Value Pact

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 15, No 2 (Summer 2004)

Ben Cameron
The following remarks were presented to almost 400 Arizona arts workers, board members, and volunteers at the Southwest Arts Conference of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, January 30, 2004. Cameron's comments built on the conference theme, "Revealing the Public Value of the Arts."

We're here today for the "V" word. Now for John Kerry, that's victory; for Howard Dean, that's Vermont; and for Eve Ensler, it's something else entirely. In fact, in homage to her, I hereby entitle today's presentation The V Monologue or What I, an Arts Layman, Learned at Target. My "V" word has been seized by the Moral Majority, derided by anti-corporate liberals, embraced as a foundation for retail—in short, debated by spiritualists, distorted by demagogues, defended by mercenaries, but increasingly one we must define and deploy.

Value.

Value. It's precisely the imprecision—or rather the many conflicting precisions—of what we mean with this word that threatens to make it collapse under its own weight. What are my core values? Do I value our friendship? Is that meal a good value? Does Bill Clinton lack values? Let's add value. The value is inherent. What a value! Family values.

Like an Escher painting, a conversation about value is likely to twist and turn on itself, confounding the listener, entangling the speaker—a snare of spirit, soul, and commerce that nonetheless are interrelated and are critical to us if we are to survive for the long term. Today, it has fallen to me to untangle this tangled nest, and I'll begin with a parsing of sorts, with distinguishing “intrinsic” from “extrinsic,” and perhaps from market, values.

Intrinsically, every organization, arts or no, is guided by intrinsic core values, as is, indeed, each of us in our personal lives. “Core values” are those two or, at most, three things that you or your organization will go to the mat for every single time, not most times, but every single time; manifest principles that guide us—consciously and explicitly, or subconsciously and implicitly—every time we face a set of hard decisions. Financial stability? Risk? Innovation? Honoring tradition? Or, on the personal front: Family? Power? Independence? The list goes on and on. Indeed, the potential for our values to come into opposition increases with each additional value—hence, the limit to two or three.

How do we define and clarify these values? Intrinsic core values have two salient characteristics: First, core values are something that everyone in the organization can attach themselves to, can manifest and pursue. At Target Stores, for example, our three (notice there are three) core values were Fast, Fun and Friendly—values manifested in the shopping experience, in the speed of cash register transactions, in the wild use of color in the Sunday circulars. As a manager, I knew that I was expected to move my department quickly—“speed is life,” they'd say—in a positive fashion while promoting fun. Indeed, at my performance review I was hauled onto the proverbial carpet if my staff had not had fun during the year. The three values applied to every dimension of the organization—to the team member, to the guest, to the accountant, to the vice president, and more.

Additionally, intrinsic core values have a consciously rejected but equally viable opposite. “Excellence”—a principle frequently cited as a core value by many arts organizations, is simply not a useful value for me in this context: who among us would wish to commit ourselves to mediocrity or inferiority? In this world, excellence must be a given, not a consciously chosen value. At TCG (Theatre Communications Group), for example, one of our core values is diversity. Certainly, it would be viable, and perhaps even easier, to stake out a particular segment of our field or of our population to serve. We could choose to serve only Shakespeare theaters, for example, or only actors; we could opt for a particular region or budget size.

But while it certainly presents some huge challenges to provide services for such a disparate membership, I firmly believe that our diversity as a field, and increasingly for TCG, is our greatest cause for celebration. This diversity—diversity of aesthetic and geography, diversity of organizational structure and size, diversity of race and ethnicity, or gender and sexual orientation—is a value that guides our hiring practices, our publications list, the grants panels we assemble to arbitrate grant selections, the composition of our fantastic board of directors. It's a core value of the very processes we use in problem solving and thinking.

Especially in a time of austerity, a time when hard decisions are being made, when questions are being called, clarity around our core values is increasingly urgent. In the absence of identifying and deeply understanding our core values, how can we know if a decision we make keeps our organizations and our lives on course, or throws them disastrously awry? How else can we build organizations and lives of purpose, rather than ones of randomness or mere opportunism?

Defining our core values comes from listening to heart and head in rigorous self-assessment, and from listening to others. Indeed, if you're unsure about your core values, ask your audience—they'll tell you what your values are. True core values are revealed, not by espousing lofty rhetoric, but by how we behave. Knowing our core values indeed is the first step towards a word that will make many of you shudder: branding. But true branding is not a cynical manipulation or spin or image but a conscious, appropriate, articulate depiction of your personality, a controlled presentation of your intrinsic core values.

