Platishers and Plurators


This interview with Medium CEO Ev Williams is hard to summarize but well worth reading if you run an arts organization. In it, he addresses the term “platisher” … what it means for Medium to be both a platform (helping people connect their writing with the world) and a publisher (curating content to “help good stuff rise to the top”). I immediately connected with it as something we do at SOMArts … providing nonprofits with platforms (eg stages, fiscal sponsorship and space) but also curating performances and exhibitions. Between the two we leverage many opportunities to amplify community voices and perspectives. And while the curated programs receive more financial and personnel support, venue requests at SOMArts increased 18% in 2014 and requests for other services were up as well.

With increasing frequency, arts organizations are operating as “plurators” offering curated programming (creative productions selected by well-qualified staff) alongside platforms—festivals, space, and support services—and often the public can’t tell the difference between the two.

Some local examples of organizations offering similar programs at different levels of curation include:

As marketing, fundraising and technical tools become more and more accessible, the old-school presenting model of nonprofit arts becomes less and less relevant. Should it matter? If so, to whom should it matter, and under what circumstances? What is Medium’s responsibility to the writers who use their platform? What are nonprofits’ responsibility to monitor controversial content of their fiscally sponsored projects or venue rentals?

In general, platforms have more elasticity and earned revenue potential but something holding us back is scalability … we encounter scaling and capacity issues when we seek to monitor cultural production. Or, we struggle to find a perfect balance : =”platform” participants are asked to pay some fees (often subsidized), meet complex mission-driven criteria and provide impact data while they carry most of the responsibilities for self production.

Noticing this trend in the arts world and parallels to startups such as Medium, I wonder if it is time to once again try some back-end collaboration between nonprofits. Eight years ago, when the recession hit, The San Francisco Foundation launched a grant for nonprofits to collaborate and/or merge. One group tried to refine their collective approach to fiscal sponsorship but arts workers with a dark sense of humor called it the “die with dignity” fund … a way for those struggling in the recession to shutter and/or merge.

And yet, the idea of merging behind-the-scenes operations still makes sense. New technology has made it easier to manage venues, program applications and fiscally sponsored projects. Does it also bode well for new ways of working together? Could nonprofits merge their platform management while retaining the unique value of their curated programming? Or, if we all become independent plurators, perhaps the increase in earned revenue can help us weather the affordability crisis in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, I’ll be following Medium to see how the “platisher” tightrope works out in the tech sector.

Image credit: modified image from




On Economy, Civic Capacity and the Endangered Mid-size Arts Org

This week the Coalition on Homelessness is hosting an art auction at SOMArts, an annual event that raises money for the “Street Sheet,” a newspaper on homeless issues. It is their 25th anniversary and the SF Chronicle wrote a story about its origins. (did anyone reading this know the role Phil Collins played in Street Sheet history?)

I vividly remember taking the 19 Polk from the Tenderloin to SOMArts in September 2008. It was the night before my final interviews to lead an organization that was experiencing a tough transition, and the MUNI bus was filled with a group of Hospitality House artists who were auctioning their work at the event.

We were all excited to be going to a special event so we started talking on the bus, the way people do when they are happy and excited. It was a classic SOMArts night—bridging the city’s residents and visitors across our many differences, discovering a wide range of art and performance with the Coalition’s art auction in the Bay Gallery, and an exhibition of contemporary art from Mongolia opening in the main gallery. Contributing to the wellbeing of others through donations of art, space, time and resources.

Looking back at that night it means even more to me than it did at the time. Looking back, it speaks to the role that arts centers of all sizes can play in connecting communities, building empathy, making this “our city” and collaborating toward a better future for more people. Earlier this week I heard YBCA director Deborah Cullinan speak very eloquently on these themes in her Knight Foundation interview with Carol Coletta. Well worth listening to.

