Friday, October 19, 2012

Why Are We Here? Part II

In the Mike Nichols' movie Primary Colors Kathy Bates’ character admires a beautiful full moon and muses to her friend that they are like the moon, that they can shine and be beautiful but they need the light and energy of their friend the sun (Travolta's Clinton) to do so. A performing and visual arts center can use the same metaphor, without artists and patrons we are but a cold, dark space useless until we are filled with others’ energy. Probably not the best film metaphor as Kathy’s character kills herself in the next scene. But my point is we are facilitators, we are the middle-man in an intimate transaction that connects audience with artists and vice versa. 

That audience member takes on many visages and to me is why we are here.
  • There is the smart married couple in their early fifties, no kids or kids in college, that enjoy good food and an eclectic mix of music. They come to the MAC once a month tonight it’s jazz, next month folk music, and maybe the next classical. I enjoy talking to them in the lobby – they tell me what they are reading, share a good restaurant they have recently dined at, ask me if I have heard a particular musician – they soak up the total experience.

  • Then there is the middle-school kid who has never been to the MAC. His family is working hard to pay the mortgage and support the family and honestly arts participation is coming in low on their critical needs list. Somewhere in his being he knows that art (a song, a sunset, spoken words) have the power to move him. But his life does not allow for many opportunities to experience art until one day a musician and a visual artist walk into his school and life may never be quite the same. A person and an organization had to facilitate that experience.

  • A small bus pulls up, the doors open and brimming with anticipation a dozen people assisted by walkers, canes or the hand of a friend or loved one make their way through our front door. They are spending their active twilight years with a community of older adults and the MAC is a convenient and affordable night out on the town. Now and then when they cannot come to the MAC we manage to bring an arts experience to this most appreciative and deserving audience.

  • For me one of the most joyous moments I get to experience is holding the door open for a stream of buzzing, wide-eyed 6 year olds. “Did you see when the dancer…, The purple moon was…, It was funny when the mouse…, That was so cool.” Following this trail of energy is a smiling teacher, proud of her class, who graciously thanks us for bringing a theatre company all the way from Nova Scotia to perform for her 1st graders. It was our pleasure.

We’re here to provide arts experiences to people young and old, students and community members; regardless of your station in life or your ability to access or afford. We’re the bella luna reflecting the life giving light of the artist in the dark night.

be well

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why Are We Here?

COD Concert Choir
This week on the Yahoo Answers site Amanda asks, “Does College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL, live up to its hype? It is supposedly one of the best community colleges in the country, but is it anything more than just a pretty campus? How is the quality of education?” I would tell Amanda if you were considering study in the Fine and Applied Arts (FAA) look at two things. First, our faculty, I’ve never seen a community college with the breadth and depth of talent that College of DuPage (COD) has. Our full and part time faculty have MFA and Doctoral degrees from top tier schools (Universities of Illinois, Texas, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern University, the School of the Art Institute...). Many COD FAA faculty are working artists exhibiting, performing, designing, composing and creating work professionally. Secondly look at the work our students produce. Attend a theatre production, a portfolio night, a film screening, or a concert and you’ll see work on par with any undergraduate institution. I realize these are qualitative and subjective measures and our society and administrations want quantifiable proof. In the business of academia the success of a program is measured in enrollment, completion, transfer and employment data. It’s hard to put something as complex as art making into a simple box. The measure of an artist is not whether they completed a program its whether their web-design communicates well for their client or if their music moves the listener. Amanda, I would tell you to talk to people and look at the work and you’ll see a school that is better than hype.

Most community members never see the important work we do and the primary reason we are here, but this next two weeks it will be on display. The MAC will present the Faculty Recital, Community Band concert, Mid-term Student Music Concert, Community Jazz Ensemble Dance, Chamber Orchestra Concert, and open College Theatre’s production of The Nerd and a student gallery art exhibit. College of DuPage is an academic institution first and the people who are the McAninch Arts Center work tirelessly to support the students and faculty in Fine and Applied Arts. Students see that in a warmly lit stage set with chairs and music stands, scenery and costumes for their production, a professionally exhibited gallery show, a program and a ticket for the concert and a welcoming theatre for friends, family and community to support their work.

