Monday, April 22, 2013

Putting the $ in Mu$ic

Yo-Yo Ma gave a great speech recently in Washington, DC as a part of Arts Advocacy Day. The cornerstone of his message was "the edge effect" - the space where different things meet.

The term actually comes from science. The edge effect occurs in the transition zone between two ecological communities, and gives way to greater diversity in life forms. For instance, where the forest and the grasslands meet, there are more varieties of insect, animal, and plant life than in the forest alone. Similarly, on the borders of countries are often found more variety of languages, races, and cultures than in the middle of a country. The result in these spaces is increased ability to support life, flexibility and biodiversity.

Yo-Yo smartly related this to the arts by discussing the intersections between the arts and what are more commonly thought of as the pillars of our society: economics, politics and culture. In today's blog, I want to focus on economics, because as artists and arts managers I think we have the most to gain by making a strong economic case for the arts.

Thankfully, I have help. No, not from other artists or arts enthusiasts, but from the economic community! This week the Bureau of Economics is implementing new changes to the way our GDP is calculated. GDP is the total dollar value of all goods and services produced in the US. One of the changes comes in the form of Artistic Originals - long-lasting art such as TV shows, books, movies and music. 

How big is this change in representing the US economy? Creative works will add 0.5% to our GDP. Or $75 Billion.

Wow, that's a lot. Like, a whole lot.

So - by simply acknowledging that the arts brings in money (royalties, ticket sales, related merch, what have you), we can increase the bleak economic outlook of the US by $75 Billion. Mind you, this doesn't change anything, or increase transactions that are occurring. It just lifts the veil on what had previously been ignored.  It also allows for more confidence in artistic investment and involvement by non-artists. It's a huge step in saying the arts could very well be a huge export for the US.

We're not just talking about theories and formulas when we discuss economics of the arts. These are real jobs, real people, real incomes that are created by the arts. I go to a lot of concerts - it's my job. It's not my job, however, to go out to eat with my friends or colleagues before the shows. Yet, I do about 50% of the time. People who go to concerts/shows less frequently might go out to eat 90% of the time before a show. So what does this amount to? Income for restaurants, tips for waiters, valet parking revenue, and maybe some high bar tabs if they're going out with me! Plain and simple - it's increased economic activity that is directly tied to the arts.

We shouldn't stop at food and drink though.When you drive into New York City, you will see countless billboards with concert, theatre and movie advertisements. Someone was paid to design these ads. Another company was paid to print them. Contract laborers were paid to hang them and the company that owns the ad space was paid to rent it out. With year-round advertising in just one square mile outside of New York City, imagine how many salaries along that chain are paid for directly because of arts activity.

Now we're on a roll. The travel industry is a huge beneficiary of the arts. How many people do you know that have taken a plane, train or bus to NYC to see a Broadway show? How many hotel rooms do you think get filled by musicians when the Philadelphia Orchestra goes on tour through the Midwest? How many people take taxis and subways/metro to the local performing arts center each night when Beyoncé is in town? The amount of transportation revenue from the arts is pretty incredible to think about.

I strive to remind people that we are not only a feel-good industry that makes the world a more inspired place. True, a lot of people like the arts and the good feelings that come with them. Those people also spend money that helps put a waiter through college and keeps a taxi in business on an otherwise slow night. The arts is a huge economic engine that can turn around a neighborhood, a city, and maybe even a whole economy.

If you want to watch (or read) Yo-Yo's speech, here it is:

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Space Race (con't)

There are a few things I have come to believe are true: Justin Bieber’s monkey is more famous than I will ever be; there are more self-proclaimed artists in the world than at any time in history; and the arts are the next big export—both here in Washington, D.C., and abroad.

All three of these truths lead to a problem we have in our cultural communities. We need more space.

With YouTube, an iPad, and Kickstarter, anyone can create and distribute art while sitting in front of the computer in their underwear (no…not THAT kind of art). Some artists can even launch careers from the keyboard. But it is not enough to think of art as an activity performed in isolation, behind the curtain of technology.

I have learned that many people in my community feel the same way. Sure, it’s easy to rehearse and perform a play in your living room, read chamber music in a basement, and labor over paintings in the garage for hours—but if no one sees your art, does it have any real impact?

