Last week’s news that Amazon is spending $700 million over the next six years to retrain a third of its workforce – an average of $7,000 per worker – struck me as yet another example of why the arts sector needs to pay much more attention to human capital. Can you imagine a day when arts funders commit millions of dollars to the training and professional development of arts administrators?

In this issue of On Our Minds, Joe Kluger and Victoria Plettner-Saunders contemplate the shifting landscape of human capital and the opportunity costs of not addressing one of the sector’s most vexing challenges – managing its human capital.

Our sector’s focus on issues of financial capitalization over the last ten years has been transformational. But I have a growing sense that we may have overlooked the human dimension of capital – the type of capital that shows up to work every day, goes home at night, and comes back the next day if you’re lucky. Do we need a similar field-wide focus on human capital over the next 10 years?

We talk about arts organizations being financially mis-capitalized (e.g., not having enough working capital, lacking reserve funds to support strategic commitments), but lack of investment in human capital is, perhaps, the most endemic form of mis-capitalization. Nonprofits rely on free or under-compensated labor to fill invisible structural gaps in their operating budgets.

From an ecosystem standpoint, the exchange of under-compensated labor for presumed fulfillment benefits (i.e., “passion pay”) is what keeps much of the sector going. But it is also deeply problematic in terms of collateral damage.

And then there is the problem of under-investment in the professional development of our people. Can we really build the workforce we need by sending people to conferences once a year?

There are many advantages to our sector’s highly decentralized infrastructure – the proliferation of innovation, the capacity to respond quickly and locally – and there are also many disadvantages, and the lack of sector-wide standards and practices for managing human capital is one of them.

At WolfBrown, we are doubling down on human capital as a strategic area of our consulting practice because we believe that our sector cannot thrive without a significant rethinking of and reinvestment in human capital. Over the coming months and years we will listen, study, publish, and convene in order to explore and better understand the interconnections between human capital and organizational sustainability and resilience at the sectoral level.

If people are our best investment, then we really need a better investment strategy.

 

 

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Unions have played an essential role in protecting the employment rights of onstage actors, musicians, singers, and dancers since the beginning of the 20th century. Organized labor also has a long history of representing the interests of behind the scenes playwrights, composers, lyricists, designers, and stagehands. The initiative to unionize often stemmed from a desire by arts workers, especially freelancers with no leverage, to make sure they were treated fairly in terms of compensation and working conditions by the administrative leaders of commercial and non-commercial arts groups.

While those on the administrative staffs of arts organizations also work to earn a living, they have not been motivated solely by monetary rewards. Many of us shifted at some point in our careers from making art to helping others do so. We were thrilled to find gainful employment at organizations driven by missions that matched our passions and, therefore, accepted without question that we would be paid less than those doing comparable work at commercial enterprises. New research from Duke University documents this shockingly familiar practice of exploiting workers who are passionate about what they do. For a complex set of reasons, however, administrative personnel at some non-profit arts organizations are, like Howard Beale in Network, now saying “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Recently, hundreds of museum workers have been posting their salaries to a Google Spreadsheet, to use transparency as a strategy to foster greater internal and external pay equity. In a more formal collaborative effort to raise their pay and benefits, employees of the New Museum, the Tenement Museum and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City recently voted to join Local 2110 UAW, which already represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the New-York Historical Society. Other union organizing efforts have also taken place or are currently underway at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle and The Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

While it is difficult to generalize about what may have led employees to unionize at individual institutions, a number of factors affecting all non-profit arts and culture groups might be at play:

  • The premise that working for an organization that produces great art justifies less than great compensation is no longer acceptable;
  • The financial challenges faced by some non-profit groups have prevented them from giving salary increases that keep pace with living expenses;
  • Pressure from donors to minimize administrative overhead has reduced the percentage of organizational resources available for staff compensation;
  • A perception among non-unionized workers (which may or may not correlate to reality) that those in their organizations who are members of a union are treated more fairly;
  • The macro-economic environment that has created historically high-income inequality has produced a hugely insecure generation of highly educated workers who legitimately cannot make ends meet, especially in regions where real estate values have been skyrocketing; and
  • Management communication styles around compensation policies that are not very transparent and do not provide feedback loop mechanisms for those who are disgruntled.