Today, though, I think we're also talking about something more. We're talking about our extrinsic value. What is the value we offer our community? Why is doing the work important in the first place?

The imperative to know our values and understand the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic was made clear to me upon my arrival at Target. As many of you know, I had spent the prior four years at the National Endowment for the Arts, where I was honored to serve first under Jessica Andrews before she wisely fled across town to do miraculous work at the Shakespeare Theatre. Her departure came at a time when she, like many in those Mapplethorpe and Serrano days, were finding more meaningful possibilities elsewhere. Her handing me the keys of the theater directorship on her way out the door seemed to me on more than one occasion an odd variation on the last act of King Lear: in the Theater Program at least, it was suddenly the last act, the stage was strewn with bodies, and suddenly the fool was on the throne.

That said, the full folly of our method of defending the NEA was made clear to me in subsequent conversations with Target executives. “You just never got it, did you?” they'd say. “While you want to talk only about quality, the rest of the country has moved on. It's not quality that determines where people spend time, money, and energy: it's value. You can have the best toilet paper in the world on the shelves; if people don't see the value of coming into the store in the first place, they never get to see what you have. And, you better have the best if that's what you've promised, otherwise they won't be back a second time.” In other words, in the heat of arts controversy, we answered value-based questions with quality-based answers—an inherent disconnect. We could not still our critics by saying, “Look at the juxtaposition of light and dark. Look at the eloquence of the male nude, or whatever,” especially when their questions were not about the quality of the photography, but of the value of having photographs in the community in the first place. Building public value begins with speaking to where your audience is listening from.

In the arts, we must be far better about conveying, not only the quality of our work, but its value. Every arts organization must be able to answer three basic questions:

  • What is the value of having my organization in my community?
  • Harder: What value does my group alone offer, or that my group offers better than anyone else? Duplicative or second-rate value will not stand in this economy.
  • Hardest: How will my community be damaged if we close our doors and move away tomorrow?

If you can't answer those three questions, your only likely supporters are already seated in your seats.

Every arts organization must be able to translate its extrinsic values into a value statement that goes beyond the intrinsic values that we evince in our behavior and at our core. Target's values, as I've said, are fast, fun, friendly: its value statement is “Expect more. Pay less.” WalMart's (a.k.a. the “Evil Empire”) value statement is “Always Low Prices. Always.” Two contrasting statements—one emphasizing economic value, the other superior quality within a lower price point—that encapsulate the value of choosing one site over the other for a transaction.

Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, is beginning to lead that agency down the value road more powerfully than any of his predecessors. At a meeting last month he announced a new set of statements for the NEA: one overarching statement—“Because a great nation deserves great art”—with three value-based sub-points:

  • because the arts serve all citizens,
  • because encouraging voices from all walks of life is the ultimate democratic practice,
  • because the center of America's creativity resides in the arts.

These are powerful value statements, each with a specific and pointed appeal to parallel values of democracy: inclusiveness, patriotism, and creative potential. Given their effectiveness, we can scarcely be surprised that yesterday at the NEA, First Lady Laura Bush announced the administration's intention to seek an additional $18 million for the agency for 2005—a manifestation of the fruit of a values-based approach.

In the arts community, we have struggled to articulate comparably powerful values. Our arguments of late, in the theater at least, have centered in three terrains: the economic stimulus argument, with its now expansive variant from Richard Florida; the educational value, stressing the role of the arts in enhancing academic performance; and the social value of the arts in encouraging empathy, social tolerance, and healthier cross-cultural relations. The economic, the educational, the social—each one is relevant, powerful, and especially apt if talking to the chamber of commerce, the school, or the community center respectively; remembering, again, that creating value is based in the ability to speak to where the audience is listening from.

Especially for those of us in the theater—we who LOVE words—our volubility, our passion, our frustration at not being more roundly appreciated had led us towards long eloquent statements of purpose, flowery oratory rather than succinct conveyance of value. But we are best served when we can reach deeply, as deeply as possible, to uncover ultimate value—value expressed in, if possible, terms that do not reference the arts at all.

