Category Archives: cultural policy

Privatizing Community Quality of Life: Coming Soon to a Community Near You

Imagine this scenario: by 2020 your parks, your performing arts centers, your community art gallery, your neighborhood community centers, your soccer fields, your local walking trails, your zoo, maybe even your library will be operated on contract by businesses that find ways to make a profit. Those businesses will form the nucleus of a growing new economic sector of real profitability to America. Some of them will no-doubt even trade on the NY Stock Exchange. Too strange to believe? Not any more.

Cities across America have spent decades upping the ante on investment in livability as their mechanism to up the tax revenues they have received, and it has been a profitable strategy. Build the aquatic center, the new tennis courts, the lovely performing arts hall, the zoo, the botanical gardens, the gallery complex, the fabulous library and then reap the rewards with high property values and a desirable community that in turn attracts businesses and on-going economic investment.

Don’t accept any of it as a given any more. In fact, anticipate and get out ahead of the ways where quality of life investment has been and will continue to evolve.

In the past few months there have been all sorts of interesting RFPs for private management of civic assets, and the tempo seems to be increasing, not slowing. “Private management company sought for pool complex.” “ Private management sought for community neighborhood centers.” “Private management sought for arts centers.” “ Private management sought for operation of city parks.” “Private management sought for zoo.” Not “local nonprofit” sought. Not “local partner” sought. Private management sought.

It is a sea change, and it could be coming to a neighborhood near you before you blink twice. Cities are actively soliciting and searching for profit businesses to take on many of the quality of life assets that are not producing. Basically, they are dumping responsibility for under-performing or deficit-causing assets while still seeking ways to benefit from the property tax revenues all municipalities need to earn through having a comprehensive set of quality of life offerings. And in the process, they don’t want to become once again potentially saddled with bailing out non-profit operators that would stand to become permanent arms-length extensions of government. No more “hand over the arts center to a nonprofit that you’ll end up, in turn, having to fund to operate the arts center.” Cities have had it with that shell game. Instead contract a management company to run it and let them figure out how to craft a financially viable model. And they will.

What does it mean?

First, it means a real civic fatigue with the given assumptions of subsidy is a norm. Debt is just too big to be willing to enter into partnerships that are simply going to remove direct red ink from one column only to put the red ink – in the form of operating grants, for example – into another column. Frustration with subsidy-as-norm approaches is over the top.

Governments are looking for something better. They want flourishing, brightly lit and well maintained public amenities that work for the facility operators – who, ideally, make a profit – and that aren’t a drain on public resources. They want a win-win out of a dead-end.

What are the results of this trend?

Chances are, citizens will be paying more out of pocket to use those assets. Have you had to pay for your kids’ music or sports in school lately? Steep, right? Well, expect the same thing for swimming classes at the pool this summer or for art camp for your eight year old in August. Expect the same thing for the water color class you always wanted to take through parks and rec, and anticipate paying commercially competitive rates to rent the neighborhood center for your family reunion. Your library card? How’s $25 a year for one person or $40 for a family?

Really affordable “public” amenities are going to disappear. It will be pay-as-you-go. Your first graders’ soccer team will pay to rent the soccer fields. You’ll have to pay a competitive “for profit” rate to take your pottery class. Your community band will pay more to rent the performing hall.

The businesses that contract to operate these once-public assets aren’t stupid. They know they have to find the price points for their markets and still be able to turn a profit. There will be different prices at different locations. Looking for a way to save? You may drive to the other side of town to get a better deal than your own softball fields offer. Chances are, these new service-merchants will focus only on what can sell, and sell out. Rather than broadening the offerings, they may limit the camps, sports classes, arts classes and after school programs to those that have a large enough popularity to work.

Does it have to happen? Will it be terrible? Or, will it be at least be tolerable?

It probably does have to happen, because we as a society have let it happen. We’ve just assumed and assumed that more amenities can be added every year, no matter the cost, and that somehow it will all work out fine in the end. Too much red ink and too many required subsidies later, our elected officials are drawing lines in the sand.

