Wishes for you

by Jini Stolk

My New Year’s wishes for you are:

That your mission statement will be as beautiful, precise and inspiring as a poem.

That your volunteers will grow in commitment, numbers and happiness.

That your board meetings will be energized and focused.

That all of us (“Barely Managing Directors” included) learn to reduce stress, stay calm and be healthy.

The continued blessing of not having to implement an “active shooter program” at our arts spaces.

And don’t forget that theatre tickets make the perfect holiday gift!

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The next Canada and the arts

by Jini Stolk

The “debate over audience diversity” recently discussed by Kate Taylor in the Globe and Mail is, as was pointed out, more a necessity than a debate. And the answer to the question of where it should start seems to me to be “everywhere, in many companies, in many different ways” – until, as the wonderful Jovanni Sy of the Gateway Theatre is hoping, audiences’ attendance patterns reflect their diverse artistic interests more than their ethnic backgrounds.

The Pew Research group’s fascinating report on the demographic future of the United States (described by The Nonprofit Quarterly as “one of the most beautifully executed yet content rich interactive posts we have seen“) has been generating a lot of discussion about the speedy pace of change in racial dynamics to our south – but also about the “graying of America.” The study projects that the combination of low birthrates and people living longer is creating an American future where the average person will be much older than at any point in history. This too has huge implications for those of us who work in the arts, particularly the performing arts. The need to focus on the lifetime value of an audience member requires renewed efforts not just to bring in and diversify audiences, but also to engage and retain them over the long-term.

The author of The Next America says that “Demographic transformations are dramas in slow motion. America is in the midst of two right now. Our population is becoming majority non-white at the same time a record share is going gray. Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era. The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.”

Since the demographic changes he describes also exist in Canada, they may also up-end our approaches to audience development.

A new study by Hill Strategies Research Inc., provides a look at Diversity and Arts Attendance by Canadians in 2010, examining arts attendance by eight “diverse” demographic groups including visible minority Canadians, first-generation immigrants, Aboriginal people, Canadians with disabilities, Youth (15 to 24 years of age) and Seniors (65 and older).

Alan Brown’s A Study of College Student Preferences towards Music and the Performing Arts for The Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College provides insights into how to draw the elusive young adults audience into arts programs and how to engage the next generation of audiences. The research is available for download from wolfbrown.com/college.


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Questions from the floor

by Jini Stolk

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the energy of the arts board members attending my workshops on The Art of Good Governance: Getting the Basics Right. The Get on Board project, a partnership betweenthe Toronto Arts Foundation and Business for the Arts, is clearly meeting a need: our board members are eager to learn and engage in discussion about their important work.

Many people had questions during the workshop about the Ontario Not-for-Profit Corporations act: the best summary of what we can expect with ONCA is on the ONN’s website here.

One attender sent a welcome note following last week’s workshop at the North York Centre for the Arts, pointing out that I hadn’t mentioned some absolutely basic board responsibilities such as attending meetings, reading the agenda and materials beforehand, asking questions about issues you don’t understand, donating to your organization, and going to its shows and events. So very true. I shouldn’t take these things for granted.

He included among these basic requirements that board members should maintain confidentiality about board and organization matters, and support a united board position outside of meetings. In fact, I’ve been wanting to write about this very issue.

It struck me that the Globe and Mail’s detailed article about the decision by the Royal Ontario Museum’s CEO to leave before the end of her contract, was based in part on interviews which certainly breached the confidentiality of the boardroom.

That and the sexist undertones to the resulting article – which many other people noticed and have mentioned – rubbed me the wrong way.

Although I don’t know anything about the inner workings of the ROM, it seems inevitable that anyone leading the museum – even if they were male and an experienced “networker in Toronto society” – would face significant challenges following its renovation, including increased operating and maintenance costs, a dearth of good exhibition space, and inflated post-reno audience projections.

The ROM as a whole can’t be pleased that internal board dissatisfactions have hit the news. They look bad on the institution, and could discourage people “from away,” with fresh perspectives and ideas (particularly about the necessary task of making sure the ROM is seen as contemporary and relevant, to apply for the job.

Which are two of the major reasons why board confidentiality is a must for any arts organization.

