Do the Arts Win or Lose When Integrated into Community Programs?

I was in California last week where I met with groups of arts funders in San Francisco and Los Angeles. When we were talking about changes within their organizations, two program managers reported that the arts had been moved in their foundations from stand-alone programs into “community” programs. One entity made this move as a reaction to the economy. The other organization had done this prior to the economic downturn. Regardless, it means the arts are part of a bigger picture of community issues.

So what’s the downside of this? One negative is the encouragement for program staff to become “generalists” and no longer arts specialists. One of the strengths of the arts philanthropy field is the knowledge and experience of arts program managers and staff. This is particularly true in larger private and community foundations, and common in the public sector. Another downside is the fear that the arts will be compromised artistically, and organizations that are dedicated to new or cutting edge work will be out and mediocrity and amateurism will be in. Another danger, of course, is that this is the first step in cutting arts funding completely.

But there may be a silver lining in this scenario. The arts continue to be identified by the public and private sector as one of the elements that improves community livability. The US Conference of Mayors listed the arts as one of their ten most important issues for cities in 2008. The trend towards integration and working across sector lines by the Obama administration bodes well for the arts being at the table. To make the arts relevant within the broader context of community livability, an expanded definition of “art” seems necessary. It encompasses large institutions, ethnic festivals, neighborhood centers, small start-up groups, education and after school programs…summer recreational activities and more.

This could be, as one GIA member stated, a real opportunity; an opportunity for increased support and participation in the arts from a broader community that sees art making as part of its core ingredients, not an “add-on” for only some people to enjoy. It will all depend on internal positioning and external politics. Tough stuff in some circumstances but we’ve been there before.