Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Blogroll Update

It's been brought to my attention that I haven't updated my blogroll in a long time--I've basically rebooted the blog since then. Take a look!

(hey RSS feed people--don't have time to copy-paste everyone I just added, since it's quite a few... sorry!)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sense of Place III: Richard Florida's View on Creating Arts Communities

Well, not directly. Richard Florida's seminal book The Rise of the Creative Class doesn't particularly speak about the arts as a distinct phenomenon. His book is mostly concerned with the Creative Class, which encapsulates artists, engineers, architects, etc. etc. etc. We are only included inasmuch as we are part of that movement, and when Richard Florida talks about the "Rise" of the Creative Class, it doesn't feel like he's talking about us: he's talking about our creative cousins in the Entertainment world, or in the Software world, or the Engineering world. Whereas those other realms are exploding, the fine arts and drama continue to decline.

Before I say anything more, bear in mind: I'm on page 3 of the book (which is better than it sounds; I've made it through two prefaces already).

But his conclusions seem just as valid for the arts world as they are for the other realms. And whereas the Thriving Arts Report speaks to small communities (10-30k, on average, it seems), the Rise of the Creative Class is basically only talking about cities.

So one of the points he makes exceedingly early on (p. xxviii, before you even get to Chapter 1) is that for the Creative Class, as opposed to other industries, people don't follow jobs, jobs follow people.

That's a big whopping surprising point, and it seems to jive pretty well with my own personal experience, is that people make their choice of where they want to live based on, well, where they want to live. Which from a common-sense perspective seems like a duh moment, but it's in opposition to the economic supply/demand view that people will be driven to where there are job opportunities.

The art community is probably the biggest proof of this. Why do theater people pile into NYC when they could probably start a company much, much easier in a low-rent, low-competition community? Because they'd feel left out, unsupported; there isn't a "community" to join.

R. Florida goes on to postulate that place has become the central organizing unit of the economy, not job. Whereas previously, people lived in Flint, MI for their whole lives because that's where their job was, and they met and knew people because those were the people in their local economy.

SO: What does this mean for our "generating arts communities" conversation?

Well, in the same vein as the Thriving Arts Report's "Background Values" (of which Sense of Place was one, in agreement with R. Florida), Florida puts forward a few Indexes to try and to forecast where the Creative Class congregates. I haven't gotten to the full indexes (I'm on like p. 30 now that I'm at the end of this post), but so far he's mentioned:

The Gay Index
The Bohemian Index
The Melting Pot Index

all of which he uses to comprise:

The Tolerance Index.

What he's basically saying is that there is one central Background Value that the Thriving Arts Report missed: there needs to be an OPEN community for arts (and other creative classes) to thrive.

Yet the Thriving Arts Report cites two fantastic examples of arts CREATING the open community (arts integrating the Hmong and the Amish in small Minnesota towns). This, I think, goes back to my father (a manager--Whyte's Organizational Man--who rose through the ranks of the Creative Class of Software Engineering) and his reaction when I told him about this: the cycle is recursive, either recursively positive or recursively negative.

If you have an open society, artists come. If artists come, creativity thrives. If creativity thrives, artists come. Etc. And the opposite is true.

But at any rate, what we're aiming at is breaking the cycle, and therefore Richard Florida seems to be saying (so far) that this is what's necessary to cultivate arts (and other creative fields):

1) Recognize that place is more important than economy.
2) Recognize that place is a cultural, creative experience.
3) Recognize that cultural, creative experiences require openness and tolerance.

So, there's one revelation so far. There are others on their way.

P.S. Richard Florida also explains, in his chart, why every single artist I've met from Florida (the state) has been from Gainesville, including the head of my program. Gainesville is on his list alongside Boulder, CO at the top of small communities with high Creative Index scores.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sense of Place II - "Local" Grown Arts

I promise I'll get to a recap of the conversation I had by the weekend. I still want more time to chew that over.

In the meantime, I want to return to a concept that I found rather stimulating from the Thriving Arts Report: that a Sense of Place is core to the foundation of a thriving arts community. Take it as read everything I said before about a lack of sense of place in my own personal experience blah blah blah recap recap.

So, to move forward.

I saw a sign today in Solana Beach California that said "Shop Solana First!" which is a local version of the whole "Buy American" protectionism that we have in this country. Now, when it comes to international trade, I'm not necessarily a huge advocate of this, but on the other hand, when it comes to the arts and agriculture, I am.