Whether or not employees choose to join a union, which is, of course, their legal right, there are several things that the board and staff leaders of non-profit arts groups should be doing to reduce the incentive for those workers to do so:

  • To attract and retain qualified personnel, they should always be treated fairly, and with respect and dignity;
  • While administrative staff can be expected to work hard, job expectations should be set realistically for each position, so that an individual with the necessary skills and experience can complete the work within a reasonable number of hours each week (and still have a life outside work);
  • The salary range for each position should be set within the financial parameters of an organization’s resources, but with the goal of it being benchmarked against the range that is offered, where possible, by for-profit companies, as well as comparable non-profit organizations;
  • The actual compensation paid to each individual should be based on his or her individual skills, experience and job performance (evaluated annually relative to clearly defined goals), but fair and equitable, relative to the compensation structure provided to others within the organization;
  • Organizations should provide confidential forums in which individual employees can feel comfortable expressing frustrations and concerns about their compensation, or any other aspect of their employment, without fear of retribution; and
  • The board should have a standing Human Capital Strategy Committee (formerly the HR Committee), which is charged with the review and approval of employment policies and procedures and oversight of management’s administration of those policies.

While it is not possible to satisfy the compensation expectations of everyone, especially during these challenging times, non-profit arts groups would be wise to remember that the attainment of their public service missions requires having human capital strategies that are as robust as their financial capital and programmatic strategies.

 

 

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In his piece, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” my colleague Joe Kluger writes about the  growing trend of unionization in the nonprofit arts sector and offers nonprofit leaders some suggestions for showing support for the employees in their organizations. This topic has been on my mind for almost as long as I’ve been in the sector and I’m encouraged by the increase in dialogue that’s taken place as a result of workers’ bringing their frustrations to the fore.

Generally speaking, employees join unions when they become dissatisfied with how they feel they are being treated by management and conclude that a union is the best way to protect their interests and be heard. Nonprofits unfortunately rely too heavily on the assumption that “passion pay” can make up for low wages, long hours, and few benefits. Being under-compensated is one reason employees seek union assistance, but there is more to this issue than a paycheck. When a workplace’s culture is at its best, people are rewarded both intrinsically and extrinsically.

Making workplace conditions better isn’t rocket science, it’s common sense, as is the growing understanding that investing in human capital is a key strategy for strengthening organizational capacity, productivity, and sustainability. In my almost thirty years of experience in this sector I’ve found that very few nonprofit arts organizations have any staff members with HR experience or training. As a result, there is little internal knowledge about what are best practices in human capital management or how to implement them.

Recently I saw Larry Bourgerie, a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, talk about the importance of creating a “culture of civility” in the workplace. He noted that best practices in performance management link an organization’s desired workplace norms and culture to their human capital strategies and practices. Bourgerie provided a list of attributes with which workers in high performing organizational cultures can identify. As I was preparing to write this post, I thought about the list, added a few of my own and wondered how many of these statements workers in nonprofit arts organizations would be able to say are true for them:

  • This is a great place to work
  • This is a results-oriented organization and we accomplish our goals
  • I can use my skills and abilities here
  • My manager is interested in my professional development
  • This is a great place to learn, grow and develop
  • We know what is going on elsewhere in the organization and see how our work aligns with organization-wide strategies
  • There are clear expectations of me, and I know how I can fulfill them
  • I feel I am compensated fairly for the work I do
  • The compensation structure has been explained to me and I understand how my pay is determined
  • I have a voice in workplace matters that impact me and I feel I am heard

Of course, even in organizations with the best workplace cultures, every statement above will not be true for everyone. However, in organizations in which people are thinking about the upsides to unionizing or where employee engagement is low, there will likely be far fewer true statements than false ones. Consider too that as employees experience greater dissatisfaction in the workplace, there are increased organizational costs – both hard and soft – such as:

  • High employee turnover
  • Difficulty recruiting and hiring
  • Decreased employee loyalty and commitment
  • Decreased productivity from turnover and retraining
  • Increased absenteeism
  • “Quit and Stay” employees – those who check out of their jobs, but don’t leave the organization
  • Loss of a reputation as a desirable place to work

Are we willing to undercompensate employees but pay the high cost of their dis-engagement? All the studies show that creating a culture that regards employees as an investment and prioritizes their well-being in the workplace can make for a high-performing, mission-centric organization and a great place to work. It can also be good for the bottom line.

