The Promise of Introducing the Mona Lisa to the Blind

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The Mona Lisa is among the most famous paintings in the world—revered for centuries, owned by emperors and kings, and visited in the Louvre by approximately 6 million people annually. Still, its beauty and impact are diminished for people who cannot see it because of visual impairment. But that may be about to change if either of two crowdfunding campaigns currently on Indiegogo and Kickstarter succeeds.

The one on Indiegogo is a campaign proposed by Unseen Art that’s “raising $30,000 to create a software platform that would allow those without sight to download famous artworks and 3D-print them.”

Founder Marc Dillon has said, “The classical artworks of the world are something we believe everybody should have accessibility to and it should be free. […] So we have to build something in order to do that.”

The notion is to “let artists create 3D interpretations of artworks by scanning a photo of the original, then adding depth and simplifying detail.” Then, anyone with access to a 3D printer could access the file, download, and print.

The project on Kickstarter from the group 3DPhotoWorks is different in that it is looking to fund a much more expensive, commercial platform for use by museums, science centers, and other cultural organizations. They’ve developed and tested “a process called 3D Tactile Fine Art Printing” that is “capable of converting a painting, drawing, photograph or other form of traditional 2D artwork into a 3D printed tactile fine art” as large as five feet by ten feet.

The technology is based on the science of neuroplasticity and inspired by “the work of Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” which shows “that the human brain is capable of processing the tactile information obtained from fingertip contact like it had been obtained from visualization.” In these cases, sensors have been “implemented into the prints, which when touched, give off audio that tells the user what is being shown at that part of the painting.” In that way, their brain can put together a mental picture of what’s in the painting, photograph or drawing.

One aesthetic question raised by this, according to Tech Crunch, is whether “a 3D painting [is] still a painting?” And, in another sense, are the new creations new pieces altogether? Dillon sees this as a differentiation between the two approaches, and describes 3D Tactile Fine Art Printing as “more of a relief style” versus the fully 3D models Unseen Art aims to distribute.” He argues that there’s particular value in the 3D modeling he’s proposing because they found, “there needs to be some depth of touch, and there needs to be some limitation to detail—a perspective on the art, or an impression of the art, for people to really understand it.” Using the Mona Lisa as the best-known example, he says, if you included every bit of detail about the picture, then people aren’t really going to get a lot out of it.

Regardless, Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in talking about 3DPhotoWorks, stressed the importance of increased accessibility:

Too often people invent ways of describing art to blind people rather than creating authentic means for the blind to perceive visual imagery in nonvisual ways. This technology opens up new avenues for exploration and understanding and will enhance the experience for everyone. This technology also has the potential to allow greater participation by the blind in a wide variety of fields, especially the visual arts and STEM subjects.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]


Indiegogo Aims to Take the Lead in Non-Profit Crowdfunding

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In a major strategic move in the crowdfunding arena, Indiegogo has just announced the rebranding of its charitable crowdfunding arm, “Indiegogo Life,” to a new platform now called “Generosity.” The intent is being seen as an effort to try to unseat the current “leading platform for personal causes, GoFundMe,” which reported in September that it raised $1 billion in donations over the previous 12 months and $1.6 billion since its 2010 launch,” according to Forbes.

Other cause-based platforms referenced by the New York Times in their coverage of today’s Indiegogo news, are YouCaring, GiveForward, and Fundly. These sites “are a popular choice for funding, “memorials, educational projects and other charitably minded giving,” according to the Times. The new move by Indiegogo, according to VentureBeat, will also broaden the scope “to include nonprofit organizations” and they also noted that it’s a “milestone in Indiegogo’s evolution, as it’s the first time it has launched a service outside its main Indiegogo domain.”

According to the New York Times, Generosity, “is designed to be a cheaper alternative to traditional crowdfunding sites, including its parent. Indiegogo, which levies a 5 percent platform fee on money raised through its site, a 3 percent payment processing charge and 30 cents per donation.” GoFundMe charges a 5% fee for all money raised plus additional credit card processing fees.”, like its predecessor Indiegogo Life, “has no platform fee, but processing charges will be deducted before funds are disbursed.”

