We’re having an intern workshop with al

11 02 2012

We’re having an intern workshop with all of our wonderful 5HE interns today! 5HE loves its interns!


CAEF: A**ess This!

24 10 2009

Yesterday, I attended the second in a series of events presented by the Chicago Arts Educators Forum, an initiative started by Merissa Shunk and Nicole Losurdo and sponsored by CAPE. This community of teachers, teaching artists, and organizations explores common challenges and opportunities in arts education in the Chicago area.

This day of discussions and workshops centered around assessment, everyone’s favorite part of the process when designing an educational program or residency. Confronting the negativity that surrounds this process head-on, the organizers created a parking garage for frustrations (participants wrote their biggest challenges on sheets of paper taped to toy cars and “parked” them for the day) and an anonymous confessional that also served as the event’s video documentation.

Why so negative? Many artists and organizations view assessment as something they must do for their funders and for the public. So many of us have found ourselves daunted by the task of evaluating the same programs several different ways using the specific criteria presented by those who have provided support. It begins to feel like the process of assessment is about teaching to the test – making sure that the outcome fit the objectives set forth by the organization and its funders.

But what other purposes can this process serve? A question that became a lightbulb moment for many participants was: “Who is this assessment for?” Of course, we’re responsible to those who provide support, but the assessment and evaluation process is also meaningful tools for students, teachers, teaching artists, and organizations if done in a way that captures the depth of the work. In this way, we begin to connect our larger objectives and the activities that accomplish them to our assessment tools, rather than putting the cart before the horse by using a standardized method.

Another theme that resurfaced multiple times was the question of how to quantify social and emotional progress, or literacy and cognitive skills that become evident in work samples more clearly than in a multiple-choice test. In the case studies we examined, many organizations found themselves asking students to take pre- and post-residency surveys, asking questions like “Do you feel a personal connection to these characters” on a scale from 1-5. Often, the difference in responses wasn’t meaningful.

A great start to the answer of this question was presented in Dennie Palmer Wolf’s keynote presentation. She displayed pre- and post-residency work samples from the same student, showing the difference in the vocabulary and depth after working with the teaching artist. One could feasibly assign a number scale to these factors to chart progress, in addition to having the samples available for review. Or, she showed diaries of a day in the life of two students, one of which was participating in an arts program, with yellow highlights on the parts of the day where the student felt personally and deeply engaged. Having five of those moments instead of one is a measurable and meaningful effect of the influence this program has.

The day really helped me and the rest of our staff think much differently about how we assess, evaluate, measure, and document our work, and how connected those tools must be to our own objectives rather than a pre-designed template. The funny part is, making these tools authentic in this way will result in data that can then be pulled to highlight the factors a funder will want to see, while telling a richer story that will be meaningful to our organization, the students, teachers, parents, and schools we serve.

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. She also contributes to the Entrepreneur the Arts blog.

The Great Balancing Act

27 09 2009

In thinking about what topics might be useful for entrepreneurially-minded arts folks, I was reminded of a question that came up at a career skills roundtable that Fifth House led at the University of Northern Iowa that struck me as particularly timely, yet not frequently asked.

A student raised her hand and asked, “How do you balance your professional and home lives? Do you have enough time for a marriage and family?”

Having prepped ourselves for questions about self-promotion, fundraising, organizational development, and the like, this came a little out of left field. In retrospect, I’m so glad she voiced this, because it’s a real challenge that any small business owner will face head-on.

Being in the building stages of a rapidly growing small arts organization, and being in the first decade of our professional careers individually, none of us had particularly encouraging things to say about how much time we’re able to devote to ourselves and to those we love. Starting a business can mean that you work 98% of the day, with your laptop in one hand and PDA in another. Always reachable, always on the clock.

The good part about this is that you’re spending a ton of energy and resources on the one thing that you wake up and fall asleep thinking about. It is the passion for our work that fuels our desire to strike out on our own in the first place, and to selflessly understand that the 9-5 workday doesn’t really exist in any project’s infancy.

But what about the risk of burnout, failed relationships, or medical ill-effects? Most people can’t keep up a the fevered start-up pace forever, and those that do tend to lose at other parts of their life, even as they win. As the amount and quality of the work/gigs/business you are generating grows, it’s time to begin to trim the bonsai and focus on those things that are important both in your business and at home.

This means choosing your projects and engagements more carefully, delegating wisely, scheduling your work time AND your play time, and remembering one of the wisest business lessons I ever heard: EFFICIENCY is the ability to work faster, EFFECTIVENESS is the ability to decide what to do and when. It also means beginning to outsource those parts of your business that someone else can do better and faster.

