Archives for posts with tag: arts

Arts workers, your tribe just got bigger by a factor of X –

 (hint: your best ideas represent X)…

Here’s something that’s not exactly news, but worth proclaiming loudly at this particular moment.  Entrepreneurial business – that is, the start-up world, which includes those hip software guys and gals and their innovative counterparts within larger companies – sees itself as more closely aligned to the arts than to traditional business.  The arts has friends in high places, not only friends but a tribe of genius-level thought workers – rainmakers and gamechangers who represent the very nexus of the global ideas economy.

Entrepreneurs are striving hard now to do what arts managers have been doing for decades, dealing nimbly and effectively with climates of extreme uncertainty, while making it look way cool.  Consultants – whose reputation has arguably been sliding in an era of post-recession budget constraints  – are well positioned to reinvent themselves as the scout bees of this new landscape, since we work as both arts managers and entrepreneurs, and sometimes for organizations in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors.  As we discussed and agreed at the Dance/NYC symposium in February, the sector is not as important as the work itself, and the fact that it is fulfilling its mission and connecting with its intended audience.  Now, more than ever, is a great time to mix things up.

Entrepreneurial science has developed specific frameworks to map and describe a reality-based, arts-friendly way of getting things done – one of these is Agile, another (closely related) is Scrum.  If more arts workers learn this language, we can communicate better with our extended tribe.

I just returned from a three-day conference at the Microsoft “Nerd” Center in Cambridge– the Agile Games.   The experience strengthened my notion that if the arts and the start-up world can just find ways to share respective models and frameworks, connect our discourses and put the right people in touch with each other to improve both sectors’ ways of working, we can fast-track towards – in the words of keynote speaker Michael Sahota – “learning to play and playing to win” in the new ideas economy.

Arts administration and Agile project management form a natural alliance for spotting opportunities within chaos, welcoming change and adding layers of complexity with soul-stirring results.  But first, we must look up from our deadlines, recognize other stripes and types of “creatives,” deconstruct our jargon and identify what we’re passionate about.  When that “strategic planning” work is done and we’ve identified our next big “wow!,” it is fairly safe to bet (aka project) we can find funders interested in our collaborations.

Many will say we’ve already been doing this.  Okay, yes, Agile is very much a description of what arts workers do all the time.  However, if we go ahead and learn it –  delve into a set of specifics that has been determined to have global relevance – we can carry on with greater intention for the sake of our field and the positive, world-transforming attributes that we have always known art represents.

The following Q&A with project management veteran Tom Gilb – known today as “Grandfather of the Agile movement,” has direct application to the world of arts funding, particularly as outcomes-based management  is catching on among grantmakers and showing up in their reporting requirements.   A statement he makes validates my assumption that there needs to be a shift from “grantwriting” per se to more of a project management-driven approach in an age of increased competition for project-based contributed income:

“So that is my lesson to stakeholders and project funders. Demand clear, quantified objectives before happily dispensing money.”

Recent publications such as Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason make clear the connections between big thinking, fundability, creativity and survival in the coming years in the nonprofit sector.  So in that spirit, here are some questions for arts managers to consider.

  • At any given point, could a funder walk up to someone working in your box office or classroom or studio and say “tell me what you’re trying to accomplish this season with my money” ?
  • Have you integrated aspects of project management into your grantwriter’s set of responsibilities?
  • Is your grantwriter considered the “spinmaster” in your organization?
  • Do some of your staff seem resentful of having to “kowtow to funders”?
  • Are grantwriters included in long-range programming and brainstorming meetings?
  • Are programming staff assigned to write portions of your final reports?

The arts should stay ahead of this curve – it’s where we belong!

“Sponsored by Agile New England, Agile Games 2012 is an Agile Conference devoted to the serious play, collaboration, and experimental learning that power Agile software development. Agile Games 2012 will be held April 19-21, 2012 at the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge, MA.”

Full schedule available at

I cannot WAIT to attend and report back to the arts community!

What individual or organization do you believe has made “outstanding contributions to the excellence, support, growth and availability of the arts in the United States?”   Think about it.  Before March 31st.   And then submit your nomination. Here:

‘Tis the season for naming names.  To the selection committee for the National Medal of Art, that is.

The National Medal of Arts is our nation’s highest honor in the field of arts and culture.

I chose to nominate New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas!   Why?

Because since 1996 the Festival has made creative intelligence a civic virtue.   Its organizers blend forward thinking with respect for the many flavors of hybridized cultures that comprise our city,  fulfilling a cultural thirst and curiosity shared by residents and visitors alike.

