Tag Archives: creativity

Cultural Councils for the Future

I love arts councils – or cultural councils, culture and heritage councils, whatever they may be called – and have probably clocked well over a half million frequent flyer miles just on working with this structurally vital segment of the cultural and creativity sector. Out of the cultural councils that haven’t folded or been eliminated due to budget constraints, my bet is that at best only 30 percent are both healthy and focused on future-oriented needs as opposed to the traditional services and rationale. The field needs a radical remake: cultural councils have to get out in front again to make a substantive difference in saving and transforming community arts.

1. My calculations in reviewing thousands of Form 990s from scores of metros around the county suggest that at least 70 percent of United States arts and cultural nonprofits either have on-going structural deficits, have such low (or nonexistent) working capital – or have both dilemmas – that they are as stuck as Sisyphus, constantly trying to roll their institutional rocks up the hill only to watch them slip back down. Cultural councils know (and have championed) the cause of fiscal health, but at the same time they get stuck furthering the bad practices. An example is when I see a cultural council devote four months’ staff time and hundreds of volunteer hours to “pass through” $10,000 in state grants into ten $1,000 grants, at a negative cost benefit ratio of easily $50,000 administration for the $10,000 in grants. This is neither a smart business practice or making wise use of limited resources. (In fact, I have to wonder what the state agencies that have passed this yoke along are hoping to accomplish.)

Instead, cultural councils should be facing the dragon straight on: putting their constituencies’ structural deficits on the table, calculating the needed working capital, and defining new business approaches that can turn things around. Right now, there is a huge opportunity in helping nonprofits to digitize and sell tremendous amounts of e-product, and there are new opportunities in beneficial mergers and subsidiary development. Unfortunately, not many cultural councils can seem to get away from those maddening re-grant cycles to study, gain expertise, and lead their constituencies toward this point.

2. Cultural councils have largely adopted the creativity-sector language and inclusiveness made popular by Richard Florida, but have dragged their collective feet in expanding their services to the larger creative sector that goes far beyond nonprofit cultural groups. I recently attended a cultural commission meeting that opened with one of the commissioners telling the story of her daughter’s most recent business and financial successes with international public art commissions, and of how she has built a solid business based on sophisticated marketing plans and business strategies. That same commissioner went on to wonder at the dichotomy between the way the council sees individual artists – step children who should perhaps form local nonprofit associations – compared to the way artists create successful businesses.

Those councils that have small business development programs, start up loans, training in international sales and marketing and who even represent their constituents on trade missions overseas are on the right track, but they are the distinct minority. Yet in an increasing number of US markets, there are more for-profit artists/cultural/heritage businesses than nonprofits. This shift to for-profit cultural businesses is particularly profound among young creatives, who almost unanimously tell me they have absolutely no interest in founding nonprofits. They’d rather look for venture capital.

(I know one such creative who was recently fired by the board of the theater company he founded – by the board members he’d recruited – because he couldn’t “win” enough grants. He walked away from the nonprofit model, found investors, and is in the business of producing shows booked year round by dozens of casinos around the country. Business keeps rolling in. Dollar for dollar, he’s now the biggest player in his local cultural community, but has real difficulty fitting into the framework of the “arts community” served by the arts council.)

3. Cultural councils know that arts education in the United States is almost more of a mess than it was twenty years ago. Rounds of budget cuts have eliminated many bright spots developed over the past decades: magnet schools for the arts have ended, and little to no (or backward) progress has been made in enforcing arts learning standards. Record numbers of students are headed to music conservatories and art schools, but symphony orchestras, opera companies, and art galleries are closing and eliminating jobs and career paths. At the same time, there are entirely new creative fields waiting to be explored.

There are marvelous national and international models in which councils lead in fostering local-level understanding and curriculum that pairs creativity and innovation, targeted as much as fostering the creative inventors of tomorrow as encouraging new innovations in the arts. These should be the manifestos that cultural councils champion, the pilots they support.

4. Many cultural councils have extensively justified the economic impact of arts and culture, and deserve great credit for elevating the discussion of culture as an economic sector. It is vital, now, that they take the next steps of working hand in glove with their municipal planning departments, economic development commissions, business improvement districts, CVBs, redevelopment agencies, and other stakeholders to anchor economic development with arts and creativity enterprise and venues (for profit and nonprofit alike).