To explain:

A while back I listened to Malcolm X's speech "The Ballot or the Bullet." I'm not a huge advocate of Malcolm X's philosophy in general, but there was a large segment of the speech that was very interesting. Here's the core quotation:

The economic philosophy of black nationalism is pure and simple. It only means that we should control the economy of our community. Why should white people be running all the stores in our community? Why should white people be running the banks of our community? Why should the economy of our community be in the hands of the white man? Why? If a black man can't move his store into a white community, you tell me why a white man should move his store into a black community. The philosophy of black nationalism involves a re-education program in the black community in regards to economics. Our people have to be made to see that any time you take your dollar out of your community and spend it in a community where you don't live, the community where you live will get poorer and poorer, and the community where you spend your money will get richer and richer.

Now, there's clearly a black versus white definition of community that has absolutely no pertinence to the discussion. But if you substitute "local" for "black" and "NY" for "white" then what you get is a prescription for a theory of local arts.

This thinking has already become somewhat fashionable in one area: agriculture. There's a lot of talk already about "locally grown foods." "Buy local." A Farmer's Market is structured as a way to bring local-grown foods to the public eye.

In a way, a local arts fair is like a farmer's market: it's to bring to people's attention that there is something local. To towns whose only art is big plays brought from NY and actors brought from Los Angeles (like my town), people should be asking: why are we spending our dollars in ways that leave the community?

Build an ad campaign around these slogans:

Spend your entertainment dollars in your community: support local arts.

Spend your entertainment dollars on your own children: support youth arts.

Spend your entertainment dollars on your neighbors: support community arts.

Keep playing up that aspect. These are locals, community members. They're not faceless strangers. Inasmuch as road producers are the Wal-mart of the arts (see <100k on the subject of the Walmarting of our arts).

When we're talking about a sense of place and community, the question we're asking is: Would you be willing to spend slightly more to sponsor your community? (that's the economic way of asking "do you value your community over other communities").

That's the economic aspect of making local arts, and that's probably why the National Endowment of the Arts gave <100k Project their grant!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Job Help

Had a very stimulating conversation about the Thriving Arts Report that I've been talking about so much, and other related concepts, with Scott Walters (the originator of the <100k) and a couple of his colleagues. Will report on that soon.

Before that conversation, however, I was listening to a very interesting report on NPR from the ad agency world.

It seems that there was this ad agency in downtown Manhattan that decided to take advantage of the high unemployment currently seen amongst ad-men. Their solution: they decided to open up their empty office space to any ad men who want to come in and look for jobs. Ad people began to arrive with laptops, and would just sit and log on and spend the day looking for jobs in an atmosphere of support.

Why did the ad agency do this? Well, when the ad agency had a client, they would brainstorm with the unemployed ad people for ideas. And they would present those ideas amongst their own to their client. And if their client liked an idea that one of the unemployed ad people had come up with, then they would hire the ad guy.

Now in the world of copyright, that's completely ridiculous. You have to have the rights for ideas or else you can't touch them. But that's not the soapbox I'm on.

What if we could do that in the arts?

The theater company I'm in the process of forming is going to have a process-driven project in the fall, generating a performance. What if I opened up rehearsal to whomever wanted to come and watch, and if people contributed more and more, they would find themselves more and more involved in the product, and if they didn't, well then--who cares?

My theater company is a bad example because we're small and don't have the resources to pay ourselves, much less other artists. But larger organizations could. They could take the risk and simply invite designers or writers or anyone useful to sit in on rehearsal and give feedback, and the better the relationship goes, the more they work together in the future.

Just a thought. Will report back more later today on the topic of developing arts in communities.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Publicly Traded Patronage

So on the way to work today I was thinking over a series of posts by Isaac Bulter at Parabasis on the fate of the writer. The title of the post is How Are We To Pay Playwrights? (Or For That Matter, Anybody?).

Well this morning in the car, I had an idea. It's not a new idea. In fact, it's an old idea... a really, really old idea. And a slightly less old idea.

Follow my logic:
  1. In the Renaissance, artists were not expected to support themselves. They were supported by wealthy patrons, such as the Medici family that supported Da Vinci.

  2. In the current world, art organizations are not expected to support themselves--but artists still are. If we came up with a system of patronage, artists could life off of the donations of others the way that art organizations (who support many individuals).

