"And the beat goes on…………………"
Note: For bios on the Forum participants, please see last week's blog post (or, if you are on the blog site, scroll down).
Future of State Arts Agencies and NASAA - Day #1
For the better part of a decade state arts agencies have been under severe budget pressures. During that period, many of the state arts agency budgets have shrunk. Meanwhile, in some cases, local arts agency budgets have increased. In the process, there has arguably been a shift in influence and cultural policy-making power away from the states agencies to the local agencies, or to the philanthropic community. Do you think that is true? If so, what do you believe are the implications of such a shift? To what extent have the state arts agencies seen their relevance diminish, how might they regain their former prominence, and what do you envision as their future role in the overall arts ecosystem? What ought to be the role of SAAs in developing state arts cultural policy?
Like sands through an hourglass
Influence is ever-shifting. And what’s true in one place is not true in another. During the 20+ years I’ve been in this job, the one thing I know for sure is that there is a cycle to everything. What was once an enormous success can eventually be eviscerated and then later, can rise once again like a phoenix. So, do I believe that state arts agencies’ relevance is diminished? No, I believe its relevance evolves and our circles of influence change according to the work agencies do and the political challenges they face.
What works for us in Big Sky Country to retain relevance
Little did we know when the Montana Arts Council (MAC) was chosen to participate in the Wallace Foundation’s START initiative in 2001 that it would absolutely transform this agency forever. Professor Mark Moore of Harvard totally changed our lives by teaching us his approach to developing public value for government agencies.
Public value defined
MAC defines public value as those programs and services making a positive difference to the individual and collective lives of the citizens of Montana through the arts and worthy of state investment.
There were two statements, especially, that Mark Moore made that changed the way we do business here:
One of the key factors that makes government agencies different from private- or nonprofit-sector organizations/businesses is the fact that we have to deal with our authorizing environment – those people who can give or take away our power and resources. MAC made a list of everyone in our authorizing environment and came up with over 70 groups. My God! We narrowed it to the four we wanted to focus on: the Governor, the legislature and Congress, economic developers and the education leadership of our state.
Mark also said that in order for managers of public-sector agencies to be successful, they have to spend at least half their time proving or reinforcing the public value of the work their agency does. This was life-changing. All of a sudden advocacy was not something we did when we had time, it had to be part and parcel of everything we do.
How MAC builds public value: The Three Rs: Relationships, Relevancy and ROI
Relationships. Building one-on-one relationships with the Governor, legislators, eco devo and education leaders. We also ask our operating support grantees to do this with their legislators, reinforcing the public value of their and our work, and the wisdom of public investment in such work.
Relevance. Relevance = connection = meaning. Making more significant connections to what has value and meaning to the audience you’re speaking to, or in the case of arts organizations, developing ways to create greater meaning between what you’re presenting to the public and what they value.
Return on investment (ROI). The Montana Arts Council defines “return on investment” in a broad way. It could mean a straightforward financial return or a return that brings meaning to our lives, or becomes a catalyst for new ways of thinking, seeing and solving problems. The ROI messages used in the relationship-building efforts are attuned to those that will have the greatest relevancy to the people to whom we’re speaking.
At the end of the day
No matter how many times we’ve tried this tactic or another, I firmly believe that the key to success in building public value and relevancy for any arts agency, whether it be national, state, regional or local, is through one-on-one relationship building. It’s a big pain in the butt in many ways, because it is so labor-intensive. But it is essential and it’s the only way I’ve seen for change to occur.
This has meant that I can’t wait around to eventually meet whom I need to meet, I have to schedule it or it won’t happen. I do it month by month and set out my year in advance prior to a legislative session. On this calendar is both who I’m meeting with and who I’m asking to meet with who. Thank goodness for Outlook calendars and the To Do List I’ve invented to keep me honest with all of this.
No, because there wasn’t much crossover to begin with. Each was independent of the other. If one decreased, the other did not gain new influence as a result. There were simply fewer resources and less influence overall. Their role is to convene the public, develop partnerships, and gain consensus that is as broad and deep as possible. …and well projected, measured, and documented. Their best strategy is to lead by example; and to model practical applications of lean and effective government.
State government can be a hard place to get something done. State arts agencies (SAAs) don’t have the funding, flexibility or authority to achieve an expansive mission – despite all our great ideas! Things have constricted more in the past few years, thanks to tight state budgets, aging infrastructure, partisan politics, anti-tax constituencies and hyper partisan politics.
I see mixed trends among local arts agencies, with significant growth in size, stature and savvy of many urban arts agencies – and vulnerability among many local arts agencies (LAAs) especially in smaller communities and in rural and remote areas. Urban areas may have strong LAAs with secure funding and valued programming; some but certainly not all smaller communities have an arts council (public or private, membership or tax-funded) that offer some mix of programs and services tailored for local needs.
