Monday, May 21, 2007

I get the change, but how are you different than United Arts?

I had a conversation with a local executive director on Friday partly to discuss our changes from being the Performing Arts Alliance to the Arts & Cultural Alliance. You can read the letter here. One of the big questions from that conversation was why do we need both the Alliance and United Arts and how are you different? It is a valid question and was asked in the context of potential budget cuts many arts and cultural organizations will face with the property tax cuts looming.

Before explaining our differences, I reminded the arts leader that the Alliance and UA are not the only service-oriented entities concentrating on our region. This is not an exhaustive list, but within the core of the region, private nonprofits include the Downtown Arts District (DAD), and the Orlando Performing Arts Center (OPAC). On the public side, there is the Orange County office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Seminole County Arts Council and the Winter Park Cultural and Economic Development Division. Finally, the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitor's Bureau (Orlando CVB) also serves the cultural community in pushing visitors to experience our region's best.

I would need a much larger forum than this blog to explain all the differences between the various service organizations, but two points are important with all of these groups. First, we are not working in a vacuum. All of these group's leaders meet monthly to discuss where are efforts can better work together. A soon to be released arts and cultural economic impact study on the region is the result of these relationships. Second, all of these entities believe passionately abut building the cultural identity of the region and the opportunities for artists.

So, how is the Alliance different than UA? The major difference is that the Alliance doesn't raise money to give it away. UA is our region's major fundraising entity in the tradition of United Way that gives money to both arts organizations and artists. UA is also the designated local arts agency. This primarily means UA is the leading advocate for the arts and cultural community on a regional, state and federal level.

The Alliance's major mission is to increase participation in our arts and cultural community. We have evolved into a boutique cultural marketing and tourism trade association. I stress boutique because the Orlando CVB is clearly the leader in drawing visitors to the area. The Alliance is concentrating purely on the arts and cultural sector. The Alliance serves seven counties to follow the push to build the region's presence. UA serves four counties.

Like other trade associations, we are membership based. Arts and cultural organizations realize the importance of leveraging our strengths to increase participation and that collaboration needs a third party to implement the services necessary to build audience.

UA and the Alliance are different, but share the same passion to elevate our region's cultural identity. In very simple terms, UA is the funding and advocate arm and the Alliance deals in audience development. Are there things we do together? Yes. ArtsFest is a great example of this. Ultimately, the differences are important to help you understand where to go for what services, but I think it is even more important to realize that we are all working together.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Isn't the theme park artist important too?

A local director and teacher spoke to me with confusion about what we meant when we say we want to increase participation in the region. He mentioned that he thought the research conducted revealing that 11% of our households participate in arts and culture was not inclusive enough.

He thought it was discriminating against the artists that work at the theme parks and other visitor attractions. Were we doing a disservice by not including that participation in our research? Does not the artist that works in the theme parks also count in our analysis of participation?

I was surprised by his reaction, but he said he knew several artists that felt a little slighted. After explaining the premise of the research, it was clearer to him what the data supported. He did ask why we didn't include audiences that visit the theme parks in our data as they participate as audience members for our artists employed at these attractions. We didn't measure the audiences at the parks because our research was about local participation and didn't include visitors. That is a different set of data.

Our conversation did remind me how our community is truly unique as we have such a dynamic artist community and yes many of them make a living performing or painting at the theme parks. Many of those same artists also perform and paint within the region at more traditional venues too. We clearly have no shortage of talented artists. Truly this is part of the motivation behind measuring the participation at a local level from our greater community. We know how much talent we have and want more people in the region to notice it too.

We want the parks to be filled with visitors and our local arts destinations to have full houses and galleries and museums to be over flowing with people. A region identified for its cultural destinations, whether pop, traditional or progressive. It can't happen soon enough.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Get educated about the venues...then decide.

Where do you stand on the venues is a question I get asked a lot from fellow students in my MBA class and people I run into in the community. I am the arts guy and the only nonprofit person in my 35-member class, so I naturally get tagged with questions in these areas. I often like these questions because I get a chance to help educate or point a person in the right direction to get educated about the issues, in this case the venues.

