13 11 / 2013
In Minnesota we are lucky to have an organization called GiveMN that supports year round giving to Minnesota’s non-profits and also pretty much started the Day of Giving trend. Here are the reasons I love, love, love them:
1. It makes MN’s awesome generosity and spirit of collaboration visible.
2. It makes me feel like together we can support all kinds of amazing work happening in this state.
3. It is a simple elegant tool that has made it possible for small organizations like Springboard for the Arts to accept online donations in an easy, user-friendly way all year long.
4. It has made it possible for the 200+ fantastic projects in Springboard’s Incubator program to have their own giving page and own their message, build their support base. You can check them out here
5. When people support those 200 fantastic projects all on the same day it amounts to this amazing collective action that makes me so optimistic about people’s desire to support independent artists. Last year they raised over $100,000 from over 1,000 people in one day!
6. I love seeing people get silly, get earnest, get creative about the causes they believe in.
7. Dana Nelson is going to swim with sharks and school principals.
8. The school pages! No more selling wrapping paper and weird frozen cookie dough!
9. At tax time all I have to do is get my giving report from my profile and it has all the info I need right there…also looking at all my giving in one place makes me feel good about MN all over again.
10. It’s a super fun day to eat lots of donuts and make weird videos and injure your finger from constantly refreshing your page!
18 9 / 2013
It’s 4:00am. I am awake. I can’t sleep. I am thinking about arts organizations. I am trying to be optimistic. I am failing. I am mad that I am awake thinking about arts organizations.
I try to put my mind back at the Dinner-vention, a convening I had the honor of participating in a few weeks ago. A group of us came together at the invitation of Barry Hessenius and Shannon Daut to try to address the question:
“What would a new movement around the arts look like?”
I love this question. I love its assumption that the way forward is about organizing and movement building. We got to have this conversation in the beautiful and inspirational setting of Djerassi Artist Retreat – a setting that invites metaphor about ecosystem and forests and creative foment.
We ended the conversation with a discussion about where we are all seeing inspiration from artists and projects that are working. I felt optimistic, I felt like everything is going to be fine, that there are energetic, creative people working on amazing projects that connect people deeply to our common humanity, that challenge our assumptions and give people safe haven for expression. We’re fine. Art and culture are not in trouble. Some of our delivery systems are. That’s how I started my briefing paper and at Djerassi I knew that to be true. I knew that, like the seedlings in the forest, creativity is all around us, growing, taking root, stretching for the sun.
And now back at home I feel frustrated. I still believe the seedlings of this movement are there, I still believe they are reaching for the light. But there are some big trees blocking the sun, using a lot of resources, inhibiting growth.
There are big organizations that are not relevant, not fulfilling the public trust, not serving their purpose. And they are using a lot of resources…money, yes, but even more than money, they are the organizations that people think of when we say “art” and that’s what bothers me the most. The Minnesota Orchestra has spent over 13 million dollars in the last year and produced no concerts. The Ordway Center has chosen to produce Miss Saigon for the third time, knowing that it would hurt and provoke our community. These are the organizations that represent us in the public’s mind, if we are lucky enough to be in the public’s mind at all.
I know that these two situations are surely more complicated than I understand. And I am reminded that at the Dinner-vention, Clayton Lord wisely reminded us that it is an easy trap to blame the big institutions for our problems, and indeed it is easy to sit on the sidelines and lob spitballs at the big guys. But in these two examples I simply cannot reconcile the practical and metaphoric implication of their actions with organizations that are interested in a new movement around the arts.
So, I’m laying awake trying to find the levers of change.
At the Dinner-vention Devon Smith boldly called for “death panels” for organizations that are no longer relevant. This is an appealing thought experiment, but pretty quickly we arrive at the “who would be the decider?” question, which is impossible to resolve. Additionally, I know first hand that reinvention is possible, that organizations can identify their crises, not just as financial crises, but as crises of relevance. You can find your way back to the core of the mission. And if you use existing infrastructure, you can start delivering something of value to your community much more quickly, without reinventing wheels, with much less waste in the system.
