WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Art Imitates Life

June 6th, 2012

Recently, the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) of San Francisco announced their purchase of a small run-down theater in the blighted Central Market neighborhood. City officials have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this area that just won’t seem to yield to revitalization.  And although I’m thrilled to once again see the arts play a catalytic role in the renewal process, what I’m more eager to see is not so much how the space affects the neighborhood, but how the neighborhood affects the space.

As I see it, there are a few methods by which art can be “released” into a community. The “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” approach has been a staple of cultural planning for decades, giving rise to numerous grand arts facilities that have seeded cultural districts and other touristic attractions. A subtler (but just as effective) approach is to release art into a neighborhood through a variety of smaller conduits and settings. Here, artistic activity plays a supporting and cohesive role in the community and takes cues and inspiration from the extant cultural infrastructure. The idea is that art can and should incorporate elements from surrounding environments while still remaining relevant, appealing, and excellent.

One of the main reasons I took interest in ACT’s transaction is the versatility of the space. It is characterized by ACT management as a space that will not only be intimate, but will also operate in the intersection between theater, cabaret, and laboratory. My colleague Alan Brown just authored a paper titled, “All the World’s a Stage,” in which he discusses the increasingly important role of setting and space in cultural participation. I could not help but evoke Alan’s conviction when I first read about ACT’s purchase, in hopes that their newest theatrical setting will exploit some elements of the gritty neighborhood in their productions and the physical space of the theater. I believe this small facility can both aid in the restoration of the surrounding neighborhood, and stimulate the evolution of theatrical settings.

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Perhaps an antagonistic sentiment to the great, late poet, but in the case of ACT’s new performance space, I certainly hope that art will imitate life.

Big Blue, Blue Sky

June 6th, 2012

When I started working in the arts over 30 years ago, IBM equipment was ubiquitous in the administrative offices. Everyone used a Selectric typewriter (which corrected typos); the Subscription department had a “cutting edge” System 360 mainframe computer (that took up half the office); even the copy machine was made by IBM.

As I type this on my ThinkPad PC (which used to be made by IBM), I was struck both by the success IBM has had over much of its 100+ year history and its ability, despite its size, to make major strategy shifts relatively quickly. How did “Big Blue,” the company that invented the PC and so many other 20th century “business machines,” decide not to make them anymore and still be a huge financial success in the 21st century?

According to an article in the New York Times about recently retired IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano, the guiding framework he used to change strategy boiled down to four questions:

  1. “Why would someone spend his or her money with you (what makes you unique)?”
  2. “Why would somebody work for you?”
  3. “Why would a society allow you to operate in its defined geography or country?”
  4. “Why would somebody invest his or money with you?”

While these questions may not be typical of those used by arts and culture groups to derive their vision and strategy, with minor changes* they could be useful prompts for any organization that understands the critical importance of self-reflection and adaptation in a world in which success may be fleeting and the only constant is change.

*I recommend changing question 3 to be: “Why would government allow you to remain tax-exempt?” and changing question 4 to be: “Why would somebody donate money to you?”

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