Ben Cameron Keynote
We gather in a time of great stress for the professional arts community. In the wake of the global financial crisis—a crisis which, as our constantly yo-yoing Dow Jones tells us, may be far from over—the nonprofit arts have been deeply challenged.
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Philanthropy at every level has been deeply shaken: individual donations to the arts trended rapidly southwards in 2008; government support—depending on where you live in this country—began to follow suit in 2009 and continues to decline—often dramatically—and corporate giving entered a frightening free fall. Even while many foundations have already pulled back significantly, the practice of others to base giving budgets on an average value of assets calculated over 36 months means the sector as a whole has been artificially buoyed by the robust economy of ‘07 and the first half of ‘08, and that the real “hit” in foundation budgets is only beginning to be felt in some quarters.
Earned revenues have been comparably affected. Those groups fortunate enough to have endowments now find them “below water”—a decline that places current value below original invested corpus and (in some areas) makes it illegal to take any endowment earnings at all. General consumer anxiety, coupled with declines in discretionary income, has led to a curious phenomenon: in an effort to keep audiences close, organizations have deeply discounted tickets—a strategy that has produced flat or even growing numbers of attendees even while total box office income has fallen significantly. Galas are under-performing, and special events increasingly challenged to meet goals.
The litany of strategies within these cuts is well known: downscaling or eliminating productions and exhibitions, reducing performance weeks and resorting more frequently to small cast or reduced scale work; hiring freezes, staff furloughs, lay offs, elimination of retirement or health benefits, emergency fundraising appeals and—in the worst case—closure—strategies that to many often seem futile. It is a “new normal,” as a recent report indicated—a time of newly limited resources without significant growth in sight for most groups—and with that acceptance comes the erosion of that special will to “dig deep,” to go that extra mile in giving—all of which means budgeting and planning for 2011 is the hardest exercise, many say, yet.
As overwhelming as this can seem, I would humbly suggest we disserve ourselves if we define our lives in terms of the financial crisis. Indeed, to be even bolder, while our collective financial fortunes—as meager as they are—are under assault, the crisis that nonprofit arts organizations and artists face is not financial.
To explain: At the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation where I work, our late benefactress charged us in her will with the care of “actors, singers, dancers and musicians in the presentation and performance of their work”—a directive that, in intersection with her life long passions, has led us to dedicate our resources to artists working in jazz, contemporary dance, and theatre, and the organizations who nurture, present and produce them.
As we entered out 10th year of grantmaking in 2007, we convened more than 700 artists, managers, administrators and board members in 22 meetings to explore the issues they faced in the new millennium.
We heard three kinds of issues in these conversations. We heard idiosyncratic issues—issues particular to one field but not to others—issues of career transition for dancers, who train in many cases foregoing college and other vocational training and at the age of 35 find themselves at the end of the careers with no clear alternatives about how now to spend their lives—a powerful, hugely challenging issue but one that does not resonate for jazz artists—artists who play often into their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s but who now face the disintegration of the road and the collapse of the traditional recorded music industry—an issue that means little to the theatre artist, and so on.
We heard chronic issues—issues of under-capitalization for arts groups, only a fraction of whom have—or perhaps I should say had—ample reserves, significant fixed assets, and endowments—and issues of under-compensation, not only of artists, but of managers, administrators and technicians. Indeed, when we talk about the philanthropic support for the arts—the donations of individuals, corporations, government and foundations—too often we forget that we are an industry predicated on discounted labor and that the single largest philanthropic sector of all is the artists, administrators and technicians on whose lives the work is made.
While these issues are hugely critical—and indeed, we must continue to work to overcome them—we called them chronic because, quite frankly, those of us old enough to remember heard the same issues in comparable conversations 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago and more.
Four issues, however, emerged as especially powerful in all fields, and as especially particular to our 21st Century.
First, we heard concerns about the increasing dysfunctionality of the 501(c)3 model—the breakdown of old fundraising strategies, the difficulties of managing boards, and the hunger for new models, as arts leaders, increasingly overwhelmed said “I went into this business, not from desire to manage a large organization, but because of a love for the arts. Now my life is about fundraising, board cultivation, school board policy, advocacy and the like. Weeks go by without my setting foot in a rehearsal hall, artists come and go in our building whose names I don’t even know. Something is wrong with this picture: isn’t there another way for us to finance and support the work we are called to do?”