  3. What would a system of patronage look like if we instituted it today?

  4. A single wealthy person supporting an artist is difficult to imagine. Medici might have had a personal painter/inventor/sculptor, but the idea of the Hiltons supporting Tony Kushner is ridiculous on the face of it.

  5. Corporations, originally, were started by a single wealthy backer, but that system didn't last very long. Rather than a single owner, today most organizations are owned en masse. Ownership is broken up into little fragments: stock.

  6. Rather than having a single individual be a patron to an artist, the responsibility can be broken up into little fragments, which I'm going to call obligations.

  7. An obligation is a stake in a playright or artist. There's an upfront price, and that upfront price defines the degree to your obligation -- like a subscription. If you purchase an obligation at $10, you're agreeing to pay $10/year (or $10/month -- I haven't worked everything out) to help support the artist.

  8. If you want to back out of the obligation, you sell the obligation, and other people place bids. If they are willing to support the artist more, then the obligation price goes up--just like a stock price. If they don't want to support the artist as much, the obligation price goes down. But the seller doesn't get the money, the money is still going to the artist, so there's no point in speculation.

  9. In other words, it's a stock market of obligations: the "value" of a share in the artist is driven by demand. It's not classical demand, because it's not self-interest (people aren't expecting anything in return). Instead, it's a method of valuing and exchanging obligations.

  10. Supply is harder to quantify, but it is not impossible.

  11. The "invisible hand of the market" should set the prices and drive them, but speculation isn't necessary because these aren't self-interested investments, because there's no return--these are the stock equivalent of donations.

  12. The Thriving Arts report I've been discussing mentions that arts are structured like social movements, and are irrational from an economic perspective. Similarly, the PTP Exchange will conform to things like game theory, but classical economics aren't going to predict it accurately.

I look forward to your questions. This is a very complicated schemes with a lot of variables, and I think it'd take the dedicated effort of a trained economist (which I am not) to sort out how to build the incentive structure to work correctly.

By the way, it might be possible to use a PTP Exchange on a local-level to examine the arts in a given region. It's not an index by itself, but it's a good indicator -- the way that the stock market is an indicator of the economy, but not the only one.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Issues with Quantification II: "Social Movements"

I just finished breaking down the Thriving Arts report I keep whinging on about into its component parts--just the distilled information in my MindMap software. So now the ruminating begins while I look-up other sources.

Today's question comes from one of the more surprising but enlighting passages in the report:

Of greatest significance to the present study, the work [by Mark J. Stern and Susan Seifert in their Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP)] discusses commuity arts as "weak organizations" with strong social impact. The study suggests the need to understand cultural community based organizations more as "social movements" than as classically modeled formal organizations." (emphasis mine)

So far so good. I like this, because it explains the fact that even though most art institutions are short-term and fall apart, the art community thrives. In a way, it would be the same as postulating that the strength of an economy is independent of its component corporations.

Which is true. My brother (an economic Libertarian) points out that one of the greatest stimuluses of innovation is a liberal bankruptcy law, allowing an entrepreneur to feel comfortable striking out on his own to try out a new idea. 50% fail. So? The innovation makes up for it. Compare to countries that still have Debtor's Prison, and I'm sure there's no comparison. In fact, if we covered the cost of healthcare in this country, it'd be even easier to start a company. But I digress.

In the artistic world, it's the same. Can an artist who fails carry on? Will there still be an arts community outside of their own efforst if they fail? A leader is a person who will carry on with what they're doing no matter what the world around them looks like. But a community can't: in the face of adversity, it slowly withers, slowly.

At any rate, let's take that assumption as true: the arts community shouldn't be measured in terms of the health of its particular organizations or institutions. Metrics like "age of theaters" or "operating budget of largest theater" are not good measures of the health of a community. What we are trying to pin down lives outside of these institutions. Hence the reason nobody has come up with an accurate index yet--they're the difficult to measure, since they're not easily defined.

So, how does this change the metric system? Well, for one, it means to leave it less organization-centric and more human-centric--which is always a good shift in thinking. For instance, if I wanted to look at metrics relating to children's exposure to the arts, a classical indicator might be to measure the number of after-school arts programs. But measuring something like % of children in community who have attended at some point an after-school arts problem, or % of time on average that a child has been working in the arts... those numbers are a bit more useful to us. Although not necessarily helpful enough.