Forbes’ article names cause-based campaigns as “crowdfunding industry’s largest vertical,” and said that Indiegogo, “has totaled pledes over the course of its nearly seven-year history of about $750 million for projects ranging from personal robots to fitness trackers to disaster area aid.” Forbes reported, that while Indiegogo CEO Slava Rubin declined to address GoFundMe when asked about the company,” he did say “that Indiegogo was ”the first to offer personal funding and nonprofit funding.” He was also quoted in the New York Times saying, “the main difference between and its predecessor was that all nonprofit campaigns would now be hosted on the site.

“We’ve seen the impact that a group of people coming together to support an important social cause can have and our commitment to support nonprofit and personal funding has literally changed lives for the better,” explained Rubin in an email to FORBES.

GoFundMe CEO, Rob Solomon, in an email statement he sent to Forbes said, “In their time of greatest need, people don’t need a cheap platform, they need one that works.” He’s also said, “that Indiegogo’s presence has had little impact, with users flocking to GoFundMe to find campaigns.” Now, the question is whether Generosity can change that.

At Indiegogo, aside from the differences in fee structure, the two sites will operate very similarly. One change is that “Indiegogo has done away with time limits on Generosity, allowing a campaign to be an open-ended amount of time similar to what is allowed on GoFundMe. Generosity also provides integrations so that users can run their campaigns on their own personal websites.”

Indiegogo launched in 2008 and which is most often seen, “in competition with its top rival, Kickstarter, facilitates fund-raising for creative and entrepreneurial projects.” As the Forbes piece points out, a challenge for the company going forward will be to differentiate between “the kinds of cause-based campaigns that is designed for and those that should be on Indiegogo proper. “Mr. Rubin said he was confident that campaign organizers would choose the right site for their endeavor. Indiegogo has more robust tools for campaign marketing and tracking, while’s interface is stripped-down and simpler.”

“Existing Indiegogo Life listings will be transitioned into the new platform, while Generosity is also launching with four new nonprofit campaigns, including Khan Academy Lite, an initiative aimed at bringing Khan Academy education to people without internet connection, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which is raising funding for 100 Bay Area blood cancer patients.”

Indiegogo, according to Breanna DiGiammarino, senior director of Generosity outreach, commenting in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, sees a number of benefits to the launch. She said they’ve observed that, “nonprofit users like to have their crowdfunding efforts rubbing shoulder to shoulder with other cause efforts, including individual campaigns,” and that donors also like “a one-stop shop for a wide range of donation opportunities.” For Indiegogo users overall, she says, they can now see these causes “all in one place.”


Diversity is Critical to the Success of the Arts—and Arts Education is the Key


Calls for increased diversity are no longer episodic or quixotic; they are regularly heard across our business and cultural landscapes. And, if trends we see currently with Millennials continue, the need to cultivate diverse arts audiences will increase.Advertising Week this year identified the need to focus on diversity as a main theme, pointing out that while Millennials represent our “largest (and most diverse) generation, most marketing decisions and campaigns are run by alarmingly non-diverse groups.”Science News reported, too, that Americans are growing more genetically diverse, “choosing mates with ethnic backgrounds different from their own.”

In the arts, the desire for change bumps up against a number of challenging realities. One is that there are fewer non-white artists and organizations in traditional areas of the arts, such as classical music, and it takes time and a commitment to arts education to effect a change. Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, president and artistic director of the nonprofit Sphinx, and her husband, Aaron Dworkin, who is a MacArthur fellow who served in the Obama administration, have been working to change that for quite some time. Sphinx, headed by Ms. Dworkin as president, operates programs that reach “over 100,000 students, as well as live and broadcast audiences of over two million annually.” Last week, for example, Syracuse, which has “the highest rate of concentrated poverty among black and Hispanic communities” in the U.S., benefited by having the Sphinx Virtuosi ensemble perform at schools throughout the city and at the Red House Arts Center at Syracuse University.

Dworkin, whose organization is based in another struggling city, Detroit, and who runs yearlong programs there, has seen the impact arts education can make, providing “a place of refuge and a place where [children] can feel confident, where they can have fun and have a break from their everyday challenges.”