Many theaters, for example, try to articulate their value by saying, “We produce high quality theater...” a beginning that immediately disaffects those who perceive theater in general to be a less than pressing priority. “Why is doing theater at all of value,” they would ask. In contrast, consider how the Red Cross describes itself. While it would easy to say, “Our mission is to gather bandages and administer food to disaster victims,” they instead say, “Our mission is to serve the most vulnerable”—a statement of value that can be adorned by “we do that through distribution of bandages and food.” The Salvation Army says, “We make citizens of the rejected”—a value statement that can be tied to explanations of distributing clothing and education programs.

Mark Moore, in his celebrated and must-read book, Creating Public Value, notes the shift—and the consequent resurgence in public confidence—in the police force of Houston when they began talking about their value, not through the filter of what they do by arresting people or enforcing the law, but through the value of “promoting public safety.” Comparably ennobling, animating purpose statements for the arts could impel us and galvanize supporters who may not know they have much to do with us. We need statements of the ennobling values that belong uniquely to the arts.

Articulating value is only a prelude to conveying it and gathering supporters. At virtually every meeting I attend, I hear the longing for our version of Got Milk?—for a campaign that, we fantasize, would exponentially build our audience base and catapult us into the center of American consciousness. Conversely, we cast critics in the role of demons and identify them as barriers, as enemies that foster indifference or hostility to our work. How, we wonder, can we get them to give us better coverage? How do we secure major space in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today?

Increasingly, I believe this is the wrong approach: the critics will do what critics do. Cut them loose, and our fantasies of the Got Milk? campaign are badly placed. Got Milk?, for example, has an $80+ million budget and, if truth be told, has not expanded the universe of milk consumers at all. At best it has arrested a decline in milk consumption—and while maybe that's enough to justify a comparable arts campaign, I don't see an $80 million check on the horizon.

In The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell tells us that social movements do not rely on marketing campaigns. The sudden ascension of Hush Puppies into cool fashion after decades of dormancy, the increased reach of cancer awareness programs, the galvanizing of the Howard Dean campaign all caught fire without major marketing and media-support. Gladwell attributes the success of these movements to three different kinds of people whose actions coalesce to catapult an idea into a movement. First are mavens, experts who understand an issue deeply. Whether a maven about power tools like my neighbor Dan or mavens about opera recordings, they are experts to whom others turn for validation and confirmation of quality and value. Second are connectors, people who love to connect people to one another, who send you jokes on email (generally headed by a list of fifty other names), who never forget your birthday, your anniversary, or your children's graduations, who, in a test asking to identify friends from 150 randomly-chosen names in a phone book (a test most of us would score maybe thirty friends) will register 120 names. And third are salesmen, people who love to make a sale, love to make the pitch.

In a sense, if we want a true arts movement, we need to carefully identify our collaborators in Gladwell's matrix. Can we, for example, do a personality scan on our boards for their potential to convey our values, to be our activist arm, to be our salesmen and turn our arts experiences into an arts epidemic? On some level, our boards must include mavens, connectors, and salesmen, almost like volleyball teams with three lines of players, one that catches the ball, one that sets it up, one that spikes it home—the mavens, the connectors, the salesmen. Have a team of all catchers, the ball never moves; have a team of all connectors/setters, the ball never goes back across the net, a team of all spikers, chaos. How do we transform our boards into conveyors of our values?

These collaborators must be given the messages, the ammunition as it were, to convey to the community. One theater I know has distilled its three primary values into three talking points, capturing them on small, wallet-sized cards that can be easily pulled out mid-conversation when precise verbiage is needed and precise supporting facts and figures are warranted. Every board member has one. It clearly distills the values they want to convey. Together, by singing the same songs in the same language, by consistently using the same three “key messages” as media trainers would say, the entire organization is working to build critical consciousness in its community. Let's carry it further: if we really want to make a difference, it's time to make these cards not only for every board member, but for every actor, every technician, every administrator, every custodian in our employ. No matter what the media does or doesn't do for us, we have the power to build the consciousness from the bottom up.

