Creative Excellence

Posted by John R. Killacky On January - 7 - 20145 COMMENTS
John R. Kilacky

John R. Kilacky

Recently, I participated on two funding panels: the National Endowment for the Arts for theater projects and a California foundation for commissioning new music. Artistic excellence was a key criterion on both panels.

Defining quality used to be easy, although taste was always a mitigating factor. Now in our multicultural society, it is more complex. No longer can we calibrate merit solely through a Euro-centric framework.

Experts on my theater panel reviewed applications from ensembles with budgets in the tens of thousands to those with budgets in the tens of millions. Projects included amateurs learning to tell their own stories , alongside avant-garde works, free Shakespeare, revivals of classics, puppet tales, new scripts, site specific and culturally specific productions. Communities served included Latino, African American, LGBT, elderly, children, the incarcerated, and homeless in urban, inner city, and rural locations.

Music panelists judged choral, electronic, jazz, and orchestral proposals against Balinese Gamelan and East Indian vocal projects. String quartets competed with a Tibetan music master, Ghanaian drummer, Turkish singer, and Beijing Opera performer. Projects ranged from minimalist to the operatic, traditional proscenium-based concerts to multidisciplinary extravaganzas.

There were limited dollars to grant, so competition was steep in both panels. Excellence mattered, and there was no lack of artistic excellence, but quality had to be judged through multiple worldviews and experiences. Panelists came from varied aesthetics, ethnicities, generations and geographies to allow for a fair review of the proposals. Equity and parity, as well as cultural competency factored into our decision-making.

Liking an artist or project was not sufficient. Listening and learning from one another’s comments were vital as we navigated beyond personal taste. Context matters, traditions are essential, and community is crucial. Read the rest of this entry »

All of us at Americans for the Arts wish you a very happy New Year, and congratulate all of you on your valuable work creating, enhancing, and advancing the arts in America last year!


We can’t wait to see what innovative and creative work will be done in the arts in 2014!

Donna Sapolin

Donna Sapolin

I love the fall/winter season in New York. Everything seems to come back to life once September rolls around and the arts kick into high gear, igniting the city with blasts of creative energy. People begin flocking to music, theater and dance performances.

A few weeks ago, I went to see the San Francisco Ballet (SFB) at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater during its first visit to New York in five years. The SFB is America’s oldest professional company and has achieved great acclaim for its overall excellence and emphasis on new ballet choreography.

The thrilling three-part program I saw – a mixed bill of two classically oriented dances (“Trio” and “Suite en Blanc”) and a contemporary one (“Ghosts”) – was utterly captivating.

Ballet Is a Microcosm of Successful Approaches to Work

Are you familiar with the famed song “At the Ballet” from the award-winning Broadway musical, A Chorus Line? It depicts ballet (and ballet lessons) as an antidote to a problem-riddled childhood because, as the chorus says, “Everything was beautiful at the ballet.”

Well, everything is beautiful at the ballet. But that exquisite perfection is the result of a great deal of creative intelligence, effort, and teamwork.

As I watched and admired SFB’s virtuosic performances complete with lush costumes, sets, and music, it struck me that the total package encapsulated all the values and steps I believe make for career success. Here they are:

1. Listen intently. Ballet dancers hinge every move and gesture on the musical score’s rhythm and emotion and the choreographer’s instruction. To do otherwise would result in failure.

We tend to forget how much we can learn by simply paying attention to others’ concepts and expert guidance, particularly in these tech-driven times when so much is competing for our attention. Lending an ear and being truly “present” to what others are saying are vital for learning new skills and absorbing valuable ideas at work. They’re also great ways to make your colleagues feel respected and spur their productive cooperation. So, lean in, make eye contact, speak less and listen conscientiously.

2. Take many steps. Top ballet dancers don’t think in terms of reducing the number of steps in the dances they perform nor do they believe they can cut back on their practice and rehearsal sessions and still manage to excel on stage. The SFB website explains: “Dancers’ lives are full of daily ballet technique classes and rehearsals. A typical workday can start with an hour-long class, followed by four to six hours of rehearsal, often concluding with a two-hour evening performance. Read the rest of this entry »

Eileen Cunniffe

Eileen Cunniffe

UK Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, used the occasion of the country’s “Trustees Week” to issue a call for more businesses to encourage their employees to join the ranks of nonprofit board members. Noting that there already are a million volunteer leaders in the UK, he cited a significant number of vacant board seats in the charity sector. This challenge is also prevalent among US nonprofits—and no doubt in other parts of the world, too. And as anyone who has served on a nonprofit board knows, even when there is a full complement of board members, there is always a need to consider who will come next, and how the board will renew itself over time.