As in other traditional areas of art, “classical orchestras tend to be overwhelmingly white. According to a 2012 report by the League of American Orchestras, only 4.5 percent of orchestra musicians are black or Latino—hardly representative of the general population, which, according to the 2010 census, was 13.6 percent black and 16.3 percent Hispanic or Latino.” Sphinx has been responding to that in a variety of ways, including providing free violins and lessons to elementary students in underserved communities, hosting a summer camp to work with aspiring young musicians who “demonstrate aptitude toward classical music but lack resources and access,” and by sponsoring an annual national string competition for Black and Latino youth. Red House Arts Centerhas worked similarly on the local level in Syracuse, to help underserved populations by “creating opportunities…and bringing the arts to students in struggling Syracuse elementary schools reaching 2,200 kids each day.”

“In the Syracuse City School District, about 10 percent of students in kindergarten through eighth grade play instruments, and about 65 percent participate in choral ensembles. In high school, students generally choose one or the other, or participate in art classes,” according to the Syracuse New Times. Sarah Gentile, supervisor of fine arts there, has been working had to improve that, but that type of change requires funding, parental and community support.

A big part of the equation is the value placed on arts education and the arts by the society overall. According to Americans for the Arts, “In America, the arts are often seen as a luxury. They are the first thing to go when school boards cut budgets, and successful arts policy is seen as the exception, not the rule.” As Creatiquity, a research-backed news site that explores issues in the arts, said in an article entitled “Why Don’t They Come,”

People with lower incomes and less education participate at lower rates in a huge range of activities, including not just classical music concerts and plays, but also less ‘elitist’ forms of engagement like going to the movies, dancing socially, and even attending sporting events.

Jennifer Swan reported on this for the NPQ Newswire at the beginning of this year,outlining findings from three National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) studies. The article concluded with a quote from NEA Chairman Jane Chu:

“The implications from this research are significant. The findings show that there is great diversity in how people engage in the arts, and this gives us a framework to use our creativity to innovate new ways to reach these audiences.”

At a time when funding and support for arts and cultural nonprofits is on a decline, it is more important than ever to prove their importance to our representatives, communities, and leaders. With reports like these, and other arts advocacy groups like Americans for the Arts, we are evolving from a perspective of “art for art’s sake” into one of “art for business’s sake.” No longer are arts and culture something “extra”—they are an economic driver with an impact on our neighborhoods, our jobs, our employment, and, as always, our creativity.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]


Nonprofits Championing Tech for Girls in Kenya

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Like many young women in Kenya, Miriam Wambui graduated high school without a job and without money to attend university. She hadn’t been greatly exposed to technology and had no idea she needed to learn about it. But while doing community-based volunteer work, she heard about Nairobits—a nonprofit that offers Kenyan youth ages 15 to 24 training in information computer technology, and she went from, as she describes it, “not knowing how to press a mouse,” to becoming an expert in information communications technology (ICT) and gaining skills like Web design and development. Ms. Wambui is now project coordinator for three Nairobits centers for girls in some of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods. Wambui, along with others in Kenya, including at the African Centre for Women, Information and Communications Technology (ACWICT), see ICT as “a potent force in transforming social, economic and political lives of women globally.”

At Nairobits, young women who were given the chance to get educated in technology often initially had trouble learning in co-ed classes, since technology has been traditionally viewed as a field for males and they felt uncomfortable competing. Families in Kenya, Wambui says, can be against girls getting an education, since “after primary school, boys’ education is given priority and the expectation is that girls will ‘take on roles that are much more maternal.’” Nairobits’ solution was to open girls’ centers to give women a chance to learn, share, and interact in a supportive environment. For Wambui, that included mentorship of students, teaching life skills, and working with parents who often don’t understand the value of computers as a part of everyday life.

According to ACWICT, the problem of girls in Kenya not having upper level education is coupled with those of “high unemployment, lack of skills relevant to the workplace by the young people, lack of information on available job opportunities, lack of networks and connections among youth,” and “lack of available jobs suited to entry-level skills,” among other things. These are global concerns. Kennedy Odede, founder & CEO of Kenya’s Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a nonprofit combating poverty and gender inequity, spotlighted how we’ve fallen short on education in the Huffington Post last week. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals set in 2000, “instituted that quality primary school education was a basic right for every child and it would happen by 2015,”

“It’s 2015,” and, as Odede says, “59 million children still cannot go to primary school and 62 million girls don’t get to go to secondary school.” Now, “the UN General Assembly [has] formally adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” which includes the goals of “ensuring access to quality education and promoting gender equality.”

