WolfBrown: On Our Minds

We at WolfBrown have been saddened to note the imminent passing of an organization with which we have had a long and happy acquaintance. As of April 1st the Fund for Folk Culture will close its office in Austin, Texas and cease to be. For 17 years FFC has sought to support the creation, conservation, innovation, and value of traditional folk arts and culture in community life, awarding over $5.8 million dollars to more than 430 individuals and organizations in 48 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and several islands in the Pacific. In doing so it was “life-giving” to a sector of the arts which itself is precarious – where traditional materials, such as those for basket weaving, for example, are endangered. The Fund’s demise is neither sudden, nor ill-planned: as Betsy Peterson, its most recent Executive Director, notes, it has come as the result of strategic planning undertaken a year ago. And doubtless we will witness the disappearance of other such valuable resources as the downsizing of our global economy continues to take its toll – but none will have left a sweeter legacy. See a final accounting of the Fund’s work before it, too, is gone!

Alternative Reconstruction

March 20th, 2009

Reconstruction: it is easy – maybe far too easy – to think about rebuilding Iraq largely in terms of bricks and mortar or governance and elections. But poetry also turns out to be a major force, reconnecting people to an ancient and proud history of literacy and artistry. Writing about the poetry contests he has organized in Rashid, Bagdhad, and elsewhere, USAID officer Joe Dunlop says, “It’s a sense of normalcy, not war and instability – of culture, of things happening, the kinds of spices that make a community worth defending.” Looked at another way, Brian Turner’s book of poems, Here, Bullet, speaks to the place of poetry as a soldier makes sense of conflict in Iraq.

Museums for the Future

March 20th, 2009

Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures is a discussion paper written by Reach Advisors and commissioned by the Center for the Future of Museums. It provides a tantalizing look at some profound economic and demographic trends and how they might play out in society and, more specifically, in museums in 2034. The paper provides a useful, museum-specific context for frequently mentioned data points such as the aging and increasingly diverse nature of our population and the impact of increased travel costs. Beyond that, it begins to postulate alternative outlooks and roles for museums to consider as these trends come more clearly into focus. Among the more thought-provoking issues raised: how digital technology and remote access to collections might change the nature of museum “attendance” and how the role of the “expert” curator could shift to accommodate wikis and other collaborative approaches to information and idea processing. There is much food for thought here, although I came away with questions about how the social dimension of museums might be explored more deeply.

The concept of “creative economy” has been embraced by a wide spectrum of advocates, from artists and cultural organization representatives to mayors and policy makers interested in urban revitalization. The argument is a simple one: attracting a group of highly educated creative individuals to a region is good for the economy. A concentration of artists, architects, computer programmers, and university professors can create high energy and synergy. In turn, their efforts can generate jobs and produce tax revenue. Such is the attractive theory. But does pursuit of a creative economy always lead to unmitigated positive results? Or does it also lead to inequitable social and geographic distribution of benefits? Is one person’s urban rejuvenation another’s social dislocation? The question is rigorously explored in an article from The Reinvestment Fund that is now more than a year old but definitely worth a return read.

WolfBrown faced the question in a recent cultural planning project for the Richmond region of Virginia. Among issues explored was whether the positive urban redevelopment of blighted real estate that has come about as a result of the hard work, investment, and sweat equity of artists is also leading to dislocation of some of the city’s poor residents. The final report submitted by WolfBrown recommended both continued cultural economic development by the creative class but also a focus on preserving neighborhoods and an investment in activities that would encourage community vibrancy for those with historically local roots.

