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Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, has an interesting take on the current climate for arts philanthropy: he thinks arts groups are enjoying a renaissance with donors.

That’s what he told Crain’s New York Business, anyway, which just published an article saying that arts philanthropy in the Big Apple is doing just fine, thank you, because it gets better press coverage than giving to social causes.

The last part, anecdotally, is true — but the first, the renaissance bit, clashes with what I’ve been hearing. True, I’ve been chatting about this with arts people from many cities, not just New York, but virtually everyone is telling me that gifts are down (as is earned revenue and, in most cases, attendance).

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Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts

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On Valentine’s Day, Pennsylvania Ballet staff members stood in the Merriam Theater’s lobby handing out coasters that bore what might have seemed a strange suggestion coming from an arts organization: Go to our YouTube channel.

What the mostly graying matinee audience made of the invitation to an online video-sharing site is unclear. What is clear is that the Pennsylvania Ballet is not alone in lusting after online social-network users.

The Kimmel Center has a Flickr photostream. The Curtis Institute of Music is on LinkedIn. The Arden Theatre and the Franklin Institute use Twitter. The Philadelphia Orchestra has a MySpace page.

The Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and just about every other arts organization in the city has a Facebook page. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an RSS feed of its exhibitions on its Web site, and the Academy of Natural Sciences shares exhibit-construction videos.

The Philadelphia fine-arts scene has gone viral, and no one is hiding the reason.

“It starts with young people. . . . We want to create more of a dialogue with this age group, and guess what – they’re on YouTube and MySpace and Facebook,” said Shawn Stone, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s market director. “It’s an active part of their lives, so it needs to be an active part of ours.”

The ballet plans to post new videos, produced by Rittenhouse Square’s Parlay Films, on its YouTube channel at least once a month. Future episodes will vary in content – from choreographer interviews to day-in-the-life dancer features to chronicling stage construction and more – but the intent won’t waver.

“We’re hoping this is a way to introduce younger people to the ballet,” Stone said. “Most of our dancers are in this age group. That’s different than other fine-arts institutions.”

Perhaps – but the ballet is just like its Avenue of the Arts neighbors in recognizing that winning younger audience members is necessary for survival and that social networking is a promising means of reaching them.

Among other initiatives to entice young listeners, the Philadelphia Orchestra promotes its EZSeatU, which offers open season tickets to college students for a one-time $25 fee.

“Social media is the backbone,” said J. Edward Cambron, the orchestra’s vice president for marketing. The orchestra hosts Facebook nights – $10 rush tickets to those who visit its Facebook page – that draw 50, 60 or more youthful takers. It is tinkering with its podcast – the Podchestra – and has invested in Facebook ads focusing on young Philadelphia college students, Cambron said.

“There’s the formal stuff like Facebook and MySpace, but it’s really about getting these young people to use their own social networks online,” Cambron said. “It’s viral in that community.”

After promoting reduced prices for younger audiences through its Facebook page, the Arden Theatre acquired a hundred or more new fans, said Janine Zappone, a public relations associate at the Old City theater. Now, the Arden regularly promotes half-price Tuesday-night offers and other deals aimed at young people on all its social-networking tools – Twitter, Facebook and MySpace – in addition to its blog, the Arden Insider, said Zappone, who is charged with overseeing all of them.

“The job description has definitely expanded,” she said, noting that social media – upkeep, development and dialogue – now occupy almost a third of her workweek. The payoff is a more loyal audience, one that better understands the Arden’s mission and responds more readily to calls for comment and criticism. The lessons, Zappone says, may not have been learned quickly, but they have been learned.

“There were early hurdles to the fine arts’ using social media,” the orchestra’s Cambron said. “Arts organizations are about quality and always presenting nothing but the very best. With social networking, you let go of some control. But what we’ve learned is that if you’re proud of your brand, well, that shouldn’t be a big worry. In fact, people will usually say fabulous stuff.”

In June, the League of American Orchestras will host its annual conference. While using social media isn’t on the agenda for the Chicago meeting yet, Cambron said his discussions with leaders of other big orchestras in places like New York, Chicago and Cleveland suggest that the trend could become a major theme.

