia. (Between Mockus’s two terms, Bogotá was led by another visionary, Enrique Peñalosa.) In his article, Mockus describes an art intervention he implemented to address the problem of corrupt enforcement of traffic laws:

Another initiative in a small area of the city was to replace corrupt traffic police officers with mime artists. The idea was that instead of cops handing out tickets and pocketing fines, these performers would “police” drivers’ behavior by communicating with mime.

It’s not a huge idea, but it is a very creative one. Our own president was communicating a few creative ideas this weekend as well, via his twitter feed. In a series of tweets, President Obama suggested alternative uses for the $80 billion spent annually on incarceration in federal prisons. (Keep in mind that figure does not include state and local expenditures.)

Obama 80B tweets

These are big, creative ideas, but difficult ones. Change of this scale is really really hard — politically, socially, and logistically. Mockus closes his Op-ed with a dose of reality:

Changing a city is not the greatest political challenge; sustaining that change is. I used to have a Darwinian attitude toward politics: Just let ideas that are not sufficiently strong perish. Today, I realize that strong ideas can perish, too. As quickly as a city can progress, it can also fail. But never forget that huge changes can be achieved through surprisingly small steps.

What are some small art interventionist steps we can take today to make progressive change in our cities, our states, our country?

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Artist Alfons Alt at La Friche


The last day of the recent AIMAC Conference was held at La Friche in Marseille, an urban arts redevelopment project in a former tobacco factory. La Friche includes artists’ studios, performance and exhibition spaces, a skate park, rooftop event space, and support services for the Belle de Mai neighborhood, including a daycare/preschool. At La Friche, “culture” is an implement of both social and economic development. “’Economic’ in the sense that cultural products are produced, bought, and sold – but certainly not taking a solely economic approach. ‘Social’ because culture is a space where the essential questions of our society today arise in political terms.”[1]

Between conference sessions, small groups made visits to some of the artists’ studios. I visited the studio of Alfons Alt. Alt uses large format, historical photographic processes combined with earth-based pigments. He explained:

It’s interesting to bring painting and photography and engraving together to make new thing. This technique is not industrializable. I want to make photographs that in 200 years will still be here. I don’t believe in digital. The pigments I use are long lasting, permanent.

Alt doesn’t like to rely on public funding to make work:

When you have public money you have to do public things and that is not always aligned with art.

Alt makes the work he wants to make how he wants to make it. He finds the public for that work in museums, galleries, and private commissions in a way that has sustained his career for 30 years. He models the kinds of artist entrepreneur that is always keeping the art at the center. I note, however, that La Friche itself was developed with public funding in what in the US we would most probably call a “creative placemaking” effort.

[1] Roughly translated from the La Friche website.

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The Arrogance and Humility of the Monolingual (L’ arrogance et l’ humilité du monolingue)

Flag_Map_of_America_and_French_Louisiana_(1802)Quick on the heels of the Americans for the Arts annual convention, I headed to France for the biennial conference of AIMAC (International Association of Arts and Culture Management) where I presented a paper titled “Means and Ends: A Theory Framework for Understanding Entrepreneurship in the US Arts and Culture Sector.” Context is important; the framework I posit may not necessarily apply in the European context where “cultural entrepreneurship” is more widely studied and understood. An American in Provence with only a few years of high school French to help me, I quickly felt incredibly humbled by my position as someone who could not follow a complex conversation, read (or find) a street sign, or understand the conference plenary session without simultaneous translation headphones.

It is astoundingly arrogant to presume that anywhere Americans travel in the world, we will encounter only people who can speak English. Time and again in the last few days while away from the conference, I have witnessed American tourists walk into a shop or up to a counter and immediately begin speaking English, expecting to be served with the immediacy we have grown used to in the US. The unalienable rights we hold to be self evident on this 4th of July do not extend to a right to impose our language on others abroad (or at home, for that matter). If all men – and women – are created equal, we each have equal and individual right to our culture, including our language.

