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Wednesday, May 26,2010

Calipers for clouds

New online database will quantify arts

by Lawrence Cosentino

The banker wore a tutu and did flying entrechats to keep the vaults open. The accountant mastered blues guitar to save the firm.


Absurd stories — unless you run them in reverse. Several times a year, understaffed arts groups have to lay down their trumpets, chisels and scripts to work on spreadsheets, cost-revenue charts and other hoops their major funders put in front of them.


It’s a lopsided game, but high-powered help has arrived. The Cultural Data Project, or CDP, an on-line
database used in seven states and run by the Pew Charitable Trusts,
launched in Michigan May 3.


 


Organizers hope the long-term project will change the game for beleaguered Michigan arts groups in two ways. First, when arts groups submit financial and other data via online forms, the CDP will help make the information readily digestible to the foundations and state agencies that fund the arts.


In coming months, CDP planners hope all the state’s major arts funders will plug into the system at the other end. If they do, the cumbersome and confusing grant-writing system will be drastically streamlined, if not superseded.


A second payoff is expected about a year from now. Once hundreds of state arts groups have joined the system, the research wizards of Pew will bake the data into steaming pie charts and other fiduciary flummeries that will quantify and dramatize the importance of the arts to Michigan’s economic and social health.


According to ArtServe Michigan Director of Special Projects Jennifer M. Hill, "Pew is operating the database and the help services to support accurate data going into the database.  Pew then grants research licenses to qualified individuals and organizations to report on what the aggregate data reveal.  Pew has chosen to not be the researcher for the information.  The Michigan CDP Task Force will play an important role in reviewing those research licenses.")


In 2006, the CDP crunched the numbers in Pennsylvania, the first state to adopt the program. It turned out there were 19,000 arts and culture employees in that state’s southeast region — the second largest economic sector in the area. (And the lowest paid.)


The Pennsylvania report is full of eyeopeners. Most arts groups were caught skating on thin ice, with operating margins of 3 to 5 percent of income over expenses. More than 40 percent were running at a deficit. Every dollar spent on fundraising yielded about $9. For paid events, the median ticket price was $14, but the cost to produce the events had a median of $46.


Simon Perazza, a spokesman for ArtServe Michigan, hopes CDP will paint a similarly detailed picture of the state of the arts in Michigan. ArtServe joined with Pew, 10 other foundations, and several other arts groups to bring CDP to Michigan.


“Aside from Kalamazoo, which does a good job of keeping track of the arts community, the rest of the state is a big void, no real data,” Perazza said.


It takes a while to submit data for the first time, but the payoff can come quickly, according to Sarah Hoyt, development manager for SPACES, a Cleveland gal lery of avant-garde and contemporary art. (Pennsylvania, California, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio and New York have the CDP up and running.)


Hoyt found herself in a jam only a week after sending her gallery’s financial data to Ohio’s CDP, when she applied to the William J. and Dorsey K. O’Neil Foundation for a $15,000 grant to revamp the gallery’s Web site. To her surprise, the foundation demanded an annual report.


“I have a stack of exhibit brochures,” she told them. “That won’t do,” came the answer.


Hoyt panicked. “We don’t make an annual report,” she said. “It takes a lot of resources to do that.”


Hoyt went to the CDP, clicked a button and her printer spat out a report worthy of ExxonMobil, with colorful graphs and pie charts. The gallery got the funding.


In Michigan, buzz over the program is growing fast.


Jennifer Hill, a special projects director at ArtServe Michigan, said there are 8,700 organizations registered in the multi-state system, up from 5,000 in January.


In the three weeks since the project launched in Michigan, 50 organizations have registered.


Cathy
Babcock, director of the Lansing Art Gallery, said she plans to attend
a training session. Pew representatives are running 14 free CDP
training sessions across Michigan through October, including sessions
at the Radisson Hotel in Lansing June 22 and at the Hannah Community
Center in East Lansing Sept. 14.


“This
sounds like it could be very useful, especially if it’s recognized by
foundations,” Babcock said. “There’s an obvious problem with saying,
‘This is how we impact the economics of our city, and I say so.’ I
think this could be a great tool.”


The
project has a broader sweep than fine arts. It takes in libraries,
nature centers, zoos and festivals — “all of that very important
activity that makes our community so vibrant,” in Hill’s words.


Perazza
said the three-year project will cost about $900,000. Ten Michigan
foundations are footing the bill, spearheaded by a $200,000 leadership
grant from the MASCO Foundation. (MASCO President and CEO Melonie
Colaianne is an ArtServe trustee and the chairman of the Council of
Michigan Foundations.)


In
a dubious honor, Michigan is a test model for running CDP in states
with “weakened arts councils,” in Perazza’s words. Hill said that
drastic budget cuts and an uncertain future left the Michigan Council
for the Arts and Cultural Affairs a “strong partner” in CDP, but unable
to handle the project on its own. So far, Michigan is the only state
that isn’t running CDP through a state arts council.


Leslie
Donaldson, director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, said she
expects that CDP data will be “very specific” and expects to rely on it
when making pitches to foundations and agencies.


Donaldson said she will enter the Council’s
own data into the CDP this weekend. She is urging all 120 arts groups
affiliated with the Council to join the CDP. They can even use the
computer terminal at the Council’s office in Old Town.


The
CDP’s own help line, backed by Pew’s resources, gets high marks from
users. “They really walk you through the process,” Ohio’s Hoyt said.
When she called the help desk, she said it was like “someone parted the
Red Sea.” Two consultants, including a financial expert, helped her put
the gallery’s revenue picture in focus. “I’ve never, ever in my life
experienced help like that,” Hoyt said.


There
is one more eagerly awaited benefit to Michigan’s launch of the CDP.
For the first time, arts groups will be able to compare themselves with
other groups, by discipline, budget, geography, attendance, and other
categories.


According
to Hill, focus groups in Pennsylvania showed (predictably) that arts
groups were keen on seeing everybody else’s information, but didn’t
want to share theirs. Researchers will be able to view data collated
from three or more comparison groups; each individual group’s
information will be password-protected.


In Ohio, the comparison data goes live next month. The prospect made Hoyt giggle with anticipation.


“I’m
so excited,” she said. “I have no idea what how many people are
employed at a lot of these places, or what the median income is for
some of the arts employees around town.”


The
information will do more than satisfy curiosity. In an anonymous user
survey, a California theater group reported that it used CDP results to
learn they were paying much higher rent than similar organizations in
their county. They got the landlord to lower the rent.


Clearly, the theory behind CDP — knowledge is power — works on many levels.


“Stand up and be counted,” Hill said. “You’re going to get a lot back.”


Michigan Cultural Data Project


The
Web address of the Michigan Cultural Data Project is
www.miculturaldata.org. The help desk is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
Monday-Friday, and the toll-free number is (877) 642-3701. The email
for help requests is help@ miculturaldata.org.


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