"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 #2
Some of you on this panel, as well as others throughout the sector, have called for a re-envisioning of the SAAs away from grant making so as to cut the umbilical cord-like connection of their work to unpredictable state funding. Some argue that there are all kinds of initiatives and programs, including case making, convening, research, professional development, and other efforts that would be as, or more, valuable to the arts sector than the provision of direct grants. Others argue that it is the grant making that has been of the greatest value in growing the arts at the state level. Some have argued quite forcefully that our field is overbuilt and that we simply cannot continue the fantasy that this isn't a problem. What are your thoughts? Please consider the following:Were SAAs to move away from grant making as their central role, what would the new structure of an agency look like? What is the role of the state arts agency in supporting or working to reduce in size overbuilt arts ecosystems? What other ways might a SAA re-envision its way of doing business?What are the state arts ecosystem political constraints (both within the sector and outside of it) that bear on any kind of re-envisioning and re-organizing of SAA's missions and priorities, and how can they be dealt with?What is the role of State Arts Agencies, if any, in supporting or working to reduce an overbuilt arts ecosystem, and to what extent should SAAs use their grant making powers to address the increased supply / diminishing demand challenge? Specifically what ought they do differently, if anything, than they are doing now?Is there a better way to balance the provision of grants and the provision of other kinds of services?
This may sound trite, but any successful organization must innovate or it will die. Eventually, if new vision(s) and operating model(s) are not sought, the power and impact of SAAs will diminish.
I believe that exploring new models for raising and investing resources is a natural and critical process that should be encouraged. However, developing the right process for making the decision is, in some ways, more important than opining on what the end answer or solution may be.
The first step in developing any new strategy or idea is to have a thorough understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. Sometimes during this process of understanding you realize that you are trying to fix one problem (reduction in funding) by creating another (effect of changing a funding strategy).
On the topic of grant making, an important question that I would ask before shifting strategy is, “What outcome am I not getting now that a shift in strategy will achieve?” and “If I had more resources (or the same resources you once had, if you have seen a drop in funding), would I still be considering a shift in funding strategy.” These two questions, and others like it, can help to define what you are hoping to achieve.
Once you have a clear definition of the goal, you can than begin to develop ideas and test them in the marketplace. I like to think of this stage of the process as the prototype phase. Not unlike a start-up company testing a new product with its customers, testing your assumptions with small scale experiments can provide invaluable information that can help you to refine your approach. So often I see organizations go “all in” on a new strategy without ever testing their assumptions, only to watch the organization experience huge negative repercussions that they did not anticipate.
Innovation and new strategy design is too important to leave to chance. Having a thoughtful process that allows for stakeholder feedback is key to developing the right path forward.
There’s increasing chatter these days about how the arts ecosystem is “overbuilt” and the need to "thin out the field” of arts organizations. Taking the view that there are just too many mouths to feed and too few resources, some people are urging arts funders to apply “survival of the fittest” principles to how grant dollars are awarded. Frustrated with the survival crisis in the arts, some of our most prominent and influential leaders are proclaiming: “Let the Hunger Games begin!” Their theory of change hinges on a belief that the supply/demand equation can be brought into balance by forcing weaker, smaller arts organizations to fold or merge with other groups.
I resist the argument that we have “an overbuilt arts ecosystem” for a few reasons. First, my job is to promote the value of the arts to all residents of our state. I believe our communities are at their best when cultural activities are abundant, so the idea that we can have an oversupply of art simply doesn’t jive with me. The second reason I have reservations about this argument is because it assumes that you can decrease the supply side of the equation. In an era where technology is making it easier than ever before to create and share content, you cannot simply cut off the spigot of artistic experiences and outlets. The third reason I have trouble with this argument is because I believe in the core American value of equal opportunity for all. There are parts of my city (and yours) where the arts ecosystem is astonishingly underdeveloped. Applying a strict “only the strong should survive” frame to arts grant-making can sharply limit diversity, diminish access, and make it more difficult for fresh voices and emerging talent.