The best and the legendary cultural councils are doing this, and have been showing results for years. When cultural councils put together investment groups to build hotels and condominiums, lead the charrettes for redevelopment zones, help corporations work through how they can include theater spaces in bank buildings, determine the unifying elements and principles for zones, downtowns, suburbs, corridors, gateways and more, they are demonstrating culture as real economic development.
Time for a change? The exciting news is that many foundations and corporate leaders see the potential and are striving for change. Economic development commissions are taking increasingly active roles in fostering new thinking. Academics from MIT to community colleges are making the arts-innovation-invention links. Municipal planning departments are asking their cultural councils to lead in shaping unifying principles for development projects. CVBs are taking the lead in rebranding their communities around cultural assets. Exciting new thinking is underway. Our challenge? Make this the norm for the next generation of cultural councils.

Fight Stress: Practice Creativity

One of my favorite (new) LinkedIn network groups is SOAR! Rise Above, Grow Beyond. I recently got drawn into a discussion there about how to de-stress, and it led me to contemplate that for so many in the arts world as everywhere, stress has become so intense that is has almost eaten up the very soul of our love and our field – our art. So I was reminded, in that SOAR! dialogue, of what we all need to do. We need to remember that we are creative, and we need to devote a portion of our time every day, every week, to create. That’s all of us, not only the artists among us.

Think of the word itself – to create, from creation, re-creation, to re-create. There is more to (re) creation than working out to recreate our bodies and minds. Creation is a sacred process that strengthens our central ability to de-stress. Yet, while we are a people are very comfortable with talking about recreation – go to the gym, take a hike, ride a bike – we are not comfortable talking about creation. Creation, our central strength, is missing from our public selves.

But especially during times of stress, in our most creativity-centered of all industries – we must remember to strengthen our ability to innovate and lead through creativity.

Paint. Compose. Write a poem today. Sing. Play the piano. (Today is Chopin’s birthday and I plan to carve out a few hours of time alone at the piano to refuel my soul through some of that glorious music.) Write a book even if you never plan to be a published author. Paint a room or a watercolor. Read a play out loud, as though on stage. (No one needs to listen!) Take your camera into the outdoors and see nature’s creativity through the lens. Go get some clay, and a potter’s wheel, set them up in your basement, and start throwing pots. Become a metal sculptor! Creativity rebuilds, refocuses, reconnects us to all. Creativity is easy to lose, easy to think we lack, especially when surrounded by technology and a world of worry and red ink. But without creativity, there is no problem solving, no innovation, no break through clarity, no new ways of seeing.

A cherished book on my bookshelf is “Trust the Process: An Artists Guide to Letting Go” By Shaun McNiff (1998, Shambhala Publications, USA). If you can find it, buy it, and be inspired.

McNiff, who is an artist and a university administrator, delves into what it means to be creative. As he writes, “Creativity requires the ability to relax in periods of uncertainty and to trust that the creative intelligence will finds its way. The education of imagination involves giving up what I call ‘ego’ control. It requires an inclination to step into the unknown as well as the ability to persist when there is no end in sight. … The process (of creativity) is a route; sometimes it is tangled and at other times it opens to us with the directness, speed, and pleasure of a water slide.” McNiff goes on to say, “A personal place of creation is a grounding influence and a partner through every phase of expression. …Maintain (your)artistic workspace as a sanctuary, a place at home where creative expression is nourished and regenerated.”

Do you have a place to nourish your creativity? Make one!

Creativity is the root of innovation. It is the heart of problem solving. It is implicit in “ideating” things in a fresh way, Ironically, it is what our creative field needs most, right now, to survive and thrive once again, when standard operating approaches are no longer standard, and ways of “sustaining” nonprofit cultural organizations must be created fresh, and when we have to completely re-envision how to connect with a public so stressed that people have lost their interest even in attending, viewing, or participating in creativity.

Creativity takes practice. (Interesting, isn’t it, that “practicing the piano” or its equivalent is really about practicing creativity?) As McNiff says, “The process of creation is a force moving through us, and only through practice do we learn how to cooperate with it….the skilled artist is the one who is always responding and compensating for the changing winds of the creative process. Nothing is ever the same. Conditions are infinitely variable. Each engagement presents a new challenge, and that is the defining quality of creative practice.”

We have a lot of new challenges ahead in our world of the creative, the cultural and the arts. New models must be shaped to replace those out of date and proven obsolete. New thinking must breathe fresh enthusiasm into our entire arts and cultural system. So it is more important now than perhaps in decades for everyone in the field to remember to be a creator, to exercise those creative capacities.

As we head toward a much sought after spring (even that first crocus through the snow…) our field needs to think a lot about re-creation. That means everyone in it needs to get out there and exercise those creative capacities.

Practice creativity.

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.