As for how terrible it will be depends on your perspective. Chances are there will be some real messes out there. But maybe we are in for a complete redo in the way we think about delivery of amenities, and in the process there may be an entire new industry of service providing businesses that excel and thrive and grow to become a valued economic sector. Maybe we’ll find out that a lot of the amenities we thought needed subsidy don’t, and that we’ll all pay for those amenities we value.

If we look at it through the lens of the American entrepreneurial eye, the benefits can be huge. Why not? “Zoos, Inc.” as a Fortune 1000 company. “Arts –n-Kids” as a national provider of quality arts learning in summer camps at parks in 500 cities across the country, and growing. “Community Center, Inc.” as the leading provider of facilities and program management for neighborhood centers in the northeast. You get the idea. It has happened in higher education. Our community amenities could possibly move from subsidy rolls and taxpayer responsibilities to businesses with values that attract investments and shareholders. And, possibly, there is something attractive about seeing quality of life elements that had no determinable financial value potentially transformed into businesses that could provide share-holder benefits to thousands.

Stay tuned. I have a feeling we won’t have to wait too long to find out.

Creating an Economy of Creativity

There is a lot of talk, writing – and even the beginnings of policy development – around the role of creatives in our 21st Century knowledge-based economy. Readers of my blog know that I’ve been on the creative-cultural bandwagon, advocating creatives as a large and encompassing economic sector with a lot more clout that our current splintered arts and cultural community. Getting there, however, requires an understanding of creatives, and out of that understanding it requires a method of expanding the economy of creativity.

We’ve fallen down on describing creatives, I believe, and revert to an and arts-crafts construct of jobs. Creatives are too often thought of as artists who work in the for profit sector while artists are those who create in the nonprofit sector, a la the Richard Florida descriptions of the creative class from a decade ago. It was great break through thinking, but is still too narrow to build a value system that, in turn, fuels the economy.

So let’s dig into this for a few moments. What are creative jobs? What is the creative workforce everyone wants? If we can appropriately create understanding around the fullness of creative occupations, we are further on our way to creating a viable economic sector.

Yes, creatives are artists and designers and related professionals trained in creative methodology. But I’ll put forward that the largest portion of the creatives field are the knowledge makers who solve problems and identify new products through creative thinking. Creative thinking is a talent and a skill that can be taught and exercised, focused and directed. It is fueled by presence of other creatives, creativity, and exposure to the creative process. This is why communities rich in creatives get progressively more exciting in their knowledge-based outputs, and why everything from learning arts in school to wandering through a museum collection to soak in the aesthetic of hundreds of creative perspectives matter in fostering innovation.

I was interested that President Obama was in Silicon Valley last week to talk about innovation, calling for more innovators to fuel our economy. I think he (and we as a society) are all using the wrong language. Instead of calling for more innovation, he should have called for more creativity. Innovation is an outcome – not the root of – of creative thinking and creative problem solving. Always, creativity is the spark, the “I see this in a different way” that leads to and shapes the capacity of innovation. Our society seems to like the word innovation because it suggests a mathematical-scientific process or formula that can be captured and transfered to others. But without the creativity that is at the heart of innovation, there is nothing. Creativity is not a formula. It is a process, a way of thought.

We are societally unlikely to immediately accept and praise creativity as the engine of innovation – especially when economic and political rhetoric alike are prone to pit the cause of science -“wise investment” – against that of creativity – “we simply can’t afford it.” But imagine if we very, very broadly marketed and lobbied and changed thinking so that over time – five years, say – the American public becomes tuned to and “gets” the creativity-innovation partnership. That parents who want their children to grow into careers as scientific researchers or in management realize their kids must be well trained in creativity as a way of thinking and problem solving. That there is a broad spectrum of “creative jobs” – and that perhaps the majority of creative jobs are those that rely upon the talents and skills of creativity to do work that fits into entirely different job types or classifications. That there is a financial, economic value placed on the proven skill of creativity (not just on innovation) so that America wants to “race to the top” as a creative economy.

Reinventing America’s Cultural Support System

Imagine for a moment that the current tumult over federal and state funding for culture led to the opportunity to pause and thoughtfully reinvent a viable public support system. A silver lining to the dark cloud, if you will.