One of the members of our group has a friend who religiously kept Shabbat (the weekly day of rest that has its equivalent in many major religions) even through the most hectic parts of her college years. When he asked her how on earth she could afford to do it given the huge number of activities she was involved in, she replied, “How can you afford NOT to?” Having the one day to refresh and recharge gave her the energy she needed to tackle the week, and made her focus on working smart and meeting her deadlines in preparation for the day off.

It’s a lesson we can all learn and apply in our own way. Whether it’s scheduling an afternoon with your spouse, creating a daily ritual that includes exercise and time for reflection, or becoming involved in a group activity that has nothing to do with your professional life, the change of pace keeps the mind fresh, the body in balance, and the creativity flowing.

And now, to read this post 40 more times until it sinks in…!

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. She also contributes to the Entrepreneur the Arts blog.

The Grass is Always Greener (for making green)

4 09 2009

First, a big thanks to fellow ETA blogger David Cutler for featuring Fifth House Ensemble in his new book, the Savvy Musician, advance copies of which are available on his website prior to the full release in November. If you’ve been reading his posts, you know that David brings an incredible energy to the concept of being a working, entrepreneurial musician, and his book is sure to be a great resource all of us who are working to create new opportunities in the field.

In an article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David’s mention of 5HE’s dual business model was mentioned. When we formed in 2005, we created both a 501(c)3 nonprofit (Fifth House Ensemble) and an LLC for our private events business (Amarante Ensembles, LLC). Same folks, different purpose.

As a young group, we knew we wanted to provide a wide variety of services, including those that would serve the public good (performances, educational programs), as well as those that would help to keep us fed (weddings, private events). We formed both businesses at the same time in order to be able to keep these activities separate financially, and in order to be able to market them in completely different ways.

Since the article was published, I’ve been getting many inquiries from arts organizations both established and emerging about how and why we did this, wondering if the same model would work for them. Interestingly, in most cases the concern is less about the types of services being provided and the best business structure to manage them, and more about how to raise the most money in the shortest amount of time. Inevitably, those who began as a for-profit think that they will raise more from donated funds as a non-profit, and vice-versa.

My first question is always, “why do you want to do this?” A business structure is about the most effective way to manage the types of services you want to offer, so you have to consider what is a good fit for your goals, not just your bank statement.

If you are a performing arts organization that is committed to work in the public schools and bringing performances to underserved audiences, changing from not-for-profit to an LLC will not help you raise funds from venture capitalists, unless something changes about the services you offer. What will you tell them about their return on investment? And do the people you are serving have the resources to pay big bucks for what you do?

Conversely, if you are a for-profit company that has been successful selling tickets to shows, merchandise, and DVDs, and you are attracted to the extra money you think you will bring in as a non-profit but loathe paperwork, is switching to 501(c)3 status really a good fit? Given that you don’t want to be the one to do grantwriting, annual reporting, financial management worthy of public scrutiny, board agendas, and all of the other tasks that go into managing a nonprofit, you may end up paying staff a large part of the added revenue you would see from changing structures.

The only real reason to have a split structure (in my opinion) is if you have services that are distinctly different enough to warrant that. If there is overlap, not only is the purpose for your choice not clear, but you also risk running afoul of the IRS. I remember fondly the conversation I had with Mr. Botkins, the IRS agent who reviewed our 501(c)3 application, about how we had created these two entities for the sole PURPOSE of keeping for- and non-profit activities separate. The IRS doesn’t like seeing for- and non-profit organizations to be connected in any way, via common control (similar officers/managers), contracts, or other financial arrangements.

Know yourself, the type of work you want to do, your tolerance for paperwork, and the types of people you want to serve. Be realistic about how much you have the potential to earn or raise. If the structure you are considering isn’t a good fit for your services, don’t be tempted to follow what you perceive to be the greener pasture, or you may certainly find yourself out in the cold. The best way to get more green is to make sure that what you do is serving the people around you in the best possible way, which will inspire customers to pay for your work, or donors to support its creation.

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. She also contributes to the Entrepreneur the Arts blog.

PEAK Performances

30 07 2009

We tend to think of a peak performance as something we view as transformative from our own perspective, but are we the only ones in the room?

 I recently attended two workshops presented by the Arts Engagement Exchange which addressed the concept of psychographics as applied to marketing and programming in the arts.

The first was a lecture by Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre, California’s largest boutique hotel company. He recently wrote a book titled PEAK, in which he applied Maslow’s heirarchy of needs pyramid to multiple facets of an organization (customers, employees, etc.).

He also explained how rather than using demographics, he used psychographics to design his hotels and reach his customers. Each hotel he builds is modeled after a magazine, as Conley feels that the magazine industry does a fantastic job in creating an identity-refreshing experience for its readers. Need other brands that do the same? How about Apple or Prius – both of these products give the person who buys them a bit of a psychological boost, reinforcing the self-image and beliefs they espouse.