Looking back, I also wonder how small organizations can be appropriately identified, protected and encouraged as grant makers turn their attention to civic capacity and civic commons. For those readers unfamiliar with the principles of civic capacity, Diane Ragsdale wrote a compelling and influential article The Arts In A Civic World Upside Down on the topic that was read and discussed among Bay Area arts leaders.

As I notice more large organizations investing in a civic commons role (as they did previously with innovation and creative placemaking), I wonder what this means for small and mid-size organizations and arts participation. Like Amazon, large organizations have the benefit of efficiencies of scale. They have more resources to distribute and can take on added administrative burdens (such as measuring impact) with greater flexibility.

However, there is a price to efficiency, and that price might be participation. The small and mid-sized organizations are like the mom-and-pop bookstores of the arts. We do things less efficiently with more people, it’s true! But those people all contribute to the arts economy and participation. When large organization get large grants to offer small stipends to the smaller community-based organizations, impact is more likely to be measured. And sometimes, the smaller organizations leverage those funds to raise more money from within their communities (the watering-can effect). But another reality of this model is that the administrative costs for civic engagement funding of large organizations go to bigger salaries at the bigger organizations. The big organizations paying stipends to smaller organizations are off the hook for things like affordable wages to all the people working on the project. Smaller community-based organizations often work for exposure (as individual artists so often do) and because of this their work is less likely to build capacity or stability within their organizations.

Thinking about the hollowed-out middle class in San Francisco and recent closures and contractions of arts organizations, I wonder if we are also experiencing a hollowing-out of mid-sized arts organizations. As the share of Hotel Tax for the arts diminishes and national and regional funding trends toward civic engagement, attention must be paid to the full potential impact of this model.  As economist Robert Reich might say: is there a shift? can the arts economy tolerate this shift? if not, what are we going to do about it?

HERE | NOW: Notes from Emergence

I wrote the following as notes to prepare for a keynote discussion at Emergence, an annual convening organized by Emerging Arts Professionals San Francisco/Bay Area, which was held at The Women’s Building on June 2, 2014. The theme of the free-to-attend keynote was State of the Network: Tactics Towards Action. The opinions are my own.—Lex 

Panelists: Michelle Mansour, Executive Director, Root Division;  Lex Leifheit, Executive Director,SOMArtsRamekon O’Arwisters, Social Practice Artist – Facilitated by Melonie and Melorra GreenAfrican American Arts and Culture Complex

SOMArts (South of Market Arts, Resources, Technology and Services) turns 35 this August. Right now, we are perceived as a thriving mid-sized organization in San Francisco. We have studio spaces including a print studio and darkroom that are used by working artists. We provide fiscal sponsorship, professional development and technical support in the form of stages, wheelchair lifts and pa systems for festivals such as the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival in Oakland and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Easter Celebration. We provide deeply discounted space for 10 or more classes each week including martial arts, photography for people who are low-income and homeless, and after-school classes for teens.

Many people know SOMArts for its exhibitions and artistic partnerships. Between 50 and 60 organizations and artists produce their exhibitions, events and other activities annually at SOMArts and they range from fully-produced stage performances such as Man Dance Company’s Harvey Milk-inspired NutcrakOr ballet, to bicycle art fundraisers and Xicano graduation ceremonies, to the Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits third annual powwow.

Like many of you I’ve been closely following the news about organizations contracting, moving, and—in a few cases—embarking on ambitious capital campaigns. The role that SOMArts has played in the Bay Area arts ecosystem has shifted over the years in direct response to the needs of artists and organizations. For many years SOMArts was best known for our staging and support services, the organization was founded with the name “Friends of Support Services for the Arts”.

Six years ago, following several years of a support-services-mostly model, we owed $50,000 to individuals and organizations, and $20,000 to the bank. CONTINUE READING ]

Genevieve Quick on Hidden Cities ]

Even in a progressive city like San Francisco, thoughtfully written arts coverage is rare for small and mid-size organizations. Which is why I was so thrilled to read Genevieve Quick’s review of Hidden Cities, the recent exhibition at SOMArts curated by Pireeni Sundaralingham. Quick’s review astutely examines the curatorial decisions and approach that made the exhibition interesting.