Second, we heard concern about an impending generational transfer of leadership—an especially apt topic for today. While much of similar past conversation focused on where we might find these new leaders, especially given different expectations from young people around higher compensation, shorter hours—in essence less patience for the sacrificed lives of dignity and the financial masochism that were the givens for so many in my own generation—the conversation was revealing in a new way. “There are plenty of us eager to give ourselves to the arts, but we don’t want to be the mere custodians of those institutions you have already made,” the young people in the room said. “Unless we are given the same authority to reinvent and reshape organizations as you yourselves were given, we are not interested”—a point of view that focuses the issue, not on the identities of heirs apparent, but on organizational capacity for flexibility and change.
We heard about the erosion of audiences in every field—declining subscription renewals, difficulties in attracting single ticket buyers, increased “churn”—a term reflecting the high percentage—typically 70-75%—of audience members who attend a single event in a season and do not return—the collapse in the window of social planning post 9/11, when seemingly overnight audiences shifted from committing, not two to four weeks in advance, but more typically purchasing on the day of or, if you’re lucky, 24-48 hours in advance—a disorienting shift that continues to plague box office and marketing departments who struggle to understand the implications on a Tuesday for a sparsely sold Saturday performance. Even before the economic collapse, we faced a populace characterized by over-scheduling and exhaustion—a time in which 42% of men and 55% of women say they are too tired to do the things they truly want to do, and where the #1 answer to the question of most eagerly anticipated use of a free evening is no longer dinner with friends or a movie or a performing arts event, but is instead “a good night’s sleep.” After decades of growth, our audiences are shrinking. And our own financial needs, driven in many cases by escalating fixed costs of facilities, insurance, health care and more, in tandem with negative shifts in funding mean escalating ticket prices that threaten to place attendance beyond so many in our communities we wish to reach and serve.
Finally, we heard the struggle to understand more fully the impact of technology on the live performing arts. While many of us greeted the Internet as a potential new force in marketing, its realized potential is, if anything, too effective: in trying to attract the attention of potential ticket buyers, we now compete with (depending on who you read) between 3,000-5,000 different marketing messages a typical American sees every single day. In fact, technology has emerged as our biggest competitor for leisure time: the average American spends 25.7 hours of leisure watching television or online each week—the majority of that online, with Internet consumption having grown from 8.9 hours per week to 14.2 hours in the last three years alone. And by the time Net-Gen-ers reach their twenties, they will have spent more than 20,000 hours on the Internet and an additional 10,000 hours playing video games, a trend producing a radical redefinition of a cultural market in which computer games now outsell movie and music recordings combined.
Most profoundly, perhaps, technology is altering the very assumptions of consumption: thanks to the Internet, we believe we can get anything we want, whenever we want it, customized to our own personal specifications. We can shop at three in the morning or ten o’clock at night, expectations of convenience and personalization that live performing arts organizations—organizations who depend on set curtain times, specific geographic venues, attendant inconveniences of parking, travel and the like—simply cannot meet. And in an age where young people especially access culture on demand through YouTube and iTunes any time they want it and for little or no apparent cost, what will it mean in the future when we ask a potential audience member to pay $100 for a symphony, opera or dance ticket, when that consumer has been accustomed to downloading on the Internet for .99 a song or for free?
However particular these issues feel to us in the arts, we are not alone: we are essentially in the midst of a realignment of cultural expression and communication—a realignment that is shaking the newspaper and television industries, the publishing and book industries, and (in an indication of what may be yet to come) has left the recorded music and music distribution industries in disarray. And so I say, the crisis the arts face today is not financial. The crisis we face is one of urgency and relevance: the financial merely redefines the resources we bring to bear in confronting the crisis.
Surely we see ourselves in the words of poet Adrienne Rich in “The Dream of a Common Language XIII”: “We’re out in a country that has no language, no laws...Whatever we do together is pure invention. The maps they gave us were out of date by years…”
And aren’t you glad you invited me here to brighten your day?
In looking to the future, I find inspiration in the words of two different thinkers: our 19th Century American President Abraham Lincoln, who in his second inaugural address said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so must we think anew and act anew.”
And Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian ice hockey player, who when asked to account for his greatness said simply, “I skate to where the puck will be.”