The other critical components following education are job opportunities and the fostering of entrepreneurship. The ACWICT cites statistics that in Kenya, “while an estimated 750,000 young people enter the workforce annually, only 15 percent get absorbed into formal employment, leaving the rest…to take up informal work and/or face the brunt of poverty.” Kenyan girls are at a particular disadvantage, according to data from the United Nations, because “only 41 percent of young women continue their education after high school.”

But entrepreneurship is providing new avenues to supplement the educational initiatives. When President Obama spoke this July at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, he said, “This continent needs to be a future hub of global growth and Kenya is setting an important example—Kenya is leading the way.” Pledging $1 billion to support entrepreneurship projects worldwide, with half earmarked for women and youth, President Obama called women “powerhouse entrepreneurs” and said, “research shows that when women entrepreneurs succeed, they drive economic growth and invest more back into their families and communities.”

So, the pieces are in place. With continued support, young women in Kenya and elsewhere may be able to follow in the footsteps of Wambui and Odede in the continuing fight for women’s education and equality.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]


Meet Your New Customer: The Millennial Parent

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Know your customer is the first rule of business. Millennials, huge in population numbers, are our new generation of parents. While individually, they may tell you they don’t like to be categorized, recent studies have shown as a consumer demographic, distinct patterns are emerging. Millennials are proving to be extremely knowledgeable, discriminating consumers who are more than willing to break with tradition, and who expect a lot from those who sell to them.

According to a new book, “Millennials with Kids” by Jeff Fromm and Marissa Vidler, these children of the Baby Boomers want products that make their lives “faster, better, easier, and more efficient.” They tend to be price conscious, responsive to special offers, and want a lot of personalization and customization. They also take time to research and network to ensure that they get just what they want. If you’re a company or entrepreneur who gets that right, and you provide great customer service, then Millennials are likely to be extremely loyal to your brand. Get it wrong at your peril because they won’t be shy about voicing their displeasure.

The choices they’re making in their careers and lifestyle are helping us understand them as future consumers. At work, one very clear indicator is that maintaining a work-life balance is of primary importance for this age group, and many are prepared to trade financial gain for pursuing their passions and having more control of their time. Two top concerns according to a study entitled, “Millennials as New Parents,” are about environmental issues and about the foods they give their children. The same study shows that in contrast to “helicopter parents” who raised a lot of Millennials, these young parents want their own children to have more free time for unstructured play.

Often cited as one of the most socially compassionate generations, more than half surveyed by Fromm said they “try to buy products that support causes or charities.” Among the things they want to teach their children is that possessions aren’t important to keep you happy. This is consistent with lifestyle choices being made to choose smaller homes, live closer to cities with better transportation, and opting to share and reuse rather than buying.

In terms of family, a Pew study found this demographic willing to challenge traditional thinking about what a family is – in terms of gender, dual or single parenting, parental roles and even the importance of children over marriage. In fact, fifty-two percent said “being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life; while only thirty percent said the same about having a successful marriage.

But the group is huge and growing – almost at thirty percent of the population, and a new report by Goldman Sachs says, “the rise of this new generation has sent marketers into a frenzy,” anticipating enormous sums they are expected to spend on their kids.

As consumers, preference is for companies or individuals that have “authentic narratives and share their world view,” according to Goldman Sachs. Millennials develop personal affinity for products and brands and this along with the “leveling force of social media, has given a newfound upper hand to smaller, social media-savvy upstarts that are able to use grassroots marketing to push boutique-style products with an aura of social responsibility or healthiness.”

Skeptics contend that this will change when Millennials settle down, but many say they’re playing a new game thanks to technology and social media, that places great importance on ensuring that their voices are heard and that they can effect change to get what they want. “Millennials see technology not just as a device or platform for communication but as a way to improve life, make better choices, and contribute to society….Brands that have a social media presence, manage a user-friendly website, and engage their customers with relevant, fresh content have a greater chance to impact Millennial purchasing decisions,” reports “Entrepreneur.”