Speaking from the perspective of a statewide arts advocacy organization, a better way to right-size the arts ecosystem is to “grow the pie” of arts support from all sources – public dollars, foundations, corporations, and individual donors. Instead of brainstorming about the next new hospice program for arts groups, we should be strategizing about how the sector can collectively think bigger, act faster, and advocate smarter.
According to recent data from NASAA, legislative appropriations to state arts agencies are expected to grow by approximately 20% entering FY15, a projected increase of $61.1 million. We should be fighting hard to protect and grow this important public funding. And, we should be working smarter to win the hearts, minds, and money of decision makers beyond state government. Effective advocacy for culture and the arts is urgently needed in our city halls, in corporate and foundation board rooms, and at kitchen tables across the country. That’s the only way we can grow resources, expand audiences, and maximize the sector’s potential.
So, that’s my view on the “overbuilt” arts ecosystem question. Instead of thinking small about how the arts sector can continue to do more with less (less money, less ambition, and fewer staff resources), we should be having a conversation that challenges us to think bigger.
I am not naive and I don't have my head in the sand when it comes to the struggle for scarce resources, the need for effective organizations, or the difficult decisions facing arts funders. I simply think it’s misguided to cede the moral high ground on this issue to people who are focused on how more arts groups can “die with dignity.” Let’s grow the pie so everybody can get a bigger slice.
In terms of this question about grant-making vs. other kinds of services, I think SAAs need to take a both/and, not an either/or approach.
SAAs should maintain the traditional state policy lever of grants and financial support to artists and arts groups. “Don’t quit,” as Barry Hessenius often says. Direct grants, even when award levels are modest, continue to be one most important ways SAAs can contribute to a vibrant arts scene.
Even within the universe of cultural leaders who publicly champion the importance of grants, there are subtle tensions and debates over how the current pie is being divided. Several arts funders are moving toward larger grant awards to fewer organizations, so they can have a bigger bang for their buck. Some leaders of arts organizations feel they are competing directly with their public arts agencies because the agency dedicates significant resources toward producing and presenting cultural activities at the perceived expense of support for artists and arts groups. Many arts agency leaders are concerned about mounting pressure to use grant dollars to tackle societal problems that go above and well beyond their public missions. It’s unfair and unrealistic, they say, to ask the arts sector to help reduce gun violence or eradicate poverty when there’s not enough money to help groups stage the next performance or mount the next exhibition. Where possible, SAAs should provide opportunities for multi-year, general operating grants. Funding for general operations remains the “World Cup” of grants because it helps keep access to culture affordable and provides organizations with much needed flexibility to take risks, plan ahead, and adapt to change.
In my view, the most impactful tool public arts agencies have at their disposal, in addition to grant dollars, is the power to convene the field. By leveraging the bully pulpit of state government, forward-leaning SAAs are engaging, supporting and empowering the full spectrum of the creative workforce – from curators and performers to chefs, filmmakers and architects. This “everybody in, nobody out” approach to our arts ecosystem includes for-profit creative businesses, nonprofit arts groups, informal arts activities, and individual artists and makers.
I believe the strongest SAAs will be the ones that successfully coordinate activities between these interrelated sectors and bridge the boundaries between nonprofit and for-profit creative enterprises. There are many benefits to effectively pulling this off. It allows us to make more meaningful connections to a broad spectrum of public policy issues. It significantly expands the social and economic impacts of culture. From a network and coalition building perspective, this “big tent” approach also allows SAAs to engage a much wider range of people and organizations across generation, geography, ethnicity, and artistic interest.
While the nonprofit and commercial arts sectors may work best when they work together, unifying the two can be messy, difficult, and complex work. From a policy perspective, gains for the commercial arts sector in many states seem to occur at the expense of the nonprofit arts sector. (In Maryland $2.5M in arts funding for nonprofits was recently diverted to support film incentives for Netflix’s “House of Cards.”) From an organizing perspective, it takes time and focused energy to build the bonds of connection between nonprofit theaters, symphonies, dance companies and museums with commercial record labels, architecture firms, and advertising agencies. Building a common agenda and a shared vision for the future doesn’t happen overnight. The SAAs that can get the nonprofit and commercial sectors on the same page and rowing in the same direction will be well positioned for the future.
