Friday, November 27, 2009

Solutions V: Swerve + Collaboration

A while back, I decided to keep a list of arts solutions, different approaches people could take to reforming the arts. Very few of them are ideas I thought of myself--mostly, they're ideas I've seen that I think of as repeatable. Today, as I recover from an AMAZING meal at my brother's fiance's family, I'll add two more that I've thought of recently, and repost the list for the benefit of anyone who missed them the first time around.

Here's the two new ones--new to my list:

  • Swerve - When people travel from point A to point B, if they see something along the way that might have something they were looking for at point B, they'll swerve out of their way to see it. That's the principle behind malls, or areas like the Flower District. Arts organizations can do that themselves by ganging together and attracting interest in a group. Broadway is an example of that, but my favorite in the entire world is Fourth Arts Block.
  • Collaborator Subscription - What I've discovered in my arts training is this: many people feel a much stronger connection to a work if they've been connected to the art along its entire lifespan, rather than just at the moment of its presentation. There's a personal connection in watching an artist learn and practice, especially if you're in conversation with the artist the entire time. So why not offer, aside from one-off tickets or a subscription, something like a Collaborator Subscription: an interested audience member can pay a certain yearly fee, and then they have access not just to any performance, but to any rehearsal, workshop, etc. and they are entitled to give feedback like any professional who would be sitting in your rehearsal. It gives them a personal investment in your work, and you get some good audience-feedback before the big day.
And here are the old ones:

  • Soup-To-Nuts - Rather than approaching the cultural environment in a one-off fashion, approach cultural environment as a whole. This is difficult, and is one of the reasons people are working on developing a quantitative approach to arts cultures... Richard Florida's early work suggests a direction, but doesn't provide the answers yet. One example might be the Knight Foundation's Magic of Music Initiative.
  • Baby Conservatory - The Harlem's Children Zone is probably the current Overachieving Nonprofit du jour, but they're exploiting a very important principle in their Baby College approach to education: children are most influenced between the years 0-3. That may go for economic success, but I bet it works for the arts too. And that means we need a conveyor belt that tracks a child's artistic development, so that by the time they graduate, they have an artistic literacy. In some way, trying to "expand your audience" of 20 year olds is probably far, far too late.
  • Involving Social Bigwigs - At the League of Independent Theater's Get Lit with LIT event, the New York State Council of the Arts' Director of Theater Robert Zuckerman (a good person to know) talked about strategies for getting politicians to notice what we do. He talked about a group in the Bronx (I can't remember their names -- sorry!) that have a Politicians' Amateur Night, basically a talent show for politicians. No matter how terrible the politicians are, it gets them visibly involved in arts--and Zuckerman observed that it also gets their lobbyist friends butts in the seats. Stemming from that, I would suggest that arts groups try to get comp tickets into the hands of politicos and maybe other important social heads. After all, there's no better "application" for support than having them enjoy your work.
  • Instant Reviews - The post that used the phrase Guyyedwabian was actually about a South African group's attempt to start conversation in the immediate aftermath of a performance. Basically, they attended the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and afterwards tried to engage the exiting audience in a review directly after the performance. The concept is outlined here, and an informative post-mortem is outlined here. (By the way, does your organization perform post-project post-mortems? You really should.)
  • The Less than 100k Project - Built to address the NY-centrism of the theater world (although the principle could apply to any art discipline), Scott Walters is developing a funding approach to cultivate community arts in small communities. The thrust of the idea is to allow theater groups in small communities that lack theaters to apply for a 3 year developmental process that will eventually wean them into independence.
  • Community Storytelling - A conversation I had with Scott about the aforementioned project asked "how do we make such a community theater actually part of the community?" My suggestion was that the theater focus on the stories and history within the community--go into the community, collect their stories, and present them. This invests the community in the product, and serves a needed social function. This idea was inspired by StoryCorps, the Laramie Project, and Anna Devere Smith's work, but as Scott pointed out, rather than having the stories leave the community (such as the way StoryCorps deposits the stories in the Library of Congress), the stories become a part of the community. Not everyone understands what "theater" is or could be, but everyone loves sharing stories.
  • Shared Measurement - The company I currently work for specializes in standardizing business processes for Information Techonology companies. As the aforementioned FSG report documents, there is a rise in non-profits standardizing their tools of self-analysis, and sharing the results. In the same way that these metrics allow the for-profit world to study impact, non-profits need to have a more methodical approach to their role in society, both instrumental and intrinsic. My personal belief is that public policy needs to take this up rather than trying to match the foundation's per-project or per-organization funding model... but more on that when my analysis comes out.
  • Healthcare Reform - We all want Healthcare Reform for a bigger, more universal reason than just the plight of artists. However, the current employer-based healthcare system discriminates against two groups: the unemployed, and free-lancers. Artists are, often, free-lancers (as opposed to the Arts Administrators who are often full-time employees). If a public option for healthcare were to support artists, it would ease the burden of artists attempting to support their healthcare--and might ease the bottom-line of small non-profits that have to spend a lot on healthcare for their employees. It might even help heal the divide between Administrators and Artists.
  • Creativity Education - The current arts education approach has been, in my experience, a largely instrumental one: music training, for instance, teaches you how to play an instrument, not how to listen to music or how to write music. This is a large failing in the arts, because it tells people that art = craft, not art = creativity. Granted, as Theresa Rebeck rightly points out in her discussion on the topic, these two concepts are not mutually opposed. However, our early arts education stresses craft and ignores creativity, which probably creates the anti-craft backlash later on. Augusto Boal describes some very interesting approaches to what he called "Arts Literacy" that were attempted in Peru at the time--my favorite was where he talks about asking children questions and asking them to answer the questions in photographs. One question was "Where do you live?" and the answer was a photograph of a young boy whose upper lip was chewed off by rats. The teacher asked "How is that photo 'where you live?'" And the boy answered "I live in a country where these things happen." A much better understanding of art than learning how to draw a human face properly.
  • Showcase Code - Create an easier and fairer showcase code to let independent theaters reap the successes of popular showcase codes without having a gigantic step up in costs. Also, allow recording of performances for non-commercial purposes.


isaac butler said...

So this is the comment I always post on this sort of post (although I think it's a great post in general, Guy!)

What specific changes actually need to be made to the current showcase code that won't also make it extremely unfair to labor and help producers essentially mount cheap shows and keep the revenue? Particularly considering that most shows cannot extend int heir current venues anyway because those venues will be booked immediately following the end of the current show's rentals?

If you can afford a budget of $30-60 K you should be paying your actors, end of story.

The only two major changes I would make would be to allow taping (since grad schools and grant givers require it) and to radically restructure how casts are paid so that it becomes a percentage of your total budget instead of a fixed rate. That way a 30K show and a 5k show, both operating under the showcase code, would have to pay their actor's differently. Which seems fair to me.

CultureFuture said...

Yeah, the video-taping and having cast pay structured according to budget size are the two reforms I would look for. It might not necessarily have to be a percentage structure, but if it was a step function it would have to have more finely graded.