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Your Town Performs activates and animates your town, traditional neighborhood, or downtown revitalization project with innovative cultural arts solutions.
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Last October, I was invited to present at the Tennessee Arts Commission annual conference, which was held in Pickwick State Park. I spoke about the keys to creating productive partnerships among public, private, and creative players. All of the four speakers on the panel have very interesting presentations, and the moderator Maren Brown, was delightful. However, if you’d like to skip to me, you can by scrolling over to the 42 minute mark.
“To achieve a creative city it is not necessary that policies are continually creative, but that the basic regulatory system is impersonal, simple, stable, and robust, so as to favor the beneficial self-organization of the socio-economic system and a constant state of experimentation.”
– Stefano Moroni
In other words, keep it simple and keep it local…
by Craige Hoover
There is an excellent, lengthy post over at Createquity and Ian David Moss about the problem of reliable metrics to determine the actual effect of “arts as place making.” Essentially he claims that with so many variables in play, no one has been able to convincingly separate causality from correlation while measuring the impact of the infusion of arts, artists, and arts organizations in a community. While there has been loads of research on the subject, and there is little doubt that some causality exists, without a proper control group for the experiment, the scientific method fails to provide enough concrete proof for the likes of economists and academics alike.
To further the problem, the burden of such proof lies with those who are asking for the money. So the arts world has been fighting an uphill battle trying to make the economic case for their funding. Developers (with their money on the line) and public officials (with their jobs on the line) are pretty risk averse and are therefore more likely to invest in more clearly proven community investment strategies.
It will take longitudinal studies of arts initiatives to determine their actual effects on communities, but the historical record is pretty difficult to refute. Too many examples exist that show that real estate value and other vibrancy indicators correlate with the migration patterns of artists and arts organizations, and that is the best case we can make.
Head over there and read the whole thing if you have time, including the comments. He’s got a great dialogue happening.
by Craige Hoover
I have been waxing for a few years about the problems with the outdated, fundamentally flawed arts business model, and here this Bay Area journalist comes along and puts together a well-researched, insightful article and it gets published exactly where it should be published, on the Grantsmakers in the Arts website. I must admit to a little jealousy.
Here’s the problem well articulated:
“In the past fifteen years, the number of nonprofit theater companies in the United States has doubled while audiences and funding have shrunk. Neither the field nor the next generation of artists is served by this unexamined multiplication of companies based on the same old model. The NEA’s statistics on nonprofit growth, set against its sobering reports on declining arts participation, illuminate a crucial nexus for the field, a location of both profound failure and potential transformation. The proliferation of small theater companies sits at the intersection between the necessity to imagine different structures for making theater and our field’s failure to provide career paths for the next generation of artists. Since the Ford Foundation’s investments kicked off the regional theater movement fifty years ago, there has been tremendous collective buy-in to what has become a fossilized model of a particular type of nonprofit theater. Within this structure, there is now a critical lack of opportunity for emerging artists and leaders, leaving the next generation of artists no alternative but to start companies of their own, companies that often replicate the problems of established theaters on a smaller scale.”
She goes on to further explicate her position and then provide some truly inspired examples of artists and arts managers that have implemented new models that begin to at least crack the mold that has befallen our arts business.
The fact that the article is published in the Grantsmakers in the Arts is especially encouraging because it hits right at what mifght just be the crux what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the NEA stopped funding individual artists in the early 80’s, other funding organizations have followed suit and have only funded companies that fit into a box that has been determined to be the safest from a political point of view. And because of this focus, arts funding and arts participation has dropped steadily ever since.
Scott Walters, who I am thrilled to see has joined the list of Huffington Post contributors, recently penned an article comparing the Occupy Wall Street movement to the arts world, and has illuminated some startling statistics to support his argument. Essentially, a ridiculously large percentage of funding goes to a tiny fraction of arts organizations, primarily because they have been given the funding to set up large administrative systems that tick all the boxes that funders look for. Hence the vicious cycle.
Funding smaller, more innovative arts models is the only way we will break the cycle and see a resurgence of accessible arts throughout this country. Here’s an article from a Memphis newspaper that talks about this very idea. It’s written by Andre K. Fowlkes, who has started a very cool venture called Launch Your City. It is akin to a venture capital company that funds innovative small businesses. He posits that the VC model should be used by major funders at the community level. Brilliant. If the Ford Foundation doesn’t have the wherewithal to fund innovative concepts itself, then perhaps it should fund a middle-man who responsibly selects new models that have the opportunity to affect some real change.
