18 posts categorized "Reviews"

[Review] Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America

May 28, 2015

The arts — as we know it — are doomed. The broad cultural and economic consensus of the last century that placed paramount value on the arts, arts education, and art institutions has been lost like the voice of Yeats' falconer in the widening gyre. Tomorrow we will have less art, and we will be the poorer for it.

Cover_Curtains_the_future_of_the_Arts_in_AmericaLike an Old Testament prophet, Michael M. Kaiser, the former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, warns of a fundamental crisis in the arts: the way they are created, managed, and marketed in America is simply not sustainable. Ironically, as recently as 2013, Kaiser, in The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations, was somewhat optimistic that such a worst-case scenario could be averted, and he outlined a series of steps arts organizations could take to fortify themselves for the tough times ahead.

Not so much in 2015. In his new book, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015), Kaiser paints a dark picture of the future, both explaining how things came to pass and what arts organizations, especially mid-sized ones, might do to (maybe) save themselves from oblivion.

His argument goes like this: In economic terms, the arts are playing a losing hand; in almost every other industry, the costs of production are reduced over time, allowing for more goods to be sold at a lower price point. Innovation and commodification contribute to this process, enabling goods to be produced ever-more cheaply and distributed on a vast scale, which in turn allows for the increasing segmentation of consumer markets and real-time adaptation to changing tastes and expectations. Alas, almost none of this is true for the arts.

The performing arts in particular, writes Kaiser, are a labor-intensive endeavor in which every unit (i.e., performance) is numbingly expensive to produce — a cost that is passed on to members of the audience in the form of ever-rising ticket prices. Moreover, when every performance must support a portion of the salaries and pensions of hundreds of performers, managers, and back-office staff, as well as theater maintenance and the marketing of the production and institution itself, it's little wonder that arts professionals look to the future with pessimism and deep anxiety.

It wasn't always this way. A half-century ago, with the U.S. economy booming, government coffers bursting, and the costs of sustaining arts institutions much less daunting, the arts in America entered a sort of golden age. Arts education increasingly was viewed as a social good to be sustained with taxpayer dollars, and children, as they grew older, followed their parents' lead and became arts consumers and patrons in their own right. While twentieth-century forms of entertainment such as movies, television, and pop music all competed with live performances of more traditional art forms for audience dollars and attention, they served, more than anything else, to fuel Americans' interest in and a broader engagement with the arts. In particular, visionary investments like those made by the Ford Foundation in developing networks of regional theaters enabled the performing arts to flourish in cities large and small, while Lucille Lortel made Off-Broadway a household name.

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[Review] 'A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity'

February 10, 2015

Cover_A-Path-AppearsA recent survey conducted by World Vision found that, despite the growing list of humanitarian crises around the world, 80 percent of Americans did not plan to increase their charitable giving in 2014. Discouraging perhaps, but not surprising. Those without the means to fund large-scale interventions tend to feel helpless in the face of widespread suffering, with many believing that a modest donation cannot possibly make a difference in addressing seemingly intractable problems, while others worry that little of their money will ever reach the intended beneficiaries.

In their new book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, award-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife, former journalist-turned-investment banker Sheryl WuDunn, beg to differ: You can make a difference. But to do so, you have to be thoughtful and intentional in your approach. That means: 1) doing research to ensure that your gift benefits the target population; 2) volunteering your time and expertise when possible; and 3) engaging in advocacy.

The authors, whose 2009 book Half the Sky examined ways to expand opportunity for women and girls in the developing world, here broaden their canvas to include efforts to expand opportunity for all marginalized populations, in the U.S. as well as abroad, with a particular focus on poverty alleviation. It's a formidable challenge, and Kristof and WuDunn do their best to make it comprehensible by breaking it down into parts: how effective interventions can make a lasting impact; how nonprofit organizations can maximize both their income and impact; how giving can benefit the giver.

According to Kristof and WuDunn, these days individual donors can be more confident about the effectiveness of their donations, for a number of reasons: anti-poverty interventions and development projects have become more evidence-based and cost-efficient in recent years; the Web makes it easier for donors to learn about the impact of their giving; and, increasingly, development projects are run more transparently and with greater buy-in and expertise from local communities. Indeed, the book, as much as anything, is a compilation of admiring portraits of nonprofit practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and activists working to remove barriers to opportunity. At the same time, it emphasizes the importance of (and increasing use of) rigorous randomized controlled trials to ensure that interventions are evidence-based and effective. And in highlighting organizations such as Evidence Action, MDRC, and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, organizations that do the un-sexy but essential work of research and evaluation, it aims to empower individuals to think critically about the programs and charities they choose to support.

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[Review] 'The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession'

January 07, 2015

Bookcover_The_Teacher_WarsConventional wisdom has it that America's once first-rate public education system is a shadow of its former self, today surpassed in both quality and cost-effectiveness by the educational systems of any number of European and Asian countries and with little hope of improvement.

Although some of this decline has been blamed on larger societal problems such as poverty and racism, the teaching profession itself has come in for a large share of criticism. In this view, "bad" teachers — those seen to be undereducated, coddled by their unions, and/or unmotivated and uncaring — are virtually untouchable, while good teachers are forced out of the profession by poor pay and lack of respect.

According to Dana Goldstein, there's nothing new about the conventional wisdom. Indeed, throughout U.S. history, she writes in The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, teachers have been unfairly blamed for the state of American public education even though a host of larger "villains" — misguided reform movements, an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests, ideological crusading, political meddling — are more rightly to blame.

Goldstein characterizes the regular attacks on public school teachers as the product of "moral panics," a term used by sociologists to identify an all-too-common feature of American society in which "policy makers and the media focus on a single class of people . . . as emblems of a large, complex social problem." She identifies at least a dozen such panics, and in each one she finds that blame for the failings of the American educational system, real or imagined, was assigned to one easily vilified group or another: intemperate male teachers, undereducated female teachers, black intellectuals, unionized teachers, unpatriotic teachers, alternative-program recruits, and teachers protected by seniority, to name a few.

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