Would it look like the support systems and amalgamation of agencies our country invented – one piece at a time, over a half century ago? Chances are, not at all.

Anyone looking for good thinking about a new type of cultural system would do well to read Culture and Creativity in the EU Structure, a report that came out last September. It studies EU investment in culture over the past decade and makes a solid case for what it calls “a focused, flexible and integrated culture-based development
strategy” throughout communities and regions of the EU.

At its foundation for examining the value of investing in culture, the analysis uses the tri-part definition that the EU Cultural System has employed since 2006:

Core Arts Areas: Performing and visual arts, cultural and architectural heritage, and literature.
Cultural Industries: Film, DVD and Video, TV and Radio, Video games, New media, music, books, and press.
Creative Industries:Those industries that use culture as input but whose outputs are mainly functional, including architecture, advertising, design, and fashion.

Both the Cultural and Creative Industries are further defined as “Those industries that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the creation and exploitation of intellectual property.”

In a few simple lines, this glues together all the splinters across arts, heritage, history, and combines non-profits and for-profit industries. Wouldn’t it be great if our cultural system was as straightforward and inclusive as this?

By taking this holistic view, the report (an outgrowth of a policy group brought together in Brussels in 2009), was able to examine both the traditional impacts of core areas – tourism and related economic value of attending and participating in arts and culture – and contributions to a larger economic future. The report points to the “the rich and dynamic contribution” that all three of the above areas make to the knowledge economy and innovation, and to employment creation and social cohesion. In policy, the EU is unafraid to talk about supporting creative entrepreneurs at the same time as supporting traditional institutions. They have equally important roles worthy of investment, and the report notes that even in the past two to three years, the ROI on supporting culture and creativity as drivers of broad innovation has been well documented and demonstrated.

It is in this area of arguing for investment in culture as an economic driver of wide ranging knowledge-based industries that the EU has come the furthest in making a case for a comprehensive approach to culture and creativity. According to the report, “Culture-based creativity is an essential feature of a post-industrial economy. Culture drives technological and non-technological innovation, stimulates research and optimizes the application of human resources in the development of new products and services.” Basically, it makes a coherent case that the knowledge-based economic system cannot thrive without a healthy cultural-creative capacity.

How refreshing. How non-defensive. Imagine if we could restructure, reinvent, and optimize our investments in America’s cultural-creative system along similar lines. Imagine if we could go beyond the economic impact studies we rely on so heavily to make our case. (Per the report, a research institute in the UK that focuses on the nature of innovation has documented the supply chain linkages between artistic and creative activities, demonstrating positive relations to innovation and showing that creativity and culture “play an important role in the ecology of innovation.”) We could and should do the same.

Imagine, too, if like the EU we recognized that artists are important leaders in demonstrating entrepreneurship and small business development. The report writes that “The creative sector makes many of these processes evident and communicates the positive attitudes, the excitement and the vision that provide the motivation for entrepreneurs.” Rather than seeing the arts community as off to the side of entrepreneurialism and small business development, the EU is increasingly putting artist out ahead as models to others.

Now let’s be totally honest. Culture is not all rosy in the EU. A great deal of what the EU has attempted in what it calls “social cohesion” through culture has failed to live up to expectations. Some, including most recently the President of France, say it has failed completely.

That said, there is much to consider if we in the United States were to advance our system of cultural support and related advocacy for investment as has the EU in its support of the three part cultural system and the related recognition of both culture and creativity as central to innovation. We hear a lot these days about “invest in clean energy” or “invest in new technology.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could similarly talk about America’s investment in culture and creativity? We could, and should. The first step is to reinvent our cultural support systems and structures, and bring the field together around a new vision and expanded purpose.
Culture and Creativity in the EU Structure

Trend # 3 for 2011: Culture privatization

Los Angeles is in the midst of reviewing proposals for the privatization of its many neighborhood cultural centers. Chicago is reviewing proposals for the private operations of its major arts and cultural festivals, long managed by the City. News is rolling in from other cities and counties of similar interests and possibilities.