Each June, New Haven revels in its embrace of the world through some of the most vivid thought-forms imaginable expressed in music, in colorful artworks, in dialogue and in purposeful movements of bodies in dance.  The fact that this volume of contemporary cultural activity takes place on the country’s oldest planned central Green  makes me feel – though it sounds corny to say – proud and hopeful about civilization.  The fact that the Festival was in full swing when I was first visiting from the South at age 31 and exploring real estate options is no coincidence.

I appreciate the fact that Bill T. Jones has been my neighbor, for a time, thanks to the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  Same with Yo-Yo Ma, Liz Lerman, Slavic Soul Party, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and a dazzling array of minds from around the globe.  We have held each other in thrall as evenings fade to twilight and crowds of very different people make room for one another, sway in common rhythms, eat together, pass a ball in long arcs, share space, and belong.  My enjoyment of a sense of “home” and “summer” as an adult has been inextricably linked to experiences at the Festival.   It has become a very rich occasion and tradition for the thousands who attend.

There are hundreds of ticketed events offered as well in venues across New Haven during the 15 days of the Festival, and these are also profoundly worthwhile.  And judging from the illustrious history outlined on its website – – The International Festival of Arts and Ideas  is more than deserving of national recognition.

Who will you nominate for the National Medal of Arts?  Share your enthusiasm…

What is Agile?

As the arts community agrees on the value of entrepreneurship, one specific framework to look at is Agile.  Originating from within the fast paced, ever-changing world of software development, Agile is now spreading to other business sectors, even outside of the start-up community.  Big Visible Solutions is one company offering regular trainings in New York City in a form of Agile known as Scrum, which offers enough reference points to make it an arts-friendly way to plan, organize workflow and manage teams.

Planning in Agile Mode

A traditional planning process is geared towards envisioning the entire plan from start to finish prior to execution.  One of the assumptions made is that the conditions which govern the operating climate at the start of the planning process will remain stable throughout the period covered by the plan.  Alternatively, a five-year plan may be drafted with the assumption that it will need to be examined and revised each year in order to remain relevant.  That’s an awful lot of time committed to be spent planning!

Agile planning mode is more reality-based.  It assumes that you cannot possibly know everything you need to know at the start of execution, no matter how thorough a planning process has been.  The goal is to gather enough clarity to get started, and to set up a transparent process for learning and sharing results along the way.  Precision is not sought-after while making estimates (guessing), but is to be desired and expected as a team works together.

When you have committed a lot of time to be spent in a planning process, change becomes a threat to be controlled or eliminated.  In reality, change is an ever-present constant, which can be channeled into productivity if it is recognized with thoughtful response.

Bottom Line from The Agile Manifesto: Agile values responding to change over following a plan.  

Organizing Workflow in Agile Mode

Responding to change does not mean operating in a chaotic or unstructured way!  On the contrary, a definite structure to the workflow is necessary in order to measure what in fact gets accomplished.  In the Agile framework, workflow is organized into “sprints,” time periods which have specific beginning and end-dates.  Based on all the priorities identified in the plan (called a backlog, to be explained in more detail in the next article) the team commits to what it can accomplish within a given timebox.  That commitment – to accomplish X by Y date – constitutes the sprint and is to be considered a team not an individual effort.

Defining “X,” or what the team will accomplish together within a very tight timeframe requires that all team members maintain a customer focus throughout the sprint.  In other words, everyone involved with a project must understand how the work produced is going to be used in the real world and why it is in demand.  The meaning of the work is embedded into Agile workflow practices and constantly accessible to the team because of the Agile focus on organizing tasks by creating short narratives based on customer wants and needs.

These short narratives that define the workflow in Agile mode are known as “user stories.”  To take an example highly relevant to the nonprofit arts world, instead of a plan that reads “consultant will research funding prospects for Executive Director to distribute to the Board,” the Agile translation would be “As a Board Member, I want to review a current list of funding prospects so that I can fulfill my fiduciary responsibilities.”  The consultant and Executive Director work together to make that story come true, but they are not the focus of the work.  The “customer” is (i.e. in the arts world, stakeholder).

Bottom line:  Commitment to completing work within a given timeframe fuels high productivity.

Managing Teams in Agile Mode

Let’s look at project management as a discipline.  Its place in the business world has become well-defined; most projects require an administrator whose job it is to run around with a club making sure everyone involved is on time and on budget.  The project manager holds others accountable, because ultimately they are accountable themselves.