“Creating a forum for this group to communicate and share their opinions with each other can create loyal followers and increase sales.” Then hold onto your seat because, as the technology consulting group Accenture concludes its recent report, “we believe retailing will change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50.” And the key to success is in providing a consistently personalized, on-brand experience.


HistoriCorps: Volunteers in U.S. Historic Preservation Make Their Mark and Have Fun Doing It


Want to experience a slice of American history? Would you be willing to clear some brush, wield a hammer, and step off the beaten track? If so, and if you have a week, month, or more of your time to give, and you’re willing to travel, consider becoming a volunteer for HistoriCorps, a kind of national landmarks-focused Peace Corps for sites in the U.S.

Described by executive director Townsend Anderson as “a hybrid between a nonprofit construction company and an outdoor adventure company,” HistoriCorps “mobilizes and engages a volunteer workforce to work on historic preservation projects.” Anderson describes the experience as a kind of adventure vacation in some of the most beautiful—if sometimes remote—parts of the country.

Since its founding in 2009, as many as 900 HistoriCorps volunteers have logged more than 60,000 hours doing preservation work on close to 170 projects in more than 20 states. Projects are currently underway at Clermont Farm, Virginia; Santanoni Preserve, New York; Routt National Forest, Colorado; and Tahoe National Forest as well as special project sites in West Virginia and Arizona.

HistoriCorps evolved from a “partnership between a group representing land managers and preservationists, who collaborated to restore buildings on the Pike-San Isabel National Forest in Salida, Colorado. That initiative helped the U.S. Forest Service recognize the power of such a collaborative model, since the federal agency has thousands of historic buildings under its care, but it is not able to do all the preservation work that is needed.” HistoriCorps along with its sponsors and partners tries to help with projects that can benefit from volunteer manpower.

According to Anderson, the organization goes out of its way to provide an easy, accessible experience for those who join, and group leaders train them to work side-by-side with skilled tradesmen and other volunteers. No previous experience is necessary. Individuals are provided with the tools they need and basic accommodations, including a kitchen and camping equipment to provide adequate shelter.

“It has really become a gateway, if you will, that historic preservation has never had before,” explains Anderson. “It is introducing many non-preservationists to historic preservation. […] HistoriCorps has offered, for me, the best opportunity I have had to teach a preservation ethic.”

Those who work on HistoriCorps have the chance to repair and restore “places that preserve and tell the nation’s history.” Ann Pritzlaff, one of the founding members, calls HistoriCorps “more than a clearinghouse for volunteers or a resource for funding.” She described the mission as having a number of parts, to “build the capacity of land management agencies and local governments to achieve preservation projects, advance green technologies and enable innovators in historic preservation and stewardship, so that preservation can take on real value for communities and economies.”

Historic preservation can take many forms, preserving, conserving and protecting things from the past that are deemed to be of historic importance. It can be about protecting houses and other buildings from being destroyed, or the recovery and protection of artifacts and sites. In the United States, one of the earliest, best known examples was “the decision to maintain Mount Vernon, George Washington’s homestead, in its original condition rather than demolishing the property shortly after his death.” In the late 1940s, President Truman signed legislation to create the National Land Trust. More recently, in 2011, the National Trust announced a dynamic new program called National Treasures, through which the organization will identify significant threatened places across the United States, and take direct action to save them. National Treasures are part of a new and focused effort to bring more Americans into the preservation movement, and demonstrate the relevance of preserving the nation’s historic places.

On the grassroots level, HistoriCorps is one of a number of organizations trying to help out. For those who are interested in HistoriCorps but can’t participate as on-site volunteers, individuals can make donations to HistoriCorps, where even less than $100 can be allocated to buy new tools or buy meals for field teams. The organization also accepts applications from organizations and groups that have a structure or property they believe may have historical significance and should be restored and used to benefit the public.