As governments around the country and around the world face record deficits and intense voter pressure to identify savings, 2011 may see the operations of publicly funded culture up for sale to the highest bidder. We may be looking ahead to a year where cultural facilities long operated by government agencies are privatized or partially so, where festivals may go back to their promoter roots, and even where the work of grant making agencies – at least in part – is privatized. So, is this projected trend a bad or a good thing?

I’m going to believe that it is an opportunity for the kind of new management and operations models, partnerships, and collaborations that the field has sought. Inefficiencies will likely be reduced, and competitive private sector nature may mean new revenue opportunities for the smart nonprofits and for profits out there with the best business plans and capacity.

Here’s what is probably a very limited list of what we may see up for privatization in the coming year:

— Festivals. A no brainer, with privatization already underway as cities curb payrolls.
— Neighborhood cultural centers. These, too, are already under examination for privatization. Truly strong centers may emerge, and there will be more specialization as individual entrepreneurs both for profit and non-profit take on the job.
— Major arts and cultural centers and museums. There will be a trend toward joint operating agreements that partially privatize more of these. It is anyone’s guess how this will play out in programming and access.
— Cultural districts. Many of the best of these already operate as BIDs, and more will follow this route.
— Local arts councils/cultural councils. As cities shed commissions and councils, the job will fall to the private sector. But look to different “parent” entities. The cultural council of the future may be a division of already existing strong public/private partnerships, such as economic development or redevelopment organizations that are proven in the business of cause and effect.
— Public art maintenance. With growing public art collections comes growing maintenance and conservation responsibilities and the need for specialists that may create successful businesses.
— Grants management financial and data services. Once panels have decided on grants, the business of grants administration could be privatized to specialists who blend accounting, data management, and review systems together.

There is more, of course. The efficiency of entities such as the Denver Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, in which a staff of only four administer one of the largest regional funding systems for culture in the US, prove that low-cost/high impact models DO exist.

So, let’s consider all the silver lining opportunities that may be ahead. 2011 can be the year when all the talk of new savings and lower overhead approaches will turn to reality.

Trend # 2 for 2011: Capital versus Stability. Which would you choose? Eleven Trends, Predictions, and Hopes for the New Year

For any nonprofit arts or cultural organization that has weathered the past few years, stability sounds good, right? But stability alone isn’t my hope or predicted trend for the new year. Stability on its own really shouldn’t be a goal at all. Long, long ago a client once quipped that one is never more stable than in a coffin. Ouch. I bet you can spot some of those highly stable nonprofits.

The real need is more dynamic and has been a focus of excellent study and analysis by entities such as Charity Navigator, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, and United Way Worldwide.

Simply put, cultural and arts nonprofits in the US and internationally need to recapitalize, but not in traditional – i.e. endowment – fashion. Instead, cultural nonprofits need working capital – unrestricted capital – if there is to be new creativity, new capacity to build audiences and market share, and ability to be vibrant.

Can any corporate leader out there imagine a healthy company without working capital? Any that would consider lack of cash reserves a viable condition for healthy operations and the ability to respond to both opportunities and crises? Who out there would think that an enterprise that has no ability to take a well-considered risk is healthy?

A while ago I was asked to assess the impact of a large foundation’s grants program designed to stimulate new creativity commissions and productions of new and untested work, development of new series and seasons, and the like. What arts organizations reported was that the grants were great, but they couldn’t justify to their boards even applying because they had no margin for risk – no working capital. How could they develop new work that could result in a loss when they had no liquidity?

Like many of you I have also reviewed many grants and observed panels turn down organizations that had working capital because they were “too healthy,” with the mind-set that funds would better serve those without reserves or capital. Do you think organizations without capital can take on a new program or do justice to a major project? Would you invest in a corporation that said it planned to launch a new product but had no working capital?

Philanthropy hasn’t known how to address the need for working capital. Should a foundation grant money for unrestricted capital, not even for operations, not for programs, not for buildings, not for endowment? It isn’t a part of the funding mindset.

Things are changing, though. The work of the Nonprofit Operating Reserves Initiative Workgroup – assembled by a number of the entities named above – has brought national philanthropic attention to the need. As the workgroup points out, it may not be a funder’s job to create working capital, it IS the job of philanthropy to invest in organizations that have the capacity to undertake important work that may be inherently financially risky, and so it IS the job of a nonprofit to ensure that it builds its unrestricted reserves, bit by bit, to leverage its future capacity. Many boards wrongly have thought that nonprofit means non-savings, non-capital. The Workgroup/s excellent Operating Reserve Policy Tool Kit points out that this is truly old-think and flat-out wrong.