In terms of cultural policy and impact, SAAs and LAAs must play different roles. I think of SAAs as “at the intersection” of state government and the arts, and see the best place to make an impact is smack-dab in the center of that intersection: the sweet spots where SAAs can leverage the connections and influence of state government, geography or influence – and the power and potential of the arts.
When SAAs form strategic partnerships with other statewide organizations, the impact can reach far beyond city/county borders. I’ve been part of targeted efforts with k-12 education, tourism, state parks, and community foundations.
SAAs build leadership in and for the arts through professional development events, smart use of data, social media messaging, networking, and even through well-managed SAA Council/Commission governance.
With a mission to serve an entire state SAAs must have a commitment to equity of access, diverse perspective, fair process. SAAs should be stretching to be more inclusive, to consider and share diverse perspectives, to demonstrate new approaches.
What I hope to see in the next decade is a much broader variety among SAAs. More about that tomorrow.
First of all, thank you for asking me to be part of this blogathon—I have some thoughts on this topic! Since 2008 almost every funder’s budget has been under severe budget pressure; this was the Great Recession after all. It was Jonathan Katz who I saw first draw the lightning bolt shape that is emblematic of state arts agencies’ budgets over time. SAA budgets expand and contract in direct proportion to the economic resources available in any given budget year (see graph link).
So as SAA budgets have shrunk since 2008, they will probably increase, and are already showing an uptick since 2013.
However, local arts agencies will probably always have larger funds in the aggregate than SAAs as they have the distinct advantage of being on the ground in their communities. The arts organizations LAAs serve often have members of their boards who are also active in local politics. It’s a whole lot easier to cut faceless line items in a budget at the state level than funds for the arts organizations whose leadership you know in person or whose performances/exhibitions you attend. It’s for this same reason that the NEA probably will always have less funding than the states in aggregate. As with arts administration, the further up you get in the arts feeding chain, the further away you get from the art and the people behind the art. As is the case with local arts agencies, getting more funds will take articulating a compelling vision for the services to be provided—it’s just a harder case to make. Nobody is writing blank checks anymore, particularly with taxpayers’ dollars.
I don’t believe there has been a shift from the SSAs to private philanthropy in either cultural influence or policy making. In my experience, foundation agendas are primarily influenced by the interest areas of their boards and program officers; at the end of the day they don’t have to justify their strategies to anyone but their boards. The strategies of foundations large enough to wield significant leverage in the sector are more and more driven by outcomes, the idea of “moving the needle” on an issue rather than public service—two very different frameworks. But it’s worth noting that while private foundations had the considerable advantage of resources automatically rebounding based on the returns of the stock market, they had their share of pain during the Great Recession as well. While this created an opportunity to rethink philanthropic priorities, program officers often have their own internal advocacy battles to fight within their organizations to address multiple priority areas of trustees.
So it all comes down to the individual case that can be made, whether it’s by SAA, LAA or foundation staff. The influence SAAs do or don’t wield within their state relative to their local arts agencies and the private philanthropic sector is different in every state, based on how well they make this case and what role they’ve carved out for themselves in the arts ecology.
The State Arts Agency operates at 5,000 feet, developing public policy, advocating for the field, and focused always on public value for the citizens in every circumstance and in every corner of the Commonwealth who deserve quality arts in the same way that they deserve clean air, safe roads and healthy food. We are concerned with assuring an environment in which the arts can flourish, excellence can be achieved and access can be assured. I may have a Governor-appointed Council of 19 members, but my real board of directors is made up of 200 legislators overseen by 6 million people in Massachusetts. We are the only funder that responds to such a large constituency, a constituency that supports us with precious tax dollars.
Our 329 local cultural councils are on the ground. They are the rich, diverse landscape and their focus is local. Their grants are small but their impact is large. Their real power is not in the size of grant but in the fact that the decision-making is owned and operated by volunteers...friends and neighbors who know the community like no other funder possibly can. Our local cultural councils respond to their elected city or town officials and the people who live in their communities.
Private funders in Massachusetts have been re-prioritizing their investments away from the arts. But those who still invest tend to drive a specific agenda through that investment. Rarely if ever is the support unrestricted. The largest grants are associated with major capital projects. Their constituents are people of purpose but often occupy the board rooms and more elite places and spaces in our world.