Hurd notes how much expertise businesspeople have to offer to nonprofits. Importantly, he also makes the case for how business professionals—and their employers—benefit from board experience. Research done by the City of London demonstrated increased skills among volunteer leaders in categories including team building, negotiating, problem solving, and financial knowledge.

Boards require collaboration, and “leadership moments” may present themselves to charity trustees at earlier stages in their careers than they might in the corporate setting, allowing business professionals to gain confidence and try out new skills in a different environment. And there are, of course, often business benefits to be gained from networking with other board members. Read the rest of this entry »

Dreaming Big To Focus

Posted by Nick Dragga On December - 18 - 2013No comments yet
Nicholas Dragga

Nicholas Dragga

Our production manager had an iron-clad rule, “Do NOT let the artistic director see other Nutcrackers within three weeks of our own.” Don’t get me wrong, we all LOVE the creative process, but when you’ve been working on a production for six months with 150 performers, 30 crew, and hundreds of calls, making drastic changes the last week gets difficult.

Our artistic director, in all her excitement would sometimes say, “I have some great ideas! So, let’s go a whole other direction with those costumes.” Those were the 12 costumes that took 30 hours each to make…

Can anyone relate?

Again, we love the creative process, because as we all know it is through the process that great discoveries happen. We certainly do not want to minimize or squelch the excitement of our artistic director, but want to create an environment that rewards and fosters daring, creative thinking. We firmly believe that if you don’t fail every now and then, you’re not doing it right. Failure is noble. But, poor execution, laziness, or lacking of planning is not.

Creativity is not an excuse for chaos. Creativity is a discipline.

Epiphanies are a myth, or as Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up and get to work.”

So what do you do? How do you keep the excitement and freedom necessary for creativity – or simply work with artistic director, who is in fact the boss – but still be practical and give your production team the time and structure to thrive…or survive?

We get more creative. We dream bigger. We dream big, huge – almost impossibly big…to focus the artistic directors. Read the rest of this entry »

The Many Themes of STEAM

Posted by Talia Gibas On December - 18 - 20136 COMMENTS
Talia Gibas

Talia Gibas

Back in May, I shared my reservations about efforts to “turn STEM to STEAM.” I didn’t question “whether the arts and sciences are connected. What was missing for me was an articulation of how they are connected. Sure, there are elements of geometry in visual art, and yes, you need to understand basic math in order to read music or follow rhythms in dance. But arranging letters on a page is one thing; bringing disciplines together in a thoughtful and authentic way is something entirely different.”

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of spending several days with other members of the Arts and STEM Collaborative for 21st Century Learning, a cohort of arts and science education leaders from across Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties. We’ve met three times since the summer, and despite our thoughtful conversations, I had a nagging question: is STEM-to-STEAM simply about the integration of the arts and STEM subjects? If so, can we take an existing definition of arts integration (I’m a fan of the one developed by The Kennedy Center), declare the S, T, E, and/or M the “other subject area,” and call it a day? If not, why not? How is STEAM different? Read the rest of this entry »

Mara Walker

Mara Walker

I recently returned from Hong Kong where I participated in the International Arts Leadership Roundtable organized by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. As with many countries around the world, the arts and culture organizations in Hong Kong are often funded 70, 80, or 90% by the government. They need to diversify their funding pool and are looking to the United States as a model. I was the only American among other arts representatives from Australia, Canada, England, Singapore, Japan, Korea, and many others from Hong Kong itself – all envious of our perceived high degree of private sector resources going to the arts, our ongoing ROI on public sector support, and the existence of Americans for the Arts to advance all of the arts for all the people in this country.

