WolfBrown: On Our Minds

21st Century Community Living

December 18th, 2008

The New York Times

I’ve always been intrigued by the whole “community living” idea. In theory, it sounds so idyllic – a throwback to a time when neighbors actually talked to each other and kids could roam around freely without parents worrying. But I always wonder, what if you hate your neighbors? Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but the idea of buying property and being forced to interact with strangers is a little frightening. That’s why I found this article on a new community property in Brooklyn so interesting. The members of Brooklyn Cohousing are in the process of designing and building a cohousing development. The project is still in its early stages, and the group warns that it may never come to fruition, although a property is currently under contract. What I found most interesting, though, was the consensus building activities the group is using with the help of a facilitator. Negotiating major decisions within one household can be difficult – imagine what it’s like designing a community for 40 households, with each member having veto power!

Wall Street Journal

Leon Botstein is a multi-talented individual who is the long-time President of Bard College and also an accomplished conductor. He runs an innovative festival each summer at Bard that explores broad themes in the music world through performance and symposia. He is also responsible for bringing architect Frank Geary’s work to Bard with the design of a beautiful concert hall. In October, he wrote about the fate of classical music. He was quite upbeat (while others have been pessimistic) and his words are strangely comforting. Among other things, he says that crises crop up in the field when inertia and excessive caution set in, and that we must learn to innovate and learn from those institutions making their programs challenging and relevant while reaching out beyond the confines of a concert hall. “Above all,” he says, “let’s abandon politically correct notions about how ethnicity and class constitute barriers to the appreciation of classical music, a universally admired dimension of high culture and the human imagination.”

Converging Views on the Future

December 18th, 2008

University of California Press

Within weeks, two leading thinkers in very different parts of the cultural sector came out with major new writings that are variations on the same theme. As Marc notes, John Holden considers what a more “democratic culture” would look like, citing new statistics from Arts Council England that show that only a small percentage of British adults frequently attend museums and theatres. Meanwhile, Bill Ivey, head of Obama’s arts and culture transition team and director of the Curb Center, has written a highly critical assessment of the U.S. cultural system in his new book, Arts, Inc. It’s a must read for funders and arts managers who want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. It’s almost as if these two authors sat down together to work out a common point of view. Both authors criticize the legislative policies, copyright laws, nonprofit infrastructure, and lack of a coherent public policy that balances artistic innovation and preservation of cultural treasures with public access. Holden argues that “culture should be something that we all own and make, not something given, offered or delivered by one section of ‘us’ to another.” Ivey goes a step further and describes a new “cultural bill of rights” that guarantees every American the right to an “expressive life.” Individually, they are compelling arguments. Together, they are a clarion call for a serious rethinking of cultural policy on both sides of the pond. Arts groups and their supporters might use these writings as an opportunity to consider the social costs of “excellence” and “quality” in an environment of profound inequity.

Reconciling Excellence and Access

December 18th, 2008

Earlier this month, Demos, a U.K. think tank, issued another provocative essay by John Holden, the prolific author who regularly sticks his finger in hornet’s nests and pokes critically at the status quo. Holden elegantly describes the tension between “high art” and popularized art and argues that the distinction is unnecessary, and that “democratic art” can reach wider audiences without compromising excellence. He points out that “while the arts are ‘special’ they are also simultaneously, inextricably and healthily part of the everyday.” He asks, “If democracy is desirable in the political system, why do some people consider it undesirable in the cultural world; why [is] democracy — the bedrock of American values — used […] in a pejorative sense?” It’s a short read (30 pages of large type) with much food for thought. I highly recommend it, especially for anyone involved in community cultural planning or cultural policy.

Catch Up Times

December 4th, 2008

LA Times
Is the current economic crisis causing all of the pain arts nonprofits are feeling right now, or are other forces at work? The case of the well-respected Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles offers a forum in which to ask this important question. Everyone wants to point a finger and uncover the financial breakdown culprit, but identifying cause is not so simple. Do current financial emergencies stem from a long history of bad habits and fallen fundraising? Are they emblematic of decreased public and private philanthropy, not just in Los Angeles, but in other major metropolitan cities? How do we know when emergencies are a combination of long present issues coming to a head, such as an organization increasing expenses at a rate that outpaces revenue growth? The upside to MOCA’s crisis is that it has the opportunity to be an example of significant organizational change that may not only revive it, but become the bellwether for a new kind of nonprofit structure nationally.

Over Thanksgiving, I went to The Frick Collection in New York and enjoyed the works of art with the help of a standard audio guide, the kind that has become commonplace in today’s museums. In Arizona earlier this year, I enjoyed a tour of an exhibition at Scottsdale’s Museum of Contemporary Art using my cell phone to learn about certain works of art in the show. Now the New England Aquarium is taking the use of personal devices one step further, as described in the above article. We are well past the days when people debated whether technology-mediated museum viewing was a good or a bad thing. The discussion today appears to be: what sort of technology is best?

Star Tribune

There was a lot of exciting election news this year. In all of the flurry, I wanted to be sure you didn’t miss this piece of interesting legislation that was approved by voters in Minnesota, where a collaborative effort involving 350 environmental, conservation, sportsmen, and arts groups managed to garner sufficient voter support to raise the state sales tax by 0.375% for the next 25 years. The resulting funds will be divided between outdoor habitat projects, clean water remediation, parks and trails, and arts projects. It is expected to provide $54 million a year in funding for the arts! (Of course, the economic downturn and reduced spending may make this number smaller, but surely the economic recovery will improve things before the 25 years are up!)

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

December 4th, 2008

Obama Transition Policy

Some arts and culture leaders were elated when Barack Obama won the November 4th presidential election, in part because he was the first candidate in many years from either party to have an arts policy plank in his or her platform. Obama’s arts platform, which was developed with input from a national arts policy committee he formed, articulated his general positions on issues relating to arts education, NEA funding, cultural diplomacy, and health benefits and tax fairness for artists. Now, President-elect Obama is receiving friendly pressure from the arts community to make good on his promises to support the arts, despite the financial pressures on government resources. A consortium of 16 arts service organizations has submitted to the Office of Presidential Transition a detailed list of arts policy recommendations and related implementation strategies that they hope the Obama administration will follow. Regardless of how you voted, it is important for all arts and culture leaders to understand the impact the proposed arts policy recommendations would have if adopted, or not, by the new administration.

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