How, then, can we communicate across cultures? Given the topic of the conference, arts and cultural management, and my own interests both professional and personal, I couldn’t help but think that art in many forms is extra-lingual. We can share, appreciate, and understand much art across the boundaries of our linguistic capacities, even if we may not be able to talk to one another about it.

I estimate that 80% of the AIMAC conference attendees were not native English speakers, yet with the exception of the opening plenary, the conference was held in English. That means that 80% of the scholars presenting were presenting in a second language! In every country except the US (or at least most), the higher education system and the schooling leading up to it teaches people to navigate the world multilingually. I am thankful that enough high school French has come back to me that I can have an (almost) conversation with a French person, albeit not at a very high level.

Coincidentally, just as I was starting to write this post, an article in the Atlantic came up on my feed that seems relevant. Maybe we don’t like to speak other languages because we don’t like making mistakes. As the article points out, we should get over it because making mistakes is how innovation happens. It also makes us humble — and a little humility is a good thing.

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My First AFTA

AFTAI recently attended the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) Annual Convention for the first time. Unlike the AIMAC conference (International Association of Arts and Culture Management) I will be attending next week, AFTA is not academically oriented. It also is very much its first name: American. The conference “centered on Power and Empowerment, and the role of the arts in empowering communities and individuals.” This concept of empowering individuals is unique to – or, more accurately, more prevalent in — the US than perhaps any other country. The Declaration of Independence was published the same year as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. This is not a mere coincidence, but rather a confluence of Enlightenment thinking that has led us to believe, profoundly, that individual rights are paramount.

With individual rights comes individual responsibility as well. The session I was asked to moderate at the AFTA conference was titled by the conference organizers, “How Can We Nurture Artists as Entrepreneurial Drivers of Creative Economies?” I suggested at the onset of the session that it is not the responsibility of the individual artist to drive the economy but rather that it is the responsibility of the artist to make art. I reframed the question as “How Can We Nurture Artists as Entrepreneurial Drivers of Their own Economic Lives?” In an economy built on the concept (rightly or wrongly) that individuals operating in their own self-interest will collectively serve the common good, we must give artists access to the knowledge, skills, and ability to maintain their creative practice in an economy that is not particularly friendly to them.

One of my co-discussants, Carla Dirlikov, talked about cultural entrepreneurhip as a move toward changing belief systems about the value of art in communities. The other, Beth Flowers, talked about setting up programs that incentivized people to work together to act on the arts business training they receive by building partnerships between artists, businesses and other community organizations. I shared some research we did about field-based arts business training. There was a theme shared among the three of us, as well as the over 50 people who participated in the discussion, that more can be done to remove barriers and obstacles to artist sustainability. In no particular order, here are some of the other topics, themes, and issues that were raised:

  • There are emotional barriers to accessing the business of art bred by traditional conservatory artistic training
  • Arts agencies can help artists with the “red tape” of dealing with bureaucratic issues like permitting and licenses [Revolve Detroit publishes a guidebook for use locally in this regard]
  • More can be done to engage the business community in partnering with artists [Some examples of this being done, in addition to Revolve Detroit, are Spaceworks Tacoma and Irrigate]
  • Teach artists how to identify resources
  • Consider that we are in a purpose economy and an experience economy where social entrepreneurship can be successful
  • Concentrate on cooperation and the aesthetics of the art rather than fostering competition among artists
  • Help mid-career artists [Pave has recently published a resource guide on “Asset Building for Artists“]

It was a lively and very positive discussion and I only tap the broadest themes here. The discussion participants included people from local and state arts agencies, artist services organizations, a few educators, citizens advocacy groups, and artists (mostly Chicago-based). To sum up my initial answer to the question both as posed by the organizers and reframed by me, I quote from Theaster Gates’ keynote address: “it starts with listening.”

(Stay tuned for news from the AIMAC conference in about two weeks)

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