I urge you to read the articles I’ve linked above, and hopefully, you will be inspired to get involved and help make a difference.
by Craige Hoover
I came across this photo the other day of a town in Thailand converting a sublime lagoon into a floating movie theatre. How cool is that? It is an excellent example, albeit a costly one, of using existing resources to create a venue for the arts that is unique and memorable.
Most towns don’t have a venue like this picturesque lagoon, but that’s okay because a chief function of the arts is to make the mundane more interesting. Which is why today I thought I would list some spaces that probably do exist in your market and could be temporarily (or semi-permanently) converted into a space for cultural arts and entertainment.
Yes, they seem a little narrow, but they also represent an interesting canvas for an outdoor art exhibit. Line them with the work of local artists, and you have a real art walk. Or, use the concrete as the canvas, and have a chalk art event, inviting local businesses to sponsor squares that are decorated by local artists, school groups, or whomever. Sidewalks, if you are lucky enough to have them, are the key arteries of your neighborhood, and every chance you have to encourage their use is a good thing for your community.
As an Urbanist, I hate them on principle. Streets should be connected for reasons too numerous to count. However, if you have them, then you might as well use them as a means of regaining some connectivity that they so effectively stymie. Block Parties don’t have to be wild and crazy; they can actually be quite civilized and family- friendly. A potluck supper with a little live music, a community art project where everyone contributes, a gastro-event like a wine dinners or pig roasts, and other community building events are nice ways of making the best of poor planning. You just need to have some understanding residents.
Vacant Houses or Storefronts
Nobody likes a vacancy, least of all the owner of the property, which is why they represent some pretty low-hanging fruit for potential event venues. Property owners are generally aching to expose their property as valuable, and hosting a performance, event, or a temporary exhibit is an excellent way to do it. Chances are, organizers can use the space for little or no expense, and that certainly helps the budgeting process, no?
Vacant Land or Lots
The goal for all neighborhoods should be to complete their streetscapes, so if your community has a vacant parcel, a wise choice is to activate it somehow. Often times, there are plans or visions for the property that just haven’t materialized, or maybe it’s just land that just won’t sell. Either way, turning these parcels into community gathering spaces is a good way to increase their value. Maybe it’s a community garden, and maybe it is as simple as picnic tables and a few potted plants. Or perhaps a more ambitious step and turn it into a small outdoor performance space.
Power substations work better than sewage, for olfactory reasons, and there is clearly a safety concern, but neighborhoods are generally well served to make lemonade out of the lemon that is an overly conspicuous utility facility. Murals along the fences and community gardening or tree planting projects are adaptive uses for these aesthetic calamities.
by Craige Hoover
Seth Godin pointed me (and his other bazillion followers) to an interesting blog post from Clay Shirky about the future of newspapers. It got me to thinking that the art world is facing similar challenges as a result of our societal shift brought about by the internet and its “on demand” content delivery.
Here’s a pithy excerpt:
There has never been a mass market for good journalism in this country. What there used to be was a mass market for print ads, coupled with a mass market for a physical bundle of entertainment, opinion, and information; these were tied to an institutional agreement to subsidize a modicum of real journalism.
He has a great point here, and it’s one that I think translates into arts organizations’ business model. We are loyal followers (aka members) of arts organizations because of the bundle of offerings they provide. The musicals subsidize the new plays and gut-wrenching dramas, and the Nutcracker subsidizes the chamber ensembles by way of subscriptions and donors they foster. While the newspaper industry is seeing this phenomenon come to end with devastating financial consequences, the world of art and performance is actually seeing this phenomenon expand. In a world in which entertainment in ubiquitous and on demand, we fight the paralysis of choice by just picking a bundle of offerings. The effect is equally devastating, however, to local and community arts organizations and individual artists that cannot afford or are unable to bundle their work.
But then there’s this:
On the other hand, local reporting is almost the only form of content for which the local paper is the sole source, so it’s also possible to imagine a virtuous circle for at least some small papers, where a civically-minded core of citizens step in to fund the paper in return for an increase in local coverage, both of politics and community matters. (It’s hard to overstate how vital community coverage is for small-town papers, which have typically been as much village well as town crier.)
Local arts providers like small professional theatres,and visual artists are a small community’s only artistic voice. With the art world becoming more and more centralized, it is increasingly important that we continue to support our smaller organizations. Will a rural Louisiana artist have a legitimate shot at a NYLACHI showing? Probably not, but that doesn’t make his work less valuable to the people of of his community.