In the arts world, creative projects have managers (choreographers, certainly, fulfill this role) but on the administrative side things are not so clear.  Many administrative “projects” do not have managers per se other than the organizational directors.  Without a defined project manager, collaborations tend to get bogged down and become more trouble, sometimes, than they are worth.  Then around final report time, grantmakers are asked to go into the back room and sprinkle pixie dust all over everything to make it sound good.  Grantmakers get tired of reading “spin,” and everyone wonders what the real outcomes are for the money invested.

Projects are led by a  Scrum Master in the Agile framework.  The Scrum Master functions as a team coach.  He/she is responsible for facilitating meetings, listening to reports from the team, identifying obstacles to getting the work completed and removing them, and helping the team understand any changes in specifications as the customer/stakeholder’s wishes become increasingly better understood.

Another important function of the Scrum Master is to lead a retrospective at the conclusion of a sprint.  This will be a familiar concept to performing arts administrators, similar to a “post-mortem” after a production.  The retrospective is focused on three simple questions:

•    What went well?
•    What did not go so well?
•    How can we improve?

Answering these questions makes the next planning process rather a no-brainer, as the next set of work becomes mapped out and refined automatically.  Agile teams are self-organized in that each team member has an intrinsic commitment to accomplishing the goals of the sprint, and the Scrum Master functions as a coach rather than a dictator, taskmaster, or guy/gal with a club.

Bottom line: Agile management is focused on teams rather than individuals, but individuals and interactions matter more than processes and tools for getting work done.

Why is Agile relevant to the arts?

This appears to be a watershed moment: alongside the eternal cry that arts organizations should become ever more businesslike in a traditional, fiscally buttoned-up sense, businesses are now striving to be more and more creative, to think and operate more like artists.  The cultural membrane is stretched very thin right now between non-profit and for-profit forms of innovation, minimizing their differences.  As a result, producers and practitioners of all kinds can meet and profit from the exchange of ideas on a more level intellectual playing field than ever before, where no one sector is presumed to have all the correct answers and mutually meaningful collaborative learning can take place.

Focus here on the Agile framework represents one set of specifics in that vein.  The arts community itself must determine its ultimate relevance and usefulness.

Further information on the Agile framework and Scrum training is available at and

Please provide feedback on this article and related topics here or to  MANY THANKS.



EVENT:West HavenCouncil on the Arts Second Artists Forum3/9/12

City Hall,West Haven,CT

TOPIC:West HavenFineArtsCenterProgramming


  • James Reed, Professor of Printmaking, University ofNew Haven
  • Paul Scanlon, President,West HavenCouncil on the Arts


Agenda:  Prof. Reed presented his perspective on what the futureWest HavenCenter for the Arts located at304 Center Street could be for the community, based on his experiences inBridgeport, followed by a roundtable discussion.  He made a strong impact with the statement, “There has never been an instance where the arts have been introduced to a community and the community got worse.”  APPLAUSE


Atmosphere: Chairs were arranged in a circle, folk music was playing, and wine, mineral water and snacks were served. 


Who was there: Officers of the West Haven Council on the Arts were basically happy with the turnout (20 or so by the end of the meeting).  A multi-disciplinary cross-section of the local arts community was represented, including: the director of a dance company, a filmmaker and director who has been on Broadway and now runs Theater West, the Executive Director for New Haven Symphony Orchestra, three co-producers of Shoestring Theater, a professional arts writer (myself), the director of New Haven’s Project Storefront who does costuming for theater productions, an organizer for Ideat Village, a children’s book illustrator and student in the Yale School of Drama, a videographer and photographer, a doctorate student in how music affects brain function ages birth to four, a graphic design student, and people who have volunteered for the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  These are folks withWest Haven zip codes – self labeled humanists, optimists, futurists, opportunists and more – who are eager to be more oriented towards their local community and active in raising the bar of expectation for cultural activity inWest Haven.  A lifelong resident finished his self-introduction proclaiming, “I’d love to be part of the new heyday forWest Haven.”


