In 2015, Americans for the Arts partnered with the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct the Local Arts Agency Census, the most comprehensive survey of the local arts agency field ever conducted. Its purpose was to illuminate the ever-adapting role these organizations play in ensuring the arts have a vital presence in every community.
Americans for the Arts defines a local arts agency (LAA) as a private organization or an agency of local government that promotes, supports, and develops the arts at the local level. LAAs are not discipline specific. Rather, they work to sustain their entire local arts and culture industry. LAAs leverage billions of dollars in public and private funding for the arts. Some of these dollars go directly to the LAA, but many go around the LAA and directly to arts and cultural organizations. Each LAA is unique to the community that it serves, and each evolves with its community. No two LAAs are exactly alike. What they all share, however, is the goal of enabling diverse forms of arts and culture to thrive — ensuring greater accessibility and healthier communities through the arts.
While its work may be similar to an LAA, a “local arts agency” does not always go by that name. Organizational names may include words such as arts, culture, heritage, humanities, science, creative economy, agency, or council.
Since 1960, the number of LAAs in the United States has grown more than tenfold, from 400 to 4,500. The greatest rate of growth was during the 1970s and 1980s. LAAs are now found in every state and serve populations that range from small and rural to large and urban. Some LAAs depend entirely on volunteers, while others have large budgets, as much as $156 million for the LAA with the largest budget in the country. Nationally, 70 percent are private nonprofit organizations, and 30 percent are agencies of a city or county government.
Some communities have multiple LAAs that work to meet different needs for their constituents. The people of Philadelphia, for example, are served by three: Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (nonprofit organization); Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia (an affiliate of the Chamber of Commerce); and City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (a city agency).
The LAA Census was designed by a task force of local arts agency, research, and policy experts to ensure both relevance and rigor. The survey was sent to the 4,377 LAAs in the United States known to Americans for the Arts. Of that number, 1,127, or 26 percent, responded. Large- and midsized LAAs responded at a very high rate, while small and volunteer-driven LAAs were underrepresented in the survey respondents.
Aggregate revenues for all 1,127 of the responding LAAs totaled $1.375 billion in 2015, and their total expenses were $1.301 billion. Local government funding to these LAAs was $738 million in 2015. This was the fourth consecutive year of growth in their total budgets and local government support (see figure 1).
In addition the survey found the following:
There has always been significant variation in revenue sources depending on whether an LAA is public or private. As the survey results show (see figure 2), private nonprofit LAAs typically include a mixture of donations from individuals and businesses, foundation support, earned-income activities, and grants or service contracts from government. Public LAAs’ largest source of revenue is typically from local government with a small percentage coming from earned income and private contributions.
LAAs are instrumental in the establishment of local option taxes — designated tax revenue streams that are used to fund arts and culture locally. They provide significant and long-term funding for the arts community. Examples include St. Louis’s property tax ($70 million per year), San Francisco’s hotel tax ($30 million per year), Denver’s sales tax ($45 million per year), and Cuyahoga County’s cigarette tax ($15 million per year). Sixteen percent of LAAs indicated they receive funds from a local option tax; public agencies receive them more frequently than private agencies (20 percent versus 14 percent). The most common of these is by far the lodging tax (66 percent), followed by percent-for-art programs that finance public art (32 percent), and sales taxes (11 percent).
Total expenditures for the 1,127 surveyed LAAs were approximately $1.3 billion in 2015. After payroll, the largest single expense for LAAs is grantmaking (22 percent of expenditures on average) (see table 1).
The following seven programs and services were provided by varying percentages of the LAAs surveyed:
Fifty-three percent of LAAs provide financial support to arts organizations and/or individual artists in the form of grants and contracts. Of these LAAs, 49 percent provide financial support to nonprofit arts organizations; 35 percent provide financial support to individual artists; and 30 percent support both arts organizations and artists.