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Good governance includes diversifying boards

by Jini Stolk

The Art of Good Governance: Getting the Basics Right, a workshop I presented on November 17th, was the kick-off to Get on Board, a new project of the Toronto Arts Foundation and Business for the Arts to strengthen the arts community by bringing members of arts boards together to learn and share. Forty devoted members of music, dance, theatre and museum boards, large and small, convened at the always festive Spoke Club to hone their governance skills, gain a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and discuss some of the most important ways they can help their organizations thrive. It was lively, lots of fun, and if you missed it, don’t despair – it’s being repeated on December 9th at 5:30 at Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York (right on the Yonge subway line.) You can register here.

The workshop, at an hour and a half, was only long enough to skim over some very important and complex topics, which we may address more deeply in future sessions. But in the meantime I’ve been thinking about one of the interesting questions from the floor, about identifying and cultivating board prospects from diverse backgrounds.

It’s easy to say that boards and staff of arts and nonprofit organizations should better represent the diversity of our communities – but it seems harder to put into action. Look around.  Arts boards tend to replicate themselves, even when we know it’s wrong, limiting, counterproductive, and even somewhat embarrassing in the midst of Toronto’s dynamic multiculturalism.

I found a recent piece in The Globe and Mail on counteracting bias in hiring which I found to be relevant and helpful. It acknowledges that certain types of unconscious bias – such as the tendency to prefer, because you feel more comfortable with, people who are like you; and the tendency to judge people on recent events rather than long-term records, which disadvantages newcomers – are common to human nature, but have to be overcome if you want a diversified workplace (or board.)

Author Erin Anderssen described a controlled experiment in which one group of managers was allowed to choose a snack each day for a month, while another group was asked to choose all 30 snacks for the month. The first group went back to their favourites, over and over again, while the second group chose a variety of snacks. This principle was then applied to overcome unconscious bias. Simply by adopting the process of comparing resumes together, rather than one at a time, managers chose more diverse teams, based on a wide and balanced variety of skills.

This struck me deeply and personally (although I have to say that I still miss my daily sushi from The Lunchbox on Richmond Street, which even I knew was boring.)

Donna Walker Kuhne remains the best possible guide to on how to help people from a diversity of backgrounds build personal connections to the art, and the importance of going to the communities we want to invite into our spaces, listening to what they say, and creating a plan based on what they tell us.

According to Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 the James Irvine Foundation has a wonderful new report, Making Meaningful Connections, by Holly Sidford, Alexis Frasz, and Marcy Hinand, about the common characteristics of arts organizations that successfully and continuously engage diverse audiences – and consciously seek to diversify their boards and staff.

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Giving Tuesday

by Jini Stolk

Mea culpa. I was intending to write about Giving Tuesday in time to offer a little practical advice to those of you wading in this year. But by the time you get this it will all have been either a grand success or a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps I can help you analyze where you went wrong, or right, for next year.

First of all, I was a bit surprised by the large number of Black Friday pitches by performing arts companies. It reinforced the sector’s entrepreneurial, revenue-focused talents, but wouldn’t it be lovely to change the name of the ominous and negative sounding Black Friday, which calls up the image of a dark cloud of enforced shopping? Could we call it Sparkling Silvery Friday where arts organizations are concerned?

By whatever name, the variety of offers from companies large and small, from gift certificates (Stratford, very appealing offer), concert tickets (Tafelmusik 40% off; Koerner Hall 20% off but with a large choice of concerts), subscriptions, recordings and swag was impressive.

For Giving Tuesday, Canada Helps was much involved in promoting the “movement” and providing advice for participating companies and donors. Appeals varied, with Harbourfront’s unique gift offers being particularly creative. Most companies just appealed for donations, or asked for year-end gifts. Here are some good online giving tips for Giving Tuesday and beyond. Here’s a summary of methods used by Giving Tuesday 2013 participants whose campaigns were particularly successful, including integrating it with existing campaigns and persuading a local corporation to match pledges. TechSoup Canada provided a super useful checklist of things to do in the month leading up to Giving Tuesday.

This is an excellent reminder that visual images always trump text in reaching out and telling our stories: it’s part of our brains’ hardwiring!

