Tag Archives: art

«Not being noticed or known by our busy community» How to Deal with the Concentric Circles of Acclaim

spiral

You’re sitting in the middle of a tornado of activity that feels, well, loud.  You spend time and energy with a cadre of equally incentivized artists creating a gallery show, a play, or an exhibit.

Then you go next door and put up a poster.  You hear, “Oh, when’s that happening?”

Then you invite an artist and he forgets to come until after it closes.

Then you invite your doctor and she says, “What’s that?”

Eric Rubio of the Wheaton College Artist Series of Wheaton, Illinois gave us this issue for August.  People working within arts organizations feel the tornado, but just a thought process away, others are ignorant.

PR isn’t an accidental occurrence.  Good PR assumes readers know nothing about the newsworthy piece.  Groundswells of guerrilla marketing techniques may be the answer to your indispensability factor.

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Successful Nonprofit Arts Organizations, Like Successful Buildings, Depend on Successful Hierarchies

Gaudi

Level One:

Bricklayers.  Carpenters.  Stagehands.  Electricians.  Actors.  Musicians.  Painters.  Singers.  Writers.

Easy to find hacks.  Difficult to find experts.  Project-based.

 

Level Two:

Foremen.  Department heads.  Designers.  Curators.  Musical directors.

Small universe of successful ones.  More skills required.  Still project-based.  Work toward a larger goal than Level One, namely a finished piece.  Excellent collaboration skills.

 

Level Three:

Contractors.  Directors.

Smaller universe still.  Hire and manage Level One and Two (no requirement to perform at their skill level).  Work toward a slightly larger picture, although still project based.

 

Level Four:

Architects.  Executive/Artistic/General/Producing Directors.

Scarce universe of specialists.  Determine “what.”  Hire Level Three – several Level Threes, in fact.  Understand projects, themes, and cohesion.

 

Level Five:

Owners.  Boards.

Tiny, zealous universe.  Hire Level Four.  Determine “how.” Has personal stake.

 

Level Six:

The Community.  The Mission.

Top of the hierarchy.  Determines “why.”

Artists vs. Craftspeople – Nonprofit Arts Organizations Require the Former to Act as the Latter

hat

Artists produce work from their creative souls, nurtured by a series of cultural, environmental, and psychological motivations.  They create “a hat,” as Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “where there never was a hat.”  Talented artists create from their current state of mind, without boundary.

Craftspeople produce work to fill a need.  They possess a series of cultural, environmental, and psychological motivations which channel into art that produces a desired impact.  Craftspeople create hats because they’re the best answer to a question.

All craftspeople are artists at their core.  Many artists have no capacity to become craftspeople.

Nonprofit arts organizations require craftspeople.  If the organization is more important than any artist, and the mission is more important than the organization, then employees on the organizational chart need to be, by definition, craftspeople divining an impact, not artists divining inspiration.

Feedback from You (yes, you): 9 Words That Describe the Nonprofit Arts Issues That Are Placing You at the End of Your Rope

rope

This blog, as most are, is pretty much one-way.  I share experiences, advice, consultation, and observations; you read ’em.  I can discuss 1,000 issues that affect nonprofit arts organizations.

But that’s me.

What keeps you up at night?

What concrete issue (not just “there’s no funding for…”) is fraying your rope?  Or better, what issues are figuratively tying a noose around the end of your rope?

Here’s your assignment.  In 9 words (no more, no less), write that issue and send it to info@137words.com.  That’s it.  Beginning in August, we’ll periodically take each issue and I’ll give my take.  Then we’ll open up the discussion to everyone who reads 137 Words.  Let me know if you’d like your name in or if you’d like to be anonymous.  And if you’d like my help privately, let me know that, too.

Happy Dependence Day – In the USA, the Arts Reflect Our Need for Each Other

wethepeople

The American Dream is built on dependence (Independence Day and elections notwithstanding).

The USA is Blanche DuBois and the “kindness of strangers.”  We’re Willy Loman.  We’re Fanfare for the Common Man. Revelations. Hamilton. Smoke Signals. Angels in America.  Our successes depend and are dependent on the joy, madness, and desires of others.