On average, public LAAs that are grantmakers allocate 47 percent of their total budget to grantmaking, while private LAAs allocate 28 percent. LAAs provide funds to both emerging and established organizations for general operating support (49 percent) and cultural programming (92 percent). Funding for individual artists may include special projects (42 percent), professional development (32 percent), and fellowships (12 percent). The census also found the following:
Local arts agencies use the arts to build bridges between cultures and connect communities. Sixty-one percent of LAAs increase the diversity of the arts organizations and individuals they serve through their programs, funding, and partnerships. One-third of LAAs (35 percent) felt they “have an appropriate level of diversity” in their organization. Thirty-nine percent have written diversity policies for staff, and 29 percent have policies for their boards. Not surprisingly, board and staff at LAAs with written diversity policies are less likely to be all white (27 percent for boards, 39 percent for staff), compared to agencies with no written policies (45 percent for boards, 58 percent for staff).
The census showed that local arts agencies are working toward a more equitable grantmaking field:
LAAs also have formalized guidelines or policies for diversity when making decisions about programming, services, and/or awarding financial support (33 percent). These guidelines are most commonly related to disability and race (22 and 21 percent, respectively), but also age (16 percent), gender (15 percent), sexual orientation (14 percent), and income (12 percent), among other characteristics, such as educational attainment.
Twenty-eight percent of LAAs report that they have participated in cultural planning — a community-inclusive process of assessing the cultural needs of the community and mapping an implementation plan. Interestingly, in communities with a cultural plan, LAA budgets and their support from local government both increased at a greater rate than in communities with no cultural plan. This is a finding observed in LAA surveys since the 1990s.
LAAs also ensure that the arts are part of broader civic planning efforts. Thirty-eight percent indicate that arts and culture has been integrated into an adopted community-wide comprehensive planning effort. Of those, the arts have been incorporated into, for example, economic development plans (62 percent) and tourism planning efforts (47 percent). Others include way-finding, land-use, business development, transportation, housing, and environmental plans.
LAAs are community connectors. Ninety-two percent maintain at least one partnership with a community agency or organization, and 76 percent have three or more ongoing collaborations.
More than half of LAAs partner with a chamber of commerce, library, convention and visitors bureau, parks and recreation department, or school district. These partnerships provide new opportunities for artists and arts organizations, help collaborators advance their missions by using the arts, and create arts experiences for the public in both arts and non-arts venues across the community.
Because partnership and collaboration can mean different things to different people, respondents were asked about the actual work involved between the organizations. A range of five categories of partnership were offered. Not surprisingly, informal relationships are more common than the deeper and more rigorous ones:
Over half of LAAs (57 percent) are involved in using the arts to address community development issues ranging from youth at risk, homelessness, and illiteracy to the creative economy, cultural districts, and civic engagement (see table 2). Forty-nine percent are directly involved in addressing community development issues through their own arts programming. Twenty-eight percent are indirectly involved by addressing key local issues through grants or contracts awarded to artists or arts organizations in their community.
Effective advocacy means billions of dollars directed to artists and arts organizations, more equitable access to the arts, and new pathways to arts engagement for the community. Ninety-five percent of LAAs make the case for arts funding and arts policies to private and public sector leaders and donors. LAAs advocate for issues ranging from increased arts funding and cultural tourism to arts education and public art in their communities.
Respondents were asked to rank the effectiveness of twenty-six case-making arguments. The top three were arts education, the economic impact of the arts, and improving quality of life. Local arts agency leaders find different messages are more effective with different types of funders or leaders. As the effective arts advocate knows, however, different messages often resonate the loudest to different constituencies. Notice how the top three messages differ for the four funder categories:
Eighty-nine percent of LAAs are involved in arts education programs and in-school and/or out-of-school activities. Common strategies that LAAs use to support arts education include residencies or performances, directories of artists and arts organizations, and advocating on behalf of arts education. The census also found the following:
The Local Arts Agency Census was a (really!) long survey. We are grateful to the 1,127 LAAs that responded. This article highlights just a portion of the findings. You can read more at www.AmericansForTheArts.org/LocalArtsAgencyCensus.