So 2011 has the ability to be a year of real transformation for nonprofits in general and specifically for the arts and cultural sector that is so dependent on the ability to take risk and be creative. I predict that smart boards and funders alike will take up the cry and recognize that the future of nonprofit cultural institutions need recapitalization. Funders will recommend working capital policies and start looking for plans to build working reserves. They’ll start investing in those organizations that can leverage the funder investment with their own capital. For nonprofits that pay attention, this could be one of the best and most important outcomes of the recession.

Cultural Development #2: Who does Cultural Development, and Why?

As promised, we’re back with another weekly installment on topics impacting cultural planning and cultural development as we sail on into the brave new post recessionary world.

This week we’re musing about arts councils, cultural commissions, local arts and heritage agencies. Many have quietly gone out of business over the past decade, and others are barely holding on. Is it because they don’t bring value? Ironically, most have brought great value but are no longer seen as necessary.

The real story in most communities is that a wide range of agencies have come to see the value of being cultural development leaders, and the field has gotten very, very crowded.

Downtown “renaissance” groups? They do cultural development.
Regional economic development planners? They do cultural development.
Libraries? They do cultural development.
Tourism office and CVBs? They do cultural development.
Local on-line media and calendars? They do cultural development.
Community foundations? They do cultural development.
Mixed use developers? They do cultural development.
Human services? They do cultural development.

And so on…

Is this failure, or success? Success, certainly. Success has put arts and culture on everyone’s radar, and everyone wants a piece of it. Arts, culture, and heritage have achieved their goal of being “at the big table.”

Does this have to mean the demise of local arts agencies? Or is this the start of a new model, one that is more efficient, more nimble? That depends largely on what local arts and cultural agencies exist to do, and who they exist for.

Unfortunately, in many states the local cultural agencies have become bureaucracies so linked to the disbursement and tracking of state funds that they have little time left to do anything else. There are way too many councils and commissions that annually devote months of paid staff time and almost all their volunteer (board, commission) time to the process of re-granting a total of $20,000 or so of state dollars to twenty or so local organizations, complete with panels, 20 page applications and final reports, annual instructional workshops and yet more final reports. In many places, this has become the full time work load for two or three fairly well paid professionals.

Is this really doing the work of cultural development?

Separate from the granting issue, too many councils have have not broken out of their former mold to become oriented to brand new needs and realities. It is hard to dump the old and transform into something out of the comfort zone, but it has to be done.

In this world of web-facilitated networking, web-based meetings, on-line calendars and consultation, on-line document sharing and web whiteboards, does a stand-alone arts council in a traditional office-cum-gallery-cum-conference room that used for grant-writing workshops make as much sense as it did a decade ago? You know the answer.


Swat teams of cultural development specialists that can move from the tourism office to the downtown renaissance to parks to economic development, paid for by a fund put up by all the agencies that benefit;
Grant teams that handle the (streamlined) re-grants processes for a dozen agencies;
Archivest or curatorial teams;
Others who zoom in with economic development skills, still others who zoom in to work with parks and recreation departments, schools and life long learning providers;

If cultural development is done by many different agencies, it is no longer necessary for an arts council to be the keeper of all the expertise in, say, arts education. That may better be done the education specialists at parks and recreation. (I know, I can feel the arrows coming this way…)

There are many communities where the “calendar” is already managed by an independent entity, but even here there is still more specialization and expertise to develop – web based CRM, customized sales messages, and the like – that might be better accomplished through expansion of that independent organization or by a financially well backed branch of a CVB. (More arrows sighted on the horizon…)

Deploy these teams and specialists within a county, statewide, or even within a multi-state area. In the process, eliminate the redundancy of too many generalists tending the arts fields, in favor of deepened specialization across municipal departments and county agencies.

The point is, cultural development entities need to be designed to meet the need and reach the goal, not the other way around. And the need has to be more than “serving as a granting agency” or even “facilitating advocacy for the arts.”