 

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Botanical Garden Label

A recent morning in the succulents and cactus exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden turned up an unusual label (see image: right). This label left me thinking, not about the euphorbia plant, but about

Students at the Chin Exhibition

the humans behind these strange, dazzling cactus displays; horticulture as a field that has nurtured women as scientists, and how much in an endangered climate, their knowledge of adaptation and evolution will matter.

Over time, that same small sign set me to thinking about the enormous power of labels. I remembered a moment at the Queens Museum where middle school students spent time in an exhibit of Mel Chin’s eclectic work. At the instigation of their teaching artist, Douglas Paulson, they used their observations to fuel an independent gallery guide, composed of haiku poems that they challenged visitors to match to individual works in the show (see image: above). Copies of that guide, on offer at the entrance to the exhibition, telegraphed any number of messages not always loudly broadcast in fine art museums:

  • Look, don’t scan.
  • Immerse yourself in a world of images.
  • Learn what a 12-year old has to teach you about seeing.

Then, I read about the re-labeling of the dioramas in the Great Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, specifically the one that portrays a meeting between Oratamin (Oratam), sachem or chief of the Hackensack tribe and Peter Stuyvesant. The display, as originally created, contains many misrepresentations of indigenous people: portraying them in loincloths when they would have worn full fur robes as leaders of their people, depicting the Lenape women standing with downcast eyes on the margins of the event when, in fact, they were often participants and leaders. Rather than closing or re-making the diorama, the Museum worked for a year with Bradley Pecore, a visual historian of Menominee and Stockbridge Munsee descent, to develop ten different labels on the front glass of the diorama (see image: below). Each one asks visitors to look closely and question the assumptions that fueled the original representation and shaped the American public’s understanding of Indigenous people.

Labels on the Front Glass of the Diorama

I now see labels as tiny transmitters, beaming out: What matters? Did you ever think about this? What shapes the way you look and understand? Taking a step back, it is making me reconsider the countless small, but powerful, ways in which cultural institutions can fulfill their responsibility to provoke thought and build humanity:

  • What goes in actors’ or dancers’ biographies in playbills?
  • What beyond the performance history of a piece of music belongs in program notes?
  • Can audio tours offer visitors contrasting histories or analyses of a painting?
  • Are docents at historic sites trained to report facts or can they also entertain discussions about what is and isn’t on display?
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Last month, Arts Council England (ACE) revealed plans to award grants on the basis of “relevance” rather than “artistic excellence.” As Deputy Chief Executive for Arts and Culture Simon Mellor put it in previewing the national funding agency’s 10-year strategic plan, “Relevance is becoming the new litmus test. It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value.”

The announcement has been greeted with skepticism, particularly by those in the field who question the agency’s appetite for change that might call its support of a core set of organizations that receive the lion’s share of its funding into question. Nonetheless, I find the public turn towards “relevance” remarkable for an organization that was founded on the premise of a particular and narrow view of “artistic excellence.”

The concept of relevance is nothing particularly new, of course. In 2016, Nina Simon, the forward-thinking director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, wrote a book called The Art of Relevance. And ACE’s adoption of the concept of “relevance” leaves open the question “Relevant to whom?” What is most striking about ACE’s recent announcement is therefore not the idea of relevance, but the implication that the agency’s commitment to “artistic excellence” may be softening. Is the very idea of “artistic excellence” being questioned as an abstract concept that is separate from the value system of the beholder? Is the idea beginning to crumble that “excellence” can be identified and proclaimed by experts with the expectation that the unwashed masses will accept its superiority even if they don’t see any value in it themselves?

ACE’s recent reorientation is taking place before a backdrop of lively debate about cultural democracy in the UK, which goes a step further than relevance. The gist of the cultural democracy movement, as I understand it, is that it seeks to put the determination of what types of arts and culture are valuable (and worthy of public support) in the hands of local communities. Last fall, ACE drew heavy criticism for trying to portray itself as a torch bearer for cultural democracy, highlighting the community engagement programs of the organizations in its national portfolio – organizations that were centrally selected by a pool of experts. The critical response from the cultural democracy movement was swift and predictable. ACE’s appropriation of the language put forth by the grassroots initiative carried the distinct scent of astroturf and ran counter to the movement’s demand for real change: They’re not asking for a bigger slice of cake, they’re preparing to storm the bakery.

