Thursday, March 03, 2011

On Blogging, Curating, and Discussion

[This discussion was happening in the comments section, and I wanted to give it more prominence. I do so in the hope that the conversation will continue.]

Back on February 22nd, I was invited to a meeting at the NEA to discuss the "supply and demand" issues Rocco Landesman had raised at the "From Scarcity to Abundance" convening at Arena Stage. I posted my response to that meeting, which I called "Off to See the Wizard," a post that was referenced by Diane Ragsdale at ArtsJournal in a post she called "Which nonprofit arts orgs deserve these pennies?" Thanks to Diane, my article started getting some traffic, and generating a nice stream of comments, including this one from Aaron Andersen:

I'm sorry the conversation wasn't more productive, when it is sort of a dream to get all those people in the same room.
I can't help but feel slightly defensive, as an arts blogger with an economics perspective, even though I did eschew simple supply-demand graphs from econ 101 textbooks as unhelpful.
In defense of blogging and twitter, if today's arts leaders think they are still curators of ideas, then they've misunderstood the ascendancy of the internet, and betray themselves as something like dinosaurs.
In defense of bringing economics to an arts policy discussion, are these leaders so lacking in imagination as to miss the potential value of an inter-disciplinary approach? We're only getting a highly condensed version of the discussion here, so maybe I'm wrong, but it sounds like the "not-invented-here" bias that I see so strongly in a particular, unnamed institutional arts nonprofit of great reputation with which I'm familiar. When we think that useful perspectives can't come from other fields and disciplines, it shows how isolated we've become in our comfortable patterns of thought.
It's sad.

A bit later, I received a lengthy comment from one of the other people who attended the NEA meeting, Jason Loewith of the National New Play Network. He and I and Aaron began a conversation that I thought was interesting, and an example of how blogging can be helpful. I will provide the comments below, and hope that my readers will join in.

Jason wrote:

Hey Scott - 
I sat next to you at that meeting, and am proud to own a comment that I suspect "cocked your head"... not sure if you're referring to it when you wrote:
The one thing I heard that did make me cock my head to the side, however, was the way that bloggers and tweeters were talked about by the assembled leaders. It wasn't good. Many of them seemed to see the whole on-line conversation as airing dirty laundry and working against the field, as people just speaking off the top of their heads and engaging in crazy talk…These leaders are used to controlling the conversation from their privileged positions. If they think it ought to be talked about, it will be; if not, it will be silenced. Things should be decided behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the public and preferably not within earshot of artists. 
Here's what I think I said, not word for word: You want to start a conversation about oversupply in the arts sector, and sent us 250 pages of blog posts to confirm you'd started that conversation. I read about half of them, and saw very little "conversation". Instead I saw a lot of one-sided, misinformed hysteria about "NEA death panels" masquerading as conversation. I don't see that as productive. 
If my comment was one that made you feel this way, maybe I can clarify. Because your post seems to me unfair and oversimplified.
Blogging disseminates info, it's a lifeline for organizations and artists, and provides community where community is hard to come by. But it also provides safe harbor for hyperbole and misinformation which can be detrimental to productive discourse. And it doesn't replace - and rarely improves upon - actual face-to-face (or email-to-email) conversation. 
In the 125 pages I read, the best conversation was the one on the NEA blog itself, in which Rocco actually responded to Tricia Mead's post. They presented their positions, and came closer to understanding each other. But many of the others I read were misinformed, they hadn't bothered to learn the context of Rocco’s speech, they reacted fearfully and not thoughtfully, and leapt to recrimination and "us against them" structures. I was demoralized, especially as I have gone to such length with my own organization - the National New Play Network - to create (and yes, curate) an informed and productive conversation about the topic. 
Even browsing the comments above, some of your readers are now a) more convinced that "arts leaders" are "dinosaurs", (which is as much an oversimplification as Rocco's original comments were), and b) even suspect some sort of "censorship" is going on. I don’t mind airing dirty laundry, but I reject sowing seeds of suspicion where they don't belong. 
From my point of view - as one of the new organizations at the table - I think there's more opportunity and energy for change and new thinking than there ever has been. And though I share some of your dissatisfaction (sure, there was plenty of same-old, same-old), I also saw a great deal of good. Rocco saw value in hearing from every one of us in that room, and wants to meet again. He heard how his comments were being misinterpreted in the field. You and I and Mark and Linda and all the small organizations were there on equal footing with the biggies. And I learned a great deal from my colleagues - the big and the small ones - that I didn't know before. 
I wish you'd been at Woolly Mammoth earlier in the day. A question that another participant brought up really stumped me: "to what end?" 
What really is the point of having a conversation about "oversupply" in the arts sector? No one is going to close down companies. The government isn't going to stop granting tax exemptions to new ones. So that's the conversation I want to have now – why talk about it, in any format: on a blog, at the National Endowment, or anywhere in between?