History of West Haven Center for the Arts:   West Haven is a city of 10 square miles and 56,000 located 5 minutes from downtownNew Haven.  In 2003, Paul Scanlon founded a citizens’ arts coalition which collected upwards of 500 signatures in two days for an arts center to be a home for programming.  When an appropriate building (formerMasonicTemple) came up for sale in the downtown area, there was a big push with a lot of energy behind it for the City to purchase it. $550,000 in state grant money was approved by Jodi Rell for the original purchase.  Asbestos and lead abatement was undertaken by the City with an additional $100,000 raised from citizens, and a $500,000 contribution from Yale.  The building is now in a “buttoned up” state, partially renovated and protected from deterioration.  In 2007 the West Haven Arts Council became officially incorporated as a not-for-profit, 501( c )(3) organization, absorbing the former citizens’ coalition.  Turner Brooks, an architect affiliated with Yale, was selected for the project and brought it through schematic design.  At the first Artists Forum, the Arts Council gathered a lot of ideas and input about what the architect was doing.  The classical building will have a modern appendage, blending two architectural styles into a unified hybrid.  A feasibility study was commissioned which is now available to read in draft form.  There will be another design process before construction documents can be created. The Fine Arts Center is committed to solar power and to being a green (LEED-certified?) building.



Roundtable Discussion Points:

  • West Havenis “too cool not to be revitalized.”
  • West Haven’s downtown has good bones for parking, traffic flow and pedestrians.  The whole city is quite walkable.
  • The fine arts center can create a hub of cultural activity in the downtown area.
  • The Council is “trying not to leave anybody out.”  Planning for programming, the question is what are we missing or forgetting?  One vulnerability is letting a particular group or discipline monopolize the space.  The goal is balance and a mission that will drive the activity forward more than particular personalities.
  • A key word for the center is “flexibility.”  The space will be flexible to accommodate a lot of different types of arts and culture programming: galleries, rehearsal space, classrooms, a 2-tier blackbox theater and a 3rd floor wide open space with skylight for interactive events.  Grassroots and world-class artists will come together inWest Haven to comprise an entire spectrum of creative inquiry and innovation.
  • West Haven’s Mayor John Picard is extremely supportive.  Anew CityCouncil will be seated in the next couple of weeks.
  • State funding for arts is now being channeled via Arts Based Placemaking – tying cultural activity to specific economic drivers that will attract people in their 20s and 30s to live and build innovative industry inConnecticut.
  • West Cove has statewide significance as one of three specialty printmaking shops inConnecticut.
  • Theater West is now in its 4th season and its productions are growing in popularity, attracting 1,200 to the West Haven Green for summer performances.
  • The new train station, the beach and the new fine arts center create three legs forWest Havento stand tall on.  At all three places, the other two should have a visual presence to make people aware that all three exist as important and interdependent facets of community pride and growth.
  • Youth programs at the center need to create “a place for outcasts.”  Seniors are also important and often underserved.
  • Renting space for performances during recital season could be a good source of income and a community service.
  • West Havenneeds a Greenwich Village-style coffeehouse where live events, information and work-in-progress among artists can be shared with the public.
  • Bring in notables such as the Poet Laureate of Connecticut.


Big Ideas:

  • Horse-drawn carriages down Campbell Aveserving as shuttle between the beach and dinner theater.
  • Promote the fact that Campbell Aveis exactly halfway between New York Cityand Mohegan Sun – invite buses to stop so people headed for casino can walk around.
  • Skill-sharing workshops and open craft sessions for individuals and families to learn different types of hands-on, material technologies
  • Let’s become expert at “making something out of nothing.”  Take materials out of the waste stream and get them into the hands of creatives.
  • Build upon the partnership with Yale to bring in world-class acts.
  • Keep dreaming big for West Haven, because if you “shoot for the ground you’ll hit it every time!”



Recommended Next Steps for the Arts Council:

  • Drive membership count upwards.  There are currently about a dozen members actively involved in projects out of a total membership of about 60 people.   President’s goal is to double that in the next few months.
  • Present a more prominent and visually unified image in marketing materials
  • Link with area studios and galleries as distribution centers: e.g. West Cove Studios
  • Reach out to state & Kip Bergstrom regardingWest Haven’s eligibility and process to apply for an Arts Based Placemaking grant
  • “There are lots of dots to connect.”
  • Invite influence: “We are literally forging the arts community ofWest Haven.  We are the go-to group.”  “Now is the time for people who are interested to get in on the ground floor; they can have all the input they want.”



Upcoming events on similar topic(s):

  • April 5th 7-9pm City Hall, West Haven, Meeting Rm A, West Haven Council on the Arts meeting.  Meetings are held every first Thursday in the same location.
  • May – Family Arts Night,West HavenArts Council


Additional Information:

  • The public can read the feasibility study online at  Password is West Haven.




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