The monarchy doesn’t choose our art; we do.

American art depends not on individual brilliance, even though there are brilliant individuals.  Our best art provides impact.

Mavericks provide almost no impact. Collaborations do.

Patrons deign to “provide for.”  Supporters want to “identify with.”

True, there are Americans that call themselves mavericks and patrons.  Some folks prefer their terminology shrouded in cobwebs.

But for the rest of us, we know what we are.  Even better, we know why.  Our best arts nonprofits reflect “We, the People.”

Nonprofit Arts Organizations Without Flexibility Present a Disconnect When It Really Matters

Orlando

On September 12, 2001, we issued an internal memo at our nonprofit arts organization.  We proffered the notion that standing by our programming and “moving forward” was the best way to fight back.

We were wrong.  Putting on blinkers never helps.

On June 12, 2016, after one attack in Orlando and a foiled one in Santa Monica – key nonprofit arts organizations are right now readying memos rationalizing the same advice.

Move forward.  That’ll show ‘em.

At what tipping point do we scrap activities to reflect the damage inflicted on people?  Why must we wait for a year to see the first artistic responses?  Why not now?  Why worry about the production quality of said response?  As nonprofits, when do we sacrifice our comfort zone to provide leadership to our communities for some resolution?

Or should we just move forward?  Yet again?

Transformational Persuasion: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Why It Matters – Especially When You’re Running an Arts Organization

ali

Muhammad Ali died last week.  A quote from a Zairian in “When We Were Kings.”

“George Foreman? We had heard he was a world champion.
We thought he was white, then we realized he was black, like Ali….
Ali said [about Foreman], you’re the out-of-towner here.”

Nonprofit leaders that manage organizations, programs, and people well can be quite successful.  But not transformational.  Transformational leaders effortlessly persuade with passion about the mission, not the statistics.  Their material requires no script, just practice to remove the “ums” and “uhs.”

Trump, for example, vigorously (and effortlessly) transforms experienced opponents into “out-of-towners.” Clinton relies on effective policy, experience, and “being right.”

Passion KOs policy every time.  Ask George Foreman.

Doesn’t your arts organization’s constituency deserve the most transformative experience you can offer?  Or do you settle for production excellence and competence?

Talk to Me Like I’m 10: a Lesson in Long-Term Planning for Artistic Directors and Board Chairs

talk to me like I'm 10.jpg

Does long-term planning cause a rift between your artistic director and those other people?

Does it cause discord between your board chair and those other people?

Seen all the time among arts charities:  carefully (and successfully) executed annual development plans reduced to rubble after the board institutes a high-priced capital campaign.  The capital campaign sucks up all in its path, causing 5 years of stakeholder repair.  Indispensable Chair happy.  Staff leaves.

Artistic directors substituting their taste for vision and their personal and professional relationships for core values.  Idiosyncrasy obviates mission.  Indispensable AD happy.  Board leaves.

Both cases: company imperiled, stakeholders leaving.

Time to create an action plan, written at a 5th grade level.  Make it about impact rather than income.  Test the theory that your arts nonprofit is indispensable.  Make sure that your most important stakeholders don’t leave.

Nonprofit Arts Executives: After the Ask (for anything, actually), It’s Fast “Yes,” Slow “No”… Try a Slow “Yes” Instead

nofrog

If you don’t hear right away, it’s probably “no.”

That goes for asks, offers, hiring, and anything else you require.

And that goes for you, too, when your stakeholders ask, offer, hire, and anything else they may require.

Reflection is the predictable path toward rationalization to the “no.”  This is why the phrase “upon reflection” is almost always followed by a version of “we’ve decided not to change.”  After all, as a rule, it’s easier not to change than to take a risk.

Many arts charity executives preach the glory of “managed risk” (an oxymoron, of sorts) and value fiscal responsibility above social impact.  To be clear, social impact is central to the success of the mission; fiscal responsibility is a valuable business practice.

If “yes” leads to greater impact, then stop saying “no”… especially upon reflection.

