Set In Stone

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together:

I enthusiastically encourage anyone who has ever been involved with an arts organization that renovated, expanded or built new;  a board that said, “if we only had more seats, we could sell more tickets;” a feasibility study that overstated the need for the building and understated the community’s ability to raise funds; an elected official who said, “what our small city needs is a world-class __________ facility;” or a funder that has been asked to support a building project to read Set in Stone, a recently released report from the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center and NORC.

In 2007, the Center, a joint initiative of the Harris School of Public Policy and NORC, a research organization, launched a study of arts building projects in the United States from 1994-2008, a period that researchers refer to as “the building boom.” According to the report’s executive summary, “the primary goal of the study was to establish research that would serve as a basic and essential resource for any cultural group in the country involved in planning the construction, renovation, or expansion of their facilities.”

“Building boom” indeed. No different than the rest of America, it seems housing for arts groups was developed with the same fervor as housing for families. “Build it and they will come” was the rallying cry of private developers, as well as cultural and community leaders. America was flush with money, banks were lending or giving lines of credit to everyone. City bond ratings were strong and communities were in an ongoing competition to lure conventions, visitors and new residents. Even small cities, like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where I used to live, got into the act building performing arts centers. Many, like Sioux Falls, for the first time ever.

This study, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, studied over 700 building projects and conducted over 500 interviews with organizational staff. Instead of trying to give the reader a synopsis of the findings, which would be very unfair in this tiny blog space, I’ll just give you a couple quotes that will hopefully inspire you to read the report:

We found compelling evidence that the supply of cultural facilities exceeded demand during the years of the building boom. We made efforts to measure what actually constitutes demand for cultural facilities—for example, the number of artists and arts organizations in a given region. Then, controlling for other factors, we found that the relationship between supply and what we called demand were not exactly what our theories predicted. Significantly more research is needed to get to the heart of not only what actually comprises demand for facilities, but also how supply and demand varies over time. What our research has enabled us to conclude, however, is that there was significant overinvestment in bricks and mortar during the building boom especially when coupled with the number of organizations we studied that experienced financial difficulties after completing a building project.

There is no clear pattern of spillover effects (negative or positive) of specific cultural building projects on non-building local cultural organizations and the greater community.

I cannot stress enough how important this study is for our field right now. It coincides in principle findings with the work that GIA has been doing on capitalization. It points out how vulnerable organizations are when moving into a major capital commitment and stresses the need for realistic financial planning beyond the scope of the building project.

Most importantly, this study finally gives us a baseline from which more research can be done. In the conclusion, the authors cite several areas where additional study is needed and would benefit the field. To that end, two books have been commissioned for publication based on this research and, hopefully, the original funders or others will see the value of continuing this work.

Traveling around the country after the economic downturn, I have so many anecdotal tales to tell about building projects. Like the PAC that cost $400 million to build with only $20 million raised for their endowment (short the $80 million goal), a major theatre renovation that was completed months ago with “only” $16 million still to raise, or the PAC that only had one donor, so when the downturn came and the organization found itself $28 million in debt, the community had no ownership, or the organization that struggled with operating debt and finding its audience immediately after opening its new multi-million dollar building. These are stories from big and small cities.

This study also has great recommendations for avoiding financial woes during and after building projects. There are organizations with well-capitalized building projects and well-capitalized operations with programming in sync with community demand.  As always, consistent and strong leadership always prioritizing mission is the foundation for success. As my dear friend, Ann Katz says, “It’s not about the building, it’s about the art.” All too often, in the heat of civic pride, large donations, famous architects, and more, the idea of sustaining the art that will fill the building gets overshadowed by the building itself.

Please before you dive into that new building project or fund that building campaign, take advantage of the excellent information on the UChicago's Cultural Policy Set in Stone website and please read the report.