WolfBrown: On Our Minds

There are few art forms in which the artist’s tools, techniques, and processes are being as dramatically transformed by digital technologies as photography. An interesting juxtaposition: the loss of important film stocks, most recently Kodachrome, which Kodak will soon retire, and the astonishing growth in the capacity of simple, inexpensive, digital point-and-shoot cameras. We are witnessing the swift evolution of digital imaging technology, both hardware and software, and it’s continuing to make profound changes in the way photographers work. Moreover, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it has expanded the number of casual and amateur photographers who are taking snapshots by the billions, sometimes of astonishing quality.

The impact of technology on the ways in which we engage with creative activities is striking, and its relationship to cultural participation is worthy of particular note. For example, WolfBrown’s recent cultural participation study for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Cultural Engagement Index, finds an important correlation between personal practice activities and audience-based activities. Specifically, increased frequency in “taking digital photographs with artistic intent” indicates more frequent attendance at museums and galleries. There’s an opportunity to build on this synergy by figuring out how to employ these more powerful and less expensive artistic tools to feed participation in creative pursuits and establish a personal connection between programming and audience or visitor. By building interest and connection to arts and culture as a personal activity with personal relevance, we can develop new avenues of audience development.

In reading about the remarkable 60-year tenure of Stanley Drucker as principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic I thought about legacies in the performing arts. How does a great performer or creator establish a legacy? Surely it helps to have a long career like Drucker. But even when performers live a long time and establish a significant discography or film archive, their legacies can be short-lived. Some of them create institutions that live after them even though the legacy does not always endure. My uncle Boris Goldovsky whose eponymous opera company lasted for more than half a century, had no interest in trying to institutionalize something that he felt so clearly associated with his own person. Rather than keep the company going to sustain the line of his work, he believed publications and the work of his students would be sufficient. Other artists, especially those with a body of creative work, may feel differently. So the news that 90-year-old giant of the dance world, Merce Cunningham, recently addressed the question of his legacy made for interesting reading. After a final international tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the Cunningham Dance Foundation will close, leaving the choreographer’s legacy to the Merce Cunningham Trust. The Trust will be responsible for licensing the troupe’s physical, artistic, and intellectual property, such as choreography, props, and audio and video recordings. Several foundations, including the Mellon and Duke Foundations, have already contributed significant funds towards the $8 million capital campaign. All of this begs the question that many organizations may have to face, especially in these tough economic times: what is the appropriate action to sustain a legacy, whether it be the artistic vision or persona, or community service and programs?

The much that’s being made of Internet communications lately (Facebook “families” proliferating like crazy, “tweets” emanating from Iran) has reminded me of something I loved as a kid – comic books with their blips of word and image. And that has brought to mind an after-school project I’ve been following because it, too, appears able to cross all kinds of “borders” in inspiring a population whose multiple needs our clients often seek to address. Eight years ago Michael Bitz launched his first comic book club in an elementary school in Queens, believing the way to get kids really engaged in reading and writing is to use their own media. Since then his project has spread to schools across the country, as well as to older grades. Indeed, Harvard Education Press has now published Manga High: Literacy, Identity, and Coming of Age in an Urban High School, based on a four-year study Bitz, a research associate at Columbia Teachers College, did in Manhattan, where students at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School have taken up the Japanese version of comics or “manga.” Not only have the students learned how to break through the learning inertia that can bog you down in your teens and become adept at transforming their experience into skillful visual and verbal narratives that convey real meaning and fun, they have also become engrossed in all things Japanese. The influences that foster revolution come in many guises.

How Fleeting is Fame?

June 4th, 2009

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books about the late John Updike, Julian Barnes discusses the fact that this great writer never received the Nobel Prize for Literature. There is certainly much prestige associated with the Nobel and the announcement of each winner is a major event that can change the career trajectory of an author and his or her long-term reputation. As a result, the outcome of the deliberations of the Nobel Prize committees (and others) has always fascinated me. Among those that I follow are the Pulitzer Prizes in letters, drama, and music that go back to 1917, the MacArthur Fellows (the so-called “genius” awards that always have had good representation from the arts and have been given since 1981), and, the granddaddy of them all, the Nobel Prize in Literature that has been given since 1901. Given the great acclaim that goes with these prizes, I was curious about how well the committees’ choices advance recipients’ reputations over time, so I recently checked the Pulitzer list, the MacArthur list, and the Nobel list to see how many of the names I recognized. Initially, I was surprised at how many were unfamiliar, and I was prepared to conclude that the various committees are simply not very effective or dependable. But a recent piece on National Public Radio about one of the Nobel recipients I had never heard of from half a century ago – the Norwegian writer Halldor Laxness – gave me pause. His 1946 book, Independent People, has just been retranslated into English and several reviewers and writers were claiming that it was one of the great works of fiction. So I went out and purchased it. Not only was I tremendously impressed and moved, I also began to wonder whether it would be worthwhile to educate myself by searching out the work of other individuals on these lists who are unknown to me. Sometimes fame is fleeting, but great work remains to be discovered.

In his book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Matt Miller challenges many long-held assumptions about societal norms. He posits that some core beliefs, which are “dubious at best and often dead wrong, are on a collision course with economic developments that are irreversible.” Examples include: • Our kids will earn more than we do;
• Free trade is always good, no matter who gets hurt;
• Employers should be responsible for health coverage; and
• Money follows merit
His premise is not that these principles were never valid, just that there are systemic societal changes occurring, which now make them obsolete. I’ll leave it to talk radio, cable scream-fests, and the blogosphere to debate over whether Matt Miller is correct that these are “dead ideas” (and what to do about it), but his concept caused me to contemplate whether these long-held assumptions in the world of nonprofit arts and culture are still valid: • Blockbuster art exhibitions drive museum attendance (ditto for musical
theater revivals and classical music warhorses);
• Museums can invest the proceeds of art they de-accession only in art acquisition;
• Having a large endowment increases financial stability;
• Nonprofit organizations’ cultural engagement experiences are perceived by the
public to be of a higher quality and more satisfying than commercial and
amateur experiences; and
• Long-range, multi-year strategic planning is a critical element in
organizational success

The value for arts leaders is using Matt Miller’s provocative book as a prompt to make sure that whatever underlying assumptions you are using to guide your organization’s decisions are still alive and kicking today.

Several weeks ago I visited Catherine Bunting, head of research for Arts Council England (ACE), in her London office. We compared our research ‘wish lists’ and talked about the growing demands of public and private sector authorizers in both of our countries to produce evidence of positive outcomes. In the U.S., WolfBrown has studied impact at the microcosmic level (i.e., the impact of a live performance on an individual), and more studies along this line are in the works, both in the U.S. and the U.K. But much work remains to be done to understand impact in the macrocosm. For example, what is the cumulative benefit to an individual of a lifetime of arts participation? What is the cumulative impact of an arts institution on its community? What is the impact of the totality of a community’s arts and cultural programs on its citizenry? A new “Culture and Sport Evidence Programme” (CASE) was recently launched by Catherine and her colleagues at sister agencies under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The three-year effort aims to elevate “the quality of evidence underpinning public policy in culture and sport.” You can read more about it here and sign up for a monthly e-mail briefing. The initiative aims to tackle fundamental questions such as “What is engagement?” and “What is value?” Once again, the Brits are way ahead of us. More of our country’s leading arts agencies and funders need to get serious about new methodologies for tracking creativity and cultural engagement over time, and expanding the base of evidence of the impact of the arts on children and adults.

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