“We should be particularly wary of talk of a crisis when it is emanating from flailing leaders who wish to distract attention from their mistakes.” – Alex Ross, music critic at the New Yorker
Reinvention takes leadership. In talking with Nina Simon about her experience of leading an existing organization back to relevance and vitality and comparing it to my own experience, one common thread I see is that at the moment of organizational crisis there was a board, or at least some board members, who were able to see the challenge clearly. To go beyond the challenge of the finances and to see that reinvention was necessary and possible. To seek out the leader who could not just raise some new money, but who can lead the organization back to its purpose.
I hate talking about money. I feel like all too often it’s a scapegoat for other problems. I hate it when we give up our agency to funders. And even at the Dinner-vention, several sentences began with “Well, first we need funders to…” But I can’t ignore that money is a powerful lever. And if an organization isn’t fulfilling its mission and creating public value, and it isn’t doing the soul searching necessary to change, then money is one way (and sometimes the only way) to force change. And, frankly, barring a financial incentive or disincentive there are many organizations that have no desire to change. I’m tired of waiting for organizations to see what is in their long-term self interest (meaningful connection to their community, awareness of their context, authentic engagement of diverse demographies) and have to accept that change may only happen when we force it to be in their short-term self interest.
For the most part, I think the market works pretty well at this for small and mid-sized organizations, certainly for my own organization there were funders who pushed us to the hard questions. Who said (in a loving and supportive way—this is Minnesota after all) “this is your last chance.” Not exactly a death panel, but a change panel. And at a small organization, it really only takes one foundation or donor to press that change. At larger organizations, this doesn’t really happen, or if it does there are enough other funding streams that it is easier to ignore. So if we want our large institutions to change, it will take coordination and it will take guts. The guts to not just convene another community conversation on diversity but to make our dollars contingent on an organization’s responsiveness to the community around them.
At the Dinner-vention, Marc Bamuthi Joseph asked us “Should all arts organizations be run by artists?” To that I say simply, yes. Or at least we should try. More artists should lead organizations, more organizational leaders should consider their work art.
“we have to stop training artists and arts leaders in isolation”
-Deborah Cullinen, executive director Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
We need to embrace the creative process to build creative organizations; the iteration, the rapid learning from failure, the never-finished, never-satisfied nature of art creation needs to be a part of how we build the movement and the mechanisms that deliver the art. So, please, let’s stop training administrators and start training builders, makers, challengers and dreamers.
And artists? Let’s step up. I know you’re tired. I know it sounds nice to just “focus on the art” but the conditions for artists aren’t going to improve until we start leading. All of the most creative and vital organizations I know are run by artists – they may not all feel the permission to identify themselves as artists (that’s a rant for another day) but they all possess the creativity, the capacity for thinking differently, the zeal for collaboration and the just-try-it-and-see-what-happens attitude of an artist.
I would love for all organizations to have access to visionary leadership, financial incentives and creative infusion at the same time. I wish there was a magical solution that moved the sector forward all together all at once. But that’s not how the forest works.
Coast redwoods can reproduce by sprouting from the root crown, stump, or even fallen branches; if a tree falls over, it will regenerate a row of new trees along the trunk, so many trees naturally grow in a straight line. Sprouts originate from dormant or adventitious buds at or under the surface of the bark. The dormant sprouts are stimulated when the main adult stem gets damaged or starts to die. Many sprouts spontaneously erupt and develop around the circumference of the tree trunk. Within a short period after sprouting, each sprout will develop its own root system, with the dominant sprouts forming a ring of trees around the parent root crown or stump. This ring of trees is called a “fairy ring”. – Wikipedia on Sequoia sempervirens or California Redwood
Ecosystems are always in flux, always changing, regenerating, dying, sprouting. There is so much comfort in that. All we can do is do the work. All I can do is make the work I am called to make, to try and fail and try again to embody the values I hope to see in the world.
The sun is coming up. I am calming down.
“We can build a movement for things that make us happy. And we can get people to go there too.” – Margy Waller, senior fellow, Topos Partnership
09 6 / 2013
-Athena Kildegaard, from her opening poem at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit
There are great round-ups and posts proliferating all across the interwebs, which in itself, is a testament to the networks created and ideas that sprouted. To be honest, I’m still a little overwhelmed by all the amazing people I connected with and experiences I had and I don’t feel quite ready to distill them into pithy summations. Bluegrass jams. Poetry floating in the breeze. Stories of commitment and creativity. I think I’ll let them roll around for a bit. Maybe I’ll write some more when they settle.
