Changes in the Environment for Arts & Culture

Part 2

Marian Godfrey, Managing Director, Culture & Civic Initiatives The Pew Charitable Trusts (moderator); Rohit Burman, Program Manager, Culture & Public Broadcasting, MetLife Foundation; Adrian Ellis, AEA Consulting, Myra Millinger, President & CEO, Maricopa Partnership for Arts and Culture (interlocutors) Report by Christine Elbel, Executive Director, Fleishhacker Foundation, San Francisco; Board of Directors, Northern California Grantmakers.

See also:
A transcript of Part 1, a conversation with Adrian Ellis moderated by John McGuirk
A transcript of Part 2, the event reported on here

Marian Godfrey introduced this session as a follow up to Part 1 (a conversation with Adrian Ellis moderated by John McGuirk from the James Irvine Foundation). This session's main goal was to have a broad discussion about 501c3's and where our sector is headed as a result of changes in the environment. Godfrey pointed out that it can be a scary time for both arts organizations and foundations. The over-arching question is: “what's the make up of cultural vitality?” We need to understand threats to the nonprofit sector as well as promising new developments. This particular dialogue was designed to ground the discussion of larger forces with our own experiences.

What followed was a robust exchange of ideas and examples of how grantmakers are tackling complicated questions related to funding needs and changing priorities. A main theme was how organized philanthropy tends to support stability over innovation, and that both are needed if a vibrant nonprofit cultural sector is to continue to exist. There was a repeated call for funders to find ways to recognize and seed innovation. Many agreed that our financial support should also be used to strengthen the work of arts councils and service organizations, whose on-the-ground knowledge of their constituents can be leveraged to provide a more supportive and informed environment for risk-taking.

Speakers' Comments
Marion Godfrey spoke of Pew's work with Adrian Ellis, and how they've seen artists as bellwethers of the field's health. Pew is funding more artists and artists' organizations (separate from organizational funding). Its cultural funding has also been expanded, including new cross-program efforts with their community science and health programs, focusing on the aging baby boomer population.

Adrian Ellis' work in Phoenix was summarized by Myra Millinger. Ellis conducted an assessment of nonprofit challenges relative to those in other geographic areas. The study also analyzed how arts and culture have fared compared to biotech, a major regional influence. A multi-layered strategic plan was created by a civic task force of corporate, public and arts leaders. Ellis' advice to funders is “to be heretical…to adopt an attitude that the creative community is inclusive of architects and city planners.” And rather than focusing on the sector's economic impact (“that's not the message”), we need to describe the strength of the creative sector and how it's imbedded in the community, helping to build a base for the future.

Robit Burman spoke of tying the American identity to public policy. For instance, the education and health sectors have public message campaigns; should the arts community be doing this? Another approach is to articulate how the arts fall within national conversations about important issues such as health care.

Themes of General Discussion
Godfrey stated that foundations have the intellectual capacity to frame the issues around cultural vitality, although they only make up a small part of the funding pie. She noted an explosion of amateur activity, and queried, “is there are role for philanthropy in shaping policy rather than direct subsidy?”

Ellis said the continuity of amateur participation from early childhood into one's 20's is central to having lifetime satisfaction in the arts, and that the key is arts education in schools. We need to encourage nonprofits to stop emphasizing the difference between the professional and the amateur, to “stop kicking the ladder away.”

Millinger emphasized two key pathways to having a positive experience with the arts: kids and community. Their baseline public opinion poll showed that people respond to arts that are accessible to them. She wonders: “are we not listening to people regarding a paradigm shift?” 1

Cultural events provide continuity tying us to our past and present. 2 Culture can link the stories of older and younger generations in communities, such as the video storytelling work of SCRIBE in Philadelphia. The Queens Council on the Arts is engaging the larger community in a creative process involving a civic legacy. The Knight Foundation is supporting smaller, more innovative touring orchestras as a way to reach more people. 3

There was substantial agreement that traditional arts philanthropy plays a role in constraining innovation and inhibiting necessary paradigm shifts. Foundations tend to foster incremental changes, finding it difficult to support full-scale innovation. Arts funders need to question how they're investing in the status quo, and to consider letting the marketplace determine if an organization is sustainable and will continue. Many foundations are now looking at their role in R&D for the field differently, and getting their boards to endorse more risk-taking. It was noted that the corporate sector is more adept at allowing failure and learning from it. 4 Godfrey pointed out that “failure isn't being sloppy and unprofessional; it's about finding a path to learning new things.”

Americans for the Arts and TCG are both concerned about the lack of risk-taking in arts funding, and the sector's avoidance of perceived “failure.” The James Irvine Foundation is funding “pathways of innovation,” with larger grants for specific organizational adaptations to changing conditions. Foundations can also work effectively through service organizations and regional arts councils to seed innovation with smaller grants, and to share lessons learned through convenings, publications and the web. Ellis pointed out that it's frequently the smaller and mid-sized organizations that are the best models for artistic innovation and strategic organizational thinking.

Sam Miller from LINC advocated investing in organizations' abilities to innovate, rather than simply rewarding existing innovation. An example would be to support mico-finance and micro-investment programs. Funders should balance their arts grantmaking by investing in cultural innovators whose work might also have relevance with societal issues.

The key speakers encouraged participants to change their notions of taking and managing risks, and to assume leadership around field-specific and larger societal dialogue. Foundations are accountable to the public, ultimately. If we don't take an active stance in fostering innovation, our grantmaking role will be more limited to one of preserving cultural traditions. Without a definitive sector-wide funding strategy, we often fall short of our collective potential to view what we're actively doing so it's not invisible and thereby increase our efficacy and impact. There was general consensus that rather than changing the 501c3 structure (“where cultural organizations live”), we should change the nature of the dialogue with our peers. We can challenge ourselves to better articulate our goals and assess the progress of specific funding strategies.

Publications referenced:
  1. RenGen: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer and What it Means to Your Business; Patricia Martin; 2007. Describes a “renaissance generation” created by a confluence of art, education and entertainment, which thrives on information to fuel its creative consumption.
  2. Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged; Roger Scruton; Encounter Books; 2007. What is culture and why should we preserve it, particularly in America today.
  3. The Search for Shining Eyes, final report on The Magic of Music project; A study on orchestra audience development.
  4. Seeing What's Next: Using the Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change; Clayton M. Christensen and Scott D. Anthony; Harvard University Press; 2004. Christensen has written many books on innovation and how companies succeed or fail based upon their approach to it.