Are we on the cusp of a cultural revolution? Will the “the arts” as we know them vanish along with the ideal of “artistic excellence”? I wouldn’t count on it. But at this moment in time it does seem worth remembering, as Eleonora Belfiore and Stephen Hadley point out, “There can be no true exploration of cultural democracy without the acknowledgment that hierarchies of cultural value have always been, and always will be, bound up with questions of power and authority.”

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In many school districts that serve lower-income students, non-profit organizations have leveraged philanthropic support to bring teaching artists into schools to provide arts education. Like many educators, and particularly those working with under-served students, teaching artists work long hours, often in difficult conditions for low wages and limited recognition. However, teaching artists face additional challenges, including limited opportunities for training or professional development.

To address these challenges, Young Audiences Arts for Learning recently convened a panel to create a National Residency Teaching Artist Credential. The credential focuses on four competencies: artistry, instruction, preparation and planning, and community. While this is a first step in creating a broader system of professional support and development for teaching artists, it is an important one. Credentials serve a vital role in the proper recognition of people who provide services (just ask a surgeon), while also ensuring the quality of those services for the people who receive them. Most importantly, creating a workforce of qualified and credentialed teaching artists will expand access to arts education for students, and particularly students who are presently under-served.  My colleagues and I look forward to seeing how professional support and development for teaching artists continues to develop and expand.

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For the last 15 years, I’ve been working in the background on issues related to career development and the nonprofit arts sector workplace. I say it’s in the background because as a consultant in this field, it’s not a lucrative consulting practice on its own. I don’t have the numbers but I can say with a fair amount of confidence that there are few full-time or even part-time trained HR professionals working in arts organizations today. With lean budgets and low profit margins it is understandable that some operational elements get moved to lower levels on the priority list. It’s been on my mind more and more however, that deprioritizing HR has been to our sector’s detriment.

Today’s human resources are very different than those of even 10 years ago. HR in the private sector is seen as an integral part of an organization’s business strategy and often referred to as “strategic human resource management.” Asset management should be inclusive of people as well as finance, equipment and facilities.

A recent scan of 990s for arts organizations of all sizes shows that most spend at least 50% of their budgets on salary and benefits. If half of the cost of doing business is human capital, how is it that we neglect to put someone in charge of managing that resource or place its care closer to the center of our core operations?

I’ve been avidly following Zeynep Ton’s research on what she refers to as the “Good Jobs Strategy.” Dr. Ton is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Operations Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She recently published her findings in a book of the same name which describes how businesses that implement practices that support, engage and empower workers have found increases in productivity and outcomes.

While her research has been in the private and primarily retail and manufacturing sector, her overarching message is one that we can all relate to and echoes something I’ve advocated for in art organizations as well, that we see our employees as a capital asset not as a line item liability. Ultimately, a commitment to good human asset management is a leadership issue that supports organizational sustainability rather than detracts from it. What does strategic human resource management look like in your organization? I would love to hear your story in the comments below.

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The other day I was putting finishing touches on material for a new web site.  I wanted to link to a YouTube video of two distinguished musicians (a violinist and pianist) performing at the White House.  Unfortunately, the video, provided courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, did not identify the musical selections.  I thought it essential to include this information in my description but I was unable to for one of the pieces.

I called a violinist friend in the Boston Symphony, but got her voicemail.  I then called another friend, a violinist in the Muir String Quartet.  Again, voicemail.  When the first friend called back from her car, she told me to send the video link and when she got home she would work on the identification.  In the meanwhile, we had a substantive chat about some other matters that might lead to a joint public event. We agreed to have lunch.

While all this was going on, Dennie Wolf, overheard the conversation and said, “Why don’t you just use SoundHound, a mobile app that identifies musical selections?”  She brought over her phone, I played the piece on my computer, and within 30 seconds, I knew the composer, the specific selection, the opus number, the key, and the movement that was being played. Not more than a minute after that, my second friend called back.  Though I no longer needed his expertise, we too had a substantive conversation, agreed that we had not seen each another for awhile, and decided to have dinner.