Furthermore, she calls out the value of SOMArts’ Commons Curatorial Residency Program, saying:

“SOMArts provides a rare opportunity for emerging curators to tackle really ambitious projects. While small artist-run spaces have been creating strong small shows, the city needs more mid-sized exhibition spaces for local artists and curators to thrive. In the wake of many gallery closures and relocations, San Francisco artists and arts organizations are reassessing and remodeling our approaches in these economically challenging times.”

Click here to read this great review by an artist I’ve long admired.

Good Weekend

I love this photo Dan snapped after an early morning beach walk. I’m happy. Ewan’s relaxed. The pale grey stucco of the house echoes the marine layer haze of our neighborhood. On this particular morning I started our morning walk in one mood and ended in another, much better, frame of mind. The image is a reminder of how much I love my family and also of how a short routine at the beginning of the day can make a world of difference in one’s mental well being.

This Friday, it’s sunny and there are dozens of surfers on the beach. We’re heading to a McSweeney’s picnic and are looking forward to a long weekend filled with art, nature, friends and good food. I hope to finish Zadie Smith’s NW. I also have some reading and writing to do in preparation for the Arts Dinner-Vention, so I’m thinking about leadership, and place, and working with a community. I’m excited to hear what the other guests have to say and thinking about how to choose my own words since there is limited time and I must choose carefully.

This week my cousin Hannah sent me a quote by Lao Tzu that has stayed with her during her year in Tanzania with the Peace Corps. I have heard it before but not in a while and was glad to be reminded of it:

Go to the people.

Live with them.

Learn from them.

Love them.

Start with what they know.

Build with what they have.

With the best leaders,

When the work is done,

The task accomplished,

The people will say

“We have done this ourselves”

-Lao Tzu


August: In Progress

SOMArts exteriorOver the past six months this blog has taken a back seat to some ambitious new initiatives at SOMArts, and to the everyday joys of being a mom. However, there is so much good stuff happening this August, I feel compelled to share:

  • Thanks to a $97k grant by Museums Connect, SOMArts is embarking on a creative and cultural exchange with youth in San Francisco and Kuala Lumpur, a new partnership with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.
  • Our most recent exhibition, Electronic Pacific generated some thoughtful press including this interview with artist Jenny Odell where she shares her approach to making people aware of the world around them, and the influence of place on her work.
  • The first artist meeting for the annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition took place last Tuesday. Fifty people gathered to share their ideas on the theme Imagining Time, Gathering Memory, which is dedicated to people whose lives have been affected by cancer.

The past few months have been challenging and the usual hallmarks of summer—warm nights, lazy mornings, a slightly slower pace—have been in short supply. Despite a serious lack of sleep and an endless to-do list, I am more grateful than I’ve ever been to be here, now, and am trying to make the most of every moment.

I snapped the pic above early one morning when I was the first person to arrive at SOMArts. A rare calm moment!

Lucrative Work-For-Free Opportunity ]

I keep coming back to this essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

A Few Thoughts About ‘Lean In’

Seven weeks after I had my son Ewan in late January, Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” was published. I originally thought I’d be able to catch up on a lot of reading during maternity leave—now I know better. Between sleepless nights and 6+ hours of nursing each day, baths and pediatrician appointments and finding childcare for when I return to work, there is not as much free time as I had hoped.

And yet … the discussion  and emotions around”Lean In” were so intense I felt I had to read it. I downloaded the audiobook and finished it in two days while breastfeeding.

Because I listened to the audiobook, it’s hard to write a proper review with detailed quotes and excerpts. Which doesn’t matter, because I have a newborn and can only type with one hand these days, and because my main takeaway is Read. The. Book. The content of “Lean In” is far superior to the commentary, and more entertaining. Just do it. It’s only 6 and a half hours long as an mp3 and is very well suited to the medium.

Here’s my one-hand-typing review of the book: CONTINUE READING ]