One thing I know is that I want to find more ways for these conversations about identity, investment and place to happen between urban and rural communities so that we might develop a deeper understanding of the many, many ways we share the same challenges and combine the creative and thoughtful strategies into an even more powerful force for change in the places we love.
My main job at the Summit was saying thank you. Thank you to the creators, collaborators, inspirers and leaders who made a magical 3 days possible. Thank you to some amazing funding partners (especially the McKnight Foundation, MN State Arts Board, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Forum of Regional Arts Councils) who invested in this creative exchange. Thank you to our gracious and fun hosts at the University of Minnesota, Morris. And, as I said in my opening remarks, thank you to Michele Anderson - a person who inspires me daily with her love of place, commitment to true collaboration and ability to get sh*t done.
The day after I got back, I stopped by my parents’ house and was gushing about the Summit, tripping over myself trying to fill them in on everything that happened. My dad said, “It sounds like you’re not too worried about the future of rural America.”
Nope, not a bit.
15 5 / 2013
We’re in the thick of end-of-the-school-year celebrations, recitals and performances at my house. It’s rare that I don’t get at least a little choked up during the curtain call of any performance, add kids and it’s pretty much guaranteed. When it’s my own kid? Well, I’m a goner.
As I found myself streaming tears after an elementary school performance of The Lorax last week—a performance where about 1 in 20 lines were audible and I had to peek through a forest of parents to catch a glimpse of my daughter’s arm—I realized that part of this emotional reaction is sentimental, and part of it’s parental, and part of it is the endorphin cloud and anxiety release that comes at the end of a show. But mostly it’s the clapping.
Arts education has myriad benefits. For me, one of the most important is that performing provides an opportunity for us to gather our children and applaud them. Every kid should have the experience of standing in front of a room of adults and hearing them clap. Growing up is filled with anxieties and challenges and it demands persistence and bravery. Curtain calls give us a chance to say: you’re doing great, keep going, this collective community of people have gathered in this room to celebrate you, your risks, your growth, your voice. Well done.
Take a bow, kiddo, we’re here for you.
(it’s a good photo, right? you’ve now seen about as much of The Lorax as I did.)
01 5 / 2013
I always love when John Spayde writes about our work. He has a real depth of understanding and level of nuance that really resonates with me. In this nice feature on The Line, he manages to cut through my excited talking and hand waving and make sense of what I’m trying to say.
21 4 / 2013
This won’t be the most popular thing I ever write. The most popular thing I ever wrote is this letter I wrote when I got really mad at the Governor of Kansas.
Which makes sense – we share things that are “against”, “take downs”, “rebuttals”, and “refutations” Don’t get me wrong, I love a well-worded smack down, especially if I agree with the author. And, certainly, there are many ideas who’ve had their time, people who could use a humbling, and wrongnesses that need to be pointed out and challenged.
And I count among my closest friends energetic questioners, enthusiastic hole-pokers, challengers, dissenters and the sassy, grouchy and downright curmudgeonly. And sometimes I get so mad about something that I have to express it, and sometimes I want to publicly challenge assumptions.
But it’s not what I want to be known for. If I have the great fortune and luck to be known or remembered for something, I want it to be something I added, not something I took down. That’s the challenge I am trying to give myself, before I comment, before I write, before I grouse about how somebody else is doing it wrong. What am I doing to make it better? What solutions am I offering? Can my work speak for itself? What if I spent the time and energy I was going to spend on critique on making something awesome instead?
It’s a whole lot harder to shine than undermine…
09 4 / 2013
Thanks to the Knight Foundation for this feature on their blog about our new healthcare toolkit and an interview with meeeeeee.
15 3 / 2013
The McKnight Foundation asked me to respond to their fantastic data visualization project that they created for the artist fellowship program.
“It makes me think that artists are like bees—going from flower to flower, pollinating, creating hybrids, feeding, taking, making things bloom.”
15 3 / 2013
Thanks to MinnPost for publishing this piece I wrote with Andriana Abariotes:
"Creating or experiencing art can give people a fulfilling sense of personal power. We all have something to say about the world, and art helps us find our voice. It can also help us find each other. Arts activities provide valuable opportunities for people to gather and interact. Personal power gained through art can become community power, and collective action that results from that power can be transformative."