Could cutting the NEA be a good thing?

For decades, “The Arts” have relied heavily on the traditional non-profit funding model. Foundations, corporations, and donors have played a huge role in funding many of our most prestigious arts organizations.  They had to.  Our cultural institutions are expensive and, in the face of a struggling economy, how else could you fund something like a 100 member symphony orchestra?  After all, you can’t simply cut 15 musicians or raise ticket prices by hundreds of dollars when times get hard. This meant that a foundation, corporation, or donor typically had to come in and support/rescue the organization in order to fill in the gaps when ticket sales couldn’t pay the bills.  Although this model has permeated our industry for several decades, times have changed.  There are now more organizations competing for a smaller pool of funding and, due to the internet, donors have a global reach when considering where to give.

Generally speaking, we often think of non-profit failure as being localized. (think Detroit, Philadelphia and Syracuse) The argument being that the organization didn’t do a good enough job on the ground to raise/generate funding necessary to stay afloat. However, I believe this to be a broader systemic issue.  Could the NEA—the arm of our government designed to support, foster and advocate for the furthering of our art— actually be holding us back?

To make my point, let me tell you a little story. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of giving a presentation on the “Artistically Minded Career” to a group of music students at Bowling Green State University.  To set the stage I explained to the students that this wasn’t a “Sky is Falling” discussion.  Instead I told them that I wanted them to view the presentation as an opportunity to explore all options available to them.  Then, I showed them the slide above and asked the students to share their thoughts.  The response was as I expected.  “We need to do a better job advocating for our art/education profession.” and  “If only we could better educate our population, we’d have a better outcome.” dominated the discussion.

Following that short discussion, I showed the students the following slide and asked once again for feedback.  Silence. The students sat very quietly as I reiterated the fact that the discussion was not negative, rather, it was a talk about possibilities and opportunities for their future.

The reality is that, in a for-profit structure, when a business faces market failure, the business either restructures or closes its doors all together.  It is my belief that our non-profit cultural institutions look at things through a slightly different lens.  The organizations listed in the first slide have relied so heavily on support from donors, corporations, the government, and foundations over the years that they have become used to being “propped up” in a time of market failure, unlike the second slide in which the institution simply goes away or restructures.  This means that the non-profit model can often run into difficulty spurring innovation. In fact, this system of thought often inadvertently thwarts it.  In short, innovation hasn’t happened in many of our cultural institutions because it hasn’t been a requirement to sustain the organization.

So, what if cutting the NEA caused “The Arts” (and more importantly, individuals pursuing careers in the arts) to have to do something that should be our ace in the hole….create opportunities for ourselves to succeed? In a 2005 blog post Bill Ivey, former head of the NEA foreshadows quite eloquently the situation many orgs now face.  In his post, Ivey points out three trends that are prevalent in our industry:

  • First, the entire non-profit cultural sector has probably grown to a point at which we’re competing tooth-and-nail for every penny that gatekeepers are willing to assign to “culture;” popular programming becomes an essential survival strategy.
  • Second, the entire field of cultural funding has become more outcome oriented in the past decade: corporate sponsors want exhibitions to actually sell products; foundations expect community transformation or youth development; everybody wants big audiences.
  • Third, one challenge unique to nonprofits is the fact that organizational mission is always bigger than available resources. That means, of course, that if we have good years we always use excess earnings to grow programming, not to create reserves that would free us to invest in future experimental work.
These three points don’t exactly cause us to think creatively about the future of The Arts.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In our efforts to “preserve” the art, we are causing the industry to look back at a time long past.  In doing so, even our young millenials (15-30 year olds) are talking about “advocacy” and “support” of a model that isn’t working as well as it could in the 21st century economy.  