People assume that because of my position I must be close to the process of the plan to build the performing arts center. The official position of the Alliance is that we do support the buildling of a new performing arts center, but outside of the Orlando Ballet, Orlando Opera, Orlando Philharmonic, Festival of Orchestras and the SunTrust Broadway Series (the local groups that will primarily use the space), none of the arts community has been closely involved in the strategic process. In fact, I think the board and staff behind the performing arts center could have done a much better strategic job of engaging the greater arts community.

The venues are currently under great scrutiny and the Orange County Commission, who has yet to approve the plans of the venues, could vote to turn down the proposal. It is definitely a pinnacle moment in our burgeoning city's growth no matter where you sit. I think that many people already felt it was a done deal. It isn't at all though.

The Orange County Commissioners have been hosting education sessions to gain feedback from the public. There are two left. You can see the Alliance website for the times and places. The Performing Arts Center and Project Hometown are also asking that as many arts patrons and staff sign a petition in favor of the proposed performing arts center. Now, I am not going to tell you to sign this letter. The Alliance doesn’t' work in that manner. What I am going to highly encourage is that you attend one or both of these final sessions. Educate yourself, so that you can make your own decision about signing the petition. If you have already made up your mind and want to sign the letter, email The Performing Arts Center has had the most public support, but right now it is tied closely to the other venues because the strategy was to bundle the venues together.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Is the sky falling?

My son's favorite new book is Chicken Lickin. It is an offshoot of the Chicken Little story. In the Chicken Licken story, the chicken leads his other farmland friends to their death on their way to tell the king about the fact that the sky is falling. They meet a wolf who takes them to his den of other wolves and zappo, no more farm animals. Of course the sky was never falling and the fact that Chicken Lickin and his pals were so enamored with that possibility meant they didn't see the very real danger of the wolf right in front of them. Ahh, the lessons of children’s book for us adults.

The Alliance is having to tighten its belt financially and has had to reduce its staff because of this. Our income comes mostly from unearned sources; the earned we do get comes from SAK Comedy Lab's facility rental at the Theatre Garage. We are working on not being so dependent on that rent, but it requires us to get a leaner to do so.

Is the sky falling at the Alliance? Absolutely not. In fact, there are many positive things happening. One of my faults (I have more, but my wife doesn't have time to share all of them with you) is that I see big and want so much for our arts and culture community. I see the huge potential of what collaboration can do for our community, but the reality of the limited financial resources has reared its ugly head again in what we can do. So, the sky is not falling, but we are trying to avoid being eaten by the big bad wolf.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Glimpse of hope...much needed.

For those of you who didn't read Sunday's newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel ran an article about a survey conducted to gauge the general public's opinion about the proposed venues: the arena, Citrus Bowl renovations and the performing arts center. The public was loud and clear that the performing arts center is the top choice amongst the three venues.

According to the survey company, "The performing-arts center is holding the other two up." This is positive as the region recognizes the importance of a new performing arts venue. I wasn't totally surprised as the performing arts venue has so many positives in its favor. Just a few are that building it has been discussed for at least 15 years, it has already over $50 million in private funds raised toward its $100 million goal and the building it is to replace was built in the early 1900's.

I needed a little bit of hope sent my way. I have had too many conversations lately about sustainability issues with arts groups. Staff turnover, cash-flow challenges, lack of audience, drama off the stage (soap operas amongst current and former staffs), uninvolved boards and the impending property tax changes and state funding reductions have all dominated conversations over the last week. Staying in tune with the heartbeat of what we do can be difficult amongst the struggle to survive. Your work doesn't go unnoticed on our end.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Grow together or die alone

It is my familiar drum beat, but it bears repeating and now some more research confirms it. The beat is collaboration. The study came out of Philadelphia funded by the William Penn Foundation and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. RAND conducted the study (see the full study here). Although the study was conducted to primarily help the Philadelphia area, the study's use of ten cities lends itself to application in other cities like Orlando as well.

The ten cities include some that are new and flourishing(Charlotte and Phoenix), some that are older manufacturing centers struggling to reinvent themselves (Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh), and some that are regional centers with diversified economies and stable populations (Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Minneapolis–St. Paul). Orlando would fall in line with Charlotte and Phoenix, although still trailing in financial stability to the scale of those cities.