While there is money on the ground in Hong Kong, evidenced by the beautiful Hong Kong skyline and downtown light show I witnessed nightly, there isn’t a culture of giving. Leaders from the arts, academia, business, media, and government were brought together to discuss how to create change and foster giving to the arts and it was great to be a part of the conversation.  Americans for the Arts staff are often asked to travel around the world to talk about the U.S. funding model for the arts in order to provide a roadmap for such change. There is a sense that we’ve figured it out. It’s true that we have a long tradition of giving in this country, but private sector support could – and should – be larger. It currently accounts for roughly 30% of an arts organization’s budget, with individual giving accounting for a majority and corporate and foundation support behind. IMG_5626

On a positive note, we are seeing increases in businesses giving to the arts (2012 saw a return to 2006 levels of support) but only 4.6% of total corporate giving goes to the arts, as those dollars are always competing with social and health causes for attention. Businesses focus their arts giving on impacting the communities in which their employees live and work, and we are working to build the awareness about how partnering with the arts can help them reach their business goals. I spoke about our pARTnership Movement campaign when I was in Hong Kong and how we are demonstrating that connection by changing the dialogue to less be about an ask for money and more about building strong and lasting arts and business relationships that are mutually beneficial – financial support often follows.

That isn’t to say that “the ask” isn’t important. “The ask,” whether for funding or partnering, is everything. Positioning the arts as a solution provider that builds employee creativity and retention and strengthens the community is key. We have seen the power of collaboration time and time again, which is why we feature success stories on our website, recognize where partnerships have been effective through our BCA 10 awards and communication vehicles, and share ideas for creative partnerships at conferences and gatherings.

Our meeting space in Hong Kong was in the new Asia Society complex which beautifully stands as a testament to partnerships, constructed with funding from both government and private sources. The venue now has not only a meeting space but also features a theatre and gallery, where they were showing the daring “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” exhibit, jointly presented by the Asia Society Hong Kong Center and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York as part of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. Read the rest of this entry »

Bruce Whitacre

Bruce Whitacre

What is the purpose of theatre education at the K-12 level? What underlying objectives are shared by diverse programs in diverse communities? How do we reconcile a theatre’s objectives in engaging future audiences with the educational objectives of schools and parents? The practical reality is that a climate of education budget cuts, standardized testing and stiff competition for budget dollars makes providing young people, especially in underserved communities, with meaningful arts education opportunities a challenging question.

This surfaced recently when I was sitting in a donor’s office laying out our plans for Impact Creativity, an ambitious undertaking to raise $5 million over three years to bridge the budget gaps of our 19 member theaters and their education programs. American creativity is at stake, and so is our sense of equal opportunity — 40 percent of underserved youth risk losing their access to arts education.

“But what are you setting out to do, actually?” the donor asked. “Raise $5 million,” I answered. She paused. “And then…?”

Ah ha. We needed to connect the dots, in other words define theater education and its impact in more tangible ways, so that we can have a national conversation about something that currently differs from state to state, school to school, and theatre to theatre.

The network of 19 National Corporate Theatre Fund (NCTF) member theaters then set out to define clear objectives for the national Impact Creativity program while communicating how the individual theatre education programs address the larger questions facing our education systems: equity, resource scarcity and increasing demand for a high-functioning workforce. Read the rest of this entry »

On “Emerging”

Posted by Lindsay Sheridan On December - 13 - 2013No comments yet
Lindsay Sheridan

Lindsay Sheridan

If I had to compress my identity into just a few words, I guess I’d go with “emerging arts leader.” That’s the popular phrase for what I am, right? A 20-something, fresh-out-of-college, five-years-or-less-of-experience young arts professional. What am I emerging to? Unclear (and impossible to predict).

What I do know for certain is this: I am called to work in this field because I believe passionately in the arts’ ability to contribute uniquely to a community’s sense of identity – to provide local, intimate, authentic experiences. I am called to this work because the arts have always been central to my own life, and it never really occurred to me to dedicate my career to anything else.

Certain artistic moments have evoked inexplicable emotions: sitting among an audience entranced by a cello and dancer duet in a warm, intimate venue. Taking in a favorite song by a folk-rocker on a perfect summer night in the grass at Wolf Trap’s amphitheater. Looking up to see my conductor’s smirk of pride in the middle of our Rachmaninoff-composed lyrical viola soli. These snapshots are more than just pleasant memories – they are some of the most important markers on my life’s timeline. This work is my vocation: I’ll do whatever it takes to allow individuals and communities to encounter these intangible, powerful experiences.

All this emotion aside, I am currently an unemployed emerging arts leader. When my internship in DC ended in mid-August, I felt like I was in great shape. The summer had brought about several interviews, and I arrived back in the Midwest with a job offer (hooray!). After much internal debate, I made the somewhat foolish decision to turn down two offers. A job that I really wanted needed a couple weeks to complete their decision-making process and I thought I might get it. I didn’t. After a few more road trips across the Midwest and second place results, I had to reevaluate. If I didn’t want to wait around for the right job in a familiar geographic location, it was time to throw caution to the wind and apply for positions in such foreign lands as Ohio, Massachusetts, and Missouri. Read the rest of this entry »

Judy Belk

Judy Belk

After years of recession-battered budgets, nonprofits finally are getting good news: U.S. charitable donations appear to be rebounding. Corporate giving, in particular, increased a cumulative 14.7% since 2010, according to the Giving USA Foundation. The median of total giving by companies jumped 23% last year and is almost back to pre-recession levels.