It’s REALLY scary for me to think about a world without the NEA. (and even more scary for the cultural institutions that benefit from its support)  However, what is most daunting to me is the fact that our industry continues to evangelize a mindset that we just need to advocate more in order to get our piece of the funding, which in turn will sustain our organizations.  That mindset goes all the way down to our best and brightest millennials.  We desperately need the NEA to be our voice on Capital Hill but I wonder if the miniscule amount of funding the endowment has is doing us more harm than good in a world that is begging for systemic change when it comes to sustainable funding models for The Arts.

Digital Strategy for Arts Enterprise

Like many non-profit organizations, Arts Enterprise has operated on a tight budget since incorporating a year and a half ago.  With a tight budget comes the ever difficult decision of where to spend our limited resources.  From an operational standpoint, the AE Central team has established three goals in order to help us grow in the most effective way possible:

  1. The central organization should be small and flexible, allowing us to address our most pressing organizational issues in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
  2. AE must be sustainable. Our central team has set high level goals, mission, and vision for the organization. From there, it is up to our chapters to lead the charge. In a perfect world, we want to set the basic parameters of the org. and let the chapters and members continue to grow the network with little to no interference from the central organization.
  3. AE must be scalable.  Providing a platform for a broad network of chapters and members that can operate comfortably from the ground level is imperative to the growth and vibrancy of the AE network.

With this in mind, it became abundantly clear to me that the best strategy for achieving each of these three goals—given our limited resources—was to develop a digital strategy that would provide the greatest impact for our growing organization.  What follows is an explanation of the path we took to develop AE’s online presence.

Website: ( In the words of our board chair, Chris Genteel “We need a top rate website.  We have $0 to pay for it.  How can we leverage the power of our network to accomplish this?”  Out of this mindset, we created a partnership with TwistUp Media to develop the AE site and we are thrilled with the finished product. Here’s the kicker….this website was essentially built at no cost to the Arts Enterprise organization.

How did we do it? Instead of saying to TwistUp that we want you to build a site for us for free and, in exchange, we will list you as a supporter of the organization, we said this: In exchange for your services we will give you access to our rapidly growing network of chapters, members and supporters. Instead of establishing a four year payment plan for the website, we have given TwistUp the ability to work directly with our chapters as they build their own websites. Additionally, we have provided a way to deliver TwistUp’s services directly to our membership…A membership that we predict will serve close to 1,000 students by the end of the year.

Social Media Strategy: (Facebook, Blog, Newsletter, Twitter) These four outlets have proven incredibly helpful to us as we continue to grow.  Looking at each of the four outlets, I decided that creating a large Facebook footprint was the best way to grow our social media presence.  Afterall, our blog, newsletter, and twitter feed can all easily be pushed onto our Facebook fan page with very little effort.  Target, target, target!

My strategy was simple.  After creating the AE fan page on Facebook, I asked for a donation of up to $200 from each board member to use as incentive for building our fan base.  Here’s the post I put on our fan page newsfeed:

ATTENTION: Over the next thirty days the Arts Enterprise board of directors will donate $1 to the organization for every person who “likes” the AE fan page.  Help our network grow by sharing this page with your friends.  At this moment we have 218 fans.  Our goal is to reach 1,000 members within a month.  Tell your friends!

It worked!  We didn’t make it to to 1,000 “likes” as I’d hoped, but we did increase our facebook presence by over 300%.  In turn, our newsletter membership was up by over 100% and our blog nearly quadrupled the number of hits because we were pushing each entry to the facebook fan page.  Since our big push to increase membership in the fall of 2010, we have been gaining, on average, 5-10 new likes on our AE fan page each week….with relatively little effort on the administrative side of things.

It seems to me that we need to think about ways in which we can make our partnerships more mutually beneficial in nature. Techies who volunteer to do this work are amazing people, however they are also strapped by time with their own projects. Further, there is often a lack of understanding on both sides of the aisle in regard to everything from mission of the organization to the effective utilization of the technology itself. Often, it seems that the partners on both sides of the aisle are not considering the menu of services that could be provided as a way to better leverage the partnership. Consider an incredible blog entry by Ayça Akin from In her entry she talks at length about ways Techies and Nonprofits can better work with one another. Here’s an excerpt:

These challenges should come as no surprise, since any designer/client relationship has its built-in (if clichéd) limits: Designers are asked to step outside themselves to see the world in a new way, but can never, by definition, be the client or the user. In pro bono projects—as time becomes expensive—paying attention to the unique perspectives of nonprofits is the only way for volunteers to develop sound working relationships toward making social change products effective and sustainable.

