Guest Post: Three Provocations from Ben Cameron to Shape Arts and Culture

December 14, 2021
Ben Cameron By Ben Cameron, President of the Jerome Foundation

(13 min read)

“How will we build on what we have learned and seek not merely to resume but to reinvent?”

Dear Readers,

I am greatly moved, especially in times of challenge and stress, by provocative, clarifying ideas, and this is how I felt when I read a recent speech by my friend Ben Cameron, President of the Jerome Foundation and a fiercely intelligent consultant and speaker whose experience spans the Doris Duke Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other private and public sector organizations.

I am aligned with Ben’s ideas, which explore how the arts and culture sector should respond to multiple pandemics. It is my pleasure to share Ben’s writing, adapted from a speech developed for the November 2021 CFO Arts conference at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas.

Please enjoy this thoughtful, powerful column by Ben,

Jill S. Robinson, CEO, TRG Arts

The Arts in 2021: Recovery, Resilience and Purpose

While many organizations are currently focused on the return from COVID, the ultimate impact of the past 22 months will also require addressing the other pandemics we currently experience: The pandemic of misinformation. The pandemic of political polarization and mutual political contempt. The pandemic of rising violence as an appropriate response to difference. The posi-demic (a term I’m coining to suggest that at least this one is positive, unlike the preceding references, which strike me as all negative) of long overdue racial reckoning and the call for racial justice and racial equity. Long after COVID fades, these pan- and posi-demics will shape our children, our communities, our nation, and our lives and must be at the center of our attention as we move forward.

More specifically, I would invite arts organizations to consider three questions.

Question 1: What is the dominant mindset that is shaping the return of the arts and culture sector?

Many of us likely view this nearly two-year period as an interruption and are now laying the groundwork to again give audiences transformative experiences in music or opera or dance, just as we did before.

And yes, if in 2019 you experienced annual growth in audiences (beyond the occasional blockbuster), if your paid percentage of house was annually rising, if your donor base was annually increasing, if you were seeing positive movement in engaging younger and more diverse audiences — more diverse racially, generationally, economically, in gender and political point of view — then yes, COVID was an interruption to your robust success, and yes, recovery and resumption are presumably appropriate goals.

But those financial trends were not typical of the larger performing arts fields, which were in difficult straits before COVID. Many organizations, pre-pandemic, were seeing rises in income from increases in ticket prices rather than increases in attendance, with the average paid percentage of house stubbornly stuck at 61–63%, positive CUNA (Change in Unrestricted Net Assets) shrinking, federal and state funding declining, and their entire fields working with aggregate negative working capital. Balancing books increasingly depended on rentals, royalties, “other income” and investment gains from a historically robust stock market, which of course will not last forever and cannot be a viable annual strategy.

If the problematic trends I describe above were true in part or whole for you, the return from COVID may be a different opportunity — to shift your attention from excellence or history or perpetuity to ongoing relevance (whether political or social or emotional). It may be a chance to reorient your questions from the internal to the external, asking “what are the needs of my community and what can we address?” These shifts may invite you not merely to return but to reinvent.

Clearly this is not an all-or-nothing choice. No one can throw out everything they have done overnight. Those largely focused on returning will make adjustments, and those committed to change will move in measured steps against a backdrop of familiar activity. But consciously calibrating this continuum of return versus reinvention, programming, resources, and the speed of deployment are all critical strategic decisions. Now is the moment to jettison those programs and activities that trended south in 2019 and expand on new, unanticipated lessons we learned during COVID.

What have we learned? We’ve learned:

● We can convene by Zoom.

● We can offer different flexibility in work rhythms and environments (in some departments at least.)

● Virtual programming offers unique opportunities, which we learned — both positively and negatively through a shotgun wedding with technology (which we have yet to figure out how to monetize.)

● Life may be about more than work.

We now see that many of us do not want the same pressures and drives to which we had accustomed ourselves in the past — a realization leading to record numbers quitting their jobs in every field, less-than-robust responses to job openings, and 67% of surveyed arts administrators saying they are unwilling to return to the same face-to-face workplace and rhythms as before.

How will we build on what we have learned and seek not merely to resume but to reinvent?

Ben Cameron, President of the Jerome Foundation.

Question 2: How are we positioning ourselves for the next disruption?

Thomas L. Friedman, in “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” described a future defined not by occasional destabilization but by constant destabilization, and a world likely to see another health pandemic or massive fires or earthquakes or floodings due to climate change or incidents of domestic, international or cyber terrorism. How are we building our capacity to endure not occasional disruption but escalating disruption and destabilization? How are we now creating organizations that are not only stable but nimble, resilient and adaptable?

More than a decade ago, Mark Robinson in his “Making Adaptive Resilience Real” report, defined core capacities that lie at the heart of adaptive resilience. Many of us have paid deep attention to clarity around mission, defined roles and articulation of a viable business model — a basic core competency.

We in aggregate have historically paid less attention to developing internal capacity to gather data and make data-based decisions — a different core capacity.