State arts agencies can become over fixated on grantmaking. However, the agencies can also use the argument that they can do things other than grantmaking as an excuse to live with stagnating budgets. Probably the answer to this question is that the agencies need to do both. However, to do both, they need enough resource to be meaningful either as grant makers or as drivers of non-grant-based initiatives. With largely stagnant budgets many are faced with dong neither well.
What is the role of the state arts agency in supporting or working to reduce in size overbuilt arts ecosystems?
Public sector funders of cultural activities have a special responsibility to reduce or eliminate funding to cultural organizations that are no longer audience-viable. Unless the public clearly indicates it wants its money to be allocated to cultural organizations that are museum pieces, public sector funders need to find the courage--and the bureaucratic skill--to lead in the defunding of nonprofit arts organizations that have outlived their audience base.
The re-envisioning of state arts agencies faces many challenges. Chief among them are:
1) Fear of failure within the agency staff and the among agency governing board members. Arts agency staff usually work for a living and stirring the waters of change always has the potential to cost them their jobs. In addition, most arts agency governing board members don’t usually sign on to be change leaders tend to be fearful that major change on their watch could blow up the agency and part of their reputations with it.
2) The lack of a big enough idea has challenged many agencies seeking to re-envision. A big idea around re-envisioning is not simply more money for a state--unless it is a great deal more money to do some really exciting things! Even though state governments continue to be somewhat stressed, the leaders in state government still seek out innovative ways to approach challenges. Especially in times of budget stress, new creative ideas usually get a hearing--provided they are big enough ideas.
3) For a field of hard working people who fund creative activities, the state arts agency field is actually very administratively and policy conservative. New ideas do not easily take root in the field and the occasional arts agency director who steps forward with something new is often greeted with blank stares. The national culture of state arts agency administration will need to change before any kind of field-wide re-envisioning of the agencies can occur.
I don't think we should move totally away from grantmaking. These grants, and the process by which they are awarded, continues to be important for our field. Even if the amount is insignificant, the
connotation that this is an organization judged by the state (and their peers) as worthy of support is consequential. And, to sound just a tiny bit crass, it it important for us to have a mechanism to reward or influence the direction of arts organizations. A tweet referenced acomment made by Peter Brosius of the Children's Theatre Company at the recent TCG conference: "We receive public funds, we have public responsibilities." And that is ultimately good for the arts and for its role in our states and communities.
If I were to imagine a new kind of state arts agency, I might move away from operating support or even responsive grants. I would concentrate on funding projects and collaborations that emerged from a collaborative planning environment. We all come to the table with certain things - some with connections, others with expertise, others with money. We actually come to the table with all three, but usually the money is the weakest part for us. It should be as strong as our ability to connect with people and organizations throughout our state, and the knowledge we can bring to important issues. We should be able to invest in ways to diversify audiences, not just talk about its importance when reviewing grant applications. We should be able to invest in new works, and the performances and exhibits by major institutions who wouldn't talk the time or risk to present this work on their own. We should be able to invest in increasing the visibility of the arts, help with professional
development of artists, use the arts to make a difference in economic development strategy in our state. The state arts agency of the future would be more overtly investment oriented than it is now.
Obviously, we depend on the good will of our elected officials, who determine the budget we have to work with and, to some extent, the conditions under which we operate. Their good will depends on our doing our job well -- no damaging headlines, no scandalous art funded with the taxpayer's money. It also depends on the good will of the people in their districts who vote for them. If we eliminate funding for those people without their concurrence then our lives are in jeopardy. The challenge, therefore, is to build a new system of funding the arts with their support. I've found this requires their participation in the construction process. They may not all think they'll do well (or better) under the new system, but they may agree with it if they respect the nature of the construction process and the need for change. I haven't quite decided whether the best time to do this is when you have less or little money, or when you've had an infusion of new money.
