WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Last Thursday, we presented the results of the 2010 Cultural Engagement Index study to a packed room of 200 arts and cultural leaders in Philadelphia. Begun in 2008, the CEI study is the second round of research on cultural engagement in the Greater Philadelphia region, the goal of which is to establish an indicator to track cultural engagement over time. The major headline from the study is that cultural engagement jumped 11 points from 2008 to 2010, with a number of participatory activities leading the charge (e.g., ‘reading poetry out loud or performing rap’ increased 24 points). What was most striking, though, was the dramatic rise in engagement for online activities: ‘listening to Internet radio’ increased 27 points, ‘downloading music’ grew by 30 points, and the two more “active” online activities – ‘remixing materials found online and sharing with others’ and ‘sharing something online that you created’ – also rose significantly (by 29 and 33 points, respectively).

This last finding around active online cultural engagement led me to a TED talk by artist Aaron Koblin recently posted on TED’s Facebook page. Aaron has created a number of collaborative art-making programs online that have involved thousands of people from around the world, and his talk introduced these projects as arguments in support of the importance of the “interface” as the new defining tool of cultural activities. One venture in particular, The Johnny Cash Project, resonated and inspired me. The Cash Project invites individuals, regardless of skill or experience, to recreate a single frame for Johnny Cash’s video of “Ain’t No Grave” using an online drawing tool. All of the frames are pieced together into one whole video, a compilation of many different views stitched into one solid vision. And that vision is continuously evolving as new contributors add their unique voices to the mix. It is a living and breathing work of art made possible by the flexibility and pervasiveness of this “interface” – the Internet.

The Cash Project is just one of many online activities through which people are given the tools and opportunity to create, share, and collaborate (YouTube anyone?). Perhaps we should view the Internet as a “Virtual World Arts and Crafts Market and Festival,” open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, how can arts organizations plug into this energy?

To Tax or Not to Tax?

May 31st, 2011

I’ve been reading with interest an ARTSblog debate (initiated by this provocative piece from Valerie Beaman) questioning whether the 501(c)(3) nonprofit model remains the best option for arts and culture groups that are having more difficulty than ever balancing the inherent organizational tension between mission and money. The debate occurred during the same week an article in the New York Times reported on the efforts of financially pressed U.S. cities to collect payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) from nonprofit organizations. The bad news/good news of this growing trend was that in Boston, nonprofits “can get credit for up to half of the [PILOTs] they owe by providing quantifiable ‘community benefits’ that directly help city residents.” But, as Diane Ragsdale pointed out in the ARTSblog debate, this could be a challenge for arts organizations that are already in a “struggle to reconcile what they do with the exempt purposes outlined under [IRS] Section Code 501(c)(3)” (which include charitable and educational purposes, but no reference to arts and culture).

These discussions prompt me to ask whether the debate about the optimum structure for an arts and culture group conflates the assessment of an organization’s financial interests and its public value. There are surely many arts and culture groups that enjoy tax-exempt status, which, even if performing at the highest standards of artistic excellence, do not operate exclusively within the IRS’ charitable and educational criteria. Similarly, there may be profit-generating organizations that provide a greater public service than some self-interested nonprofits (which is one of the reasons for the emergence in some states of the L3C, a low-profit limited liability company).

As public sector resources are increasingly strained, there may be mounting political pressure for government leaders to reexamine the criteria for tax-exemption and make it more a function of demonstrated public service than the absence of profitability. This may lead to traction for proposals, such as those made by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) on behalf of hospitals, to have a two-tiered tax-exemption system, with the tax-deductibility of contributions limited to an organization’s charitable and educational activities. In the future, the matrix of tax-exempt organizational options may look like this:

Arts and culture groups would be wise to anticipate accountability demands for tax-exempt status by reexamining their missions, programs and financial structures to be sure they are serving the broad public interest, rather than their narrow self-interests.