“Begin with the end in mind,” always. In the current and foreseeable economy, getting the job done is more important than who owns the job. And now that cultural development is owned by many who see its value, why not build on that enthusiasm in creating new and sustainable delivery mechanisms?

This can’t and won’t happen in a vacuum. If the funders of cultural development don’t think this way, and prefer to keep the status quo, guess what will happen? Those that do see the advantages, however, are going to see real gains in cultural development, everywhere.


Boomers – the New “Seniors” – and Cultural Development

Today’s entry is the start of a series related to changing social and economic conditions that impact cultural development and cultural planning. The past few years have brought about such dramatic changes to cultural interests, participation, and economics that we’re headed into a whole new era of cultural planning. Unless your cultural plan is REALLY up to date, it is time to face the future and consider new goals and strategies.

Boomers are one of the biggest factors in the future of cultural development, so I wanted to write this in advance of Tom Brokaw’s special on boomers (March 4, replays March 6) to point readers toward the show and to stir up thinking about the boomer/young seniors impact on cultural development and audiences.

As Brokaw will point out, younger boomers can and will (pending the economy) move to desirable places for their early retirement, as opposed to older retirees, who are more likely to stay put. So, what do young boomers consider to be desirable places? Here’s AARP’s top 15 list:

Loveland, CO
Las Cruces NM
Rehoboth Beach, DE
Portland, OR
Greenville, SC
Sarasota, FL
Ann Arbor, MI
Tucson, AZ
Montpelier, VT
Honolulu, HI
Santa Fe, NM
Atlanta, GA
Northampton, MA
San Diego, CA

Interesting list, isn’t it. Natural Beauty trumps in most cases, followed by aesthetic beauty, and then by a good healthy dose of culture. It is also very interesting to see how many smaller communities in all climates, are included. (But then, Brokaw himself has a place “just down the road” – as we say out here in Montana – near another high beauty-strong cultural life community favored by boomer-new “seniors,” Bozeman.)

What does this list of aesthetically rich top new-seniors places mean for cultural development?

1. Count on what has been a promised out-migration of young seniors from big metropolitan areas. (A 30%-40% out-migration among affluent young seniors is projected from New Jersey, alone, in the next few years.) If yours is a community that is banking on the new young seniors to foot the bill for annual contributions to major arts organizations or other nonprofits, and to buy the tickets for those events…caution, the road is about to become pretty rocky. On the other hand, if yours is a smaller cultural center in a young-seniors-desirable place – let’s say a place like Concord, NH’s Capitol Center for the Arts – you are probably entering into a really good ten years. And, if you are building a culturally focused walking oriented creek-side (complete with trout) community like Easton’s planned SILK Creative Community, the odds are better and better that those big city losses will be your gain. Point: small communities that invest in cultural vibrancy and aesthetic excellence will benefit by gaining high yield new seniors who have the time, money, and interest to be local investors and leaders. Think about positioning your community to be competitive through cultural development, and reap the rewards.

2. The new seniors grew up on Woodstock, not Wagner, as their cultural foundation, and have much less relationship to traditional performing arts than their elders. That means that though they have the money and cultural interest to “age into” traditional arts consumers, there will be a smaller subset of this generation interested in classical music or ballet than their elders, without question. And, it means they are much more oriented to “festival” extravaganzas and traveling for their major cultural fix than their elders. Local doesn’t necessarily have to be the end all for them, so they will be content to live what AARP calls the “simple” life in their smaller towns and hop on a plane (economy willing) to take in a great performance at an iconic destination.

3. The new seniors are experience junkies – always have been – while the older seniors have always been more passive in their arts consumption. Older seniors volunteer as docents: younger seniors study painting with diligence. We are entering a time of unprecedented opportunity for arts-lifelong-learning. For decades, we’ve tried to build arts participation by concentrating on the young. Now it is time to concentrate on the young seniors. But don’t stay shallow: offer depth. The younger seniors don’t want the simplistic one hour intros to pottery their mom’s liked when they were 80. This group is more likely to build a complete studio in their house, and construct a state of the art kiln in the back yard than to take an “enrichment” course. In other words, you may have fewer people buying tickets for Beethoven, but your town may be selling more pianos, and your best bet for a new cultural arts center may be to include learning space where top pros provide instruction.