To learn more about activities in historic preservation, visit HistoriCorps’ sponsor pageor the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). Preservation Action, a nonprofit lobbying group also hosts Preservation Week each spring to help raise awareness of important issues. And NTHP publishes a yearly list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places on their website to spotlight national treasures and rally efforts to save them.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]


Art-centric Apps Meet the New Art Audience in Full Embrace

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Grab your hashtags and your paddles. Today, every second counts as #fineart artists, galleries, museums, collectors, and entrepreneurs connect socially and for business in the fast-paced art marketplace. Instagram and a host of art-centric apps are revolutionizing and democratizing the world of art.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that eighty-one percent recipients of National Endowment of the Arts grants said the Internet and other technologies are “very important for promoting the arts.” Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also emphasized their importance, telling CNBC that, “Social media and art-related apps have allowed the New York museum to expand the reach of its art in the world.”

Sreenivasan, whose goal is to expand access to the Met’s collection, said, “It’s common to look at the comments on the posts, see people tagging their friends and setting up outings to the Met to see the art in person.” For organizations, having a large presence on digital media can also drive sales and museum visits. And Dave Krugman, a social media consultant and social editor at the BBDO ad agency who has 173,000 followers on his own Instagram account, said social media users can “publish to their own audiences and be their own editors and be their own storytellers.”

In the world of social media, both according to the 2015 Online Art Trade Report by Hiscox, the London-based fine-art insurers, and as reported by Bloomberg News, “Facebook and Instagram are considered the two most important social media channels in the art world.” A recent survey of art collectors on Instagram found that 51.5 percent of them had purchased works from artists they discovered there, with an average of five purchased works by artists originally found on the app.

As CNBC reported last week, “Tech start-ups are combining data and social media with artistic vision to help expand art appreciation—as well as find lucrative buyers and potential investors.”

  • Aura, which was featured at this year’s Association of Art Museum Directors meeting, is an app that “uses ‘big data’ to help art lovers keep track of all the works and exhibits they’ve seen, and helps them share what they love on social media.”
  • The app Artsy aims to make art accessible. “It works as an online database of more than 300,000 works in galleries and museums as well as The Art Genome Project, a system that logs similar qualities between artists and artworks.” The objective is to help people find art they love and want to buy.
  • Paddle8, an online auction house and app recently profiled in the New York Times, is among many betting that there’s a lot of money to be made where art and tech meet in the cloud.

Art fairs are also seeing a benefit, as buyers are increasingly taking advantage of online previews to get a jump on negotiating for art pieces they want rather than waiting to browse onsite at the fair. For example, at this month’s Art Basel, more than 500 inquiries were made beforehand via Artsy. This kind of activity can also increase the popularity of a piece or an artist, making it easier to assess the potential for higher sales and how the market is trending. Aura is a tool for just that purpose. And the stakes can be enormous these days—as evinced by the fact that last month, auction house Christie’s had its first $1 billion week.

But Instagram and the others are also a boon for more average investors and art lovers. The Artsy survey about how art collectors use Instagram found:

  • Of collectors surveyed, 87 percent checked Instagram more than twice a day, and 55 percent opened the app five or more times a day.
  • Collectors rely on Instagram as a tool for discovering and researching art trends.
  • Instagram has a clear impact as a discovery tool. Around 61 percent of collectors consistently look at an artist’s hashtag before buying—and 42% do so often.
  • As reported above, 51.5 percent of surveyed collectors had purchased work from artists they originally discovered through Instagram.
  • A large majority of collectors—73 percent—believe that Instagram makes the art market more transparent, with many citing that as its key impact.

The Artsy report concluded:

“Instagram is best viewed as a marketing tool as opposed to a sales tool. It is great for finding out about an artist’s most recent body of work, or learning of a gallery’s latest exhibition, or getting behind the scenes takes on the inner workings of the art world.”

Going forward, as the art business broadens its capabilities and reach online, key questions will be: How much control will artists have over sales of their work and cultivation of their audience? Who will the major power brokers be and how will they ensure audience loyalty? And, what are the risks and pitfalls to everyone involved as art is made more digitally accessible and technology makes it harder to protect?

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]


Can a Robot Win the Newbery?

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I know we’re just getting adjusted to social media, big data and predictive modeling, but it’s robots I think that (who?) we need to watch out for. Like it or not, the movie “Her,” which was not a personal favorite, did pose the question of just how wily those robots can be in making us think we could have a meaningful relationship. But as science fiction has often warned, they don’t care and might well leave us in the end. In fact, it looks downright scary, and many are predicting vast changes in our work and lives going forward.