Many, but not all, nonprofits are getting some lift from that rising tide. A survey by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative found that 42% of nonprofits said they received more corporate funding in 2012 than in 2011.

Converging trends, however, are shaping how such funds will be allocated in the future. Most notable is pressure from customers and employees for companies to become better corporate citizens. At the same time, business-oriented thinking is coming to bear on philanthropy, including “impact investment” approaches, leveraging non-cash assets, more strategic planning and a desire to align charity and corporate missions.

These changes are spawning new expectations for nonprofits – but also revealing new resources for them to tap. Here are six trends to understand to successfully engage corporate donors. Read the rest of this entry »

Roland Kushner

Roland Kushner

I was happy to see the editorial “Handsome is as handsome gives” from long-time musician and arts advocate Arthur C. Brooks in the Wall Street Journal on Nov 25. Brooks, also an accomplished social scientist and president of American Enterprise Institute, cites studies, cites studies showing how increased generosity is good for one’s health, well-being, and attractiveness.  He cheerfully encourages readers to give generously so they might reap those rewards for themselves.

It turns out that Brooks missed one other benefit of increased generosity: it’s good for the artistic instinct and the progress of the arts.  There is a strong connection between the vitality of the arts and private support of all charitable causes that has persisted over many years.  Here’s some interesting data about that connection.

Last August, Americans for the Arts released the 2013 National Arts Index report, our fourth annual measure of vitality of arts and culture in the U.S.  The report spanned 2000 through 2011.  Co-author Randy Cohen and I calculate the Index score from 78 indicators of attendance, participation, consumption, investment, returns, volunteering, performances, compositions, imports and exports, government funding at all levels, numbers of artists and more.  The Index shows how dynamic those years were for the arts.

And not only the arts … we experienced recessions, booms, crises, recoveries, wars, political changes, technological advances, demographic shifts, new social movements, and of course, changes in the arts.  Intuition and experience suggest how that some of those dynamic forces – mostly macroeconomic – are positively linked to the arts: GDP, employment, stock market, population, and income. Some behavior and attitude patterns are arts-friendly: charitable giving, consumer confidence, leisure participation.  Each of these forces (and others) has its own record of growth and decline in recent years. How closely do the arts track these other forces? Read the rest of this entry »

Erin Marie McDonald

Erin Marie McDonald

Over the past few weeks, I’ve reflected on the 2013 National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Portland, Oregon. This was my first year attending NAMPC and I left with more than I imagined. Although the conference was filled with brilliant colleagues and inspiring sessions, my biggest take-away and learning experience came from an unscheduled, happenstance moment in the Speakers Prep room with an Americans for the Arts staff member.

First, let me provide a little context: I work at an art organization that was founded five years ago. As the newest addition to the now five-person team, I’m holding down the first communications/community engagement position in our small, yet dedicated office.

At the conference, I was scheduled to assist Danielle Williams, the website and new media manager at American for the Arts, with an interview for its blog. Unfortunately, the interview subject did not show up. However, this turned out to be an ideal opportunity for me to see ideas from many of the workshops put into direct action. Following the canceled video interview, Danielle had another appointment planned; it was a website user experience test for the new American for the Arts site. Read the rest of this entry »

Giving: Arts and Culture

Posted by Tim McClimon On December - 9 - 2013No comments yet
Tim McClimon

Tim McClimon

There are lots of good reasons to support arts and culture organizations in your community: encouraging creativity, fostering innovation, enhancing the quality of life, beautifying our parks and public spaces, educating young people and audiences, and just for pure enjoyment and personal fulfillment – to name a few. I mean, who among us hasn’t enjoyed listening to great music in a concert hall, watching spectacular dance on stage, engaging with provocative actors in a theater or visiting a world-class art museum?

But another reason to support the arts is the economic impact that arts and culture organizations have in their local communities and the jobs they create.