Our diversity as a society is our country’s most treasured differentiator, and yet it is being systematically homogenized by our decreased regionalization. We need community-minded cores of citizens to step up and foster our regional art and artists in return for an increase in local art of all kinds, just like in the newspaper industry. How else will we all not end up sounding and looking the same?
I can’t even quantify the amount of great artistic experiences that I have missed because I have a child that can’t stay by himself while we go to the show, art opening, what have you. It’s not only the financial hurdle, which is an evening that used to cost $50 now costs over $200 when you add in the fact that you have to take advantage of your freedom and go out to a nice dinner before or afterwards. It’s the logistical hurdle as well. You have to find the babysitter, you have to pick a night where you know you’re not working late so you can spend a little time with the kid(s) before giving the reigns to another caretaker, and then you have to pick the event that is closest, cheapest, best, and fits the mood you’re most likely to be in when the evening rolls around. Gone are the days when at 5:30pm, you catch a promo for an event on your ride home that piques your interest, call your significant other, and ride the wave all the way to the ticket booth that night.
It’s a frustrating reality, but one that is perhaps overlooked by arts administrators when they consider the reasons that they’re audience base is getting older and older every year. Could it be possible that people are waiting longer to have children so the 40-somethings that used to have teenagers that were dying to have their parents head out for the night are now forced to remain home to deal with their 5-7 year olds? I’m 35 with a 3 year old, and I’ve seen a grand total of 4 plays this year, and that includes an R & J in the park where the boy came along and we had to leave at intermission amid the fear that the lark and the nightingale would cease to be the subject of the two lovers’ morning argument, but rather which of them would leave the stage and slap the kid in the back row.
I know some larger institutions have incorporated some childcare into their expanding payrolls, but that’s not feasible for most modest arts budgets. And besides, my kid needs to be in bed at 9pm, not out playing improv games with an acting intern.
Arts organizations might just need to write the 25-45 year olds off as “unavailable,” and go about building audiences older and younger. Look, the die-hard fans will find a way to get there (at least 3 times a year), but the rest just don’t have the time, money, and energy to be fully engaged in the arts scene. And of course, thankfully for me and theatre profit and loss statements, there is Theatre for Young Audiences.
The over-45 crowd is well covered, but how do we get the young adults into the arts? Keep in mind that statistically speaking, they are single, underemployed or in school, and have almost no money available to be spent on anything except remedying the first two. What we know about these folks is that they like to participate. Social media and video games have dominated their existence in recent memory, so the idea of passively taking in art and entertainment is going to feel a bit foreign to them. (Unless of course they are already inclined, in which case we don’t really need to change anything because they are coming already.)
Scott Walters has recently posited that we need some kind of new, “organic theatre,” though he admittedly hasn’t put his finger on what that is. Perhaps the organism he is dancing around is one that incorporates the kind of active participation that social media and gaming provides. For the longest time, I thought the theatre version of this was improv, but I fear that window might have opened and closed without much of a revolutionary shift occurring. Great improv is out there, but it’s not capturing the hearts and minds of our young adults en masse like I thought it might.
What I have in my mind’s eye is a group of artists from varying disciplines creating an arts experience where the audience can participate quasi-anonymously (we all can’t love to volunteer), and yet materially affecting the experience for everyone involved. Maybe this is a rolling twitter feed above the stage to which the actors must respond or adapt, or a theatrical experience in which the audience isn’t quite clear who is performing and who is watching. Perhaps this is a work of mixed-media art that changes based on the movement or actions of the people in the room.
It is clear that we need innovation in the arts world to capture new blood and keep up with a society that is advancing at rate far greater than that of its arts institutions.
At least my career affords me the opportunity to help advance the cause. Otherwise I might be jaded about the fact that 75% of my discretionary time and money is spent entertaining (or corralling) a 3 year old.
PS: To Luke, (my son), if you are reading this, congratulations on being able to read. Please don’t feel like you are sucking the artistic life out of me. You are in fact a constant inspiration, and much of the above is strictly rhetorical.
I’ve known hundreds of artists throughout my career in the arts world. Theatre is the most collaborative of all the major art forms, excluding film, perhaps, so it’s impossible to be involved in the theatre for any significant period of time without meeting dozens of actors, dancers, and singers, as well as costume, lighting, graphic, sound and scenic designers and those who artfully implement those designs. It’s a diverse group. One thing almost all of them had in common was that they considered themselves “professional.” And since most of the time we were paying them, by the simplest definition that is exactly what they were.