Here we have very different people trying to collaborate around a common goal, and points of friction are increased by differences in culture, language and preconceptions about one another. Like so many problems in the world, many of these differences can be overcome by simply trying to understand each other’s priorities and world views.

Her blog entry goes on to speak at length about the common issues these partnerships face. I might offer a few suggestions to organizations interested in entering their own mutually beneficial partnership:

  1. Mutually Beneficial Understanding—Take the time to talk at length about your organization. This is not just about your technology needs, this is about explaining your organization to your partner. Then, listen to what they have to offer. This seems all too simple, however it’s amazing what this small suggestion can do for your partnership.
  2. Find the Right Partner—It’s so important to find a partner who’s values align with yours. This will only strengthen the partnership. For us, TwistUp was the perfect fit. They too were a startup entity, they value entrepreneurship and they have an appreciation for the arts. We were aligning with one another practically before the partnership even started.
  3. What’s in it for them—Can you, as the non-profit, provide value to the partnership? For example, can you bring three to four good ideas to the table in exchange for the services you’re about to receive from the techies? This type of partnership can really help your organization grow.

So, what’s missing? What can cash strapped non-profits do in order to continue to generate mutually beneficial partnerships for their organizations?

2011 Arts Enterprise Summit Recap

AELogo-BlackIt’s a brisk Saturday morning at the beginning of my spring break and I finally have time to try to figure out how I can best capture the AE National Summit that occurred three weeks ago today.  Most difficult for me is trying to figure out how to put into words the excitement, pride, and passion I felt as we moved through the three day event held in Kansas City, MO.  Perhaps the best thing to do is rewind to the day before the summit with a little story.

“I think we’re set!” says Erika Kinser, a DMA student at the University of Missouri- Kansas City and co-host of the 2011 AE Summit in Kansas City.  With less than 24 hours before the start of the summit Erika has just breezed into the coffee shop where I’ve been working for the past hour putting the final touches on the weekends activities.  With a calm, reassuring confidence, Erika walks me through the final logistics for the three day summit.  Erika, the president of the UMKC AE chapter, has been a driving force behind its growth for almost two years and, as we talk over the grinding of espresso beans and the hiss of lattes, I’m overwhelmed by the realization that the summit is imminent.  This event has been in the works for the better part of a year and it’s been great to be working on-site for the past 24 hours.  Scared, excited, and nervous about the impending activities, I’m snapped back to reality when Erika says “We should head up the hill to pay for the catering.”  Erika is the quintessential AE member.  Driven, passionate, and artistic, Erika saw AE as an opportunity to enhance her career options two years ago and hasn’t looked back.  A pianist, her goal is to land a collegiate teaching job upon completion of her degree.  For Erika, AE provides a platform for action that has given her the opportunity to explore life at the intersection of business and the arts. In addition to playing a major role at the summit, Erika has led countless events and developed a strong AE leadership core at UMKC.  As we walk around the beautiful UMKC campus, I am so thankful to have Erika in the AE network.  Quite simply, the summit would not have happened without her.

So, why is Erika at the core of my description of the summit?  Quite simply, Erika— and the 50+ students who attended— are the heart of the AE movement. Over the course of three days, I witnessed what many in my field doubt can be accomplished—business and arts students engaging in a dialogue about the arts, entrepreneurship, and the most pressing issues in our society.  Here’s the best part….nobody seemed to be bothered in the slightest by the diversity of people in the room.  As Peter Witte, Dean of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance puts it, “When people see it, they get it — especially those outside the tent need concrete examples”

Ultimately, this event wasn’t designed to help arts students update their websites or create the perfect resume, nor was it a conference designed to help the business students create a more effective elevator pitch.  While these are important nuts and bolts activities, the summit was an attempt to look more broadly at how the arts and business silos can work together to solve the problems facing our 21st century society.  For our passionate, interconnected, Millennial generation, the smashing together of business and arts students was—dare I say it—almost a naturally occurring phenomenon.  I hope that any reservations those who attended the summit had about this idea were put to rest after the weekends activities.