In thinking about all this afterwards, I was of two minds.  I will never have to call a friend again to help me identify a piece of music.  I have access to a remarkable piece of technology that will facilitate the identification in seconds.  But how sad, that there is one less reason to call busy friends. Had I not made those calls, I would not have reconnected with two people who are very important in my life, I may not have gotten the idea for a joint public presentation, and my social life would have been the poorer.  Are amazing technological tools always in our best interest?

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In WolfBrown’s Intrinsic Impact program we often talk about measuring what matters. We use impact indicators to align our surveying to arts organizations’ missions and our clients have affirmed the value of research that reflects their goals. There’s a flip side to measuring what matters – we don’t measure what doesn’t matter. As researchers, this serves our goals of keeping protocols short and analysis focused. When it comes to demographic questions, this principle is especially important.

Perhaps more than ever, demographic surveying is on the minds of many Americans. Next month the Supreme Court will address the constitutionality of demographic surveying when they hear challenges to including a citizenship question on the U.S. census. The same consideration is necessary when we design our survey questions: will members of certain demographic groups be less likely to answer this question and could it prevent them from finishing the survey? How will this bias our understanding of our audience? Collecting demographic information is essential to addressing the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion that many organizations are grappling with. These questions are inherently personal though, and we need to address three concerns before we ask them:

1. Is there a use for the data the demographic question provides?

When surveying large groups, any personal question is liable to be sensitive to someone and should only be included with reason. For example, many arts organizations do not have initiatives that address gender. For them, it’s not only unnecessary to ask for the gender of survey respondents, but including this question often risks offending some segment of the audience. Not including space for non-binary respondents excludes a systemically oppressed group, but even including an “other” option can agitate respondents who believe in gender binarism. Either way, respondents may skip the question or not complete the survey.

2. Is the demographic question comprehensive of the identities it queries?

When a demographic question has been determined to be relevant, we still need to be conscious of how we ask it. Many surveys look for simplicity in analysis at the expense of acknowledging the intersectional realities of identity. Single-select questions are particularly in danger of doing this. The fastest growing racial demographic in the U.S. is multiracial individuals, yet many surveys erase their identity by requiring that respondents select one racial or ethnic identity without offering a write-in option. When we insist that respondents fit in a box, we dismiss their identity and damage the integrity of our answers. There are industry pressures for mutually exclusive demographic categories, so this conversation also needs to happen with stakeholders, funders, and service organizations.

3. What does the way demographic questions are asked communicate about the organization?

Demographic questions show how an organization views identity. In designing these questions an organization has an opportunity to practice cultural competence. For example, organizations can design a process that gives members of communities who are systemically excluded input in how the questions are asked. It’s not just about inclusive wording. The protocol format can also say volumes. When collecting data for aggregation why not be clear when it’s anonymous? If it’s not anonymous, can we communicate how we’ll be using it? When making demographic questions requirements for completing a survey, we need to consider if it tells people who are uncomfortable giving those answers their responses aren’t welcome.

Not addressing these concerns can damage the reliability of survey data and research. Questions sometimes need to be asked in ways that aren’t ideal, but consciously communicating why can mitigate these negative effects. Particularly when we survey about identities that are used as a basis of hate, discrimination, and oppression, we have a responsibility to ask questions sensitively, respectfully, and with purpose. If we do not, we risk invalidating the very communities we wish to serve.

Both I and WolfBrown are invested in inclusive questioning and hope to write more about it in the future. I invite our readers to share their own challenges or successes with us in the comments or by emailing me directly at alan.kline@wolfbrown.com.

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Season’s greetings from all of us at WolfBrown! Once again, we asked the WolfBrown team to reflect on a particularly memorable cultural experience from the last year to share with our readers. From experiencing the arts as a parent, to exhibits that spark reflection on the role of artists in society, you’ll find just a few of the experiences that stood out in this holiday issue.  

Happy holidays, and best wishes for a wonderful 2019!

 

John Carnwath

The World of Charles and Ray Eames

In this particular phase of life-as the father of a five-year-old and a two-year-old-I rarely experience art as a personal one-on-one encounter. Instead, I usually have a double or even triple consciousness: I’m experiencing the work through the eyes of my children, I’m experiencing it as a parent (that is, with an eye towards what’s good for my children), and I’m engaging with it myself. One exhibit that managed to simultaneously satisfy all three of those perspectives is the special exhibition on the designers Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum of California. In part, this is due to the nature of the Eames’s work, which capitalizes on our natural curiosity and playfulness, and often invites us to view familiar things in a new light. The exhibit includes interactive “games” (kaleidoscopes; stackable, patterned playing cards; spinning tops that are big enough to sit in), which are not merely kid-friendly, extraneous add-ons. The “games” are part of the Eames’s body of work, and also open a window into their creative process. More than providing a means of distracting the children, while parents catch a few fleeting glimpses of the exhibit, watching my boys’ playful exploration added to my experience of the Eames’s design work.  In terms of family-friendly arts experiences, this was a win-win-win in my book.