Unfortunately (for some), many of those same professionals are no longer getting paid to practice their art. For some that means they traded in their ballet shoes for a business suit; for others that means they just stopped getting work. I also know scores of artists that practice professionally in addition to holding down a full-time job. And I don’t mean a restaurant job; I mean a regular 9 to 5, paper-pushing job. In fact, I would say that since moving to Nashville, 90% of the theatre artists I’ve met fall into that last category. They’re getting paid (a pittance) to do their thing, but it’s not going to support a family or help them build wealth over time.
How should we feel about this reality?
One opinion is that 99% of artists are drastically underpaid, and 1% are frighteningly overpaid, and that if fees were distributed more evenly, we would have a more self-sustaining art jobs. (I will coin this the Occupy Broadway Stance)
Another position to take is that this is natural selection at work. The arts scene weeds out those who are not fit for survival in such a difficult industry, and if you can’t survive, then you probably shouldn’t.
But I tend to think that we are on the brink of a new industry model. Like a river forming a new tributary to relieve the pressure build-up of a dam downstream, I think our society’s need to make and consume art will ultimately force a new outlet to emerge. And I think there are two societal shifts that are currently taking place that will serve to enable this new stream to form: Free Agency and Smart Growth.
I’ve waxed at length about Smart Growth, so I won’t rehash, but suffice it to say that once we repopulate and reinvigorate downtowns across the nation, artists that have long been languishing in the suburbs, will again be able to congregate at coffee shops, community centers, and other “third places,” and devise new ways of showcasing their talents to audiences that have also taken up residence nearby and are looking for entertainment outside of their screen-driven lives.
Next, the number of traditional corporate and manufacturing jobs is never going to return to pre-2008 levels. 44% of Americans now describe themselves as “free agents,” compared to 28% in 2008. () That’s a pretty steep increase in just three years. Free agents are not tied to one employer. In fact, they are often not tied to any one profession. They are contractors that set their own hours, and are in turn afforded the chance to pursue multiple opportunities. What this means for the arts is that the web programmer can now allocate some of his time to practicing his saxophone, the graphic designer can pick up his paint brush, and the physical therapist can dance again.
The missing pieces are the organizations that serve both audience and artist. I think we will find that local arts agencies and the downtown improvement associations take the opportunity and enhance the lives and livelihoods of everyone in the community. We will find empty storefronts converted to art galleries and music venues. Parking lots and parks will be employed as performance spaces and festival grounds. Public art projects will proliferate. As a result, property values and commercial activity will increase, rewarding these organizations with increased revenue.
It’s already happening in bigger cities, but there is absolutely no reason that this model can’t scale downward to smaller towns and retrofitted suburbs to equal effect.
I’ve completed my goals and resolutions for 2012, and looking over them, it appears that the theme for this year is “actions speak louder than words.” I’m not alone, it seems. As loyal readers know, my work is about building arts and entertainment models that fit into the next phase of town planning, which is a movement away from suburban sprawl and a return to mixed-use, walkable communities. It used to be called New Urbanism, but now it’s just “The Way It Is.”
So as I’m catching up on my blog reading this morning, I ran across two separate posts by two respected bloggers from both the Town Planning and Theatre sectors, and they were both saying the essentially the same thing.
First, Scott Walters over at Theatre Ideas is fed up with all the talk of the need for an industry-wide change, and he’s out to actually do something to change it by building a new model for small town arts sustainability. I am looking forward to tracking his progress and hopefully stealing some great ideas.
Next, I headed over to the Placeshakers blog, a town planning blog, and I read an insightful post from Ben Brown commenting on Time magazine’s decision to make “The Protester” the 2011 person of the year. Brown echoes Walters by saying that it simply isn’t enough to complain about the way of the world.
That’s been my main problem with the Occupy movements. Sure, I fall within the 99% and I agree that something is broken, but I don’t hear solutions, or actual steps to be taken to achieve measurable results.
I have resolved to actually create change this year, and not just wish for it. I’ve set goals that are clear and measurable, and I’m finally in a position to get them done. I’m going to implement a new model for Downtown Associations (Local Arts Agency, Business Improvement Districts, whatever you want to call them) that actually produce and present properly scaled community arts, entertainment, and rituals that are accessible, sustainable, and repeatable. This model will be able to transplanted into any mixed-use community environment. Over the course of the year, I will be blogging about the process and progress, and publish it all in 2013. Lemme at ’em.