Few of us have created the incentives and structures and earmarked dedicated time and opportunity to promote cross-siloed thinking internally and promote complex relationships between our workforce — not just the C-suite — and other organizations and communities externally — yet another capacity.

And I would be deeply surprised if there were anyone among us — me included — who has sufficiently protected and devoted enough time to reflective thinking. This is arguably the most significant capacity of all.

Enhancing these latter capacities of data-based decisions, cross-siloed working, extensive and complex external connections and reflective thinking are all deeply important if we aspire to resilience. Are we expanding our own internal matrices, perhaps from “under-capitalization” to “mis-capitalization,” from “stability” to “resilience,” and from “excellence” to “relevance?”

Question 3: How are we preparing for the fundamental revolution in internal culture that lies ahead?

There are now two major overlapping but not identical tsunamis engulfing arts organizations: racial inequities and generational divisions.

The call to racial equity has been the more visible one in the past two years: the murder of George Floyd has finally made basic structural racial injustice and inequity impossible to ignore — and in every dimension of our society — from housing to policing to wealth polarization to education to the arts and more — the necessity to think differently, believe differently, behave differently has never been more urgent.

Many organizations are moving forward rapidly and powerfully, and are demonstrating new levels of commitment in programming, staffing and leadership that are far more diverse and explicitly committed to racial justice than those of the past. All of these require us to engage in hard and vulnerable internal conversations about how we treat one another, what it is we believe, how we work and what we hope the impact of our work will be. And we will soon see how audiences respond — whether core audiences will continue to attend and expand in record numbers with new audiences as many hope, or whether core audiences will flee even while new audiences stay away, eviscerating earned income as many fear. The future will require hard work, essential commitment and perseverance, knowing that racial inequity took multiple generations to create and will require years to overcome — and the way challenged organizations move forward in the wake of audience response will speak volumes about who is championing racial equity as a sustained core value and who has adopted it merely as a self-serving strategy for the short-term.

But we also face a tsunami of generational division in which managing cross-generationally is proving to be a source of enormous stress. Leaders are struggling to reconcile two different generations: One is attuned to specialization, siloed departments, deference to supervisors, gradual change and satisfaction with lower wages and benefits in service of nonprofit purpose. The other has an entirely different mindset and is used to transcending siloes, rejecting supervision, insisting on immediate change and struggling with student debt while surrounded by contemporaries in tech companies achieving seven-figure salaries in record time and uninterested in “calling” as an offset to compensation. A new generation is opposing 10 out of 12s and traditional rehearsal and build schedules while supporting a reduced number of weekly performances, two-day weekends for all, higher compensation levels, child care, and reduced ticket prices in the name of access. And this is all while insisting that management include them in a wider range of decisions and restructure executive leadership to more distributed leadership models.

In this moment, organizational leaders will need not merely to restaff but to redefine the very basic parameters of schedules and job responsibilities, reconcile different time signatures for change, align limited or diminished resources to the expanded demands placed on them, create new dynamics for internal dialogue that can too easily turn toxic, and manage and reinvent the internal organization culture, while simultaneously trying to reconfigure and reimagine external community connection. This reinvention is possible only if we look beyond our mission and recognize both our value and our values.

In 2014, I heard President Scott Cowen of Tulane University share his experience on returning to a devastated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — a city decimated physically, socially, and spiritually. His university, long a leader in higher education in general and in theatre in particular, longed to reunite, reconnect to its past, re-form, move forward in its long-standing mission of being a center for learning and reflection, and resume what they had done before. At the same time, he realized, nothing in that mission required Tulane to go beyond its own walls, reach out to its surrounding community, roll up its sleeves, and get its hands dirty to rebuild a city in deep, deep distress.

And so, Cowen said, “I chose to ignore the mission” — to require without debate every student, every course, every department and facet of the university to add a public service component to rebuild the city. Business students counseled start-ups. Engineers tackled construction. Philosophy majors worked to rebuild education, recognizing their ability to debate complex ideas, and starting debate clubs in every surrounding high school. Some resistant faculty moved on. Others frankly were marginalized, but in the wake of this new purpose, applications, retention rates, graduation rates, contributions and the sense of community grew. Tulane grew.

Performing arts organizations that wish to thrive need, like Cowen, to recognize and maximize the value they can offer and anchor themselves in purpose for today’s world — not the historic world — in three interlocking dimensions: the artistic, the civic and the spiritual.

Artistic value of course will be measured in the quality of the artistic encounter — however you define and measure it. This may include artistic virtuosity, animating an audience to frenzied response or inspiring joy or contemplation. And in addition to the experiences you offer audiences to consume, many of you may measure your artistic value by the way you inspire audiences to create works of their own in the world of deeper arts participation.

Civic value will be potentially measured on numerous planes: the economic argument of leveraged dollars for local economies, or the impact of arts education in promoting intellectual development and achievement, or in the role the arts play in building empathy and discouraging racist behavior.