The San Francisco Symphony posts interviews with its artists in high definition on its Facebook page. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has a YouTube channel on which it touts the city’s growing fine-arts community. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta recently took the plunge and now actively uses Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook accounts.

“Big cultural institutions might have been behind the curve,” Cambron said. “But they’re largely ahead of their older audiences . . . and have come on strong of late.”

The push is generally directed at those in their 30s or younger, if only to develop habits, he said: “When young people are exploring what they will do socially on their own, encouraging them to visit the orchestra is an incredibly valuable seed for the future.”

Social networking, with its profiles, personal details, and constant updates, offers more information about an audience than ever before – which means it’s easier than ever to target the vital youth demographic.

“Using social media and e-mail marketing is a much-less-expensive way of marketing,” said the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Stone. “It’s more targeted and can save your organization money.”

It’s also creating a direct line of communication with potential audiences of the future, Stone said.

“The world is changing and technology is changing and everyone, including arts organizations, needs to keep up with that technology,” he said. “If we want to survive, we need to reach people in the ways that they are going about their days. The fine arts depend on it.”

Christopher Wink
Philadelphia Inquirer

The RAND report — which is truly worth the detour — is first and foremost a literature review. Its authors have painstakingly trawled through the vast and scattered sources that address why cultural activity is — or more accurately may possibly be — of value; classified that literature (economic, social, psychological, aesthetic etc.); and then sought to give a broad account of how robust are the conclusions of the various studies.

They conclude, as others have before them, but never with such crushing evidential force, that the recent literature is a bit flaky, and that the wilder claims for the social and economic impact of the arts are overblown. This is not surprising. Much of the literature was generated in the context of the ruthless pursuit of money rather than the fearless pursuit of truth. Its purpose is not to increase the sum of human understanding but to persuade particular constituencies (usually public sector funders) in particular contexts (a capital project, a fiscal crisis) to maintain or increase levels of financial support.

I doubt many of the authors cited thought they were carrying responsibility for the intellectual underpinning of the Enlightenment. Their job was to play on the sensibilities of a particular group of decision makers. The arts constituency has been extremely successful in raiding the budgets of adjacent and better funded policy areas – education, urban renewal, tourism etc…

Some of the instrumental arguments are obviously a bit of stretch. Others are obviously true. But the arcane and (pace RAND) flawed methodologies employed rarely generate conclusions that are not accessed more easily, convincingly and cheaply by the application of common sense.

The overall ‘impact’ of the instrumental enterprise has been to leave the sector over-hyped, over-extended and cowering as it waits to be found out. Hence the reaction within the sector to the RAND report – “So whose side are you guys on then?” I got the same reaction to the debate on the same issues that we got going in the UK in 2003 and referenced in the right-hand sidebar to this blog. My perspective, like Midori’s, was that it’s not ‘either instrumental or intrinsic’ but that there are a wide range of arguments that apply differentially to a wide range of cultural activities and seeking to fit the whole of cultural endeavor into a single straight-jacket is both uncomfortable and unhelpful.

The current preoccupation with re-grounding the arguments for the public support of cultural activity is a result of this gut-churning awareness by the arts policy community that the hard-won gains in arts funding have been, in large part, as a result of aggressive but shakily-grounded lobbying. The re-grounding, heralded by the RAND authors and others like John Holden, as and when it happens – incrementally, awkwardly, partially — will bring with it not only changes in the gross level of arts funding but changes in the type of organizations and activities funded. This is no bad thing and indeed rather exciting.

My gripe with the current preoccupation with this vast literature and its methodological shortcomings is that it is something of a side show. This is not primarily because, as the RAND report demonstrates, the re-grounding of economic and social arguments in more analytically defensible research methodologies would take a long time and cost a lot of money that could be better spent elsewhere – though this is undoubtedly the case. It is primarily because the cultural sector seems to feel the need to hold itself to higher (or maybe just odder) evidential standards than other sectors – for example, health, environment, or education. In these sectors, the academic preoccupation is not with, for example, what health can do for urban regeneration or tourism, but with the policies required to ensure a healthy community.