Two other questions present themselves from this information:
  1. Is there a sociological method of tackling the prevalance of a particular social movement? I'm guessing there's not one that works 100%, or there'd be a lot clearer knowledge of, say, the degree to which feminism or democracy or socialism is prevalent in a given area. (Actually, if sociologists had a more accurate way of tackling that, we'd have a much clearer idea of what we're doing in Iraq. After all, it seems to me that the Bush Administration put a heavy emphasis on the existence of organizations and institutions, irregardless of the long-term viability of those organizations/institutions).

  2. Is there a quantitative methodology of tackling the prevalance of memes? Again, probably not yet, and not in a way that's 100% accurate. But I'm going to try and track down the science involved, such as it exists. After all, art is a series of memes: the meme of practicing art, the meme of viewing arts, etc.
Well, that's my stream of consciousness for the night. What have we learned?

  1. Arts needs to be tackled as a movement, not a set of organizations
  2. Sociology studies movements, so any theories they utilize might apply here
  3. The study of the spread of memes might also help to spread the arts

Sunday, June 7, 2009

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

Let it never be said that this blog is not grateful to its friends: Ian Moss at Createquity gave a shoutout to this blog today, and so I'd like to say thanks to him for his support earlier in the process and the kind words.

Also, I'd like to give a shoutout to Ah Fafa Lala, a new collaboration between Johannesburg and NYC arts groups (including possibly my own soon) that so kindly directed its members in this direction.

Thanks for the support! More content soon, I promise.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

How To Start I: NPR

So, looking at this research (I'm still in the research/concept phase of the project, sneaking it in among the show I'm preparing for and my unrelated job as a technical writer), the first huge question that dawns on me is:

How do you start changing a community?

The problem, as I see it, is that the Thriving Arts report predicates the creation of an arts community on an already extant set of background values: a sense of place, a tradition of informal arts, a few people who already personally enjoy the arts, etc. The question, however, is where you start if such a thing is not available.

Obviously, there isn't such a thing in the universe as a place where there is no tradition of any arts or etc. The question is, where can you find a good thread to start with, a tiny spark that you can gently blow on and put kindling with to start a frame.

The one I was thinking of this morning is one that I've been thinking of for the last few days: National Public Radio.

I don't know exactly what NPR (and I suppose by extension PBS on TV) has in terms of reach in regional areas. But when I listen to Car Talk (the number one rated radio show), people call in from everywhere. Brooklyn. Tallahassee. Squunk Corners. The Hubble Spacecraft. The South Pole. So if we make the assumption that NPR is listened to everywhere -- at least some shows on it, at least a little bit -- then NPR's arts programming might be the beginning.

It would be really cool if NPR had an arts show that was quite as engaging as Car Talk is. After all, many of the people who listen and call in to Car Talk are not people previously interested in car. They're not the people who have a dead car on their lot that they're tinkering with. They're people like me--I've never even owned a car but I listen in. It's fun.

The other day on NPR, they were interviewing a publisher, and asked him whether fiction books published about the financial crisis are still going to be relevant three or four years from now, when the financial crisis is not what's in our minds. The publisher said, "It doesn't matter what it's about. If the characters are well written and they are put in engaging situations, people will read."

That's what we need to do with the arts, I think. We need to communicate a vision of the arts as being full of real characters and engaging situations. I don't mean on-stage. I mean us, as arts practitioners. We have to be real and engaging, and we have to be real and engaging when we discuss our work. We need a show where a couple of artists talk about art, and they don't use any sentences that begin with the word "Postmodern".

The Sloan Foundation understands this. They fund projects which promote science in fiction, but in engaging ways that bring the art into human contexts. And my favorite project that illustrates what the Sloan Foundation is talking about is WNYC's Radiolab. Each week, they ask a question ("Why do we laugh" or "What is music") and then spend the episode examining specific scientific aspects of that ("Do animals laugh" or "When does speech become song?") But the way that the hosts examine the questions, it isn't heavy on the science. It's high on the wonder.

A non-NPR example of this is, quite famously, Mythbusters. Another great example would be what Ace of Cakes does for the wedding-cake industry. By the way, Ace of Cakes is actually probably a good foundation for a community arts.

So how can we start an arts community? Well, you can start with a popular radio or television arts show (none of which exist, by the way--I'm a hardcore arts person, and I don't listen to a single arts podcast regularly, because... I haven't found any that are as engaging! Consider that a challenge, reader community: get me a podcast that I can subscribe do with my open-source music program that makes the arts fun and engaging). Then, you create a fan-club locally for the show. Start by watching/listening to the show together, move on to actually trying some of it hands on.

Hesto presto! It's a beginning.