Focusing on Creativity

May 9th, 2011

In preparation for the CultureLab convening last week, I’ve been researching interactive technologies used by arts and cultural organizations. I’ve mainly been looking into innovative uses of mobile apps and QR codes (square, two-dimensional barcodes). I emphasize innovative uses because unfortunately, like Facebook and Twitter, some seem to be quick to use these “tools” before having a clear sense of what needs to be built. Remember when Facebook first made its splash into primetime? Many organizations jumped onboard, but without necessarily thinking about how they wanted to engage their audiences or what relationships they wanted to create. The same is occurring with QR codes and mobile apps, as is covered in Group of Minds’ recent report for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

However, there are some really neat ways that QR codes and apps are innovatively being used to engage audiences – including interesting ways to:

  • Access information in new ways: PhillyHistory.org has released an augmented reality app that serves up historic photographs when the user points a phone at specific locations.
  • Incorporate audience interaction into a performance: Progressive rockers Umphrey’s McGee have held events in which audience members, armed with cell phones, suggest themes and ideas upon which the band improvises.
  • Curate a listener’s experience as they walk through the city. Hackney Hear transforms the neighborhood sidewalks of London into artistic venues. Poetry, music, writing, and interviews are served to strollers via their smartphones. The project, to be launched in 2012 for the London Olympics, uses GPS to turn the city into a curated audio space.


Visual arts and history-based organizations tend to be further along the development of QR codes and apps, but the performing arts aren’t far behind- check out this experiment that lets the audience actually shape the artistic content of a dance performance.

Digging into Data

May 9th, 2011

The Digging into Data Challenge is an international project exploring how quantitative reasoning, and in particular, the use of fast and large-scale computing might create both new questions and new ways of understanding in the humanities and social sciences. Round One was launched in 2009, and results are already rewarding- and in some cases startling. Mapping the Republic of Letters, a project examining the circulation and content of letters sent between members of an early scholarly social network, reveals that the Enlightenment was not a cascade of radical ideas flowing south from Northern Europe but a ferment fueled by a network of personal correspondence across Europe. Another winning proposal, Mining a Year of Speech, used software to analyze over 9000 hours of spoken word recordings- by far the largest dataset ever used in the linguistics or phonetics fields.

With a second round of Digging into Data due to begin later this year, could arts researchers step up, join the conversation, and field competitive proposals? What data do we have to put on the table? What could we learn from generations of song lyrics, museum signage? The letters and newspapers of small towns? Could we develop an understanding of how a community makes a place for the arts, or how a work of art becomes iconic? Finally, how can we use new computational strategies to approach research questions?

The Digging into Data Conference will be held next month in Washington, DC.

And of the present, too! My interest in this topic is both personal and professional. I have a “millennial” daughter in her first job out of college, and as I urge her to set aside some of her earnings for charity, the professional part of me wonders, “what organizations will capture her attention and how will they do it?” According to the second annual Millennial Donors Report from consulting firms Johnson Grossnickle Associates and Achieve (Find the executive summary here and the full report here), this generation (defined as 20-35 year olds) are givers-93% of the 2,953 survey respondents from seven nonprofits made a charitable contribution, although most of the contributions were small and spread out among many organizations.

Some of the findings of the study reinforce fund raising principles from way back: the younger generation is most likely to give to a compelling mission or cause carried out by an organization they “trust,” and that trust is often established by a personal connection. Interestingly, celebrity endorsements were a non-starter (motivating only 2%). Volunteerism was high among respondents (79%), and not surprisingly, Millennials are looking to technology for information and engagement. Non-profits need to pay attention to how they fare in web searches, as that is a primary tool for Millennials to learn about potential recipients of their charitable dollars. Most interesting was the finding that although only 49% gave online, 58% would have preferred to give that way, indicating that non-profits are still behind in facilitating giving through technology.

Giving USA and The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University have also published a monograph on this subject (Charitable Giving and the Millennial Generation, available for purchase here). This study looks at giving trends across different generational groups from the Great Generation to the Boomers to the Xers to the Millennials. Some of its findings (based on 2006 and 2008 data) are considerably at odds with the Millennial donors survey-e.g., it notes that only 33% of Millennials gave and 21.6% volunteered. Nevertheless, the monograph points to a potentially bright future: Millennials and Gen Xers are the most educated generation in history, and the Center’s studies have shown that people with a college degree tend to give $1,900 more annually on average.

Bottom line: cultivate these donors now through multiple personal and electronic engagement strategies in order to build their trust and capture their potential for giving down the road. It’s a long-term investment that will pay off.

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