4. Finally, let’s return to that list of the top 15 desired locations. Young boomers will want to move to places where there is design excellence, historic preservation ordinances, public art, park systems with aesthetically pleasing areas for individual recreation (trails, bike trails), and cultural opportunities ranging from great libraries to unique music venues. They also want a community that celebrates its cultural image and identity rather than brushes it aside in favor of other brands.

All this is good and challenging news for cultural development. Remember, these are people who will increasingly choose to move to a specific community based on doing careful research and comparison. Has your cultural plan positioned your community to win at this?

America’s Treasures Need You, Now!

Interest in America’s historic buildings, places, streets and landmarks has dwindled for years. Many say that after the Bicentennial high point of national pride in Revolutionary War-period America, it has been one long downhill for American history.

Nothing could more unfortunately symbolize our nation’s declining value for America’s heritage and historic sites than the President’s proposed Federal Budget for 2011. As a part of the President’s cost savings for the domestic budget, he has proposed completely eliminating funding for Save America’s Treasures and its related educational and outreach program, Preserve America. He stated in so doing that the programs “weren’t working well.” The White House officially said that the programs lack performance metrics so their outcomes are not clear.

The last time America’s history and historic preservation was so threatened at the Federal level was in the early 1980s.

Why should you care?

How about the American Flag, the one tattered and torn that flew through the night and inspired our National Anthem? It was saved by Save America’s Treasures.

How about Ellis Island? Saved, after long dismal years of neglect, by Save America’s Treasures.

How about Valley Forge? The lessons in courage in the founding of America. Saved, by Save America’s Treasures.

How about Cannery Row of John Steinbeck’s vivid telling? Saved, by Save America’s Treasures.

How about those Main Street projects that have transformed small town America? Saved, by Save America’s Treasures.

How about the list of the most threatened sites in America?

The unique and nearly lost ironwork of Galveston Island. Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Unity Temple, falling apart from decay and lack of funding. They’re just a few of the most threatened of 2009. A few more years’ decay and they will truly be history. Knocked out of a chance for Federal funding to spur a match, their chances for survival are vastly diminished, and will no doubt cost a great deal more to restore in future decades.

As for the idea that Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America are not “working well?” Every Save America’s Treasures project requires a FULL match in non-Federal dollars. The Preserve America communities that get a nod of recognition usually go on to build a vibrant new economic base through their realized historic revivals. By any measure, it would be beyond comprehension to say that these don’t work well.

Did the two programs actually do enough to count, some might ask? To date, they have been directly responsible for saving 1200 of America’s treasures in all 50 states.

Do these programs hurt America’s tax payers? Never have. They were to be funded in perpetuity by a percent of the revenues of offshore oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. But this is to be robbed by the proposed White House budget bill, to be used for other purposes other than the intended and federally mandated “preservation of ecosystems, buildings, collections and objects” that have national significance.

The proposed cuts will also dramatically impact our country’s National Heritage Area funding: the President has proposed a 50% cut. What are National Heritage Areas? A program of the National Park Service, National Heritage Areas are those that tell the vital stories of America, places like Buffalo’s Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor, or the Yuma Crossing of the Colorado River, a gathering place for over 500 years, (and now, an important wetlands restoration project. The Hudson River Heritage Corridor, the historic whaling port of New Bedford, and the Northern Rio Grande were all vitally helped toward restoration and preservation through the NHA funds.

America has long been described a country that doesn’t value its art. Now, it appears we have come one step closer to being a country that also doesn’t value our history and the heritage of our land.

Can we afford to let this happen?

Work for Free?

I was pretty soundly criticized earlier this week for questioning the NEA call for artists to develop a logo on spec. I’ve circled back to the issue in reflection, and I still have a rough time with this.

