WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Becoming Agile

October 2nd, 2012

My work at WolfBrown often involves a good deal of computer programming, the study of which often leads me to discover unique alternative modes of working. One such approach is known as Agile software development, an idea codified in 2001 by the Agile Manifesto, which reads:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

While this manifesto applies directly to software development (and has contributed immeasurably to the rapid development of Web 2.0 services and technologies over the last ten years), it certainly has applications in the arts (especially in the areas of customer collaboration and responding to change). Even in the turbulent economic climate, numerous arts groups are thriving by becoming more responsive to their constituencies.

The Atlantic Cities recently profiled the Michigan Opera Company as one such organization. Their home city of Detroit has been wracked with difficulty- losing a quarter of its population over ten years, and suffering the loss of many large endowments to cultural institutions. Under the leadership of David DiChiera, the Opera has been seeking- and finding- a much broader audience more in line with the city’s demographics. He has made special efforts to appeal to a younger, more diverse crowd than the typical opera audience by making the annual opera ball more affordable and featuring minority performers and writers. And his endeavors have paid off, not just in audience development, but in fundraising as well. Requests for donations (pitched directly to audiences at live performances) netted the company over a million dollars last spring, most of which came from new donors with relatively modest budgets.

The Opera’s unexpected (and somewhat astonishing) source of donations is one example of how an agile arts organization might operate. Decoupling operations from a reliance on relatively few high-dollar donations enables staff to spend more time exploring programs that serve their communities rather than fundraising. I can reasonably assume that the amount of planning and organization necessary to ask for donations from the stage was negligible, yet the decision to do so paid off considerably due to their new responsive programming.

While the Agile Manifesto is still chiefly applied to software development teams, other business sectors have begun adopting the Agile framework in their internal workflow operations and team management, and a few organizations have sprung up to coach others in the specifics of the practice. Though I am not aware of any arts groups that specifically follow these principals, I am sure they exist- if you know of any good examples, please leave a comment.

This summer, the National Endowment for the Arts fielded its updated Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). Not only has the questionnaire itself been updated, but also it’s being asked of a lot more people this time around-almost 36,000 (around double the number of people included in 2008). For anyone hungry for more and better data on arts participation- like me- this is good news!

Though I am like a kid on Christmas Eve awaiting the 2012 SPPA data, I’m disappointed that my geeky data-Christmas comes so rarely. It takes a long time to get surveys of this scale up and running, and unfortunately, the development of the 2012 SPPA sidestepped one of biggest phenomena we’ve seen emerge in how people participate in the arts: the explosion of crowd-funding.

Kickstarter has grown exponentially since its launch in April 2009, and IndieGoGo has grossly expanded since its 2008 start with the independent film industry. RocketHub, USAProjects and power2give.org, have also emerged as major players in the micro-funding sphere. Each of these platforms differs in its eligibility criteria, fee and incentive structures, and other aspects, but it seems like they have one thing in common: their focus is on the story of the “fundee”, not about the “funder.”

Then what about the funder? From what I can tell, there are more people participating as funders (aka backers, donors, supporters, etc.), than as fundees- what drives them to participate? Getting insight into the creative process? Ownership in the creative product? Low access barriers? How else do these people participate in the arts-do they create themselves? Do they attend? Donate through other means? Volunteer?

In our 2011 report for the NEA, Alan Brown and I explored three main modes of arts participation measured in the 2008 SPPA, the most recently available data from the NEA-arts creation or performance, art engagement through media, and attendance at arts activities. I assert that being a crowd funder has emerged as a fourth significant mode of arts participation that the arts field and policymakers need to study if we are to better understand how the US population engages in the arts, and it values that engagement.

I also suggest that this information would be valuable to each of the platforms currently helping crowd-funding grow and thrive. This is a shameless pitch to these platforms to engage in dialogue with me about how to get this research effort underway… ideally in a timeframe that would inform and expand the conversations that will begin in 2013 as we begin to see the results from the 2012 SPPA.

There was a severe drought this past summer covering over 60% of the country, which made it one of the driest on record. Since the economic crisis in 2008, arts and culture groups have also experienced continued desiccation of the earned and contributed resources needed to cover their expenses. As industry leaders come to realize that the drying up of resources-especially from corporate, foundation and government sources-may reflect a “new normal,” more are beginning to reconsider their instinctive aversion to organizational collaborations. Recent examples of innovative collaborations include:

  • The Alliance of Resident Theatres (A.R.T./New York) has received a two-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Cultural Innovation Fund to develop Collective Insourcing, a new initiative in which administrative functions (e.g. finance, legal, IT, HR, purchasing, facility management, etc.) are delivered through a shared agency owned by a group of non-profit theatres, resulting in “more available resources for their art and artists and their increased professional capacity.”
  • CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia is a new non-profit organization created by local entrepreneurs to provide “affordable shared management resources to arts and heritage organizations and creative professionals.” Their services include outsourced management services for small to mid-size groups and coworking space rentals for individuals who work in the creative sector.
  • Following more than two years of planning, the Dayton Ballet, Dayton Opera, and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra merged into a new, single non-profit entity called the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. The new organization will be led by one CEO and governed by one board, with separate program offerings and Artistic Directors. The Dayton Alliance was able to overcome some of the barriers faced by other groups that have attempted to merge by not saddling the new entity with existing liabilities and avoiding any artistic or administrative work force reductions.

In each of these cases, the motivations for consolidating were not so much the concomitant expense reductions, but the desire to demonstrate to funders that the organizations are operating as efficiently as possible, and collaborating, rather than competing, for philanthropic support. In addition, it appears that the initiative for the collaborations came from within the organizations, rather than from outside funders. Perhaps most critically, the board and staff leaders were able to suspend their narrow self-interests in maintaining power and control in favor of the broader public interests their institutional missions serve. Or, maybe, they are just old enough to have remembered the conservation advice of the 1960′s Mad Magazine line drawing captioned “Save Water: Shower with Your Steady.”

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