Many of the students enrolled here will use their time at College of DuPage to spring themselves into further study in the arts. After performing on our stages and studying and creating in our studios and classrooms many go on to places like Roosevelt University, Illinois State University, Elmhurst College, School of the Arts Institute Chicago and many others. But what use is an arts degree? I frequently get this question, sometimes from fellow educators and administrators. It’s a fair question, should a student receive federally funded Pell grants to pursue an education in the arts and should this education be provided at a community college?  My three-part answer, first, community colleges are the most democratic educational institutions ever conceived of, thank you William Rainey Harper (1856-1906). Whatever your place in our society, whatever your previous educational successes or failures, and whatever your financial circumstances our doors are open to you. What better place to affordably explore a challenging career and life choice like the arts.

Secondly, our students go on to success in higher ed and professionally. Examples:
  • I can point to dozens of working theatre technicians across Chicago that started at COD and earn the industry hourly rate of between $15 and $25.
  • Two recent COD grads in music and theatre received Jeff Awards, Chicago’s more inclusive equivalent to New York’s Tony award.
  •  Graphic Design students work for Chicago design firms, educational software companies, as independent web-designer,...
  • You can tune in to Fox on Tuesdays at 8pm and watch Lamorne Morris, COD alum, on New Girl.
  • Artist and COD alum Vincent Glielmi’s photographs are on exhibit right now in the College’s Wings Gallery.
This success is often down-played as only a few anecdotal stories. It’s true that the arts are a tough road to take. I spent the first five years of my post college life as a working actor and frankly I did not have the fortitude to gut out a life on the stage and screen. In 1992 I transitioned to arts administration and arts education. Whether study in the performing and visual arts leads to a career in the arts is irrelevant  My final point would be that what arts experiences and arts education do produce are creative thinkers and a more socially responsible citizens. I have known this in my gut since I toured rural Arkansas in 1987 performing Shakespeare for kids who had never seen the Bard on stage. A recent study coming out of the University of Illinois and published in Science Daily indicates that participation in the arts (attending and creating) leads to,  “predicated civic engagement, tolerance and altruism.” Frankly, those are qualities I want in my community.

At the recent Midwest Arts Conference the Keynote Address by Russell Willis Taylor President and CEO of National Arts Strategies was wonderfully instructive and if you have time it’s a good read too. One take away anecdote for me was the story of the non-profit arts organization that complains that their arts education programs do not receive the kind of recognition they should from foundations and grantors. A consultant to the organization asks what percentage of your operating budget goes to educational activities? The numbers do not lie and the arts organization’s own budget revealed they spent less then 1% on arts education. They wanted to be recognized for something that clearly was not a priority of the organization. That’s okay. But it should have been a wake up call that they were a symphony orchestra or a theatre company first. So I have to ask the MAC and the College the same question – what do you spend on the arts?

In a previous post (Show Me The Money) the MAC budget was discussed. The break down of the $3.1 million is 35% goes to arts education and 65% to arts presenting. So at least 35% of MAC staff time and 35% of the MAC budget goes to supporting student learning and faculty instruction through performance, exhibition and opportunities to engage with resident/ visiting artists. The College of DuPage has committed $35 million to the renovation of the 165,000 square foot McAninch Arts Center. This year COD funded arts instruction to the tune of approximately $6 million dollars. All of these numbers go to Russell’s point and demonstrate the College can and should be recognized for its support of arts education.

I believe that is an appropriate level of funding for the kind of broad and specialized arts education we provide. Could the programs in Fine and Applied Arts use more dollars, probably. They most assuredly should not be cut. We are here because our community needs creative, socially engaged citizens whether they make their living from the arts or not. You and I want good music, good performance, good design, and good quality of life for ourselves and for our neighbors. That is what art and artists do for us everyday and why I believe a community college should provide this kind of education for the community it serves. What we do beyond educating students is the question addressed in the next post.

Be well

Next: Why are we here? Part II

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Show Me The Money!

Where Does the Money Come From?
Ticket sales, grants, individual donors, the college, corporate sponsorships, tax dollars, student fees, government arts agency, concession and merchandise sales, foundations, and any stone left un-turned.

The McAninch Arts Center (MAC) is considered a medium sized performing arts center based on the metrics used in the Urban Institute analysis of U.S. arts presenters The Capacity of Performing Arts Presenting Organizations. For fiscal year 2012 the MAC operated a $3.1 million budget. For the purposes of accounting and this discussion we split that number into Educational Arts Support ($1.09 million) and Arts Presenting  ($2.02 million). The former represents our support for student productions, concerts and exhibits in Music, Theatre, Dance and Visual Art, the latter is our public face, work we create (symphony and theatre ensemble) and work we present (artist series, art gallery, school series, community engagement work), all for our community. The support for student work in the arts is supported by academic mission of the college and funded through tuition, student fees and tax dollars. Our challenge is to make the other side of the coin work – what the college calls an auxiliary function of the institution.

