Giving Up the Territory: Sharing Information for Art’s Sake

Data Sharing

While riding the bus back to MA from NYC last spring I noticed a bird had shit on my backpack. The metaphor was apt for a conversation I had just been having in a wide-open conference room about how arts-focused non-profits (who all seem to be providing similar stellar services for the benefit of artists) are fearfully grasping their data through proprietary measures. Not that it doesn’t make sense. People don’t like to be shit on.

When an organization spends a lot of staff hours financially backing streamlined management systems to track patrons, donors, members and quality contacts, that has a certain level of value that translates to the existence of the organization’s pulse. However, it is the root of non-sharing, or dare I say hoarding, the very element of capitalism that enables an organization to reason away why they won’t, and shouldn’t, share their data with similar organizations.

“We’ll work and network with them… to a point.”

Examining that cut-off point is is where we need to get brutally honest. When you run an arts organization that enables art-makers to increase their knowledge and productivity, enhance their business acumen and networking skills, all the while giving them more time to work on their art, wouldn’t you consistently want to make those resources better for the sake of your constituents?

If another organization is doing something similar doesn’t it make sense to team up with them, or at least have a conversation about ways to work together without stepping on each other’s toes?

I Own This. The Backwards Notion of Intellectual Property

Our minds are vast landscapes and each one of us has specific biological drives and learned behaviors that make us unique. We owe that uniqueness to the contributions of society up until this point in time. Our language, food systems, transportation models and habits of walking in particular manners have all been molded by our overall existence as a species.

So even though I have an idea, a brilliant fire that makes me exclaim “Yes that’s it!”, I still owe tribute to all the references and interests that brought me to that kernel of inspiration. If I decide to share it with others, then I release it into the context of the culture fabric. It may be dismissed, disputed, debated or fade into obscurity. It is my choice to keep the idea to myself forever, to never write it down, to dwell on it for a lifetime.

Idea-Haven and Property-Land

When it comes to data, to the gathering of information for a specific purpose, whether that is a donor list, membership base or patron list we go away from idea-haven towards property-land. It’s like a road full of underground detonators. We can go back and forth arguing the benefits and detriments of open source and copyleft but it seems when it comes to data, art orgs don’t feel that it fits their mission/ values/ board’s approval. It’s a similar way of thinking that some alternative venues have. “Well, we’re big fans of your work. We’d love if you played here but we don’t charge admission. We’ve decided it’s against our nature but you’ll get tons of exposure!”

So it’s fine to charge people for the food and beverages they consume while watching me give 150% to them but “against your nature” to pay me for performing? The fact is that this is not a backward way of thinking. Unfortunately it’s quite normal. People don’t view the performing arts as a service because it’s hard to measure the take-away of something that provides psychic value rather than material value. Arts orgs have a similar dilemma so they come up with services that can be translated into valuable products which are mostly based on providing valuable information.

I see this in action myself where I will have an easier time (although it’s not that easy) selling people on my class The Nuts and Bolts of Being a Performing Artist. The performance that can come with the “package” is almost secondary. Again, the class provides information that can be used to increase the business skills of artist but watching me talk about success and failure for an hour on stage is too subjective to quantify.

Here’s Some Movement in the Left Direction

Recently the three big regional arts presenter conferences in the U.S. came together to use a service (started by Canadian art presenters) where artists and agents could apply for juried showcases instead of having to trudge through three separate applications. this is a good example of organizational sharing and trust. These organizations overlap in terms of who attends their conferences each year so this is a way of saying “let’s make this easier for our peeps.” Awesome, but don’t stop there.

Since many booking agents and self-represented artists are sometimes attending all three conferences it seems rather ineffective to receive a spreadsheet each year with all those who will be in attendance. What if that database was streamlined into one place, perhaps a customer relationship management system like, so that in an advanced search you could select the conference, those attending that year and access a segmented list with notes and email exchanges you’ve already created for the people you’ve been in conversation with. You could also pull up those not attending that you’ve met in past years so you could send an email saying “Hey, sorry I won’t get to see you at Arts Midwest this year. Here’ what I’m up to. What’s your programming like the next couple years?”

This isn’t simply about time management and avoiding cross-referencing two spreadsheets (the one from last year and current one) with weird color-coding you only understand. It’s about creating a holistic and organic system of shared data that can at once be accessed by many yet individualized for personal use. There are best practices to think about for sure. (I can’t tell you the amount of artists who add me to their email list without asking, or even bothering to notice that I’m not an agent, because they think it saves them time. I may blacklist them as spammers in my head.) The reasons not to share is only avoiding the conversation of why you don’t want to share.

When Why’s Come from a Fear-based Way of Thinking

The why is usually attached to fear. These are organizations that are applying for funding from the same resources, that may have to cut staff if that funding doesn’t come through. That’s scary. What if those organizations applied together to the same funding resources, using the power of numbers and collaboration to show that by working together they are developing systems that not only strengthen their organizations and resources for shared constituents, but also strengthen the field as a whole?

There’s a Mad Men episode where Don sees one of his agency’s competitors in a hotel bar in Detroit. They both realize they are being playing by GM, that they won’t get the account because their agencies are too small so they decide to join forces and go into  the meeting the next morning to present together. They land the account and merge agencies.

Advertising is a cut-throat industry but arts orgs should be the direct opposite: a collaborative, data-rich, cross-networked love fest. The power and transformational nature of the arts should trickle down to the foundational base of the services that serve artists and their support systems (management, agencies, presenters) to enrich our lives in all contexts and content.

Don’t Be a Monger. That’s all jerky.

Making an argument for the positives and negatives of data sharing has it’s uses but it curtails the premise that we are letting our advances in technology defeat us instead of liberate us. Let’s harbor tools that allow the flow of information be in constant state of beta to guide us to better usage. We need not be at war with our own databases. That’s just silly think.

These are rich systems of information that do indeed need to be treated with respect and security but we need to breathe and trust our colleagues. Let’s partner to bring ourselves forward in the motions that are inherent in artistic integrity. Expression always moves in an outward pattern, rippling in waves, creating currents that each of us respond to in different ways. Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. That’s even weird to think about. Selfishly hoarding the beauty of expression in order to… what exactly?

I thought we were all drawn to this field because there was a moment where an artistic expression hit us so hard that we couldn’t help but dedicate ourselves to look and find that moment in every crevice that life offers. Curiosity is so beautiful and majestic. Our data can have the same effect. Our relationships and networks can be based in a playful interaction that leads to an easier way to co-exist, transcending the culture of me and towards of culture of we.

Start sharing folks. It’s for the many, not for the few.