So what was this event about?  For me, it was about continuing to connect the dots between the arts and business worlds.  From my prospective, the most effective way to accomplish this was to drive home the AE mission by simply connecting people to our growing network.  The title of the summit Connecting AE and YOU to the World was no mistake.  The power of our rapidly growing AE network is proving to be an increasingly useful tool for our members and if our goal was to empower, motivate, and create action amongst our summit attendees I feel a great sense of momentum for the AE network moving forward.

Work-Life Balance?

If you know me, you know that I love my life. I have an incredible family and a fantastic job(s). Other than a little debt (ok, a lot of debt) from my college years, I really can’t complain.

And yet to those people who still ascribe to the “normal” 9-5 work day, I couldn’t possibly be happy. In their eyes, I work way to much and I can’t draw the line between my work time and my play time. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve been accused of being a workaholic. Perhaps this accusation is true but in the age of constant connectivity, it’s hard not to be a workaholic if you’re passionate about life. Let’s explore this a little bit.

Here’s a section from Seth Godin’s latest book Tribes:

How Was Your Day?
It’s four a.m. and I can’t sleep. So I’m sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Jamaica, checking my e-mail. A couple walks by, obviously on their way to bed, having pushed the idea of vacation a little too hard. The woman looks over to me and, in a harsh whisper a little quieter than a yell, says to her friend, “Isn’t that sad? That guy comes here on vacation and he’s stuck checking his e-mail. he can’t even enjoy his two weeks off.”
I think the real question-the one they probably wouldn’t want to answer-was, “Isn’t it sad that we have a job where we spend two weeks avoiding the stuff we have to do fifty weeks a year?”
It took me a long time to figure out why I was so happy to be checking my e-mail in the middle of the night. It had to do with passion. Other than sleeping, there was nothing I’d rather have been doing in that moment-because I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to make change happen. Even though I don’t have many people working for me, I’m in the business of leading people, taking them somewhere we want to go.

Admittedly, I am in constant conflict with myself about the breakdown between my work life and my family life. This isn’t an easy task. The reality is that these two worlds are so blended together that, to me, there really isn’t a separation anymore. This doesn’t mean that my 8 month old daughter has been showing up to conferences with me or that I’ve been giving bassoon recitals to my wife on a weekly basis. What this really means is that, from a time prospective, I have been intertwining my work and play in a way that—I hope—provides a seamless transition between my two lives.

Why? Because, my work isn’t work at all. It’s not even close. My work teaching bassoon, my work with Arts Enterprise and my work performing bassoon are three areas so intrinsically valuable to me that I actually look forward to tackling these jobs every day.

The reality here is that my family does, and always will, come first. If tomorrow I stopped teaching at BGSU, I left Arts Enterprise and I put my bassoon away forever, there would be someone filling my shoes in each case who would do the job twice as well. My family, however, is a different story. They are my first priority and striking that balance between the family I love and the work I love is the key to success.

So, what does this have to do with Arts Enterprise? In short, those of us who embody the AE spirit can be the poster children for figuring out this new work/play continuum. As artists, we constantly toe the line between work and play. This never-ending battle is imperative for ultimate success in our world and it can shed a lot of light onto how non-artistically minded individuals could achieve success in this world. For business people, this way of thinking is especially exciting in the high-paced, start-up, world of entrepreneurship where the lines are easily blurred between work and play.

So, how does this post resonate with your life? Do you see similarities in the work style I’ve set out to achieve? It would be great to hear from you.

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