This Imagine study says that a majority of Canadians plan to give to charity this holiday season, but that many are concerned that their donations will support overhead! On that hoary topic, read this spirited and very funny defense of general operating funds, without which no charity can successfully deliver services or value.

And this reminds us that you can’t reinvent the wheel around the core activities of fundraising. What is important is to first understand what the wheel looks like and then manage the process with passion and vigilance.

The Vigilant Fundraiser: 12 Steps to Fundraising Success is available by clicking here to order; it costs $24.95.

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The different moods of quality

by Jini Stolk

Maybe it’s in response to being bombarded by…stuff…at this time of year, but I’ve been thinking about excellence (or quality) in artistic work.

Do I know it when I see it? I think I do, but I’m always intrigued by the variety of responses to a piece of work and try not to presume that my own opinion is the only one that’s valid. I’m particularly happy when the critics like something I don’t, because I root for everyone’s success and I’m pleased that they’ve found something to appreciate that didn’t ring my bells.

Like many of us, however, I get a bit sniffy when they pan something I loved. But the best defense is a good offense and the abundance of comment on blogs and social media makes it possible, as never before, to highlight alternative opinions. Lyn Gardner of The Guardian, talks about the continuing need for many different types of criticism and about reviews as a product of critics’ experiences, prejudices and in some cases, what they had for lunch. One of Canada’s finest theatre and dance critics Max Wyman, wrote about the privilege and minefields of “this very public form of personal growth and exploration.”

Nina Simon from Museum 2.0 recently reminded me that quality is judged by specific expectations and preferences, which change even throughout a person’s lifetime. She identifies ten different kinds of quality in arts experiences, leaving plenty of room for differences of opinion and a whole variety of ways to value and evaluate a piece – or an entire program – of work:

  1. AESTHETIC: is it beautiful?
  2. TECHNICAL: is it masterful?
  3. INNOVATIVE: is it cutting edge?
  4. INTERPRETATIVE: can people understand it?
  5. EDUCATIONAL: can people learn from it?
  6. RELEVANT: can people relate to it?
  7. PARTICIPATORY: can people get involved or contribute to it?
  8. ACADEMIC: does it produce new research or knowledge?
  9. BRIDGING: does it spark unexpected connections?
  10. IGNITING: does it inspire people to action?

Andrew Taylor warns about the tendency to “place a populist frame around creative work”, thus discounting the gift and craft of true artistry – something I sometimes worry about when reading studies on arts engagement even by my beloved Alan Brown. Taylor linked to this beautiful interview with one of my favorite authors, Colm Toibin where he talks about the hard and demanding craft of writing and the assumption that he’s a ‘storyteller’ from the long cultural tradition of Irish storytelling. “I hate being called a storyteller, because I’m a novelist. In other words, I hold and wield textures and tones and language. And if you think that it’s natural for me to do that, it is not.”

That comment was masterful, understandable, helped me learn, produced new knowledge, sparked unexpected connections, and inspired me to action.


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Roles and routines of creative people

by Jini Stolk

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (which has been blessed throughout its history by skilled and talented AD’s, matched by courageous and accomplished managing directors and board chairs) described the Artistic Director’s role in their terrific 35 Years Anniversary program. “Ideally, a theatre’s artistic director strives always to strike a balance of risk and reward, challenge and celebration, prudence and provocation. It is the artistic director’s duty to keep the financial wolves from the door, certainly, but also to be the artistic, philosophic and political engine that drives an institution forward.”

This brief insight has been helpful in defining the overlapping but separate responsibilities of arts organizations’ artistic, management and board leaders in The Art of Good Governance, my recent workshop for arts board members, presented by the Toronto Arts Foundation and Business for the Arts.

Offering some comfort to board members confronted with the often unfamiliar task of understanding the thought processes and working practices of their companies’ artistic directors – in order to embrace, while helping to carefully plan for, risk and challenge – is this fascinating interactive graphic based on Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. It details, with real details!, how some of the world’s greatest creative geniuses balanced their need for creative work with sleep, exercise, earning a living, eating and leisure.

How did Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, W.H. Auden, Beethoven, Maya Angelou, Sigmund Freud, and Vladimir Nabokov structure their days? (And I do wish there were more women on the list.) It turns out that the common denominator is the need for structure, however individual or idiosyncratic.