The Paradox of Simplicity: Success Begins with Better, Not More

einstein-counting-on-fingers

There’s a saying that every weapon that’s been invented has been used.  Or will be.

Similarly, every technological advance of the last 30 years has been used.  Or will be.

More avenues of communication. More personalized offers.  More database data.  More news.  More marketing.  More music.  More art.  More words.

Not “better.”  “More.”

This is not code for “I’m old and yearn for a simpler time.”  I’m not and I don’t.  What I yearn for is a better time.

Regardless of how many ways key information is dispersed, some folks just don’t consume it.  And that’s on you.

I should know.  You may be engaging with this post (and thank you), but others who could, don’t.  And that’s on me.

A blown basketball pass is the passer’s fault.   But a bad pass isn’t solved with throwing more basketballs.

Artists and Non-Offensiveness: The Tyranny of Over-Sensitivity, Feelings, and Participation Trophies

safespaces

There’s a troubling trend.  There’s an absurd unwillingness to offend that seems pervasive among arts creators.

Not that creators are creating “Pleasant Art,” per se.  Writers and artists are creating lots of work that is designed to make audiences uncomfortable.  Which is good.  The work may be about single issues and not terribly complex, but it’s good.

However, there are too many artists raised in atmospheres where everyone wins, even when they lose.  In the name of inclusion and self-esteem, they live in a world where, like toddlers, “feeling bad” is simply unacceptable.

They believe they’re special.

To these artists:

  1. You are not special.
  2. You do not deserve success.
  3. Sometimes you lose.

It’s what you do with that information that defines you.

If you believe that nobody should ever have hurt feelings, you’re not doing your job.

Arts Organizations: 137th Post, 137 Thanks, and 137 (of Other People’s) Words That Guide Inspiring Leaders

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“We must reject the idea — well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become “more like a business.” Most businesses…fall somewhere between mediocre and good.” (Collins)

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (Thoreau)

“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” (Sinek)

“When they say things like, we’re going to do this by the book, you have to ask, what book? Because it would make a big difference if it was Dostoevsky or, you know, ‘Ivanhoe.'” (Anderson)

“‘To be is to do.’ (Socrates)  ‘To do is to be.’ (Sartre)  ‘Do be do be do.’ (Sinatra)” [Vonnegut compilation]

How You Can Solve Diversity With Your Nonprofit Arts Organization!

race

You can’t.

Arts organizations challenge, reflect, and engage.  They don’t solve.

And remember, race is only one small bit of cultural diversity, not all of them.  Just as the opposite of love isn’t “hate,” but “indifference;” the opposite of diverse isn’t “white,” but “homogeneous.”

I read a political blog recently about the Democratic Party presidential race.  What troubled me were these words:

“What I’m crossing my fingers for is that in ten years or so we’ll get… a young,
charismatic democratic socialist who runs for president. (Preferably this
candidate would be a woman or a non-white person or, ideally, both.)”

Isn’t that parenthetical statement just as intolerant as one where “not” had been inserted after “would?”

Diversity isn’t only about race or gender or any of myriad other categories.  It’s about power, shared equally, with specific impact.

Ils pétent plus haut que leur cul. Marketing Intellectual Pursuits to an Anti-Intellectual Public, Right-Cheer In These You-Nited States of Murrica

Shakespeare Marx

In the arts, we want to attract more people. Or do we just want more us?

We’re asked to produce vision, impact, and engagement.  We embrace entertainment, but only if it’s at a 120+ IQ level.  Even abject silliness on stage is only acceptable if it’s “smart.”

Case in point:  the brilliantly entertaining, best-people-in-the-world-to-hang-out-with, fucking funny Reduced Shakespeare Company.

When another company produces an RSC script, they almost apologize in their marketing:

RSC: “it’s not the length of your history that matters – it’s what you’ve done with it!”

Other: “Between the rampant nationalism and the recent election, we think it more vital than ever for us to show we’re capable of laughing at ourselves. It, too, is part of the healing.”

Populism in the arts is an open path to success.  Risk being fucking funny, not drolly meaningful.