One of the things I love about assessing an initiative is hearing stories that, taken together, offer up a richly textured and meaningful narrative. One I encountered recently speaks volumes about the lifelong impact that studies are likely to have when kids are given opportunities to be creative. In this case, two Minnesota seventh graders were asked to come up with a project for National History Day – a contest conducted by the University of Maryland in which a half million participate annually. The topic: triumph and tragedy. Having learned from her older sister’s fiancé, a history buff stationed in Okinawa, that the U.S. rounded up and interned Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, Michelle Reed was stunned and invited her friend Carly Gutzmann to find out why. Alert to their own contemporary environment, the two recognized immediately it as a “huge act of profiling” and were appalled that no one seemed to know about it. After doing a year’s worth of primary research they produced a documentary. But they also spawned an amazing chain reaction in deciding to make an origami paper “crane” to honor each of the 120,313 incarcerated. You can read more about the girls’ efforts here and here and get a sense of their peer’s creativity here. The lesson learned? “It’s all about not being a bystander,” says Michelle.

Underwater Endowments

March 10th, 2009

Some nonprofit executives, though concerned about the overall state of the economy, seem relatively unfazed by the impact of the stock market collapse on their endowment funds, perhaps assuming that eventually “whatever goes down must come up.” Their relative complacency may also relate to their endowment income policies, most of which take into operating income a percentage of a rolling three year average of total return. As a result, the full impact of the recent “correction” might not be felt until 2011-2012 and only if there is no intervening bull market rally. In certain states, however, there are laws that limit a nonprofit organization’s ability to spend earnings from donor-restricted endowment funds when the current market value is below the historic value at the time the organization received the funds. The Uniform Law Commission (ULC) is working toward enacting the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act in all 50 state legislatures. The Act governs procedures for the investment, management, and expenditure of endowment funds and, among other changes, removes the historic dollar value limitation. (It also has an optional provision, which presumes a total return policy in excess of 7% to be imprudent.) UPMIFA has been enacted so far in 26 states and introduced into legislation in 2009 in 15 others. Until the new law is passed, however, nonprofit organizations in those 15 states, and the nine others where it has not even been introduced, should monitor compliance with existing state laws regarding use of earnings from donor-restricted funds.

A New Argument for the Arts

March 10th, 2009

The arts community has struggled with the challenge of communicating the value of the arts. While still believing in “arts for art’s sake,” arts advocates have felt compelled to make a series of arguments about economic impact, translating outcomes from investment in arts and culture into dollars and jobs. Greg Sandow, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, argues that the economic argument is no longer enough, that it doesn’t distinguish the arts sufficiently from other job and income creating activities, and that in a time of scarcity, the arts will not beat out other sectors as an economic engine. He says, “The arts are going to need a better strategy. And in the end it’s going to have to come from art itself, from the benefits art brings…” At WolfBrown we are exploring with clients other compelling reasons why the arts deserve broad community support; for example, with Leveraging Investments in Creativity, which is demonstrating that investment in individual artists builds communities; with Big Thought, a “creative learning organization striving to make imagination a part of everyday learning,” which works to “lift children up and better their lives using arts, culture and education as tools and catalysts…”; with the Duke Charitable Foundation’s Creative Campus program, which is demonstrating the impact of arts on interdisciplinary learning for Wesleyan University’s Creative Campus initiative; and with our Assessing Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance study for Major University Presenters, which develops a methodology to define and measure for the first time the transformative experience of a live performance.

I was researching artist services for a client recently when I came upon a site called GYST-Ink, which offers just what I was looking for. What was most interesting to me was the very sophisticated “professional practice” software designed specifically for visual artists. From guidance on résumés and grant applications to to-do lists and inventory tracking, it offers an extensive array of features. I remembered back to 1984 when Tom Wolf, Pat Doran, and I did a book that explored computer applications for craftspeople. Other than calculating glaze formulas, there wasn’t much available. So, my curiosity piqued, I did a bit of work with Google and very quickly found several other packages available for visual artists – there’s ARTBASE and Artsystems Studio to name just two. And, for presenters, there’s Impressario. All this in a 15 minute web search! I suppose it’s not surprising that developers target artists for software solutions. Still, it’s yet another indication of our success at portraying artists as business people!

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