In a time when the world economy is hitting the reset button and the mantra in economic circles now is less “economic recovery” than “economic reinvention,” how do we see the present as an invitation in the arts to fundamentally reinvent what we do and how we operate?
In this journey, we must begin by asking: Why must we exist today? Because we have a building is no longer good enough. Because we have a staff and board is no longer good enough. Because we have a history of critical reviews and awards is no longer good enough. What is it in the world that mandates that we continue forward and flourish today?
Every organization must begin by asking itself three questions:
- What is the value of my organization for my community?
- What is the value my organization alone offers or offers better than anything else? In this competitive world, duplicative or second-rate value is unlikely to survive for long.
- How would my community be damaged if my organization closed its doors tomorrow?
But with the passage of time, I have begun to think that these questions are perhaps too limiting, that they invite us to view our communities through the lens of our organizations as we have known them today. Perhaps the more critical questions are those that lift us outside that organizational context. To use dance as an example, a dance leader must be prepared to answer:
- What is the value of dance (not of my dance company) for my community?
- What is the value dance alone has or that dance fulfills better than anything else?
- How would my community be damaged if it were abandoned by dance tomorrow?
- And how might my organization be optimally structured, poised and focused to be my community’s best conduit to dance?—a question that invites us not to jettison all we do, but to keep what is most central and viable, to expand to embrace the new possibilities we may not have seen, and to discard past behaviors that do not and will not serve us in the future.
Now the Religious Reformation did not obliterate the Catholic Church. Just as 500 years later, many people around the world still find deep meaning in high mass and formal religious institutions, I for one believe that the historic institutions that we have funded to date at their best will continue to be worthy of our investment. They currently and will represent the best opportunities for lives of economic dignity for many artists, and the logical place where artists who need and deserve to work at a certain scale can find an appropriate home. Whatever we do as a community, we must continue to nurture and sustain these groups, and especially support their efforts to adapt and change to the larger world.
But the Reformation more notably reshaped and broadened the universe of how religion would operate, who would be empowered to act, giving rise to new denominations, new religious rituals, new opportunities for the common layperson to assume responsibility for her own spiritual experience. Similarly in the arts, we are witnessing an explosion of arts organizations operating in new ways and the emergence of the hybrid artist: amateurs doing work at a professional level—a group dubbed elsewhere as the Pro-Ams—a group whose work populates YouTube, film festivals, dance competitions and more, a group who are expanding our aesthetic vocabulary at one end of the spectrum, and professional artists who choose to work outside of the traditionally hermetic arts environment, not from financial necessity but because the work they feel called to do cannot be accomplished in the narrow confines of the gallery, the concert hall or the theatre. These hybrid artists are rejecting past divisions of professional and amateur and are expanding our sense of aesthetic possibilities—even as they assault our traditional notions of cultural authority and undermine the assumed ability of traditional arts organizations to set the cultural agenda.
In a world of arts participation—a time in which participation is growing while traditional attendance is declining, and in which technology has democratized the means of both artistic production and artistic distribution for the first time in human history—how do we recognize the impulses and expectations that the Internet promotes—expectation of transparency and participation, of personalization and customization? How do we think not only about presentation, but also about engagement—about interacting with this growing tsunami of creative energy that typically exists beyond the purview of our classrooms, our buildings and our performing arts centers? How do we engage audiences in the creative process, not merely in the finished work? How do we expand our vision beyond producing to be the orchestrators of social interaction—interaction in which a performance is a piece but only a piece of what we are called to do—or of moving past concerns about products to be consumed to focus instead on providing experiences that will serve as springboards to our communities’ own creativity?
Indeed, the Solomonic question facing us all may well be, “How do we embrace this new wave of participation, reward the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a new generation, without dismantling the still vibrant seminal achievements of the past?”
And for all of you today, what does this mean for our training of the arts administrators of tomorrow?
Clearly, if our institutions do prove themselves worthy of continued investment, as I have suggested a portion of them will, they will cry out for new leaders, and there will be a need to administrators trained to lead the orchestras, opera houses, museums and theatres that continue to operate in somewhat familiar ways.