According to a recent study of 182 communities by Americans for the Arts (Arts & Economic Prosperity IV), the nation’s nonprofit arts industry generated over $135 billion in economic activity nationally in 2010 (for-profit arts and entertainment activity was excluded from this study). $61 billion of this activity was generated directly by the country’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations and $74 billion was generated in event-related expenditures by their audience members.

This economic activity supports over 4 million full-time jobs and it generates over $22 billion in revenue for local, state and federal governments every year – a yield well beyond the $4 billion that is allocated to support arts organizations by governments annually.

According to the report, arts and culture organizations are resilient and entrepreneurial businesses. They employ people locally, purchase goods and services within their communities, and promote their communities as tourist destinations and great places to live.

Additionally, when patrons attend events, they often pay for parking or transportation, eat at local restaurants, shop in retail stores, have dessert on the way home, pay a babysitter or stay in local hotels. Based on over 150,000 audience surveys, the typical arts attendee spends almost $25 per person, per event, beyond the cost of admission – and this number is much greater in metropolitan areas. Read the rest of this entry »

Looking for the Punch Line

Posted by Joanna Chin On December - 9 - 2013No comments yet
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

Animating Democracy’s December blog salon explored how artists, comedians, and other cultural commentators employ humor in the heavy work of social justice. Starting out the salon, I posed several questions to bloggers including the seemingly simple inquiry, how does humor work?  When is humor a strategic choice and toward what social effects? Similar to other art forms, humor is fundamentally about emotions and human connection, which makes it simultaneously risky and inviting; relatable and inexplicable. While their methods and approach vary greatly – from slapstick to satire; political cartoon to YouTube musical number – the bloggers for this salon all seem to agree on the aspects of humor that make it so effective in social justice work:

  • On an individual level, comedy and laughter can stimulate creativity, open lines of communication, improve people’s moods, and diffuse tense situations
  • Humor comes from a personal place, but connects to universal feelings and experience
  • Laughter builds community and a sense of belonging (e.g., inside jokes)
  • Humor calls on the audience to finish the piece, think, fill in the blanks, come to his/her own conclusion/interpretation

Particularly as tongue-in-cheek skits and articles without clear punch lines gain popularity, the expectations and dynamics between comedian and audience continue to shift. As I said in my intro post, humor has always been something mysterious and untouchable to me. But, even if I’ll never be a stand-up comedian, the growing expectation and responsibility placed on audiences to interpret, understand, and even add their own layer of irony or satire to humorous work, especially as a tool for social change, gives me and all of us an important role to play in crafting our own punch lines.

Hungry for more? Check out Animating Democracy’s trend paper about the role of humor in the work of social change by Dr. Nancy Goldman and this post from Safe Places for the Advancement of Community & Equity, which has additional resources.

Lovebirds

Lovebirds

Laughter is the other side of sorrow.  The arts explore this relationship in various forms, perhaps most poignantly and concisely in poetry.  An understanding of this relationship forms the basis for healing.  Artists are known to explore the dark side of human nature through art, an encounter that yields no assurances or promises.  Some experiences yield discoveries that hope, goodness, light and love are attainable.  In Galway Kinnell’s poem, Wait, written to dissuade a friend from suicide, he says, “You’re tired.  But everyone’s tired.  But no one is tired enough.”  Such renderings rejuvenate us; tell us to hang in there.

In the old days before language was studded with acronyms and technology a cloud over intimacy, people were moved by spectacle.  Truths were profound and the process to determine them, mostly known and practiced by the devoutly religious or the highly educated (i.e., not something arrived at through Googling).  In the virtual world, you don’t have to be “Somebody” to access many things simultaneously; conceptually; quickly.  The effortless speed of this process is powerful, seductive and fun. We have always pitted our mortality against the fast and furious (i.e., invincibility vs. vulnerability).  Wit at a clip is a reflection of intellect.  Intellect is fast. Feelings? Not so fast.  It takes time to experience them.  It takes time to let go.

Physiologically, laughter is a spontaneous release of energy and a momentary letting go of our defenses.  So when we take our next breath, we are in that instant vulnerable to the realization we have just experienced.  A grain of truth is juxtaposed with how we see ourselves or how we see others.  Our unexpected exposure to the truth causes uncertainty and invokes laughter.  In this way, humor is an effective tool for teaching, encouraging understanding between people, building relationships – and it is universal.  Pop art was a successful international movement that still influences artists today.  A Claes Oldenburg sculpture of a giant inverted ice cream cone melting over a department store roof comes to mind.  Everybody laughs.  Read the rest of this entry »