Jane Culbert

Sharing a New Song

Sharing a New Song in concert with Imilongi KaNtu Choral Society and Boston City Singers

I have the good fortune to sing with a chorus called Sharing A New Song, whose mission is to build bridges across our common human heritage, transcending barriers, and making cross cultural connections through our love of choral singing. The mission came to life as we recently hosted an amazing chorus from Soweto, South Africa, the Imilongi KaNtu Choral Society. We shared the stage with Imilongi and the Boston City Singers, a talented group of high school singers. What made this event so very, very special, in this time of rancor and unfriendly political discourse, was the crowded diversity of the stage and the feeling of unity when we all sang together. And the (sold out) audience responded enthusiastically! My husband and I were lucky enough to host two of the men for several days. As we got to know each other, we talked about music (of course), families, cultural difference, the weather, squirrels (they loved them!), and of course politics and history. Oupa and Thami have sung with the choir since it started in 1988 before the end of Apartheid.  They have sung for Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. And they sat at our kitchen table eating scrambled eggs, laughing at the squirrels, and, of course, singing songs. It was an amazing time and certainly one of the cultural highlights of the year for me. The power of music to open hearts and minds is astounding.

 

Dr. Thomas Wolf

The Great Farinelli(s)

How should directors of stage productions go about casting for individuals who need to excel in more than one performance skill? In Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” for example, the tenor is supposed to be able to play a flute. Most of the time, he pantomimes while the orchestra flutist plays from the pit or off stage. To me, it is an entirely unsatisfactory solution.

Recently I saw a production of Farinelli and the King, a magnificent play about King Philip V of Spain who suffers from mental troubles. His wife Isabella wonders whether the famous castrato Farinelli’s inspiring and soothing singing might help her husband. The King and singer are introduced and the ensuing play is a mix of dialogue and beautiful singing. The role of Farinelli obviously requires an extraordinary singer. But it also requires a great actor. And both aspects are demanding. How does one address this challenge without making artistic compromises?

When I first learned the answer, I was disappointed.  How could it work to use two people?  Then I saw the play and was blown away.  During the many musical sections, two people are on stage at the same time.  Dressed identically and looking alike with mannerisms that parallel one another, this seemingly odd solution works brilliantly.  No compromises! Two absolutely compelling performances that magically meld into one.

 

Alan Brown

Opera MODO

One of the joys of relocating to Detroit just over a year ago has been re-discovering the area’s cultural gems – the tall trees in the ecosystem – and also discovering the new and unexpected flora and fauna. Opera MODO is a fantastic new company of young singers doing daring, small-scale work in unexpected places. The company’s inventive production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola was a highlight of 2018. Staged in a private home for an audience of about 100 people, the action (and the audience) moved from room to room with each act. An updated libretto made the age-old story fresh and relevant, and the young singers navigated the difficult score with agility. The experience underscored what I see in my research as a surge of public interest in immersive, installation art of all kinds – audiences dressing up in costume, playing out a fantasy, black box spaces and galleries converted into thematic, interactive environments, audiences traveling to out-of-the-way places to experience art in unusual settings – and relishing the disruption of conventional artist/audience interactions. Here’s to another year of exquisite disruption.

 

Joe Kluger

The Power of Art

I was inspired by a wide range of arts events this past year, including Sarah Rothenberg’s multi-faceted A Proust Sonata at the Alliance Francaise in New York, a triple-bill by contemporary ballet company BalletX, and a “not-your-typical-high-school-production” revival of Oklahama! at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The opening of Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music, a centennial birthday exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History about this iconic musician’s commitments to his faith and social activism, prompted me to ponder, however, what role artists should play in these unusually turbulent times.