But especially given the emergence of the hybrid artist, future administrators may well be needed more to launch the new. Just as today’s major theatres were for the most part begun by people in their 20’s and 30’s who forged paths and roads where none had existed before —people like Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum or Robert Brustein at Yale Rep or Zelda Fichandler who started the Arena Stage fresh out of graduate school at Catholic University as a for-profit theatre, selling shares to finance seasons and never running a deficit until she became a nonprofit—our arts landscape is at a comparable moment of evolution now—a moment in which a new generation of pioneers will be responsible for creating yet new paths and new ways of behavior, where none have existed before.
Obviously the skill set of these future administrators is already different than it was when I was a graduate student more than 30 years ago. Inter-cultural fluency, technological facility, policy articulation, grasp of political process, donor psychology and more all are deeply important in the management of organizations, reflecting how complex the role of the organization leader has grown to be.
But might the ultimate objectives of this training be different? While a prior generation were arguably taught to create and lead sustainable, stable arts organizations—a worthy objective that has led to a landscape of a significant number of relatively sustainable but not particularly vibrant organizations—might continued emphasis on sustainability and stability in a Reformation age be akin to teaching monastic governance even as the monastery walls began to crumble? Should we instead be teaching the creation and leading of resilient organizations—organizations characterized by innovation, openness, collaboration and fluidity? Indeed, what might training look like if, instead of sustainability and stability, we prioritized the ample resourcing of artistic vibrancy as our primary management goal?
Recognizing this fundamental moment of reorganization for the arts industries, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has been explicitly supporting organizational innovation for the last four years—a notion defined for us by EmcArts CEO Richard Evans as “new pathways to mission fulfillment, discontinuous from previous practice, resulting from shifts in underlying organizational assumptions.”
In an effort to understand innovation more thoroughly, I recently spent a day at MIT, arguably the country’s major university innovator, meeting with engineers and scientists.
MIT innovators pride themselves on the launching of literally thousands of new businesses and describe their cultivation of those businesses as a five-step process: idea generation, training, mentoring, legal counsel and finally delivery to market capital.
In this quest for innovation, they distinguish between the classroom—where deep discipline pedagogy, the principles of organic chemistry for example, are taught in fairly straightforward and traditional ways—and applied research, which in every case involves multiple disciplines, multiple perspectives, both students and faculty.
Might these models have resonance for us? Arguably, our pedagogy too needs to be affirmed—yes we will need to teach accounting principles and union regulations, yes we will need to teach grantwriting and development skills in the classroom, yes we may even need to continue teaching Danny Newman and Subscribe Now!—but does the present environment and the possibilities of innovation through applied research invite us to rethink our larger training—rethinking what we teach, with whom we teach, indeed what we are ultimately trying to instill?
In addition to teaching subscription theory, should we also teach voter registration and MoveOn.org as paradigms of engaging public energies? While the internship at the nearby LORT theatre may be hugely valuable, can we entertain the notion that the more valuable experience may be with the political campaign, the sports complex, the environmental justice center? Should marketing and audience development be taught in tandem with social psychology? Should we insist that EVERY research project—including supporting of productions and marketing—be interdisciplinary, requiring students to engage their colleagues in econ, business schools, emerging technologies and more? What would happen if we too adopted the five-stage business development model in lieu of our training emphasis (which typically is based on only two steps—training and, if lucky, mentoring)? Do we dare prioritize post-graduation capital even at the cost of student aid? Indeed, might our primary goals be the cultivation of acute external awareness, deep curiosity, rigorous self-scrutiny and a deep abiding understand of, and commitment to, risk? As training programs, can we promote to our students and model a vision of the arts that are firmly rooted in the world, rather than insulated from that world; that speaks with the world in dialogue, rather than to the world; that mirrors the same principles of nimbleness and openness, of innovation and curiosity that we may seek to impart?
MIT operates under a clear rubric of “useful knowledge for solving problems” and defines impact as the product of innovation and relevance. Indeed, if art is a way of knowing—which many of us believe it is—what is the useful knowledge we have? What are the problems we are training our students to solve?
These are all provocative questions—questions that I am sure each of you can respond with observations about logistics and schedules and tenure and more that make this impossible to do. But I wonder. What would happen if we begin the examination of each of these with “Yes”—and then examine how to make it happen?