So how does this subsidiary of the college operate? In fiscal year 2012 the MAC spent $2.02 million on the non-academic side. This number is split $1.49 million of earned revenue and $530,000 of subsidy from the College of DuPage. 
MAC 2012 Revenue
Add that $530K the College provided the auxiliary side of the MAC to the $1.09 million the College puts out to support student performance and exhibition in Theatre, Music, Dance and Art and COD spent $1.62 million on arts and culture last year. Absent from these numbers are facility and utility support (custodial, grounds, engineering, heating, cooling, electricity and water). For the mid-sized, community college-based performing arts center there are three primary sources of revenue 1) earned income (ticket sales and alternate earned income sources), 2) contributed income (fundraising, grant, endowment), and 3) support from the host institution. The MAC breakdown is 64% - 10% - 26%.

How do we manage if the College subsidy goes away? Reduce costs, increase revenues, grow audience, change programming, develop alternative revenue sources,… the list goes on and every arts administrator can recite it. Keeping with our theme, where does the money come from, we can easily answer where it does not come from. Reports from Kelly Barsdate, Steve Lawrence, Reina Mukai and Holly Sidford respectively in Grantmakers in the Arts: GIA Reader and National Center for Responsive Philanthropy: Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change left me with these points:
1.      Grant dollars for the performing and visual arts have steadily decreased over recent years.
2.      Median grant size ($25,000) has remained unchanged since 1993. When adjusted for inflation the median grant has decreased.
3.      State and local arts funding has decreased in recent years precipitously, minus 39% and 20% respectively. The MAC has seen a 70% decrease in Illinois Arts Council support.
4.      Small to medium sized arts organizations receive dis-proportionally fewer dollars than large arts organizations, 2% of organizations have budgets greater than $5 million but they receive 55% of dollars donated and granted.
If we’re waiting for foundations, grantors, the government or big corporate donors to come to the aid of medium to small performing arts centers we should not hold our collective breath.

Community colleges are late to the philanthropic table. While our counterparts at four-year universities have been raising money for decades our little arts organization just began making an organized annual appeal for donations six years ago. Our center does not have a fundraiser on staff nor does it have an advisory board with give/get mandate. We do not have a strategic planned giving program for the arts. We have never really asked our patrons to step up in a big way. We always assumed that the institution would take care of us. They always have. We historically ran deficits that were annually excused until three years ago when the College added the number up and it totaled $2.2 million accumulated over approximately a dozen years. That is a sobering number. If the MAC had to ask its patrons to make up a $500,000 annual shortfall it would mean increasing our annual giving by almost 800%.

We’re pretty good at generating dollars through ticket sales ($1 million plus annually). We manage to provide an eclectic mix of music, theatre, dance and visual arts experiences that our community is willing to pay for; however, if we had to survive totally on generated revenue what would that mean? There is art we put on the stage and in the gallery that without subsidy in some form would never see the limelight. Our Dance Series, New Philharmonic, and Buffalo Theatre Ensemble are three examples. Should the free market determine what art is available to a community or should it be part of the mission of a community college to provide its constituents with arts experiences they otherwise could not provide for themselves?

This leads us next to mission and programming. If you have questions, answers or disagree with something I've said, I hope you’ll comment. I promise to engage with you respectfully.

Be well,

Saturday, October 6, 2012

MAC Backstory

A little back-story is in order. I have been the director of the MAC since February of 2006. Before me was Janie Oldfield from 1999 to 2005 and her predecessor was the man who shared Hal McAninch’s vision for a suburban arts center and the first Director, Jack Weiseman. When the Arts Center opened in 1986 the first seasons were a mix of theatre, music, dance and visual arts presented by touring artists, student ensembles, community ensembles and local professionals. As the years passed the number of touring artists increased each season, some community ensembles became professional, and as enrollment grew more students found their way to Arts Center stages and galleries. The number of events or their amateur or professional status are important for the archivists to recall, but for our discussion what is important to acknowledge is that the center grew steadily for two decades. Budgets increased, more staff were hired, revenues grew as did expenses. Many would concur that the quantity and quality both trended up.

