Building Infrastructure for Artists and Arts Organizations

Is the nonprofit arts community undercapitalized because there isn’t enough money or demand for the product or have we focused on developing product at the expense of creating an environment that can support it? That environment includes more than audience development and public support. It includes an infrastructure that feeds the industry both internally, serving the needs of the organization, and externally, promoting that product on multiple levels to the public. (I don’t use the term “product” to only mean the sale of art products as commonly defined but also community arts development work and the integration of the arts into community life.)

In the for-profit world, infrastructure grows naturally driven by economic incentives. Support industries spring up: certification and degree programs, technical assistance, marketing firms, research firms, policy institutes and associations that are primarily policy watchdogs and lobbying arms. The nonprofit sector is more complicated. Without monetary incentives (i.e. an industry that can pay for training, technical assistance, professional development, lobbyists, marketing firms, etc) we are left with organizations that need to create their own infrastructure and support mechanisms. I don’t think this is going so well for us.

I don’t think we have any models in communities where it’s all working. (Here’s where you respond if you think I’m wrong about that.) Where arts organizations are capitalized in every way: financially, physically, artistically, administratively and environmentally. I’m not even sure we’ve agreed on what the definition of “success” is in any of those categories. The closest we come is artistically. I think we have fantastic models of great art making from folk artists to magnificent museums and professional dance, theatre and opera. But those examples often teeter on the verge of being “unsuccessful” in one of the other areas.

Funders are working on answering these questions. Technical assistance, professional development, audience development, marketing tools have all become commonplace words in the industry. I remember the days when you couldn’t put administrative costs of staff or overhead into your grant application because it wasn’t funded. Thank God those days are gone. But they did leave some residue of caution: that we can’t invest too much in people, that all our money needs to go out the door in services and product, that paying artists was a good thing, paying an administrator wasn’t such a good thing. Today we’re not paying anybody what he or she should be paid.

As with everything, there is no one answer to what makes a successful organization sustainable over years, employing artists and arts administrators and serving the public. But investment in infrastructure is one of the answers. Service organizations, educators, consultants, conveners, grantmakers, researchers, advocates and policymaking organizations are all important to this sector. Their primary resource is people. Those people are not usually working artists. But they have a love of an art form that has driven them to devote their life to a job that supports creative artists in so many ways.

Within given communities, artists, arts organizations and funders can take stock of what their environment is like. What is the infrastructure that supports the work that artists do? Most service and administrative support organizations have a terrible time raising funds because their work is not glamorous and often hard to assess. Yet they move the sector forward in ways that complement and credit the work of artists. They are the infrastructure that we have begun to build and maintain. Without it, we have an industry without depth and sustainability.