Saturday, 24 May 2014

Creating value and production chains - thinking about the role of the museum

Here are two things I have been pondering lately.

The first is Tim O’Reilly’s well-known maxim ‘Create more value than you capture’. O’Reilly - publisher and philosopher, I think, is the best description - has used this phrase repeatedly to explain how he sees his business, O’Reilly Publishing, functioning within the wider world - beyond business and customers and into social change.

An economy is an ecosystem, O’Reilly says. If you take more out than you put in, the ecosystem fails. If you put more in - if you create more opportunity -  you create growth, and new ideas, and new producers, and new consumers. I'd say 'everyone wins', only his thinking is so much more supple and significant than that.

Here’s a small example of that thinking in action, from way back when: the 2009 Twitter Boot Camp. O’Reilly is talking about how he uses Twitter, within this framework. He says

The secret about social media is that it’s not about you, your product, or your story. It’s about how you can add value to the communities that happen to include you. If you want want to make a positive impact, forget about what you can get out of social media, and start thinking about what you can contribute. Not surprisingly, the more value you create for your community, the more value they will create for you.

He continues: “What I do on twitter is also what I do when I publish books. I pay attention to a community, find interesting people and ideas, and use my platform to amplify them.”

O’Reilly might have started out publishing books, but they’ve branched into conferences, Foo Camp and Maker Faires: ‘In each case, we’ve told a big story by amplifying the voices of a community of early adopters.’ O’Reilly benefits through the association with those early adopters: they are their authors, speakers, and advocates. The rest of us benefit from these (almost) freely shared ideas:

If you’re succeeding at this goal, you may sometimes find that others have made more of your ideas than you have yourself. It’s OK. I’ve had more than one billionaire (and an awful lot of startups who hope to follow in their footsteps) tell me how they got their start with a couple of O’Reilly books. I’ve had entrepreneurs tell me that they got the idea for their company from something I’ve said or written. That’s a good thing! I remember back in the early days of the Internet, when the buyer at Borders told me after one of my talks, “Well, you’ve just given your competitors their publishing program for the year.” If my goal is really “changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators,” I’m thrilled when my competitors jump on the bandwagon and help me spread the word! 
Look around you: How many people do you employ in fulfilling jobs? How many customers use your products to make their own living? How many competitors have you enabled? How many people have you touched that gave you nothing back? 

(From Work on stuff that matters)

This idea of creating value is one that I try - not always successfully - to apply to the path I’m forging at The Dowse. It takes a great deal of mindfulness, and mindfulness takes discipline and time to develop, before you can even get to the point of communicating what you're being mindful about clearly and meaningfully. But, you work on it, right?

Last weekend I downloaded the Artspace-commissioned report by Stephanie Post, Staying Alive: Some thoughts on opportunities for private funding for small scale visual arts  organisations in New Zealand. I've read it a few times since then, initially getting little out of it, and then slowly having some things dawn on me.

The report is heavily influenced - of course - by the work that’s coming out of CNZ and MCH and if you’re familiar with that then much of it will not be new to you.

What I did find really useful was the thread that runs through it about the role of the small arts organisation (defined loosely here as having a turnover of up to $1M) in the production chain of the arts, and how this could/should be communicated and measured. As Post writes

... the value of an art exhibition in a major gallery is often measured through the metric of visitor numbers, however, this is not really useful for an exhibition in an experimental artist-run space, where, although only a handful of people may see the exhibition, if one or two of those are influential, ie curators or collectors, the exhibition may lead to re-exhibition of the work in a larger institution or biennial, or new projects for the artist, and as such will be immensely significant.

There’s a small level of defensiveness in the report and the international sources cited within it (a defensiveness I often find myself sharing, the Goldilocks conundrum of explaining why you’re too big for some things and too small for others, desperately trying to articulate the just-right). But there’s a useful move towards an idea of a chain of production (which, I guess, could also be seen from the artist’s point of view as a career path):

Small scale visual arts organisations are fundamentally producers, either through the commissioning of new art, or enabling new research or education projects, or publishing new writing. This is in contrast to larger organisations which generally exhibit works of art already in existence, or sell books or journals published by other organisations.

The report makes the point that this kind of production shouldn’t simply be seen as ‘funding’, but - citing a text in the Circular Facts publication - production thought as ‘...initiatives that are interested in production, but also become spaces for discussion; where projects can be contrasted as they’re being carried out, thus effectively working as co-producers.’

The report continues

Working with less established artists or with artists at critical stages in their careers, and commissioning new works and projects, small organisations not only take risks and experiment in their own programme, but also support artists to take risks and experiment at crucial stages in their careers. 
Projects and commissions initiated in small arts organisations frequently continue to have impact both nationally and internationally, long after their initial exhibition at the commissioning organisation, through inclusion in exhibitions in larger galleries/museums and at biennales around the world, often becoming seminal works in an artist’s career.

Here, of course, we’re talking about creating value. It’s not value through audience numbers, it’s value through impact. Which is, of course, harder to measure. (Tim O’Reilly is on to this one too, of course).

Anyway. Those are the things I’m thinking about, on a wet and windy weekend. Value and our position in the production chain. Or - to frame the issue in another way, as I hope we will when we host the Curatorial Hui later this year - if we remind ourselves that artists are one of the communities we are here to work with, what is the value we’re trying to create together?

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