The summary of the research holds that cities must have either a centralized agency, public or private, with multiple functions, or a combination of public and private agencies with a clear division of support between them. Locally, we have the combination of public and private agencies and we are working on the clear division of support. United Arts, the Performing Arts Alliance, Orange County Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitor's Bureau (Orlando CVB) are just some of the agencies locally concentrating on this.

It also said that city's must recognize the contribution of the arts to other city goals, such as economic development and tourism, and collaborate closely with the established agencies to support those goals. Orlando is still in the embryonic stages with this finding. Although we have seen an increase in the recognition of the importance of the arts, a true connection of the dots with the goals of the city and region has yet to be realized. Mostly, it is just vocal recognition. A true seat in the inner cirlce of planning has yet to happen.

A major accomplishment though is the connection with the Orlando CVB. Margot Knight, president/CEO of United Arts sits on the board of directors for the Orlando CVB as the first arts representative in its history. The CVB has also been assertive in creating relationships with arts groups and creating the Unexpected Orlando brochure, highlighting the area's cultural destinations. This relationship is not common in other cities when I talk to my peers. The Performing Arts Alliance Getaway packages is an attempt to create a boutique cultural tourism focus that the CVB also fully embraces.

The third recommendation is to have strong arts alliances that encourage arts organizations to collaborate with each other on marketing, acquiring employee benefits, controlling production costs, and fundraising.

Score one for the region here in a major way. The Performing Arts Alliance, United Arts, Orange County Arts and Culture Affairs, the Orlando CVB all exist to address the points in the last charge. We are working well in these areas and have our particular niche. For example, United Arts tackles the fundraising, the Performing Arts is concentrating on the marketing end with help from other public and private agencies, while also helping to leverage larger purchases to save production-type costs.

Our puzzle has the right pieces. We have the agency relationships in place. In fact, all of the agencies mentioned plus more like the City of Winter Park and Seminole Community Cultural Arts Council meet monthly to discuss measures to work together more efficiently on a global scale. The collaborative spirit from the arts and culture organizations is primarily positive, save a few (there is always a naysayer in every bunch) and the region is growing. We are on the right pace. Essentially, the research findings say we grow together or we die alone. Let's grow!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

What color is your ocean?

I love to absorb information on how the business world is getting things done more efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t always transfer to the nonprofit world, but universal applications are frequent enough to keep me coming back. The book “Good to Great” even printed a booklet version, "Good to Great and the Social Sectors" for the nonprofit community because it had to adjust its methods to equate to a sector where money is the means to an end, not the final goal. Most of these books contain about 3 things you can take away and apply once you mix it up with your other knowledge and experience.

My recent takeaway came from the book Blue Ocean Strategies. The book mainly talks about not competing with rivals, but instead creating your own niche. It used Cirque du Soleil as a premiere example. Cirque didn't look at the circus and say, “how can we compete with Barnum. How can we have a better three-ring circus?” It simply created a new experience altogether. It is Barnum that is now changing its business model to compete with Cirque. I love the Cirque story, but I am looking at things more globally. I am thinking about our entire arts and culture community in Central Florida.

Could it be that we are looking at the competition, whether it be television, sports, concerts, in our case theme parks and saying, “How do we compete with that experience. We don't have the resources.” What if in this digital age, collectively we have a great opportunity staring at us in the face to push the live experience in a new way. What if we could look out and create a new collective experience even while keeping traditional forms of art as a part of that initiative?

There is some good work going on in the attempt at trying to become more Blue Ocean than competitive. There is a group in New York called the Creative Capital Foundation. This group has combined innovative ideas from the commercial sector with the nonprofit sector's integrity of purpose to create a new national initiative for funding artists. What color is our ocean in Central Florida? What possibilities exist to engage people with our stories on stage or canvas? Does our train pull into the station once the new Performing Arts Center is built? Do the traditional art forms draw a line in the sand and say this is real art, it is good for you. You should try it. Or, are there new ways of presenting ways of showcasing the live experience?