If we stopped looking so neurotically for epiphenomena — the impact of the arts on X, Y and Z — and diverted our attention to what constitutes — say — a vibrant cultural community: what distribution of what art forms, what forms of participation etc. — and if we could come up with well grounded answers to this question, I suspect that those answers would be significantly more compelling to the decision-makers we lobby than another damned economic impact study. We would spend less time waiting for the other shoe to drop as decision makers discover what we already knew and what the RAND report has spelled out in merciless detail. And we would address some of the patently daft misallocations of scarce resources that our shakily-grounded arguments for the arts have encouraged, such as the resource-draining building boom we are emerging from, which has left the sector over-expanded, under-capitalized and with a fundamentally and adversely altered ratio of fixed to variable costs.

Adrian Ellis
Arts Journal

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In a narrow swath along Manhattan’s Hudson River, stone walls and beautiful arched bridges set off with trees disguise a buried railroad and entwine a six-lane highway.

This is Riverside Park, and it’s an infrastructure masterpiece.

Congress and President Obama shouldn’t commit themselves to spending billions for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects before examining every inch of the park, which was built during the Depression.

Regrettably, we can’t create its contemporary equivalent today. Great ossified bureaucracies make it all but impossible to unite highways, rails, transit and appealing walkways.

I fear that “shovel ready” means boondoggles like the E- 470 beltway, a six-lane, 46-mile arc through empty high-desert grasslands dotted with new subdivisions east of Denver. Cars cruise the wide-open toll road at 80 miles per hour.

Touted as essential to the metro area’s growth, this land developers’ delight hasn’t lightened loads on more centrally located highways. It’s just rearranged growth patterns, scattering splotches of development over an unimaginably large landscape. New residents depend on long beltway commutes by car.

We can’t do better now, the lobbying legions say, we need to start the bulldozers fast. Translation: No bridge to nowhere will be left behind.

What’s wrong with America’s way of building transportation has long been known. We segregate roads, mass transit, railways and air. Each has its own pot of money. It’s no one’s job to assemble a transportation system that offers the right travel mode for the task at hand.

Aside from the odious earmarks, most transportation funding decisions are made by Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Never heard of MPOs? They’re supposed to set priorities based on real needs, though instead they operate in obscurity and allow the political horse-trading to go on unimpeded by real oversight.

So much is made of the nation’s neglect of infrastructure, yet the U.S. actually is spending record sums on it.

We don’t make progress because the nation fails to lay out new communities so they can be efficiently served by means other than the auto. A start would be to group people-intensive colleges and commercial centers as hubs along corridors served by transit and walkable streets.

While the bureaucracies (state and federal) get overhauled, officials can easily cross off much on the wish lists, like all those beltways that are really land-development schemes posing as congestion relief. (Charlotte, North Carolina, killed an outer- beltway plan some years ago and has done fine, thank you.)

Next, knock out the fourth, fifth and sixth expressway lanes. When roads get that big, there’s enough demand to support high-quality transit. The six rail tracks that tunnel into New York’s Penn Station haul as many people as 45 freeway lanes.

What should Obama support? Lots of innovation has been trickling up from municipalities. Beltway suburbs like Bellevue, Washington, turned their parking-lot acres into high-value suburban downtowns. Focused on transit, they’re appealing as places to walk, shop, work and live.

Some metro areas are aligning roads and rails (both freight and passenger) in corridors to support these emerging urban hubs. The San Francisco Bay Area could use some cash to finally finish a rapid-transit extension linking Oakland and the East Bay to San Jose and Silicon Valley. Without additional aid, underfunded and overburdened big cities will soon have to stop long-planned, often-deferred projects like New York’s Second Avenue Subway.

Express bus lanes and bikeways sharing “green streets” with cars can reduce auto dependency. In the best cases, each mode is physically separated from the others by planted buffers. These little Riverside Parks aren’t just pretty. They make pedestrian crossings safer and sop up storm water — essential in an increasingly flood-prone era.

Dollars spent that get Americans out of cars will ease traffic, save money, reduce pollution, slow global warming and make us less vulnerable to volatile oil oligarchs.

Road projects do little more than rearrange the traffic jams. Look for freeway spectaculars among the proposals, like the 23-lane extravaganza touted for Atlanta’s suburbs. Mark them “D” — for delusional.

James Russell
Bloomberg