I responded:

Jason -- Thank you for your comment. I didn't specifically remember you making it, but I appreciate your coming forward and providing context.
I guess where we differ is on a basic premise -- and I speak as one who has been engaged in the blogging world for almost six years now (!) -- I believe that ALL conversation is good, and that the more distributed it is, the better it is. I'll take Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody over Ortega Y Gassett's Revolt of the Masses any day of the week. I didn't see anything in the blogging transcripts that was less intelligent than anything that was offered in the meeting room. 
"To what end" is the kind of question that is often asked by traditional arts leaders who feel that, in order to have a conversation, it is important to have an agreed-upon "purpose" in advance, and make sure that purpose is productive. I don't think that, and I don't teach that in my classes. My teaching motto and my blogging motto is identical: Question Everything. I have seen a lot of conversations that started off pretty crazy come around to make some important discoveries. But you have to have faith in open conversation. I don't believe that people should "create and...curate an informed and productive conversation about the topic." I find that an example of exactly the kind of control that arts leaders think they have the right to exercise, and that I was complaining about in this post. Conversations should develop freely, and involve anyone with an idea.
To be honest, I am glad I wasn't at Woolly Mammoth prior to the meeting, because I suspect I would have come out even more frustrated than I was initially. My feeling was that if people didn't want to talk about "supply and demand," which was the stated topic of the discussion in the invitation, then they shouldn't have accepted the invitation. I did accept that invitation, despite the enormous strain it would put on me to attend, and I accepted it BECAUSE that was going to be the conversation, accepted it BECAUSE I had some things to say about the topic, and to have a different, and to me vastly less interesting and less relevant, discussion felt like a bait-and-switch. I felt like taking up a collection from those who wanted to change the subject to pay for my gas, motel room, and towing ticket.
As far as Rocco's comments being "misinterpreted in the field," I would question whether the people around that table can speak for "the field." But his comments were interpreted by the people at the Arena when he delivered them, and I didn't see anyone on-line saying anything different than they were. 
I agree with you that there is more opportunity for change now than ever. But a big reason for that opportunity is the theatrosphere. Had I not had a blog, I would not have been at that table, because CRADLE is the result of Bill O'brien having read this blog and contacting me. 
So what's point of talking about supply and demand? Well, from my perspective, there is a lot of the idea of supply and demand that is embedded in a centralized, corporatized, urbanized, institutionalized, upper-middle class idea of the arts audience that needs to be questioned and undermined. And those assumptions will NOT be questioned by most of the people around that table, but they WILL be questioned in the blogging world.
Hey Scott – 
Thank YOU for engaging this conversation! I think we’ve got a real one going, though you may be disappointed to hear that I agree with lots of what you say. 
I absolutely agree that all conversation is good conversation… I just don’t agree that all blogging isconversation. On this blog (which I never visited before today) I’m already benefitting from your points and point of view, and they’re challenging me. But some blogs I read are not interested in engaging with – or don’t invite, explicitly or implicitly - individuals from other points of view. Worse, their contributors comment and never come back to engage and hear other points of view. I certainly hope the commenters above come back to read this. We may not end up agreeing here, but that’s been my experience.
As far as “speaking for the field,” I don’t think anyone at that table presumes to be able to do so. I certainly don’t and never said I did. But if they run their membership organizations as I do, they talk to their members about issues like this one, get their input (and I got pages and pages of it) and then try as best they can to represent their members’ various viewpoints. What I did say was that Rocco’s comments were being misinterpreted IN the field – and the number of times I heard Rocco say, “Oh, that’s not what I meant”, “I would never suggest that” bears out my assertion – whether at the Arena or in the blogosphere.
“Creating and curating a conversation” – a matter of interpretation again. You on this blog create and curate a conversation simply by introducing a topic with a point of view and posting comments, even if you don’t edit them. When I say it’s my job at NNPN to “curate” a conversation to make it “productive”, I’m talking about summing up what I’ve learned and trying to present it in a digestible way. Does it have a point of view? Sure, no matter how hard I try to scrub my own ideas. Would those 26 artistic directors have read all 250 blog posts, or been as well-informed about the topic? No way. 
Now, “to what end”? I hear you saying that’s a formulation to stop the conversation before it starts. You may be right – this is helpful to me. After reading your last paragraph, let me rephrase. There’s no doubt we should be talking about the “centralized, corporatized, urbanized, institutionalized, upper-middle class idea of the arts audience”. Yes yes yes. So maybe my question isn’t “to what end?”, but “is supply/demand the right question?” Because I disagree with you – I think a LOT of people in that room want to talk about the corporatized, urbanized, etc etc audience. Do they all want to “undermine” it as you say? That depends on what you mean by “undermine”. 
But getting away from a homogenized view of audience and approaches to audience and where audiences live and how they interact with art and artists is precisely what makes the theaters in NNPN tick – and they (and I) would be very willing to continue that conversation with you and in the field. 
 Me again:

Jason -- Now we're getting somewhere!
As I said, I've been writing in the blogosphere for a long, long time in blog years (which are even longer than dog years). And over the years, I've been involved in quite a few on-line brawls, some that got plenty ugly. There are people who have said and would say today that I am too aggressive and argumentative on my blog. Maybe so. But aside from a few mainstream media critics whose blogs don't allow comments, most theatre bloggers engage commenters. In fact, many if not most have blogs in order to hone their ideas, which happens through the friction of the discussion. I can say from my own experience that most of the ideas for CRADLE developed right here on Theatre Ideas -- you can watch them come into being over time and in response to the conversation. I can also say, from my own experience, that mainstream theatre service leaders haven't exactly been making a bee-line to my blog to engage what I have to say. Why would they? To me, I am just a noisy nobody who, if I were more important, would be hanging out at the same cocktail parties that they are. 
And when I started, and to some extent still today, I am seen as someone whose ideas seem counter-productive. When I raised the idea that the centralization of theatre in NYC was unhealthy and artistically destructive, I was accused of being envious, not talented enough for the "big time," a mere academic, and a variety of other personal and professional insults. I was told I was being irresponsible in attacking the Nylachi-centric system, and told that we should all be supportive of the status quo, which needed support. Without the democracy of the blogging world, the issues I raise would never have made their way into the discussion at all. 
You are right that I have the power to curate and control a conversation by what I decide to write about. But the conversation happens between blogs, not in the comments, and that depends on what directions others want to go. So I can float an idea, but if nobody picks it up, links to it, or comments, that subject is dead. My reputation, such as it is, was grown through addressing issues I felt were being neglected, and that struck a core with others. Many other blogs are more traditional, looking more at what shows are opening or who is getting hired or whose plays are getting gone, and that provides a valuable part of the theatre blogging world, too.
At the moment, my focus is on expanding and diversifying not just the audience, but also our ideas of who ought to be creating art. I am not enamored of the single-minded focus on artist-specialists -- I think the NEA, for instance, ought to support not just so-called "professional" artists, but should be encouraging broader creativity and artistic participation. That, along with the idea that the arts are valuable in small and rural communities, is an idea that isn't likely to get carried by the people who surrounded that table.
So I guess that is why I am sensitive to people slighting those who take the time -- and believe me, it takes a LOT of time -- to share their ideas and opinions on a blog. To me, blogging represents an opportunity to break down the barriers of class, geography, education, and position and to let diverse voices be heard directly, without being filtered through other media. And if, in order to get that, it means I have to tolerate a variety of "quality" in the ideas and opinions, then so be it. 
Since the Ford Foundation blue bloods started funding the arts fifty-some years ago, the discussion has been filtered by the wealthy and the educated. I'd like some other voices to be heard. I suspect you would too. But in order for that to happen, we have to open ourselves to letting everyone talk.

