WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Creative Communities

January 23rd, 2009

On January 11th at the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University, gave a fantastic speech about how presenters, universities, and communities can work together to achieve a higher purpose of creativity. Her remarks punctuated a gathering of grantees and other presenters who are involved in the Creative Campus Innovations Grant Program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and administered by Arts Presenters. WolfBrown is evaluating the initiative. Cantor sees new possibilities for interconnecting people, programs, ideas, and spaces through the arts. I was particularly interested to hear of the giant outdoor video screen that has been installed on the exterior of an old furniture warehouse in Syracuse, which will be illuminated from nightfall to 11:00 p.m. every night of the year to showcase videos made by artists, students, and community members. The overarching idea is a radical redefinition of the role of the arts presenter, from a booker of touring artists and attractions to a catalyst for creative development.

Even while facing the challenges of a difficult economy, the arts community is hopeful that Obama and Biden will bring new energy to government support and encouragement of cultural activity. Barack Obama’s platform on the arts includes increased support for the NEA, the establishment of an Artist Corps of artists working in communities, reinvestment in arts education, and promotion of cultural diplomacy. Americans for the Arts is urging the new administration to make cultural support as integral to economic recovery, with recommendations such as boosting arts projects as part of community development block grants, providing support to the NEA and NEH focused particularly on economic recovery emergency grants, using the Economic Development Administration to support cultural planning, and increasing cultural facilities support in the Rural Development Program. I recommend you review the full list of Americans for the Arts recommendations.

I was among the almost two million who withstood the cold January 20th to watch President Obama take the oath, and one of the quieting throngs of euphoric, dancing masses, as the Washington Post later characterized it, whose mood “changed palpably” when President Obama began to speak. According to the Post, it was as if people realized “it’s time to get serious” – as if we all turned to each other and said, “There’s a lot of work to do; let’s get to work.” Returning home I found a Happy New Year greeting from Effective Communities in my e-mail inbox. Effective Communities is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that, with Ford funding, has been documenting the disparities that impede our progress toward greater racial equity and social justice, and promoting thoughtful dialogue on how we can address them. Clicking on the Just Philanthropy link, I realized I was opening a toolbox – and that all over the country such resources exist. Not only are “we are the change we have been waiting for,” as Obama said repeatedly during the campaign, we have what we need to accomplish that change. Take a look at this “toolbox”!

When and Where is Creativity?

January 9th, 2009

There is a spate of new books that suggest that we re-think what we mean by creativity. Malcolm Gladwell’s volume, Outliers: The Story of Success, points to the environmental elements – family, opportunity, and luck – that determine whether a person’s raw talent can turn into realized creativity. Sparks by Peter Benson speaks to engaging the hidden talents in all teenagers – out of the conviction that there are many forms of talent and creativity that go unrecognized. Finally, Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element describes how people who have located the passion for creativity within themselves can frequently unlock it in others. Each one raises important questions about the role that arts and cultural organizations could play in breaking down the stubborn correlation between a young person’s wealth, class, and access and the likelihood that her gifts will be discovered and cultivated.

Appreciative Inquiry

January 9th, 2009

Appreciative Inquiry, a planning and facilitation technique employed primarily in organizations, has been around since at least the mid-1990s. It does have a certain California New Age feel to it, although the original work was conducted by David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. It’s a provocative approach and one worth exploring. One of its most interesting premises is that we find what we look for – so if we, as consultants or planners, are searching for “problems” to fix, it’s no surprise that we find them! It proposes an alternative conceptual framework – focus on what’s working well in an organization (or for that matter, a community) and think about ways to generate more of that. This approach shifts away from the traditional SWOT analysis to the SOAR approach (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results) as a way to bring values (aspirations) into the equation earlier and to focus on positive outcomes. This book provides a quick overview of Appreciative Inquiry; it’s called a “thin book” since it’s exactly that, as well as reasonably priced, and contains enough information to decide whether this approach has any resonance for you.

The Bernard Madoff scandal is shaking the foundation world. Every day I read about another charity, philanthropist, or foundation that has been irreparably wounded by this fraud. Follow the link above to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which has collected coverage by several newspapers around the country to demonstrate the scope of the impact. The world of Jewish philanthropy has been particularly hard hit, of course, because of Madoff’s personal relationships with Jewish donors. See how Madoff-related losses are affecting the Jewish community in the Greater Washington, D.C. area.

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