But there are many other possible frames:

● The Trey McIntyre Project in Boise, Idaho, centered its work in a civic commitment to make Boise a world center of innovation — an effort led by a tech CEO, the sheriff, the football coach of Boise State and the project’s managing director.

● Helen Marriage of Artichoke in the UK commissioned the architect from Burning Man and with equal contingents of Protestants and Catholics built a temporary cathedral in Northern Ireland, invited the community to fill it with relics from “the Troubles” and then burned it down in community affirmation of cooperation and release of historic hatred.

● In St. Paul, Penumbra Theatre is publicly reorganizing not merely or even primarily as a theater company but as the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing, tackling larger issues of climate and criminal justice in a civic frame in which traditional production is only a part of a larger whole.

All are wonderfully and deeply artistic organizations with a deep ability to measure their artistic value, but all are now grounded not merely in artistry but in civic value as well.

But artistic and civic purpose thrive only if they are grounded in clearly defined core values — values that permeate the organization and are consciously chosen at the expense of a viable opposite. Artistic excellence and fiscal responsibility are NOT core values, for who can viably run an organization committed to poor artistry and financial disarray? The determination of core values calls you to be crystal clear — scathingly, rigorously clear — about what you stand for and what you will fight for even if punished for doing so. It means you must be intentional in your paths and courageous in aligning your actions to your beliefs. I believe this clarity around values is the mortar that holds an organization together — across generations and race and culture — and binds us to our audiences. Especially in times of crisis, it is values clarity that promotes nimbleness and direction. Anecdotally the organizations I see in greatest disarray are often crystal clear about mission but are in rampant disagreement about their values or even how to define them.

For my own part, I believe we are increasingly called to lead our larger community towards paths of forgiveness as we try to reach one another across the fractious and acrimonious social and political divides that now separate us.

I continue to be deeply inspired by “The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.” The author, Peter T. Coleman, notes that roughly 5% of our problems as a society are intractable ones — places where we get stuck and just can’t find our way out. The Middle East, he says, is an intractable problem. Abortion rights is an intractable problem. Gun control is an intractable problem. And the list goes on.

Coleman observes that intractable problems — however different they may be — share at least three basic similarities:

● arguments are subsumed in a competitive, win/lose, winner-take-all dynamic;

● complex issues are reduced and over-simplified to soundbites; and,

● participants surround themselves with feedback loops that reinforce their initial points of view, no matter what has been said in the interim (as apt a description of our current Congress as any I can imagine.)

I believe the arts offer us an alternative to intractability. Instead of competition, we operate in a context of cooperation. It’s how the work is made, whether cooperation of artist to artist in rehearsal and performance, or of artist and audience in sharing that work, of audience to audience in shaping its reception and impelling it forward. Instead of sound bites and oversimplification, we traffic in nuance, subtilty, shades of gray. And at our best — our very best — rather than the self-reinforcing feedback loops that confirm what we think we know, we gather people unlike one another to view their fellow human beings with generosity and curiosity.

In that light, each of you has the choice of three different paths going forward:

● Many will choose to call out, to be a rallying place for people of like beliefs and values to come together, a place where injustice and wrong — however defined — can be recognized and condemned.

● Others will choose to be a place where we call in, to bring people together to encounter and genuinely express and explore difference — something that is possible only if we are genuinely interested in the other point of view and are not ingenuously reaching out to different audiences so that we can tell them how wrong they are.

● And yet others will choose to call together, not to confront manifest issues at all, but to remind ourselves of the power of laughing, crying, cheering or sitting in shocked silence together, and of conspiring, which in its Latin roots means to “breathe together” — an important step towards repairing our social fabric, which is increasingly frayed.

To work in the arts is to have a platform — however many or however few come to bear witness to our work — we have a platform. But it is not a platform to be taken for granted any longer. In a world of polarization, of increased competition, of fear, we must seize it, we must own it, we must earn it.

Ben Cameron is President of the Jerome Foundation, which honors the legacy of artist and philanthropist Jerome Hill (1905–1972) through multi-year grants to support the creation, development, and presentation of new works by early career artists in Minnesota and the five boroughs of New York City. Previously, he was Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (2006–15), where during his tenure the Foundation created the Doris Duke Artists Awards and received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama. He previously served as the Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group, as the Senior Program Officer for the Dayton Hudson Foundation and Manager of Community Relations for Target Stores, and as the Director of the Theater Program at the National Endowment for the Arts. He received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, a BA with honors from UNC-CH and is a recipient of three honorary degrees. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

Jill S. Robinson CEO | TRG Arts

Jill S. Robinson is CEO of TRG Arts (The Results Group for the Arts), a renowned international, data-driven change agency and a ColoradoBIZ Top 100 Women-Owned Company. As a driving force in the arts and culture sector, Jill has inspired leaders and organizations for more than three decades, and her expertise and counsel are sought out by arts and cultural executives worldwide. Jill believes in the transformative power of arts and culture experiences, and that positive, profound change in the business model of arts organizations leads to artistic innovation that can inspire entire communities.

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