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

“I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” CHARLES DICKENS

“I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” HARUKI MURAKAMI

As I’ve said before in different circumstances, artists are some of the hardest working, most disciplined people I know. Isn’t there an awful lot we can learn from them? and aren’t we thankful for the joys they bring to our lives, in this and all seasons?

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4 years

by Jini Stolk

It’s been four years since I began writing this blog. Four whole years? Only four years? It’s hard to say which is the more accurate expression of how I feel about this engrossing labour of love, which has so far resulted in over 250 posts on the art of managing the arts.

I continue to feel grateful to the Toronto Arts Foundation for allowing me to make such a smooth transition from Creative Trust - a project that still lives and grows through the blog. I’ve based many of my posts on what I experienced, observed and learned during those ten exhilarating years. Unexpectedly, this work has also allowed me to feel at ease as the Toronto Arts Foundation’s “research fellow” – because, in fact, a great deal of research goes into these posts. I’ve been inspired by following other writers in our field and staying on top of significant research on the arts, not only in Canada but around the world (in fact too rarely in Canada, but that’s another story…) I’ve been able to take the time to make connections between theory, research and practical advice that I hope might make life easier for people working behind the scenes.

I was recently mocked by somebody I love for getting excited about an article in the Globe and Mail’s business pages about balanced decision making, combining scientific and artistic ways of thinking. Okay, I see their point…but I still think it’s worth working into a post…

My first post was titled “Why a blog?”. I said four years ago that “The reason why we’re starting a blog is because…capacity building is an ongoing process of learning, change and growth. We want to engage in a wider discussion about capacity, audiences and facilities in the arts; to build a broader community of learning around these crucial issues; and to discover increased opportunities for sharing and collaboration.”

That still sounds right. I haven’t veered from this direction, although I’m sometimes now looking wider afield for ideas and examples on topics that I find to be of absorbing interest, and filtering them through my sometimes opinionated filter.

But of course (as you will have noticed) I’m most often inspired by the work I see and the conversations I have with people working right now, in the arts, in Toronto. Your words of support and appreciation are always energizing, and I hope that with this blog I’m adequately expressing my own support and appreciation for all the great and important work you do.

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An intelligent community

by Jini Stolk

My faith in Toronto is beginning to revive following the recent election. It felt so good to vote for principled people committed to throwing off the chaos and divisiveness of the past four years.

Like many of you, my feelings about Toronto had been veering wildly from despair (we can’t get our act together on transit; we’ve allowed our city to be divided not only geographically, but by income and place of origin; we haven’t had the courage to create solutions to inequity in services and opportunities) to optimism and pride. The latter comes from the continuing accomplishments of our artists and creative community, for sure, but also from the energetic, innovative city-building initiatives coming from my workplace, the Centre for Social Innovation, and many of Toronto’s nonprofit organizations.

But perhaps it’s familiarity that breeds contempt, because I was surprised and pleased to see that Toronto was voted the 2014 Most Intelligent Community by an independent U.S. think tank devoted to new ideas and a new economy. I was especially glad to see that things I’ve been much involved in, like the Centre for Social Innovation and Regent Park’s cultural renaissance, were specifically cited.

The 2014 Visionary of the Year was also a GTA resident, Suneet Singh Tuli, developer of the world’s cheapest computer which has the potential to revolutionize access to knowledge for billions of people around the world. According to Tuli, “I don’t care about creating the iPad killer. I care about the four billion people who can afford this device.” That sounds like the Toronto I know and love.

It’s not that the Intelligent Community selection committee missed the headlines about our local leadership troubles. One of the reasons Toronto was chosen was because in the midst of a volatile and polarizing political situation, both civic and political progress and achievements continued.

That IS something I’ve noticed. The methods used by determined and visionary communities to create positive change – a great example being the forces that led to City Council’s unanimous vote to significantly increase the Toronto Arts Council’s budget - should be the subject of serious discussion and analysis.

This victory went well beyond one vote. It was impossible to miss the encouraging fact that all the candidates at ArtsVote’s mayoral debate spoke forcefully in support of the arts. This common understanding of the importance and impact of the arts to Toronto’s economic and social well-being was, I think, forged through conflict and the search for common values and positive solutions.

