Community Knowledge

It’s no secret that I advocate for arts organizations addressing community interests. (Well, duh!) And, in order to do that, we have to know what those interests are. (Again, duh!) On my website I address some of the ways we can start to discover those interests. (Community Learning) Of course, the simple answer is to talk to members of those communities. And we absolutely should do so.

But if this is so important, here’s another thing we could do to keep community interests uppermost in our minds. At each board meeting, at each staff meeting devote time to a discussion of “what’s happening in the community.” We cannot credibly respond to things going on “out there” if we don’t know what those things are.

In the consultation I do around organizational planning I suggest that a portion of each board meeting be devoted to a discussion of one of the strategic issues facing the organization. (And if not at every meeting, at least frequently enough that the topic is recognized as significant.) If community engagement has been identified as a central focus of the organization, discussion of community issues (and how the organization might address them) is a perfectly logical step. And, since some of the opportunities that community interests raise might be operational or tactical, it also makes sense for staff meetings to have these discussions as well.

This would have the further impact of keeping engagement on everyone’s mental “front burner.” Worth considering.



Photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)

The Arts in the Small Community

Today’s post is by guest, colleague, and dear friend–Maryo Gard Ewell

Gard sketch

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the start of The Arts in the Small Community project led by Robert E. Gard, and we invite you to celebrate with us!

Robert E. Gard was a visionary in the field of community arts. While many people in the 1940’s and beyond were talking about “access” to the arts for people, typically, that meant that Everyman should be in the audience or the gallery to witness America’s finest artists.

Gard was clear that it meant more than this: that Everyman had a right to create, converse and critique. “In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone….” His entire career, beginning in the 1930’s when he worked with farmers in Upstate New York to write and produce plays about the experiences of their communities, to a speech he gave just before his death in 1992, was devoted to this vision.

In 1966, his Office of Community Arts Development in the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agriculture received the first “access” award made by the newly established National Endowment for the Arts. This three-year project was to foster locally-based arts development in five rural Wisconsin communities – an unheard-of idea at the time. The result was a book, distributed free by the thousands – The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan. He began with the conviction that everyone has an important story to tell, dance, write or sing about, and from that unleashing of individual creativity groups could to respond to the needs of their community. This book was the first of its kind.

Here are just a few ways the Robert E. Gard Foundation will celebrate in 2016:

  • A fall Symposium with the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, in partnership with the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Racine Arts Council, gathering some 30 of the nation’s leading thinkers on community arts development. We’ll be blogging and creating short video pieces from Racine.
  • A reader of Gard’s thoughts on community arts development to be published by Americans for the Arts, with short excerpts of his ideas pulled from speeches, reports, books, articles, poetry, and a diary, as well as from The Arts in the Small Community and its many ancillary publications.
  • An oral history series in conjunction with UW-Madison’s Oral History Program and the Wisconsin Arts Board, capturing the thoughts of faculty from the UW’s extraordinary arts extension program and their students.

The Arts in the Small Community program was a three-year experiment, so celebrations can be planned any time into 2019, when the book actually was distributed. The Gard Foundation board invites you to celebrate this milestone in your own way. Can you…

  • Read and let people know about The Arts in the Small Community? Although it was addressing rural towns’ needs from 50 years ago, and the stories are dated (after all, there were very few rural arts councils at the time!) the philosophical sections are universal, powerful and lyrical, and apply to small towns, urban neighborhoods, immigrant communities. The book can be accessed and downloaded free here.
  • Share information about the book with your members and invite them in turn to do something appropriate?
  • Have a discussion about those philosophical sections of The Arts in the Small Community … how are they current to you and those that you serve?
  • Host a forum to address the “big ideas” of the book?
  • Propose a conference session around these ideas?
  • Write an article or blog?
  • Link to the Gard Foundation website from your own. As details become finalized we will adding information?
  • Share your ideas on the Gard Foundation Facebook site? Or #Gard50?

Maryo Gard Ewell, President
Robert E. Gard Foundation


MaryoGardEwellMaryo Gard Ewell of Gunnison, Colorado, is a long-time advocate for community-based arts. She has worked for community arts councils in Connecticut and for state arts agencies in Illinois and Colorado. She is past president of the Gunnison Arts Center, a board member of the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley, and president of the Robert E. Gard-Wisconsin Idea Foundation. Honors include the 2012 Arts Education Advocacy Award from Think 360 Arts; the 2004 Arts Advocacy Award from the Gunnison Arts Center; the 2003 “Arts Are The Heart” award for service to the arts in Colorado; and in 2001 an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Goucher College. Currently she co-teaches Cultural Ecosystems for the MA in Arts Administration program at Goucher College. In the context of this blog post it should also be noted that she is the daughter of Robert E. Gard.




