Equity and Community Arts Education

by Jonathan Herman (bio), executive director, National Guild for Community Arts Education

I commend the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and Holly Sidford for reporting on a critical disparity in funding within the arts sector — particularly for community-based organizations who are serving low income communities — and thank Grantmakers in the Arts for hosting this forum.

Community arts education organizations are deeply affected by the circumstances described in this report. The National Guild for Community Arts Education’s constituency includes more than 5,000 organizations and government agencies in the U.S. that employ professional teaching artists to provide arts learning opportunities to people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Collectively the National Guild’s 430 member organizations serve 1.2 million students, employ 16,000 teaching artists, and reach an additional six million Americans each year through performances and exhibitions in rural, suburban and urban communities. Approximately 35% of students served by these institutions are Black/African American; 33% White; and 18% Hispanic/Latino.

Most of our constituents operate at the bare bones with annual budgets under $1 million. But even those organizations whose budgets are more than $5 million do not typically fit the “conventional assessment criteria” of an arts institution used by funders to determine success. In addition to providing studio and project-based instruction, many community arts education organizations also intentionally effect learning and development through the arts with a focus on healthy aging, youth development, community building, etc. They share a common commitment to quality in both arts instruction and community well-being, and focus on both process (e.g. classes, rehearsals) and product (e.g. performances, recitals, exhibitions). Most serve increasingly diverse student populations.

They do this vital work despite serious difficulties securing the kind of funding that would allow them to make their greatest impact. As the economic crisis continues to take its toll, these organizations are facing greater demand for subsidized programs that help to ensure access. At the same time, grants that support these programs are drying up or simply not available.

When funders cut back, the most deeply affected are youth and families with the least access to arts education. Examples of arts programs cut in the past two years include a program for teenage girls recovering from substance abuse, a partnership with a local housing authority, a music therapy program for autistic children, and numerous in-school and afterschool partnership programs. Additionally, community arts education providers across the country have had to reduce financial assistance to families who otherwise would not be able to afford arts classes for their children.

At the same time that these funding challenges pose serious threats to our sector, they are driving organizations to develop new ways of doing business and maintaining their ability to serve the public.

Two major opportunities for sustainability and growth include:

  1. Collaborations within the Arts Sector: One significant challenge to our sector has been the internal barriers that divide us along the lines of professional/non-professional, high/low and by artistic discipline resulting in a culture of competition for scarce resources and visibility. In cities and regions across the country, organized collaborations within the arts sector—like the Providence Youth Arts Collaborative in Providence, RI, a partnership of six non-profit community-based youth arts organizations—are striving to sustain high quality arts learning experiences and ensure that all segments within the arts learning population (young children, older adults, ESL students, etc.) are adequately served.
  2. Cross-sector Partnerships: Similarly, we believe there is great opportunity in promoting arts education as a resource within a much more comprehensive community and human development framework. The arts can positively contribute to youth development, workforce development, place-making, healthcare and other areas. Strategic alliances between the arts and these sectors can be formed based on shared values, commitments and goals.

A new skill set is required to help arts leaders facilitate and sustain these alliances. Additionally, more research is needed regarding the positive impact of these collaborations on individuals and communities. Many community arts organizations are getting better at establishing metrics for their work; however, with limited resources, they primarily focus on providing broad access to high quality programs, leaving inadequate resources to thoroughly and systematically collect and analyze data or to share successful models and best practices.

We believe these kinds of collaborations within and beyond the arts sector hold promise for extending the impact of arts organizations and increasing access to arts learning opportunities for all Americans. Funders can help by increasing their support for professional development, evaluation and research.