In Rhode Island I'm thinking about something I'm calling "The Grand Reboot". I have the general impression that we have locked everyone into a grant amount that no longer has any relationship to reality. It's not based on the size of the organization or its relative ranking as compared to its peers in our state. If anything, it's based on what they may have received 10 or 15 years ago, increased or decreased over time as our budget has ebbed and flowed. The largest organizations do very well. The small and medium sized organizations, not so much. Our budget has not increased in a way that we can address this through the age-old remedy of throwing more money at the problem. So we will have
to start from scratch, a form of zero-based budgeting. It will be difficult, and traumatic for some, but absolutely necessary. I'm not sure I agree we have "an overbuilt arts ecosystem" in Rhode Island, but
if we do our little part of the solution might involve the redirection of funding.
Is there a better way to balance the provision of grants and the provision of other kinds of services?
It all depends on what you want to accomplish. If you can use grants to achieve programmatic needs, that's great. If we need to get into the direct provision of services, so be it. But I worry about state arts agencies playing too much of a role a a provider of services. This is something I think we can only do in limited ways, since other organizations are better suited to running programs.
Grant making is the philosophical heart of what we do. We are the stewards of our states' most precious treasures, our art and our history. Only an investment of state tax dollars gives ownership of this common wealth to the people of the Commonwealth. Consider the alternative...cultural nonprofits reliant of the generosity of wealth patrons or corporations. Then the only art and history we have would be decided by the wealthy few. Alternatively, art and history funded entirely by the government would deprive us of the risk, experimentation and truth that the wealthy can afford. Our system is really the best of both worlds.
But our work of beyond grant making is not only something we imagine, it is something we practice. Our financial investments are core; they give ownership to the citizens in the best we have to offer; they give confidence to private donors and leverage private investment; they connect the field to us and allow us to connect members of the field to each other; and they connect the field to elected leadership and to important policy issues affecting every community.
But our shrinking budget has forced us to consider the levers we can push to enhance the field in the absence of money. Creativity before capital is our motto.
Case in point: our cultural district program. We established the program two years ago with no funding whatsoever. With no money or grant of any kind at the end of a rigorous application process more than 100 communities have applied for state designation as a cultural district. Twenty-five have been designated so far. These communities have build strong partnerships, established cultural planning as an integral part of city and town planning, and created a cultural brand that is real, special and authentic. We are now being approached by legislators looking for ways to provide funding for this program.
By re-designing our grant-making we have uncovered ways to harness the collective capacity of the field and put it to work to raise all boats. Our operating support program is no longer a competitive grant program. We provide formula funding to 400 non-profits and require all recipients to participate in building the sector. All must advocate. They must participate in site visits to colleague organizations and they are called upon to mentor others. By eliminating the competition, we are building a true partnership relationship that is honest and supportive. And this partnership is delivering more innovation and intellectual capital to the field at large than the largest grant could buy.
Is the field overbuilt? I don't even know what that means. The field is an ecology. There are large, mature organizations with deep roots and big endowments; medium sized organizations that struggle to make ends meet with fixed labor and facilities costs...like most middle class families; and there are young agile organizations that may flame out or may become rooted. All contribute to our cultural landscape. I haven't the slightest idea how to decide who should live and who should die; who is redundant; who is sustainable. The "merge or die" message has been sent loud and clear from other funding leaders in Massachusetts. But the truth is, successful mergers are expensive and rare. A better message might be "two turkeys do not an eagle make."
- We can more clearly focus WHAT we do. In some states, that might mean arts education is the primary function, with strategic partnerships, incentives, leadership development. In some states, it should mean no more grants to organizations, not necessarily because of shrinking resources but because SAA resources are more effective elsewhere.
- We can rethink HOW we do what we do. Instead of project support grants, use dollars and staff expertise to incubate and nurture local efforts by providing customized support and a well-crafted mix of services. Helping local leaders include the arts in city comprehensive plans is one such opportunity: with a relatively small investment, a SAA could provide professional development such as training sessions, online resources, webinars, white papers, expert consultations, etc; networking of participating communities to encourage self-organized learning and support; research and/or messaging; financial support as a grant to support related project/s or for reimbursement of related expenses.
- We can expand WHO we work with, far beyond our focus of the nonprofit arts community. How about developing policy partners with colleges and universities, with professional organizations, with economic development offices?