I, for one, am optimistic about the future of the arts, although I have not sounded it until now. Two years ago, I decided to plunge myself into the belly of the proverbial beast and attended Pop Tech, an annual conference in Camden, Maine, for 500 high-tech folks, bringing them together to listen to—and interact with—high-level thinkers of every stripe and description. Contrary to my expectations, this was not a conference designed to talk about startups or financing: it was—and is—a conference where we listened to world thinkers about the human brain. Global warming. International warfare and terrorism. AIDS research. And the arts, with many artists participating on panels and each session followed by a live performance—Vanessa German, a spoken word artist who blew the roof off with her raw evocation of feeling, a hip hop dancer on crutches, a Gospel Choir of HIV+ singers from the African continent.
While arts conferences are often dominated increasingly by prospects for survival—how will we compete in a market-driven world? How will we keep ourselves on the funding agenda? What will it take to raise an endowment?—the issue of survivability was never raised at PopTech. The assumption is that many will not—and perhaps should not—survive. Instead, here the issues were not how we will survive financially, but how we will change the world. How we will solve global warming. How we will solve AIDS. How we will we leave the world a healthier, ecologically balanced, less poverty ridden place. Indeed, the unspoken agenda was that there is nothing that we cannot do, and in the world of high tech, truly anything is possible.
You might call this arrogance.
You may call it hubris.
But what became clear to me is that within this world of infinite possibilities, there are new possibilities for us in the arts.
On the one hand, I was encouraged that this group fought to get there. Camden, Maine, is not an easy place to access, and if any community can convene virtually, this one can. Yet through PopTech and TED and more, this community insists on coming together because of the unique value of live, face to face, collective experience, to conspiring—meaning to breathe together, to breathing the same air. And throughout PopTech, a minor chord, a palpable hunger throbbed in the background. This group was desperate to slow down, to lead less frenetic lives, to find the courage to live for their passions. More and more, they placed a premium on contemplation, on captivation, on focus and extended surrender to single experience—experience that would captivate, resonate emotionally, at its best enhance spiritual value—to the very things that we in the arts do.
They recognized the ultimate irony of their own success—that prosperity without spiritual enrichment does not bring fulfillment, and in the face of a growing culture dedicated to convenience—to no-iron shirts and microwave meals, to hands-free parking and more, all striving to convince us that ease is good and effort is bad, there is nonetheless value, irreplaceable value in the difficult, in the complex, in the difficult, in the ambiguous and in the real.
Especially now, in an age of demonization and fear of difference, of intolerant social policies and politicians who encourage us to view our fellow human beings with fear and hostility and suspicion—an age of announcements to report suspicious behavior to the authorities nearest us—we must seize our role in the formation of our national characters, remembering that we gather audiences to look at our fellow human beings with curiosity and generosity. However dramatically our business models will change, the urgency of this quest will remain the same. In giving yourselves to the arts, you honor the past, commemorate the present, shape and change the future in a way that does honor to all and violence to none. You are activists, pledged and dedicated to a world of understanding, of tolerance, of compassion, of hope.
I salute you in that regard and thank you for every thing you do; I promise you the hand of friendship is extended from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation both now and for years to come; and I thank you for your kindness and generosity in listening to me this morning. Thank you and God speed.
ABOUT BEN CAMERON:Since 2006, Ben Cameron has served as Program Director, Arts, at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York, NY. In that capacity, he supervises a $17 million grants program focusing on organizations and artists in the theatre, contemporary dance, jazz and presenting fields. Previously, he served for more than eight years as the Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national service organization for the American nonprofit professional theater, significantly expanding its programs, membership base and grantmaking activities. Prior roles include his work as Senior Program Officer at the Dayton Hudson Foundation, Manager of Community Relations for Target Stores (supervising its grantmaking program) and four years at the National Endowment for the Arts, including two as Director of the Theater Program. A former theatre professional, frequent public speaker and arts activist, Mr. Cameron has served on numerous nonprofit boards and currently is a member of the national Grantmakers in the Arts board. He has received honorary degrees from DePaul University in Chicago and American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, in addition to an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. In 2007, he was one of five recipients of the Distinguished Alumnus Award from UNC.
In addition to his not for profit work, he has lectured on theatre aboard the Queen Mary 2 as an Oxford Lecturer on three separate cruises, has spent 12 seasons as a panelist on the opera quiz feature on the Live from the Metropolitan broadcasts from New York, has twice ridden his bicycle from Minneapolis to Chicago to raise money for AIDS relief services, and served for three years as a member of the Tony Awards Nominating Committee.