While our funding has certainly diminished dramatically over the past decade, it has not been accompanied by a loss of relevance or influence. I think this is a result of an intentional effort and unintentional consequence. We have certainly stepped up our efforts to add value to our relationship with the field in the absence of more funding. But there has never been in Massachusetts and there is not now a robust investment at the local level...in any city or town...in a local cultural council. We remain the primary funder. Also, there is no corporation or foundation making the kind of investment that has a major impact on the entire state. (Parenthetically, just today the legislature approved a 50% increase in our draw from the state general fund. This is evidence of our relevance and impact.)
There is logic to the arts ecosystem in Massachusetts. We are seeing the development of a new player, a new advocacy organization, that brings another important dimension to the advocacy effort, reinforcing the work of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and tackling the parts of the political environment that are inappropriate for a state agency.
We remain relevant and effective as a leader because we are always conscious of our unique role in the arts ecosystem and respect and cooperate with our counterparts.
As director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts I occupy a different space in the arts funding ecosystem than my colleagues in larger states. Rhode Island is a small, intimate place. We are the principal arts funding agency in Rhode Island. We work closely with local - mostly volunteer - arts councils in a few of the 39 cities and towns, but aside from our colleagues in the City of Providence our work tends to drive cultural policy making in our state. Our budget has been fairly stable, and I'm convinced it would have significantly increased if Rhode Island's economy was any better. In the past few years the arts have played a central role in a number of state initiatives promoted by the highest level of our state's political leadership. We have been incorporated into our state's economic development plans, the sale of art has been declared tax exempt throughout our state, and our General Assembly has approved a voter initiative for the fall that, if passed, would allot $30 million toward capital improvements to cultural facilities. The State Arts Council is the lead agency in all of these initiatives, and so it's fair to say that our level of influence and relevance is relatively high.
Our colleagues in the City of Providence are well respected within City government, and they have done an incredible job positioning our Capital city as a major player in the creative placemaking movement. They have received two Our Town grants from the NEA, support and recognition from ArtPlace and others, and the admiration of many around the country for proving what a medium-sized city - short on resources but rich in cultural talent - can do to revitalize a community. As befits a small state, we participate with them on cultural planning and policy-making, and they cooperate with us in these areas. But I wouldn't say there has been a "shift" in influence away from the states and toward local agencies. We each inhabit our own particular areas.
And that, I think, is where we need to be going. I don't agree that state arts agencies should have a monopoly on cultural planning and policy-making. I think we all have our roles to play. In my opinion, we're most effective when we understand the narrow framework of our role, the framework of those around us, and we work and plan collectively. Our prominence, if that's the appropriate term, comes from the respect others have for the quality of work we do and the people we serve, so that they are willing to plan and strategize with us, rather than at cross-purposes to us. People allow you to lead.
That is our future role in the overall arts ecosystem.
In recent years, state arts agencies have been less central players in the development of cultural policy. Instead of leading and/or collaborating in cultural policy initiatives, they have been working to shore up a funding base that has been decimated by the 20 plus-year long decline in state discretionary spending--the part of state budgets most of the agencies are funded from. Simultaneously, the agencies have been trying to find ways to make rigid and highly bureaucratized state work structures deliver what the public wants--and only partially succeeding. So no, in most cases the state arts agencies are not in a place of cultural policy leadership. Rather, they are dealing with internal issues of survival and relevance.
The turmoil in the global economy over the past half-decade has affected every corner of every industry. Non-profit, for-profit and government of all types and sizes have experienced unprecedented challenges to their business model—the State Arts Agency is no exception.
In many cases, we are now just beginning to see which SAAs have adapted and emerged stronger and which have continued to struggle in the “new normal.” Though some States have merged stronger and others have diminished in size and influence, I do not believe that the SAA community as a whole is any less important or impactful now then it was a decade ago.
However, I think the role of SAAs are changing and the success of the sector will rest on their ability to aggressively define their value proposition to elected officials and citizens, mobilize their constituents around key goals, and adapt to new ways to leverage investment in the Arts (both public and private).
It is natural to look back at the high watermark of funding for SAAs as the “good old days,” but that would be like IBM focusing on how they can bring back the mainframe computer or Kodak developing a new marketing campaign for the Polaroid! For SAAs to be successful, they must have an opinion on why the arts are important to the growth of their States, what success looks like in the future and how key constituents can play a role in collectively achieving this vision.
In other words, SAAs must lead the change they seek.
Gone are the days, where SAAs or any agency of government for that matter, are given an ever increasing budget to operate a program. SAAs must inspire investment through their vision for the future and ability to find collaborate solutions to funding them. The shift in strategy led by Rocco Landesman at the NEA may be a good example for SAAs to study. Could an effort to develop new programs across departments coupled with outside private sector support be a model for the new SAA?
The only way to find out is to inspire an organization that seeks to understand its true value proposition and is aggressive about leading itself and its stakeholders toward that goal.