Arts Organizations: What is Your Art? Is it “It?” Is it a Picture of “It?” A Report of “It?” None of the Above?

headline earthquake 240z

45 years ago today, February 9, an earthquake happened. I was shaken out of bed and looked out the window just in time to see a brick chimney fall on Dr. Prince’s new 240Z. That’s what happened to me.

We turned on the television to see films about the Van Norman Dam — in danger of bursting.  I saw that through a lens.

The next day’s LA Times had the front-page story, “DAY OF DISASTER — Quake Leaves 42 Dead, 1,000 Hurt; Periled Dam Forces 40,000 to Flee.” I read that report.

The racing results, as always, were in the sports section.  A square box on the front page said so.  Horse racing is a popular entertainment.  I didn’t care.

Is your art happening to your constituents?  Is it through a filter?  Is it second-hand? Or is it entertainment?  Only one is personally meaningful.

 

Life on the Unraveling Nonprofit Arts Fringe: Why Hiring Experience and Guile Trumps Everything Else

Actor Hugh O’Brian is said to have coined “The 5 Stages of an Actor’s Career;”

  1. Who is Hugh O’Brian?
  2. Get me Hugh O’Brian.
  3. Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.
  4. Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.
  5. Who is Hugh O’Brian?

We’re in contact with hundreds of highly-experienced, resilient people who have made a career in the arts – and they’re having difficulties getting back into the field.

Some of it is ageism. Boards use headhunters to find smart young guns to lead departments or organizations — only to find that instead, they’ve hired brilliant 2-year placeholders with few people skills, entitlement issues, little flexibility, and quick parachutes.

Studies show those >50 stay longer than those under <40, are more productive, have better improvisational skills and flexibility, and are likelier to bring success.

Forget headhunters.  Do your own search.  Hire someone better than you.

If You’re _____________, Then Your Nonprofit Arts Organization is Probably Unsustainable (with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)

Single woman sitting lonely in an empty cinema or theatre

  • not paying your executive director because s/he is independently wealthy and actually donates 6 figures to the company;
  • working 70 hours/week every week and see nothing wrong with that;
  • hiring part-time employees and expecting them to work full-time free of charge;
  • of the belief that your employees are less important than your equipment or your building;
  • insisting that anyone besides your marketing director is the final word on your marketing;
  • keeping your artistic director away from donors because s/he doesn’t know how to interact with them;
  • in the mindset that any of your people are more important than any other of your people;
  • playing “Dialing for Dollars” to meet your payroll;
  • arguing that “keeping the base” is more important than expanding the audience, while…
  • thinking that you can do both;
  • sweating a little right now after reading this post.

Organizational Health Can Be Measured by the Number of Donors Who Don’t Have to Give to Your Arts Organization

sparse crowd

How many non-board (or non-ex-board) members give to your arts organization?

How many non-staff members?

How many non-parents (if you do activities that include children)?

How many people who don’t attend your gala or other special event?

How many people who refuse donor benefits?

In other words, how many people donate simply based on your mission, programming, and activities; or by trusting a stakeholder of your mission, programming, and activities without expectation of a return?

Count the households of donors who donated all on their own.  If the number is small, create a special campaign to draw them in, even if the donation is a simple $50.  And thank them – they’re giving for no reason at all, except for unconditional love.

Ultimately, the health of your organization is measured by the number of those who unconditionally support it.

Differentiating Between What’s Great About the Arts and What’s Great About YOUR Arts Organization

economic impact argument again eecard

You can look anywhere to discover what’s important about the arts.  Try here, here, here, here, and here for starters.

The key to “sustainability” (which, as previously written, is not “survival”) is proof that your particular arts charity is achieving specific community goals.

Each social service and social justice charity measures its results toward the execution of their mission.  Those results have a direct link to funding and community support.  Your arts charity, then, must find results that apply specifically to your organization.

Charitable results cannot be measured by paid attendance or positive economic impact.  Those are commercial results and byproducts — data used by sports teams to get cities to build them stadiums or by entertainment conglomerates to allow regions to let them build casinos.

