Entering Cultural Communities

Diversity and Change in the Nonprofit Arts

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 19, No 2 (Summer 2008)

Diane Ragsdale

Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London, 2008, 297 pages, Edited by Diane Grams and Betty Farrell.

In light of the ongoing and ever-more-pressing search by arts and culture organizations for new ways to broaden and diversify audiences and the recurring plea in the sector for funders and service organizations to collect and disseminate information on successful and unsuccessful practices in the field, I highly recommend a new volume of essays edited by Diane Grams and Betty Farrell. Entering Cultural Communities: Diversity and Change in the Nonprofit Arts draws from interviews with leaders, volunteers, staff, and audience members at eighty-five nonprofit cultural organizations of varying sizes and located in urban, suburban, and rural areas across the US to explore ambitious efforts aimed at participation-building. This timely volume covers such topics as partnerships, youth participation, ethnic diversity, and the uses of new technologies to reach audiences and build community.

In addition to examining a range of practices (and noting several times that there is no one size fits all approach for participation building) the authors give thoughtful consideration to the conditions within an institution that are necessary for launching a new participation-building effort. One of the key findings in the book, particularly in light of the high turnover in many arts organizations, is that the most successful efforts for change occurred in organizations that had sustained and innovative leadership. "To be successful," the editors write, "leaders must have the stamina to see their visions accomplished."

The book is worthwhile because it not only provides numerous, diverse examples of participation-building, but delves deeply into many of them. Featured organizations include: The Walker Art Center, Seattle Art Museum, Old Towne School of Folk Music, the San Francisco Symphony, Appalshop, the Wing Luke Asian Museum, and The Loft Literary Center. By-and-large, the contributors move beyond simply describing the structure of successful programs to unearthing the motivations, catalysts, barriers, and challenges to such efforts.

In the first chapter, the editors construct two models for building participation that are currently in practice at arts and culture organizations: consumerist/ transactional and humanist/relational. Contrary to what one might assume, the book demonstrates that neither of these models is "better" than the other and that, depending on the strategy and mission of the organization, either model, or a combination of the two, could be appropriate. These two models brought to mind James Allen Smith's insightful and provocative essay in the Fall 2007 Reader, "Cultural Donors Were Different," in which he highlighted the inextricable and inevitable tension that exists because the arts are considered both a "merit good" (providing private benefit) and a "public good" (providing public benefit). In much the same way, this chapter examines the challenge of balancing the short-term strategy of building consumer markets via transactions (selling admissions) and the long-term strategy of building cultural communities via relationships that are based on respect, appreciation, trust and shared interests.

The editors stress repeatedly that successful participation-building is a long-term effort and note that relationships of trust and reciprocity must replace "the 'aerial drop' method of cultural distribution, in which short-term projects and programs seem to fall from the air and disappear just as fast as they have descended." They also note that long-term efforts must be tracked and measured as they are sustained over time and that this is often quite difficult for organizations, not least of all because there is no standardized method for doing this work across the arts and culture sector. The book ends with a recommendation to funders interested in supporting participation-building in the cultural sphere to "provide both the technical and financial support necessary to establish consistent measures, so that organizations can gauge success over time and across organizational boundaries."

The book is illuminating and uplifting, not only because the examples educate and remind us that great organizations large and small are doing exemplary work in this area, but also because it helpfully distills the shifts in thinking about participation-building that are underlying these successful practices.

Diane Ragsdale, Associate Program Officer, Performing ArtsThe Andrew W. Mellon Foundation