In applying his ideas to the arts, he presented three layers to the needs pyramid, the lowest being “entertain me,” then “move me,” then “transform me.” As an example, he shared an experience he had in London with a theater company that presented a moving play highlighting issues relating to racial bias, and presented by actors with disabilities.

The program itself was moving, but then the company invited the audience to stay and participate group discussions to explore the issues brought about during the performance. To Conley’s surprise, about 80% of the audience stayed. His group of 60 people stayed in discussion until 3am.

In this way, Conley described the performance as having fulfilled his expectations, his desires, and lastly, desires he didn’t know he had. He had no idea before coming to the performance that he would find himself engaged in a room of strangers, brought together by a common cultural experienced that inspired them to share stories and ideas through the night.

Following this, AEE presented a full-day workshop, where organizations could send two staffers to help to explore their audience psychographic. Groups were challenged to create specific, named identities for their core and target audience members, and were asked probing questions about their favorite place to buy shoes, choice in mobile phones, and spiritual beliefs.

We also had the opportunity to share ideas about how our organizations meet needs, desires, and more, from the cleanliness of the bathrooms to online ordering to backstage passes.

It’s an interesting thing, viewing the concert experience from your patron’s eyes. Next time you go to a show, take notes. Was it easy to find? Did you have to pay to park? Was there enough/not enough/too much information in the programs?

And how did this shape your opinion of the artistic experience before a single note was played?

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. She also contributes to the Entrepreneur the Arts blog.

Asparagus: The Long View

11 06 2009

Perhaps it’s the economy, but garden centers nationwide are finding themselves having trouble keeping vegetable plants on the shelf this season. Having started my journey with a few tomato, cucumber, and squash plants myself over the past couple of years, I was one of the many inspired to take my efforts to a whole new level this season.

So, I dutifully go off to my local home improvement center, rent some heavy machinery, and cut out 50 more feet of plant bed to house my new garden. I till, I mulch, I compost, and finally, I plant.

Of the many types of veggies I laid in the ground this spring, one of the most curious is asparagus. I had never attempted to grow this odd little vegetable before, and most people don’t have any idea what the plant looks like, or how it grows, based on the look of the tender spears we buy neatly rubber banded together at the grocery store.

Starting an asparagus patch begins with tilling the soil deep, breaking up rocks, adding rich organic material, and digging trenches in which the bare roots will be laid. Then, you cover with a couple of inches of loose soil, and wait.

Finally, little baby spears come out of the ground, and you begin, little by little, to add more soil to the deep trenches. With patience, you’ll have topped the plants with enough soil to level the surface.  Each asparagus spear grows straight out of the ground, reaching its full height in a single day. They don’t get taller or fatter after this point, rather, the tips that we enjoy munching on leaf out and become like miniature christmas trees, sucking up sunlight and feeding the roots below.

So, once you see the little shoots emerge, it’s dinner time, right? Wrong.

Even with 2-year crowns, most gardeners wait a full one to two more seasons for their first harvest. Those tempting, green stalks that scream “EAT ME!” during that time have to be left alone, because the newly-laid roots need the energy they provide to establish strong roots that will produce year after year.

And now, the point. Those of us who have made the commitment to create, establish, nurture, and feed a new entrepreneurial project have much to learn from this ferny wonder.   As freelance artists, most of us are trained to think in gigs – how much $$, how much time. Being an entrepreneur is something else entirely. When you seek to write the checks, not have them handed to you, you make the commitment to take the long view.

One of the most successful ensembles I know spent their first five years feeding their roots. During that time, every dollar of income they made went straight back into their business. Forgoing the usual small income that they could have paid themselves initially, they chose instead to put their money into marketing, press materials, and large artistic goals.

At the end of this nurturing period, they had enough money to commission a very well-known composer. As a result of this project, they became the ensemble of choice for the newly-created work, performing it at a large venue in NYC, which came with a stunning review in the NY Times.

Then, their world changed overnight. Booking agents who had stubbornly refused to answer their calls were responding with engagements, and tours were scheduled nationwide. Dates were planned so well in advance, that the players were able to create a yearly budget, prioritize providing health insurance, and pay themselves a salary for their work that was more regular than a per-service fee.

Had they chosen to harvest too early, they may have been able to afford more trips to Starbucks, but wouldn’t have achieved the commission that launched them to national attention. Consider how the lowly asparagus might have something to teach you. Would a web redesign yield more profit than expensive dinners out? Would better quality press kits make more of an impact than a couple of months of cable? Sacrifices in the short term lead to long-term, sustainable success. 