Aaron Andersen:

Dear Jason Loewith, I'm the commenter who used the word "dinosaur," so I'm responding to you. Thank you for providing more context. I'd probably reduce the severity of my previously expressed opinion, though not the direction of it.
Scott replied on the value of unfiltered, non-curated voices from the crowd. I would like to add an example. The @MayorEmanuel twitter feed, a satire of Rahm Emanuel that was anonymously authored until it was over, is a fantastic example of new storytelling that would simply not have existed if the only models to develop new stories were curator-driven. The @MayorEmanuel feed is the best example I know of uncovering the potential of Twitter as a new medium. Itmastered both the constraints and strengths embedded in Twitter, and over several months reveled in humor, sarcasm, pathos, inspiration, etc. And (maybe) most important, it showed that a smart-ass punk could care deeply about government, and tell us that we all should, too, in a totally fresh voice. This feed may or may not have been theater, but it was a very extended digital monologue, complete with cheering and heckling from, and spontaneous response to, the audience. And I have a hard time believing for one second that it ever would have been produced through a new play workshop, or the Onion editorial board, or any other media that includes or is managed by gatekeepers, editors, committees, etc... And yes, for every @MayorEmanuel there are thousands of Twitter accounts that are utterly bereft of interesting content, but that does not diminish this work. 
I definitely understand your frustration at phrases like "death panels," which was tossed out with about as much veracity as when Sarah Palin invented the phrase. But I, as well as many other bloggers, called this out as hyperbole and phrasemongering. Throughout this conversation, I read a large volume of very useful thoughts and discussion, as well as some useless content. I'm sorry you think that the useless content drowned out the useful. I most heartily disagree. I think that anybody spending a lot of time reading theater blogs would have some experience filtering out the strong contributors from the less strong, though, and would not spend much time with the latter. We self-curate; we learn to sort the great links from the dead-ends. To be handed 250 pages of printouts is perhaps the worst possible way to engage with online discussions, so I'd recommend you not come to judgment on the quality of online discourse that way.
Aaron AndersenWriting Fellow, Createquity.comBlogger,

And Aaron again:
And, by the way, here is an example of how to use the internet "crowd" to help foundations and granting organizations increase their evaluation bandwidth. Not only is the idea an example of how to use the internet productively, the quality of the discussion in the comments section is very high.
And finally, Jason:

Yes, Scott, indeed, and thanks Aaron for your response and thoughts... all really helpful, and it's good to see this working the way one hopes... I appreciate the Rahm twitter example, and just read elsewhere that he met with his twitter doppelganger - I think you're right: that's a great example of the intersection of arts, technology and debate. 
It sounds from your impassioned responses that the theater blogosphere (which I am not as well versed in) is more productive in creating conversations than my experience of the rest of it... but yes, onward with the conversation.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Old Model / New Model

Old Model:

Art Commodities +
Created by professional artist-specialists +
Sold to amateur arts consumers +
Through the use of marketing and advertising +
Supported by grants and donations

New Model:
Art Experiences +
Created by creative citizens +
Shared with other creative citizens +
Through the use of personal connections +

(Hint: the Old Model doesn't work anymore, and the New Model needs multiple pilot projects..._

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...