While finding performance space is often the key stumbling block, locating adequate rehearsal (or studio) space is an equally important challenge. Without an appropriate place to cultivate art, there is no true quality control of the product. Don’t believe me? Ask a dancer.

One way to overcome this problem is to throw money at it. Michael Kaiser of The Kennedy Center, along with Chairman David Rubenstein and host of other donors are doing just that. They have an ambitious expansion program in mind to create more space for Kennedy Center education programs, alternative performance space, and even public windows into rehearsal rooms!

For those of us who don’t have $100 million lying around, there are other great ideas.

The folks at AS220 in Providence, RI, have created an amazing space (and they started with just $800). The history is simple and wonderfully energizing.

A few artists lived, more or less, as squatters. They scraped together money to officially rent a small studio. More artists were added for nominal fees. The city caught wind of this and, luckily, worked with the artists to create permanent space in a bad neighborhood.

The block started to clean itself up thanks to influx of young, hip inhabitants. And now, AS220 encompasses several city blocks, runs a restaurant to pay for the adjoining performance space, presents unjuried/uncensored art year-round, and rents out retail space to pay for community artist housing and studios. Could someone please light my candle?

If turning an entire tent city into Avenue A seems a little ambitious, there are ways to start small.

I have seen success with restaurant space doubling as performance space—especially for late night crowds. Many restaurants (outside of New York) won’t make money after 10 p.m. If you can bring a show, concert, or event after normal operating hours, and your audience will eat or drink, the restaurant would be foolish not to stay open.

At my organization, Washington Performing Arts Society, our education team does a great job of finding what sometimes seems impossible. We partner with other existing summer programs to share space and students at camp. We turn a museum full of kids into a concert hall on the weekends in August. We even use churches as rehearsal space for our choirs.

It’s not that we’re just looking for free space—the partnerships we form with other organizations create more enriching programming by sharing resources such as instruments, faculty, students, and knowledge.

One key ingredient in finding adequate space for your organization or project seems to be sharing. Collaboration is a hot topic in the arts lately, both on the programming and funding side of things. Find partners, friends, or anybody with complimentary needs, and work together. This will help you better utilize space, encourage new ideas, and get funding.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Partnership is the New Black

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last 5 years (I just saw that show at Signature Theatre with the amazing James Gardiner, go see it), you are aware that financial times are tough in most parts of the world.  Indeed, these trying times have affected the arts to no small degree.  Going on strike seems to be contagious among major orchestras, performance companies are folding, and public funding for the arts has declined.

People say that adversity breeds creativity, and this is especially true in the arts.  Besides taking the obvious steps to cut unnecessary expenses, renegotiate artist fees and innovate programming, many surviving organizations have turned to each other for help.  Partnership is the new black in a sea of red balance sheets.

So what defines a partnership? It varies. My organization, WPAS, was managing the box office for a smaller performing arts org here in DC for a while because they didn't have the existing infrastructure or capital to invest in it.

No Rules Theatre Company, a small but growing group, recently partnered with  Signature Theatre, who you read about above, to use their space and present new and dynamic themes to the Signature audience.

A few years ago, the Washington National Opera was in a deep struggle, so they teamed up (i.e. were acquired by) with the Kennedy Center.  It turned into a great partnership - Opera stayed alive, singers stayed employed, and the Kennedy Center can now present and help curate major operatic works.  Win-win.

A unique partnership seems to be emerging in DC at the moment.  The Corcoran Gallery of Art, who has been running deficits of about $7 million yearly, is in talks to join forces with - no not another gallery - the University of Maryland.  In addition to being an art gallery, the Corcoran is a fine arts school.  This intriguing partnership gives UMD the ability to expand its artistic offerings, and create deeper connections between the arts and some of its academic strengths like architecture, engineering and journalism, and have a physical presence right next to the White House. The Corcoran gets access to UMD donors, sharing of some operational costs, and may help enhance its own curriculum.  This partnership literally saved the Corcoran, one of America's oldest art institutions, which was very close to simply shutting down and moving to a cheaper spot outside of DC.  That would have been a huge loss.

So what we have, in DC and all over the country, is a bunch of arts organizations working together, sharing ideas, audiences, resources and creating new art together.  Can someone tell me why it took a financial crisis to make this happen?  Whatever the impetus, I'm glad to see it!