Robots started out alright, just offering to vacuum our houses, clean the pool, scoop the litter, and turn on lights to deter burglars. But now they’ve gotten so personal – telling us when to exercise, if we’ve had too much chocolate, and insisting there’s one right way to cook broccoli.

Friends have said, “Let them do the rote tasks, help keep us healthy, crunch data to ensure we only hear about the products we want.” A recent email thread even suggested we might eventually do away with jobs in sales, marketing, and those held by overpaid CEOs – and advance to a time where we can focus on technology, science, art and creative fields that “need the human touch.”

What? Marketing not creative??!! Well, we’ll save that for another time…. But, in fact the question we increasingly face in light of developments in AI, is, what is uniquely human and what is meaningful in our business and personal interactions – and what can robots really be taught to do?

Right now, we’re witnessing the rise of robot journalism and even the beginnings of robots doing art. In March, Associated Press announced robots will be covering college sports, the Los Angeles Times is using robots to cover some news, and others are finding robots perfectly suited for disaster coverage. The company Narrative Science has developed a program to facilitate all this and which takes statistics and data from sports, finance and other areas and turns it into articles. In fact, the founders have been predicting it won’t be long before a robot wins the Pulitzer. Bryan Clark, gave an excellent overview of robots covering news on the tech site, MakeUseOf, entitled, Meet the Robot Who’s Trying to Take My Job.

Robotic art’s not quite so far along, but experiments are well underway – and some that are doing art might surprise you. iCub, one of the most advanced humanoids can dance and make music, and learns by interacting with the world the way a toddler would. Paul-IX, according to the Huffington Post, is “an automated sketch-bot who can outline a still life better than your high school art teacher,” and The Painting Fool is a robot that/whose work has been exhibited in galleries.

So how far are we, and will AI go in making robots to replicate and even improve on the things we do? Things are changing fast, and we don’t know what will be possible, but perhaps the lesson for all of us in art and in marketing is to think about our human connections and, possibly, not be so quick to want to automate and abbreviate everything we do.

But we should realize we’ve always had predictive systems in place to project successful outcomes. Bryan Clark sums it up saying, “the robot is more than capable of telling us who won as well as identifying key facts, but “they aren’t able to recognize the subtle nuances that really tell the story. The bad jump on a fly ball that led to a double, the bunt single that a replay showed to be a foul ball – these are all details that a human beat reporter relies on to deliver a compelling story. These nuances are why sports fans watch games, but they’re largely qualitative and beyond the scope of modern machine learning.”

Ken Goldberg, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations at the University of California, Berkeley, where he directs a lab on automation sciences, concurs in a recent article for Nautilus, “Robots Can’t Dance.” Goldberg says working with robots has taught him “to have a huge appreciation for the nuances of human behavior and the inconsistencies of humans.” It’s the “ability to have an emotional response, to be compelling, to be able to pick up subtle emotional signals, these are all the things that we haven’t made any progress on with robots.”

Will he and others do so going forward? We don’t know, but for now, it’s the ability to use all those skills in to create nuanced, multifaceted stories, whether in writing, art, or in marketing, that will as it always has been able to — touch others in a meaningful way.

And, if that doesn’t work – I’m for waiting for a good rainy day and pushing those smug robots right outside to rust!


Global Initiative to Ensure Women Artists Gain Traction in Museums

The history of women in art has traditionally been about the pieces in the museum or gallery, rather than about the artists who created the art that’s there. That’s because so little of the art is by women, and few women artists have gained the access and the level of acceptance and success their male counterparts have in the male dominated art world.

The work of women artists has been barred, banned, and belittled in past generations, and even now, many would agree, they are significantly underrepresented in public and private collections around the world. In fact, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C., founded in 1987, still bills itself as “the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to women’s creative contributions.”

But now, Valeria Napoleone, a philanthropist and art collector who has made women’s art the sole focus of her own collection since she began collecting in the early 1990s, has launched a global project in conjunction with the Contemporary Art Society in London and the SculptureCenter in New York to try to help even the score. According to ArtNet News, the new project, entitled “Valeria Napoleone XX,” will “endeavor to increase the number of commissions and number of female artists in public collections.” The first work was a commission by Anthea Hamilton from SculptureCenter in New York.

