From 2015 to 2019 the Wallace Foundation funded a $52 million program involving 25 large budget arts organizations called Building Audiences for Sustainability. It was designed to develop “practical insights into how arts organizations can successfully expand their audiences.” Recently Francie Ostrower of the University of Texas completed an evaluation of the program. A brief on that study “Why Is It Important That We Continue? Some Nonprofit Arts Organizations Rethink Their Value in Challenging Times” is now available.
What Dr. Ostrower found, in my reading of the brief, is that some of these large organizations are continuing to evolve–in a positive way–in their understanding and appreciation of the value of community engagement.
[I]nterviewees from a substantial number of organizations (about 40 percent) . . . suggested that notwithstanding their artistic excellence and contributions, changes were needed for it to remain important that the organization continue. Here, they spoke of the need for community relevance and engagement.
40% is better than none. 🙂 (But see below.) Increasingly, these major players are realizing that internal focus on their art may not be enough to give a positive answer to the question, “Why is it important that we continue?” One chief executive said that it would be “hard to justify why in a changing world we have this high-art thing, without it having a purpose in the society where we live.” As a result, their revised mission statement says “that the core purpose of any arts organization is to be part of the fabric of its local community.” Another interviewee said that “while it may have once been possible for an orchestra to ‘just play our music,’ that is no longer tenable or desirable.”
Indeed, the brief noted that a theatre director said “their community service helped make the organization more sustainable, because he feels that it has given the theater a larger footprint in the community, gives them a profile of being indispensable, and makes people more willing to support them financially.” Amen, brother.
At the same time, while I attempt (but often fail) to be a “glass half full” kind of guy there are parts of this report that give me the same old feeling of “What does it take to get the attention of the big players in our field.” Only 40%??!! As Dr. Ostrower points out, “This is a group that has enjoyed considerable advantages but that increasingly faces questions about its ongoing value and relevance.” Coming off the pandemic and the near universal calls for (and lip service responses about) issues of equity, 60% of these organizations did not express a belief that change was needed??!! (Sorry for repeating the punctuation marks.)
Also, some of the examples cited of working in communities look a bit like the old “outreach” mindset in which the “outreacher” knows best and programming is based on its own thoughts about what a community wants rather than being the outgrowth of deep listening to and relationship building with the community.
So all of this leaves me feeling exhausted as if I’ve been on a small emotional roller coaster. My first read of the brief left me hopeful, largely because I missed the fact that 60% did not articulate a need for change. My second reaction (Say What?!) is probably a knee jerk response to my long frustration with the field. So now, my third take is a bit more nuanced. 40% is not enough but it’s so much better than would have been the case 10 or 15 years ago. And even if some of the examples are still artcentric rather than truly community focused, they are driven by a desire to make a change, to be meaningful to communities. That’s progress and considerable progress at that. At the same time, one interviewee observed that change would be like “steering a large cruise liner. It’s going to turn very slowly.” The question continues to be will the turning around happen in time to forestall sinking as the ship continues to take on water. (Yes, I know the metaphor doesn’t work particularly well, but you get the idea.)
Jerry Yoshitomi says
My thanks to Doug for his continuing insights. Our field and the report he references too often focuses on the largest organizations, where change comes slowest and sometimes not in time to avoid the ‘iceberg.’ (How’s that for further mixing metaphors?)
The change that’s most important is happening in the solar powered speed boats that are racing around in all directions. That’s where we should focus our attention. Over a thousand organizations were chronicled in ‘Figuring the Plural’ in 2014. https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Research-Art-Works-ArtChicago-rev.pdf. This is where our research might focus in the future.
One of the fatal flaws of our current system of support is that the largest grants go to the largest budget organizations, not to the organizations who are having the greatest impact.