Our efforts can only be amplified by a more fervent attention to how we maximize our letterhead, our business card, our very spaces. Think, for example, of what we see when we enter a theater lobby: pictures of actors whom we're about to see—both in pseudo-chic headshot and in scenes from the play we're about to see. We go to the show, see the people we've been told we'll see doing the things we've already been shown they'll do. But if we want to make people understand our economic role, what would happen if we put the headshots of everyone responsible for bringing the work to the stage—every stage hand, every costume constructor, every box office person—a manifestation of the sixty-seven people it took to bring the performance to the stage, not just the six actors parading before you? It would be a reminder of our reach as employers and our role as small businesses. If we want people to see the power we have for children, what if our lobbies were filled with photos, not from tonight's play, from the educational workshops, the school programs, the student work we do? Can we present student work as curtain raisers? Can we use students as guides? No one is poised to come in and save us—but we have the power to control the eyes of the community every second they're in our space. If they fail, upon departure, to understand our concerns, our strengths, our values, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

And it's time we do this together. While we build understanding of the value of our institutions individually, we must build it for the arts in aggregate. In an age of right-wing conspiracy, I want an arts conspiracy—conspiracy, rooted in the Latin for con-spire—to breathe together. I want us to conspire for the sake of the arts. What I convey about the value of a theater can only help the value of orchestras, if we do this right. The value of an orchestra can build the value of operas, the value of operas that of museums, and so forth.

At that same NEA meeting mentioned earlier, Dana Gioia urged us to speak in a unified way with three principles in mind:

  • Think in terms of positive value. Repeatedly, he emphasized the value of relating the positive accomplishments of the arts, especially in the present day. He clearly has become a master at refuting negative attacks with positive responses about the arts—about responding to questions about arts controversies (e.g. Mapplethorpe, et al.) with the observation that more than 5 million school children have been born since then and that the real question is about their future—a future enriched by the arts.
  • Be prepared to be credible while being human—to be quantifiable as well as anecdotal. As we see at every political convention, credibility is grounded in facts and figures that inform our discussion. Then, hearts are moved when those numbers come home and are attached to a human face. Think of how often Clinton would talk about welfare numbers, only to follow with a specific story of a now successful mother who had started on welfare—an anecdote ending with asking her to stand.
  • Non-divisiveness. We must, he repeated, be supportive of one another (avoiding the “divide and conquer” strategies of the right in the earlier NEA controversies). We do have differences, we do have to compete at times for resources, we do not share the exact same values with one another. But like any good family, no matter how bitterly we may fight behind closed doors, we must present a unified, mutually supportive front to the world at large...or be prepared to be destroyed.

All this is a lot to digest. It has been like the Escher print I predicted at the beginning. But I would suggest that the benefits of clarifying our values are as follows:

  • Intrinsic values, those that guide our organizations' choices, give clarity to our decision-making and distinctive profiles to our organizations.
  • Extrinsic values, the value of our work in a larger world, are useful in cultivating investors, in shaping and promoting public policy, in building consensus between those who love the work we do and those who perceive that our experience is of minimal importance to their lives. Extrinsic arguments ask a listener to rise above his or her taste in the arts and to embrace larger, common values—values that intersect with the values each may hold dear beyond the arts themselves.

And in working with both intrinsic and extrinsic values together, we must each

  • understand our intrinsic core values,
  • manifest them in our behavior,
  • convey them as our brand,
  • concisely articulate the overriding extrinsic value we each offer a community,
  • maximize every strategic resource at our disposal to reinforce and convey this value,
  • and conspire.

But let me do one final Escher-like turn, let me fold the “value” word on itself one more time. Because even after all this is said, does anyone really go to the arts for extrinsic arguments? Has anyone here ever looked across a table at a husband, wife, or partner and said, “Gee honey, if we go to the theater tonight, kids in our community will do eighty points higher on their SATs. Grab your coat.”

Market value is created—that is, audience is attracted—by our ability to meet positively the seven points of compatibility defined by the retail world:

  • emotion—it engages us viscerally, whether through the ebullience of comedy or the deep rewards of penetrating tragedy;
  • aesthetics—it appeals to our senses, visually and aurally;
  • product identity—it has a distinctness that separates it from others;
  • impact—it makes a difference to us in some way, either emotionally or pragmatically;
  • ergonomics—it is easy to use, from both physical and cognitive points of view;
  • core technology/reliability—it has a certain consistency; and
  • quality—of course, the ultimate trait that encourages reinvestment.

Controlling and using these seven domains accurately and powerfully—maximizing the expression of our values in each of the seven spheres—creates value for the customer and can lead to market presence and, in a sense, to market value.

People patronize the arts for a real, a unique, a powerful eighth area of compatibility—for the promise of transcendent moments, for reminders of human possibilities. As Jeanette Winterson observes in The Secret Life of Us:

Art is a different value system. Like God, it fails us continually.
Like God, we have legitimate doubts about its existence, but
Like God, Art leaves us with footprints of beauty.
We sense there is more to life than the material world can provide, and Art is a clue, an intimation, at its best a transformation...Art reminds us of all the possibilities we are persuaded to forget.