The asparagus patch understands this. After that initial few years of gaining strength, it continues producing heavily with very little effort for over 25 years. I can’t say that a career in the arts will take as little attention as this, but it can certainly feed you as well if you give it the right start.

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. She also contributes to the Entrepreneur the Arts blog.

The Power of Partnerships

5 05 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Chicago Arts Educators Forum event, titled “What is a Partnership?” CAEF is a fantastic new organization sponsored by the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, and formed by two like-minded Directors of Education: Merissa Shunk from Adventure Stage Chicago and Nicole Losurdo from The Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University.

As the title would suggest, this was a day full of workshops centered around building successful partnerships in education. Lectures were led by accomplished experts, and breakout sessions gave smaller groups of participants the opportunity to explore topics in greater detail.

One of the most interesting breakout sessions I attended focused on this question:

What do we learn as organizations from partnering across disciplines?

Because cross-disciplinary collaboration is central to the mission of Fifth House, this is a subject that our staff explores on a daily basis. Participants wondered, “How do I select an effective collaborative partner? How do we split up our tasks? Who’s in charge? What if we have different work styles/speeds? How do we make these two art forms work together? Why bother doing this in the first place – it’s so much work!”

Why bother?

It’s the concept of 1 + 1 = MORE. When two organizations/people/artists/genres/subjects come together effectively, the result is usually more than the sum if its parts would suggest. Think of how your favorite scene in any movie would be without its soundtrack. Dry as toast? The music sets the mood, inspires emotion, and heightens the intensity of the scene. Put it all together, and you’re out of Kleenex.

From an educational standpoint, as many of the teaching artists and organizations participating in CAEF can attest to, arts integration in the classroom allows students to connect to core subjects and to the art form in deeper, more meaningful ways than if each were presented separately. These collaborations between artists and classroom teachers support diversity in learning, reaching students who were previously not engaged through more conventional means.

So, we know it’s worth it. But, the process is a challenge – often we see two groups of people who speak different languages, and even with the best of intentions, it can be difficult to iron out the logistics of making the planning stages run smoothly. Where do we begin?

First, find the right partner. The want ad for a collaborative partner would be daunting at best. You’re looking for an organization that achieves excellence in its art at the highest possible level. And, in most cases, organizations don’t form partnerships – people do. So, you’re looking for an individual who you…LIKE! You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person, so it should be someone who is open, responsive, and has a sense of humor (at least in a perfect world). It should be someone who answers your emails and phone calls in a timely enough fashion (read: not a time suck), and who is genuinely excited about the mutual end goal.

You’ve found your partner. How do you decide who does what, and who is in charge? Figure out what each organization brings to the party, and let them do what they do best without trying to fit them into a mold. The most successful artistic collaborations I’ve participated in resulted from the process of allowing artists to run with a general idea first, without too many boundaries or suggestions.

As an example, if we’re working with a dance company or a visual artist, it is not my place as a musician to dictate exactly what I want them to produce. We can start with a general concept, but in the best case we give the collaborative artist the freedom to take the ball as far as they want to run with it, then we merge back together once they’ve created something they are proud to call their own. Often, we come up with a project that is in many ways completely different from what we would have imagined ourselves, yet infinitely better.

In the classroom, we may come into a curriculum-integrated residency with some ideas in mind, but we generally have the teacher we are working with lay out some of the general learning goals and framework of the unit prior to collaborating on the design of our activities. They are, after all, the experts, and they know their audience better than we do. It’s at that point that we sit down together to answer the question, “how can music help students to better understand ocean ecosystems?”

Having a true partnership, rather than one organization that sub-contracts another, takes a significant amount of planning time. There are reasons that it takes us a year to program each subscription series we do prior to the first note we play, and most of them have to do with the increased amount of learning and communication that have to happen between organizations and disciplines. You have to know your partner and their strengths, and understand their timeframes in order to be successful.

As one of the keynote speakers pointed out, it is possible, and often a great experience, to work with a partner who is in some ways “difficult.” You may find an artist or organization who is phenomenal at what they do, but the partnership is limited by personality differences or work styles. These can still function as long as there is a way to find common ground, much in the same way as those of us who do PR work need to learn how each media contact prefers to be reached, and how NOT to call them when they are on deadline.

But, don’t get pulled into working with an organization that proves to be a time suck – one that doesn’t return calls, ignores emails, falls through repeatedly on commitments, and in general proves to be unreliable. This is an investment that never pays off, and the product always reflects the process.

In short, do what you do best, and allow others to do what they do best. Learn from each other, and keep your mind open to the new possibilities that arise – this is, after all, why you wanted to collaborate in the first place. Thanks again to CAEF for a great day of discussion – looking forward to the next session in October!

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. She also contributes to the Entrepreneur the Arts blog.