“The UK project will see a work from a female artist donated to a museum each year,”ArtNet News reports. To qualify for the UK project, institutions have to examine their collections, identify where they lack female artists’ work, and then make a case to be a candidate for the donation. If chosen, the museum will then host a solo show for the female artist. “Institutions who are members of the Contemporary Art Society and interested in the project can apply to the CAS and Napoleone for consideration from April 2016.”

There’s a lot of work to do to achieve parity, as evidenced by stats on the National Museum of Women in the Arts website. They report that while 51 percent of visual artists today are women and women earn half the MFAs granted in the U.S., only a quarter of solo exhibitions in L.A. and New York galleries feature women. In Europe, at the Venice Biennale, the 2009 edition featured 43 percent women, but in 2013 and 2014, the numbers dropped to only 26 percent and 33 percent respectively.

“Museum collections necessarily reflect historical gender imbalances and the 20th and 21st centuries have seen many more female artists achieving international recognition,” said Caroline Douglas, director of Contemporary Art Society. “But there’s still work to do. In joining forces with Valeria Napoleone, we have a unique opportunity to proactively help our Museum Members build collections that accurately reflect the diversity of great work being produced by living artists.”

NMWA’s director, Susan Fisher Sterling, has concurred, saying, “Women in the arts receive more recognition than they used to, but you only have to look at the winter auctions in London to see that we’ve got a long way to go: none of top 100 prices were for pieces by women artists. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with issues that are very entrenched, like those to do with power and money, it takes a long time to see a significant change.”

And then there’s the perception of value, which also needs to change. As Georgia O’Keefe famously said, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]


Oh, The Place You’ll Go in 2016: The Seuss Museum, in Springfield, MA

Thneeds factory in The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. (top, ™ and © 1971 by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.); Springfield Gasworks, early 20th-century (bottom)

Thneeds factory in The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. (top, ™ and © 1971 by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.); Springfield Gasworks, early 20th-century (bottom)

In an effort to ensure no other city will claim Dr. Seuss for its own, Springfield Museums has announced it will create “the first museum dedicated to the life and legacy of (Springfield) city native Theodore Seuss Geisel.”

The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum is scheduled to open in 2016 at the Quadrangle, precisely two blocks away from the real-life Mulberry Street, the site of Dr. Seuss’s very first picture book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The museum will also be only a few blocks from the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, where sculptor Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, Geisel’s stepdaughter, created bronze sculptures of Dr. Seuss and some of his most beloved characters, including The Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, the Lorax, and Yertle the Turtle.

The new museum will feature all those characters and many more, and include a mural of an illustration from that first book, “which launched Geisel’s career as the most recognizable in children’s literature.” The first floor of the museum will open in 2016, and a second floor, which will include a “recreation of Ted Geisel’s studio,” is scheduled for completion the following year. The Springfield Museums has raised more than three million dollars toward the project, which includes “funds from donors, foundations and $1 million grant from the state.”

As WAMC-Radio reported, “The Dr. Seuss Museum will include interactive exhibits featuring the classic characters from the children’s books,” which “include references to many local landmarks.”

Like the hugely successful Eric Carle Museum not far away in Amherst, Massachusetts, the new Dr. Seuss Museum will promote both its namesake and children’s literacy overall. Dr. Seuss’s books are sold in 17 languages in 95 countries, making this development important for tourism and as a place to promote and cultivate a love of children’s literature. Museums officials, citing the worldwide popularity of Dr. Seuss, expect the new museum will result in a 25 percent increase in visits to the Quadrangle. They also believe it will help advance the cause of literacy in their community and beyond. In Springfield, currently “only 40 percent of the city’s public school students are proficient readers.” City officials hope to double that percentage over the next year by the time the new museum opens.

Springfield Museums President Holly Smith-Bové said at a meeting of the editorial board of the Republican, “With input from the Davis Foundation, educators from the Springfield public schools and Square One early childhood agency, the museum will also be a place where children can practice the basic reading skills including letter recognition, vocabulary and rhyming.”

This is important for all visitors, because, to quote another Dr. Seuss book, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]