So what makes your arts charity charitable?  Answer that and you’re 99% there.

[A Performance] Space: The Final Frontier – Don’t Own It and Find Someone to Donate Some

Don’t own your own performance space.  It’s a liability, not an asset.  Balance sheet be damned.

An asset is something you can sell.  No one wants to buy a theatre…unless it’s to tear it down.  And if it’s an Historic Building, run like the wind.

This isn’t just avoiding an “Edifice Complex.”  Unless, of course, you adore unending capital campaigns to rebuild the defects your company “cheaped out” on.  Find funding for what you do, not where you do it.

That said, one of the most overlooked ways in which a board member can help an organization is to provide eternal, free nearby office space for the company (there’s never enough inside the theatre).  It’s a major tax deduction and the perfect in-kind gift – one that actually removes a necessary expense from the budget.

Confusing the Messenger with the Message: Artistic Direction Fulfills the Arts Organization (Not Vice-Versa)

chefs

Being a great director has little to do with being a great artistic director.

Directors direct projects.  Artistic directors use a collection of projects to fulfill a mission that serves a community.  These are completely separate skills.

ADs who direct some projects for their own company risk treating those projects as precious.  Too often, they break rules for their project (organizational mission, budget, marketing, etc.) that they would never allow an “outside” director to break.

And in too many cases, when the identity of a nonprofit arts organization is too closely entangled with the vision of an artistic director, the organization’s brand is that much more difficult to recuperate when inevitable leadership change occurs.

After all, succession is not merely an artistic director handpicking a successor, is it?  A company is greater than any individual leader, right?

The Psychology of Being Last and 4 Other Ways to Level the Board Meeting Room Table

boringspeechBoard meetings are often reporting festivals.  Endless polite reports reminiscent of “what I did last summer” essays from the first day of elementary school.  It’s too bad.

Calculate the hourly consulting rate of the people in the room (for example, 15 board members x $100/hour = $1,500/hour).  At $1,500/hour, do you want to talk about the past or the future?

Board members, inside the meeting room…

  • Never do what the last person in the conversation advocates. It’s a trick manipulative people do.
  • Consensus is not unanimity; votes needn’t be unanimous. After the decision is made, however, everyone needs to back it.
  • No devil’s advocates; take responsibility for your disagreement.
  • Read the ED’s report beforehand. EDs: issue your report at least a week before the meeting.
  • Your ED is not responsible for writing and executing your strategic plan. You are.

“In This Scene, Could You Be a Little Funnier?” – A Perspective on Performance Reviews

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“Fire ’em the first time you think about it.” This was the mantra of the board chair of a company with which I was affiliated. I’ve always appreciated the portion that means that I should know when things are not working with a company or individual – from the perspective of employer or employee.

Which brings me to performance reviews. Gack. Many formal performance reviews within arts organizations waste time and energy and breed unnecessary anxiety.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do them – but do them continually rather than once a year or when a contract demands it.

If your company has a horrible work environment, a performance review is about as helpful as a Band-Aid on a heart attack. Similarly, if the environment is open-minded, so should your inter-reactions.  You’ll know if it’s working out.

Quantifiable Outcomes and Social Impact Applies to All Nonprofits – Including Arts Organizations

if-quantifiable-outcomes-arent-important-then-i-can-fire-my-whole-development-team-and-just-do-what-i-want-yay-me-7dc56

Oh, I can hear it now.

“See?” they’ll say.  “People don’t care about outcomes when they make donations.  The Washington Post said so.  Ergo: we don’t need outcomes.”

To come to that conclusion is just whistling past the graveyard.

Remember these hard facts:

  • The arts are not mentioned in section 501 (c) (3) of the US tax code (you know…the law). The arts fall under “charitable organizations,” which require a measure of public good.
  • Using the arts as a cover for an individual’s vanity vision is fine, as long as it’s a commercial venture. Once you pull the taxpaying public into it, ethics demand an outcome.
  • The arts can be transformative, both on a commercial and nonprofit level. What differentiates the nonprofit is that a measurement of positive change of the human condition is necessary to rationalize funding.
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