WolfBrown: On Our Minds

The Network Mindset

November 20th, 2012

While most non-profit arts organizations are active on at least one social networking site, few have fully adopted what non-profit social media expert Beth Kanter calls the “network mindset.” A network mindset engenders participation, openness, and collective action. It is about engaging external stakeholders as well as internal ones, and using network cultivation to listen and achieve impact. Indeed, non-profits employ social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to build communities and audiences, but generally pay less attention to the larger organizational implications of the social shift surrounding these devices. We live in a world where stakeholders expect deep engagement: social missions, compelling storytelling, and even social design continue to blossom into increasingly essential business concepts. Now, “social”- beyond a simple platter of platforms for engagement – requires that organizations also redesign how they work.

At the recent Social Media for Nonprofits Silicon Valley Conference, Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez, CEO of SF Goodwill, spoke about her personal journey transforming Goodwill from a traditional non-profit into one governed by the network mindset. The process began with an open employee and CEO conversation during a difficult layoff period. This led to a deeper examination of company culture, and changes to attitudes about exchange: valuing every person and organization in their network, sharing information by default, and decentralizing decision-making. At its core, Goodwill now views open communication as more than just strategy- it is an essential part of internal and external learning.

I would argue that the arts and culture sector is particularly well-poised to benefit deeply from the network mindset. Whether through conducting a heartfelt arts crowdfunding campaign through one’s network, enabling more organizational transparency and efficiency through Trello, sharing place-based network stories on Findery, or cultivating a board via LinkedIn’s Board Connect, arts organizations can more intimately engage and change communities not only through their work, but also through opening up their own work process.

Navigating Taste

November 20th, 2012

I recently discovered Artsicle, an amazing new website that allows regular people with regular paychecks the opportunity to live with real live art from real live visual artists. How do they do it? Instead of buying, you can rent with the option to buy.

While other art rental services exist, Artsicle is unique. Their “Discovery Game” helps users develop their taste in art. “It’s really hard to look through 2,000 pieces of art and figure out which one is for you,” notes Alex Tryon, one of the co-founders of Artsicle. The Discovery Game displays two works of art side-by-side, sometimes of similar styles and sometimes dissimilar. As a user, the game asks you to choose which one “you love,” and then another pair pops up with the same question. This continues until your gallery is full. Artsicle also shows which works and artists have the most “favorites” on their blog.

Establishing, understanding, and influencing artistic tastes and preferences is a core focus of our work. We have found find that while people develop taste primarily through social networks (e.g., my brother introduced me to Jane’s Addiction and John Zorn), arts organizations are also responsible for many audience members’ preference development, curating taste through programming decisions. In this way, arts organizations are just like Artsicle – they offer a select roster of shows, exhibits, films, festivals, and other events from which audiences can choose. However, only a few organizations provide guidance for individual audience members as to what they might like. Jazz St. Louis is one my favorites. The middle of their homepage asks, “Do You Know Jazz?” There are three options (“I’m an Aficionado,” “Call me a Newbie,” and “I’m somewhere in between”), each of which takes you to a customized page with a list of artists, events, and news the organization recommends for someone with that level of knowledge.

We live in a world of suggestion. Social networking and websites like Amazon, Netflix, and Goldstar have amped up the scale and power of external influences on taste development. But the non-profit art sector is still trying to figure out how best to harness this energy. Artsicle is a good example of how to help people develop their taste in art (know what they like and don’t like) through a platform that builds a direct connection to artists, or, as Ms. Tryon says, “makes everybody a collector and allows every artist to make a living.” Or as I might say, bringing art into everybody’s everyday lives, and encouraging aesthetic growth and impact.

The Case for the Arts

November 20th, 2012

Philadelphia’s Arts, Culture + Economic Prosperity report is an impressive document that, like so many other research efforts of its kind, attempts to make the case for the importance of the arts using economic indicators. Part of a national effort of Americans for the Arts involving research from communities across the country, the work has developed from a methodology originally launched more than three decades ago at Johns Hopkins University and widely imitated and often improved upon thereafter. My own experience, based on a study I helped conduct in New England in the late ’70s that was funded by the US Department of Commerce, is that such studies do work – that is, the economic argument is often an effective way to get the attention of and convince skeptical public officials and others that the arts matter (and deserve to be funded).

But a question that nags at me is whether there is something more transformational that can institutionalize the arts into the lifeblood of our communities. And having just attended a public event in Chicago key-noted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renee Fleming, and others that announced the decision to make the arts a core subject in the school curriculum, I wondered what convinces a mayor to become the public champion of arts education. Turns out Emanuel studied dance very seriously and believes in the importance of the arts in human development. Had the arts been a core subject in the communities where some of our other public officials were educated, one wonders whether we would need to rely on economic impact studies to garner their attention.

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