Whether conducting for Israeli troops in the desert in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, supporting the due process rights of the Black Panthers or celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, using the power of the bully podium to wave his baton at injustice was a leitmotif throughout Bernstein’s life. While there are examples of arts groups today, such as West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Intercultural Journeys, and ARTolernace, whose missions are to use art as a catalyst for bridging cultures to find common ground, my perception is that most of the “arts industrial complex” is devoted to activities on a spectrum that ranges from art that challenges us to think differently about the world we live in to entertainment that provides an escape from that reality.

In the face of increasing political divisiveness and widening income inequality that I believe is a threat to global stability, is it enough just to create thought-provoking art that stimulates discussion or to speak out personally to encourage others to act?  Or, do all of us in the arts have a responsibility to take more assertive action on and off stage to effect more directly the societal changes we seek and Make Our Garden Grow?

 

Victoria Plettner Saunders

Once in the Theatre

My husband and I spent a week in New York City in September. It is actually not the best time to be there as it is right in between seasons. So, I asked a theatre colleague what she would recommend we see and she said that if we saw one thing it should be “Once on This Island”.

We bought our tickets at the TKTS booth where the attendant at the window said the theatre only gave TKTS tickets for the first three rows. UGH. I thought. I hate front row seats. How quickly displeasure can turn to gratitude.

Broadway’s Circle in the Square is a theatre in the round. As we found our seats, I was amused to see live chickens on the set which looked like a marketplace on a Haitian island after a hurricane. Those “odious” front row seats had our feet literally in the sand. And those chickens were three feet in front of us. The actors milled around, loudly engaging with each other and with the audience as it was slowly filling in. Someone brought in a goat. The set and the audience were fully integrated – down to the telephone pole that looked as though it had blown over in the hurricane and now broke the fourth wall – lying over a section of the seats. There was a large body of water at one end of the oblong stage through which various actors entered and exited. No one worried that the sand was getting wet. Somehow it miraculously dried in time for the beach to turn into a dance floor later in the musical. As I sat there waiting for the rest of the performance to start I texted my colleague saying “I haven’t heard a line yet and already I love it.”

This performance will stay with me forever for many reasons. First, the extremely close proximity of the audience to the stage meant that we felt every vibration of their powerful voices and unbridled dance moves. We were fully immersed – taste was the only sense untouched. Everyone in the house shared the closeness because of the peripheral seating – a proscenium stage could never provide the same experience. Which leads me to the second thought – the arts consultant in me couldn’t help but note that this production did so many things right to give the audience something different – something almost tangible to experience. We often talk about how to engage new audiences. How to bring theatre alive for a younger generation. This was one of the best examples I’ve seen yet of using every opportunity to truly connect with the viewer to create a memorable experience.

 

Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf

The Architecture of Public Value

It’s gray and raining in Lower Manhattan. I am stalking a place to work that isn’t playing

NYPL Jefferson Market Credit: Jefferson Market Library Archives

holiday music two months in advance of anybody’s festival of light. After entering and leaving three different overcrowded coffee bars, I have an old school insight: Yes! Yes! The public library – an institution founded and designed to make sustained reading, writing, and thinking possible – for anyone.

Only blocks away is the Jefferson Market branch of the NYPL, a red and garnet brick, turreted edifice with quite the credentials. It was originally a courthouse, then a site for trying, sentencing and incarcerating women. (In 1927 Mae West was fined and held for her role in the Broadway production of “Sex”.) Once redistricting closed the courthouse, the building was a police academy, then a vacant and increasingly problematic eyesore. In 1959, the city decided to knock it down in favor of building a block of apartments. But the surrounding Greenwich Village community rose up (including neighboring poet, E.E. Cummings, and many other artists, actors and activists). Saved from the wrecking ball, the renovated building opened for business in 1967, its soaring former courtroom becoming a remarkable public space for joining a community of idea and invention. When the library re-opened, the architecture critic for the New York Times wrote:

The atmosphere in which literature and knowledge are dispensed is part of a cultural package. Today it is the fashion to offer a kind of statistical book-counting culture in visually illiterate surroundings. At Old Jeff there is also the literature of architecture; cut stone faces and flowers, spiral stairs, soaring stained glass windows, the feeling, form, and sensibility of another age. This too is the record of civilization.

– Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic, The New York Times, November 28, 1967

Huxtable was only partially right – The sensibility for public spaces didn’t die. The head

Reading Room, Mark John Smith Credit: Jefferson Market Library Archives

librarian, Frank Collieries, realized that part of the library’s history was disappearing as handwritten and printed applications, letters, and check-out records all turned digital. He turned to Brooklyn-based artist Mark John Smith and together they sifting through box after box of documents to create a vast mural for the reading room walls. Huge vertical stripes of printing and cursive and typewriter fonts record patrons’ relationship to their library:

I was inspired by the discussions.

I am out of work and cannot afford to buy the authors I love to read, but the library…

I promise not to lose another book.

I am an avid library customer.

I have sent seven letters to politicians asking them to…(make all buildings this beautiful, responsive, and tranquil)

The signatures on those documents are a roll call of who came to the city and its public opportunities: Lianna, Raffi, Theresa.  The handwriting documents the life-long desire to be able to find out – from shakey first-grade printing to the embroidery-like cursive of seniors who grew up when handwriting was a school subject. The room and its murals are a stunning record of how a city, its corps of civic workers, and its artists are the ears and eyes that see, hear, and answer those hopes.

 

Alan Kline

Knight Rise, James Turrell

My colleague, Megan Friel, piqued my interest in James Turrell’s exploration of isolation as a means to reframe how we see the world. So, passing through Arizona in January, I stopped at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art to see one of his skyspaces. Knight Rise is an outdoor room with benches and an oculus in the ceiling through which to view the colors and changes of the sky in a new light.

Unfortunately, I entered after dark. As I sat in the dimly lit room disappointed at having mitigated a potentially profound artistic experience, a feather, no larger than an inch, appeared in the opening. Slowly and irresolutely, the feather fell and my mind was entranced by the small spectacle I never would have otherwise noticed. I realized I had seen the world anew after all. It served as a powerful reminder that art is only shaped by the artist and the actual experience is unique for each attendee. I have since seen two more of Turrell’s skyspaces during the day, but this affirmation of the personalization of the artistic experience resonated and gave perspective on many of my experiences since.

 

Dr. Steven Holochwost

Summer Arts & Learning Academy

My most memorable arts experience of the past year is not of a concert hall or museum, but rather of a public school in Baltimore. It is a school that anyone who attended public school would recognize: well-kept, but institutional, cinder blocks and fluorescent lighting. And yet, in the space of a few short weeks the school had been transformed into a gallery for the artwork of young students, which now festooned the walls and hung from the ceiling panels.

This school was one of the sites for the Summer Arts & Learning Academy (SALA), a program run by Young Audiences / Arts for Learning of Maryland in partnership with the Baltimore City Public Schools. Students in SALA spend five weeks in an all-day program in which they receive arts-integrated academic instruction and participate in arts- and STEM-oriented electives. It is a program that fulfills the vision, now forty years old, of what schools of the 21st century should look like: schools that educate and enrich students beyond the confines of a school year designed to accommodate an agrarian age that is long past. As I observed the program, I often found myself thinking as a parent rather than as an evaluator, and my thought was “I wish my kids could come here.”

 

Megan Friel

Andy Warhol-From A To B and Back Again

On a recent trip to New York, I went to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s expertly curated Andy Warhol retrospective. The retrospective took a comprehensive view of Warhol’s work, allowing visitors to see him intimately, and perhaps, to see themselves in his timeless capture of America. While the opportunity to view his evolution and creative development was memorable enough, what made the exhibit stand out for me, was the way that it transported me back to a much earlier museum experience. I was drawn back to a Warhol retrospective I had attended 15 years ago with my father at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Early in my arts education, I remember being fascinated by the work and so excited by the scale of the retrospective. I can recall returning home from the exhibit and checking out books on Pop Art from the library for a school paper inspired by the experience.

As I walked through the exhibit, memories continued to surface. I noticed the rolls of colorful Mylar stacked and suspended in plexi-glass and I thought of Warhol’s production process and use of silkscreen. I recalled the way my aunt, a printer at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, supported my interests in Pop Art, teaching me the silkscreen process on a trip to visit her. I remembered being in her studio, the smell of the paint, the heat of summer, and the buzz of a workshop of busy artists. In this exhibit, I ultimately found a Warhol retrospective and the opportunity to reflect on my own initiation into the arts.

 

These were just some of the many artistic highlights of the year for us. We look forward to creating many more memories with you in 2019!

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