Funding Is Not an “Issue”

GoldTitle got your attention, didn’t it?

Recently Doug McLennan wrote about ArtsJournal’s survey of readers about issues in the field: We Asked: What’s the Biggest Challenge Facing the Arts? By far the most cited was funding, beating out relevance, diversity, and leadership by a wide margin. In one way this is surprising in that the most talked about issues in the field of late have been diversity, equity, relevance, and leadership. On the other hand, in any gathering of leaders in the nonprofit field, funding is cited as the most important concern. It’s what’s on everyone’s mind. We never have enough money to do what needs to be done.

But that is not an issue; it’s the reason 501(c)(3)’s exist. There are things that society deems important that can’t “pass” the market test–can’t generate sufficient income on a fee-for-service basis–and that don’t have sufficient political support to be funded by the government. For this work, not-for-profit corporations were created. When I ask boards to identify challenges as part of a planning process, I say:

“Funding” by itself is not a challenge. It is a symptom. The exception may be when a long-time revenue source is suddenly drying up or becoming less available.

Of course there are situations in which funding does become an issue in itself, as highlighted above. (It also can be a symptom of inequity in funding patterns, but that’s a structural issue over which individual organizations have little control.) More often, though, lack of funding may be an opportunity for strategic review of programming priorities,  revenue raising efforts, and relationships with the community. Insufficiency of funds will never go away. It’s a state of being in the nonprofit sector. Overfocus on this as an issue can get in the way of addressing the causes that might be contributing to it.



Photo: Some rights reserved by digitalmoneyworld

Public Charity

IRS_Form990-2014Wonkiness Alert
This post is only (or mostly)
for those interested in nonprofit minutiae.

There are two basic types of 501(c)(3) organizations: public charities and private foundations. Private foundations are limited in the deductions available to contributors, are subject to excise taxes, and have a different and more complicated Form 990 (990PF) to fill out. (In addition, they are required to distribute a minimum percentage of their assets every year, but this is not an issue for most nonprofits.) If approved as a 501(c)(3) an organization is a private foundation unless it proves otherwise.

With me so far?

An organization can be classified a public charity under section 509(a) of the tax code. (Gee, this is so much fun!) For those who are still awake and paying attention, here are the four categories of public charities:

  • 509(a)(1): “traditional” public charities—broad-based public support (public charity status is based upon public support) as defined, are you ready, by paragraphs 170(b)(1)(A)(i)-(vi)
  • 509(a)(2): gross receipts/service provider organizations (e.g., museums, symphony orchestras)
  • 509(a)(3): supporting organizations (foundations that wholly support a public charity)
  • 509(a)(4): test for public safety

What possessed me to bore my readers with this information was the realization that there are two significant elements of terminology in the tax code of which members of the nonprofit arts community should be aware. One, that is mentioned from time to time, is that the word “arts” does not appear in the language establishing 501(c)(3)’s. The arts must either fall under education or charitable organization.

The other is what I’ve presented here. Every arts organization is, in the eyes of the tax code, a public charity. I think it’s worth our while to consider what that means (or should mean) in the ways we conduct our business and interact with our communities.

If you made it this far, congratulations. Now go do something that can be considered summer fun.



AftA Thoughts 2015: The Arts and . . .

AmpersandThis is the final installment in a series of posts reflecting on last June’s Americans for the Arts convention in Chicago. (But don’t get too hopeful, there are several other impressions from the event percolating that I won’t label with this group.)

A focus of Americans for the Arts over the next several years is going to be pairing of the arts with other disciplines. Conversations and work around the arts and medicine, the arts and transportation, the arts and the military, to name just a few, will move the field to greater integration into the community. I love this. I’m on the board of the Robert E. Gard Foundation and a big part of its work, following the lead of Mr. Gard, is in this area. Gard’s book (originally published in 1966) Arts in the Small Community introduces a long list of “arts and . . .” topics: environment, youth, retired people, tourism, health and wellness, etc. He made the case, convincingly, that the arts are relevant to all that needs to be done.

Realizing the important contributions the arts can make to improving lives across all disciplines is a critical awareness for us to make (and work on) in the arts. At the same time, however, I’m aware that this is really bringing the arts back to where they began–part of and related to everything. The notion that the arts are about the arts alone is a very recent (and unfortunate) one, historically. They were and should be about life–all of it. (I would be remiss, since it is currently going on, in not mentioning Barry’s Blog’s current blogathon on Art and Science.)

I look forward to the work of Americans for the Arts in pursuing this agenda.