It is because of the footprints of beauty each of you make that we have, not supporters in the world, but passionate advocates—activists whose lives the arts have deeply touched and transformed. It is because of these footprints that, at a recent business luncheon in San Jose where I had been soundly applauded for articulating the extrinsic values to local government officials, a theater board member rose and added, “While recognizing the truth of all that has been said, the ultimate value of the arts is its reminder of possibilities. I go to the theater and wait for that moment, just before the curtain goes up, where I remember that in life, anything is possible.”

I travel almost twenty days every month. And no matter where I go in this country, I see the same Starbucks, the same WalMarts, the same Blockbuster Videos. I sit in the same Hyatts, the same Sheratons, the same Hiltons watching the same cable stations, the same newsbreaks, the same pay-for-view. I shop the same Barnes and Noble, dine at the same Friday's, see the same billboards. In a time of increasingly mindless homogenization, it is the arts that confer distinction on a community. It is the Guthrie Theater that makes Minneapolis, Minneapolis. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra that makes St. Paul, St. Paul. The Mark Taper Forum LA, LA. The Intiman Theatre that makes Seattle, Seattle. And here in Arizona in my field, it is the Arizona Theatre Company, the Actors Theatre of Phoenix, Childsplay, Borderlands, Phoenix Theatre, and Invisible Theatre among others that confer distinction on Phoenix and Tucson. Indeed all of your organizations and your work as individual artists conspire—breathe together—to make Arizona uniquely Arizona. We confer distinction, we foster individuality, we move a community beyond a parade of hotel chains to a true home.

In closing let me offer you an image that I hope will sustain you in these times. In this moment, I am inspired by a picture over my desk of a lobster fisherman. This picture is above my desk because of an article in Atlantic Monthly about lobster fishermen. Lobsters can grow to be over four feet long; who knew? Lobsters can urinate through their heads; who knew? Their mating rituals defy description. These are not the points of the article that bring me to the observation I want to share with you. What the article was about was lobster fishing. They took one of those underwater cameras and sank it next to a lobster pot to watch what happens in a typical day as the lobsters move about at the bottom of the sea. What they found is that over the course of the day, roughly fifty or sixty lobsters will come into the pot, hang out in the foyer, nibble a little bit, and say, “This isn't really interesting to me” and swim away. Meanwhile three or four more lobsters will come into the same pot, and say, “Tasty, I wonder what's in the back room?” and they will swim in together and they will be trapped.

The lobster-fisherman experts said to the lobster fisherman, “You know fifty to sixty different lobsters visit your pots every day.” The lobster fisherman said, “Yea, we know.” The experts said, “Well, if you move it a little bit here, add some aluminum thing here, whatever; you could catch all fifty to sixty lobsters a day.” The fisherman said, “Yea, we know.” The experts said, “Well, you know you could sleep later, your lives would be easier, you could make a lot more money.” The lobster fisherman said, “Yea, we know that too.” The experts said, “Well, then why?” The fisherman said, “Because in every part of the world in which fishing efficiency matters have been adopted, the local fish population has been drastically over-fished to the decimation of the ecological system. We deliberately embrace the inefficiency of what we do because of our investment in the health of the community as a whole.”

In my field, I could turn to an actress and say, “One bad slasher movie, and you could be seen by twenty-times the number of people than in a lifetime of stage work.” I could turn to a playwright and say, “One hour-long TV special would give you a reach far beyond whatever forty plays would ever do. What you're choosing to do is inefficient.” Yet these artists would say, “We know that. We believe in the integrity of the live human audience. We believe in what happens when actor talks to actor, actor to audience, audience to audience. We glory in the inefficiency of what we do, because of the investment in the health of our people in the arts.”

You are the lobster fisherman.

© copyright 2004 Theatre Communications Group

Ben Cameron is director of Theatre Communications Group and serves on the board of Grantmakers in the Arts. Prior to joining TCG in 1998, he served as executive manager of community relations at Target Stores, Minneapolis and director of the Theatre Program at the NEA, and worked with several theater companies including Indiana Repertory, PlayMakers Repertory and Yale Repertory. He is on the adjunct faculty of Columbia University.

For more information on the books and research Ben referenced in his speech along with related recommended reading, see www.ArizonaArts.org/swac.