True, the winner receives $25,000, but aren’t thousands of artists are being encouraged to design for free at the request of the Federal government? To my way of thinking, this sends all the wrong signals to the arts field and the rest of the country – where the opinion that artists should work for free is still far, far too widely held. Will the government next ask composers to compose symphonies in honor of ArtWorks for free? Will playwrights be asked to submit one act plays written to the ArtWork theme on spec? Will architects be asked to respond to the ArtWorks theme with concept designs on spec?

Let’s be honest. There is plenty of spec work done throughout the arts field, and almost every artist sees it as a necessary evil.

Yet, the NEA is supposed to set quality standards for policy, which is then typically widely followed by state and local level policy. The private sector then listens, and many again mirror their policies accordingly.

These issues have concerned me in reading all the ArtWorks hype, so I appreciated seeing the very measured and thoughtful response to the NEA published today by the AIGA, the professional association for design. Please read it and think this issue through. As AIGA states, this happened before, the policy blunder was corrected, and the prior spec competition was pulled. There is time to pull this, again, before thousands of artists commit themselves to spec work for the Federal government, and the very concept becomes policy. At the very least, this is worthy of good dialogue concerning professional standards.

After the Long Down-Hill, a Fresh Start for the Arts in 2010

The overwhelming majority of Americans are said to be delighted to be finished with the 00s. I’d count most arts, cultural and creativity based institutions to be of the same opinion. Whew, glad that is over. Now, how do we create an entire new kind of strength and relvancy based on what we learned?

The decade came roaring in with a high tech bust that signaled only the first of many hits nonprofit institutions would take in the form of lost contributed funding, not to mention admissions. After 9/11, audiences stayed home, and our society as a whole had difficulty thinking creativly about our future. Katrina created physical losses to hundreds of nonprofit cultural institutions, overwhelming loss of employment to artists, and nearly wiped out some of the finest art and culture in the world.

Funding, audiences, and optimism picked up a bit after that, but arts and cultural institutions found themselves facing another unanticipated issue – the dramatic and (in hindsight, almost overnight) transformation in the way people receive and respond to information. The Sunday newspaper entertainment section ads that “always worked” to sell tickets for symphony concerts, traveling musicals, ballet or museum exhibits stopped working. The entertainment sections disappeared. So did many of the newspapers. And the critics whose thoughtful coverage singlehandedly created and maintained communities of interest about local arts and who set the bar for excellence – gone. Meanwhile, on-line calendars and localized ads were on start-up mode, in many communities competing one against another in a zero sum game. Email went from underused to overkill. Commercial-free programs streamed to car radios even ended that once-precious commute advertising time.

And then, again, the economy tanked. And with this lengthier, deeper, and wrentching plunge, endowments were gutted, audiences dropped, operating budgets nose-dived. Funders whose generousity to the arts had been constant for decades increasingly put their funds toward “essential” nonprofits. Even the Wallace Foundation – whose funding to the field was so extensive and whose influence was so pervasive as to shape the very language we use when talking about audiences and institutions – dropped its arts granting program and staffing at the end of 2009.

So good-bye 00s! It was a long down-hill for the arts. But now, let’s start the process of learning from all those up (and mostly down) experiences. Let’s find ways to preserve and protect the great arts assets we have, to wisely build for the future, and to keep cultural nonprofits and their larger creative sector so relevant to our lives, education and economy that no community will let them fail. This is going to take some new thinking, new premises about institutional priorities, size, growth, and success. It is going to take some major commitment to what may be slow-growth mode in building and rebuilding audience and donor loyalty.

Yesterday, columnist Peggy Noonan wrote a challenge to American institutions based on everything we should have learned from the 00s. (Wall Street Journal, Opinion Page) “Name the institution and you will probably see a diminished sense of mission, or one that has disappeared or is disappearing. … Everyone gave their efforts to how things seemed and not how they were. … If you work in a great institution: Do you remember the mission? Do you remember why you went to work there, what you meant to do, what the institution meant to you when you viewed it from the outside, years ago, and hoped to become part of it?”

If we can answer her questions honestly, and refocus institutional priorities accordingly, we’ll be in for a decade of real strength. It is a challenge that if answered will re-establish the arts – no matter the institutional size – with new capacity. Our fresh start in 2010 requires no less than complete commitment to this: strategic rebuilding that has learned from the long downhill of the 00s and that is wiser for it.