At some point the MAC reached critical mass. For our purposes critical mass is defined as the minimum amount of money or number of people needed to sustain a business. I would estimate it was sometime before I arrived in 2006. Some time before 2006 and continuing to this date the College of DuPage has contributed an increasing amount of dollars to sustain the MAC. Simply, it costs the College more dollars, dollars that could be otherwise spent elsewhere, to support the mission of the MAC.
The mission of the McAninch Arts Center is to foster enlightened educational and performance opportunities, which encourage artistic expression, establish a lasting relationship between people and art, and enrich the cultural vitality of the community.

Presently the MAC supports the following in service of mission.
  • College Music Ensemble Performances
  • College Dance Concerts
  • College Theatre Productions
  • College student and faculty Art Exhibits
  • Global Flicks International Film Series
  • College Lecture Series
  • Artist in Residence Program
  • Community arts education and engagement programs
  • Community Venue - Rentals
  • Gahlberg Gallery – Contemporary Art Gallery
  • Buffalo Theatre Ensemble – Professional Theatre in Residence
  • New Philharmonic – Professional Orchestra in Residence
  • MAC Artist Series – National and international artist performance series
  • Schoolstage Series – Performances for K-12 students

The last five categories are considered professional work presented for the benefit of the community at large and our community of students. During the 2010-11 season that category amounted to 148 public performances of 78 arts events and an additional 8 art exhibits. In that season approximately 65,000 patrons experienced a professional arts event at the college, 13,200 of them were school children. I’ll be the first to say it is an impressive list, but is it sustainable? Presently, I would say no; neither from the human or fiscal resource side of the equation. Could it be? Possibly.

So what should we be doing and how should it be supported? Should the mission evolve? Must we evolve? How should we re-conceptualize?

At some point we’ll have to discuss the gorilla in the corner – money. To be continued…


Wednesday, October 3, 2012


A friend recently gave me a book by Nello McDaniel and George Thorn, Towards a New Arts Order. The authors place the era into our moment in time,
Expanding our perspective, we see that the current state of the economy is not an aberration – virtually every aspect of the country’s social, political and cultural makeup is undergoing a major transformation. For better or for worse, the arts are inextricably linked to the shifting plates of the economy, culture, society, and politics. The burden of debt and the dysfunction that the arts are experiencing is mirrored in every other sector of society.
Sounds about right; however, they wrote this in 1993. The country was in recession, the savings and loan crisis had claimed many large institutions and the federal government had stepped in, the exploding deficit was on everyone’s mind and a young Democrat had defeated a sitting Republican President on the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Fast forward a generation to 2012 and it appears we have not learned much. Our country is slowly coming out of the worst recession in many generations in which the arts and culture sector has certainly borne its burden during the down economy. Many in Higher Education once thought we were immune from the tempests in the marketplace; however, this crisis has proved them wrong. So an arts organization on a college campus finds itself doubly challenged. During the best of times arts organizations are understaffed, underfunded, and over committed. If we can just sell a 100 more tickets, or add another community service because the grant funders will take notice, or suddenly tap the under 35 audience - we’ll be okay. Arts organizations have always understood bottom-lines and dead-lines. The show opens Saturday at 8pm and if we don’t have 500 in the house we don’t make the nut.

I bristle when people say we should operate our arts organization more like a business. So I was happy when Jim Collins, Good to Great (2005) affirmed my belief.
We must reject the idea – well intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business’. Most businesses – like most anything else in life - fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great.
Bless you, Jim Collins. Why would we want to be mediocre? Not that we presently reside on Great Lane. The arts have always focused on the patron experience, which to me is more than saying we are customer friendly. A customer is a transaction - a patron can be a life-long relationship.

So we are about creating cultural experiences and cultivating patron relationships with the arts that will last a lifetime. Then if the MAC is in a time that Mello and Thorne would call re-conceptualization – a time when we must redesign, reconstruct, and reposition our organizations – we must ask ourselves these questions.

     Why should we exist?
     What are our values?
     What are our priorities and what are someone else’s priorities?
     How do we best serve our community, our art form, students, and artists?

Once we ask and answer these questions and begin the process of re-conceptualizing our organization we must face the question whether we have the resources, human and financial, to do the work. To be continued…


Monday, October 1, 2012

Engage With Me

As many of you know the McAninch Arts Center is closing this month for a major 18-month renovation that, when complete, will once again set the bar for community college arts education, performance and exhibition space. In the interim we continue to present and produce arts events on campus and throughout our community. In the coming months we will be creating a plan for our return to a renovated performing arts center. I will be using this blog to engage in a discourse about arts and culture, the role of a community college in supporting a cultural mission, and the challenges we face. I invite friends, colleagues and contrarians to engage with me and share your thoughts.