The road’s been hard, but the vista is promising.

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Community bonding

by Jini Stolk

The lack of reliable support for arts venues (and for those running, renting, maintaining, upgrading and renovating them) often feels like the elephant in the cultural policy room.

Two recent meetings, one convened by the Toronto Arts Council and one by the Metcalf Foundation, acknowledged the additional pressures (including but not exclusively financial) of owning a space. While neither meeting was meant to advance new program or funding plans they were useful gatherings that clearly defined the issues at hand: the need for production and co-production formats (and ideally funding) that take into account the venues’ contributions; and the need for flexible capital expertise (and adequate funding) on an as-needed basis.

For spaces with such a large community impact, we’re currently leaving each organization to find its own solutions in its own way and on its own time. Not perfect.

This is why creative capital financing solutions become so exciting.

The Centre for Social Innovation, always a leader in new ideas and brave ventures and whose board I served on for 10 years, was one of the first to use interest-bearing community bonds to finance a nonprofit workspace – CSI Annex, where I work.

And they’re doing it again. On October 16th CSI announced that they’re buying the Murray Building, across the street from CSI Spadina – a brick and beam building with 64,000 sq feet of “urban goodness and world changing potential.” CEO Tonya Surman wrote a blog about the why of buying a building to secure affordable long term rental space for social innovation in downtown Toronto.

To raise the capital needed for this purchase, CSI is issuing a new series of Community Bonds with minimum investments starting at only $1,000. This week they reached their first goal point of $1 million, with $3 million still to go. While community bonds are not a solution for every organization – they require a healthy and sophisticated financial and organizational capacity – they definitely have potential for a number of arts organizations in our community and beyond. They’re also, as you would imagine, a superlative opportunity to expand community ties, drawing a wide range of people closer to your organization’s goals and space.

If you’re interested in aligning your money and your values, the CSI is hosting information sessions for anyone interested. Contact Leah Pollock 416.407.8040 or bonds@socialinnovation.ca.

Ideas like this are necessary to prevent the struggles of many arts organizations in the States, who’ve been succumbing to a pattern of crisis recently outlined by the Nonprofit Quarterly:

  • A commitment in 2007 or 2008 was made to a new building or other expensive outlay on the basis of pre-recession assumptions.
  • The recession hits, and not only does it negatively affect the group’s capital goals, but it also affects its operating revenue.
  • Debt grows and the organization often cannibalizes its capacity in an attempt to stay afloat.
  • The organization no longer appears viable unless some institution, be it public or private or some combination thereof, realizes that the group is a valuable enough city asset to make a strong enough investment to bring it back.

In retrospect, we’re very lucky that the Province of Ontario acknowledged these pressures on some of the Cultural Renaissance building projects supported by the Canada-Ontario Infrastructure Program, and provided increased operating funding to help them avoid debilitating financial difficulties. In fact, although I’m knocking on wood as we speak, very careful planning combined with the sort of natural caution we’re good at in Canada, seems to have resulted in relatively strong and successful arts capital projects of all sizes in Toronto.

I have to end by saying, with frustration and some anger, that MaRS’ inability to find tenants for their newest building or make timely payments on their loan could very well close the door on expanding access to the province’s Infrastructure Loan Program. The Ontario Nonprofit Network worked very hard for years – as did a number of sectors including, prominently, the arts community - to negotiate opening this capital loan program to a wider range of nonprofits. We were all committed to doing this in a way that reduced any likelihood of default through a system of thorough financial analysis, tight business planning, and the provision of ongoing professional expertise and support – ensuring that organizations receiving loans could safely afford their carrying costs.

It’s particularly galling because some of the officials we talked to over that time seemed to feel that well-qualified and capable arts organizations, daycares and nonprofit housing groups posed an unacceptable risk to the province’s financial stability. As if! The front-page news around MaRS has done more harm than any loan-ready arts group, community-run daycare or nonprofit housing provider could ever have done.

The vast majority of nonprofit and charitable organizations feel a compelling responsibility to use public funds well and carefully. Why is this still such a little known fact?

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