This week, I’ve been writing about the Ortiz Foundation for the Arts, a mock $800 million foundation based in New York, for which I designed a strategic plan along with four of my business school colleagues. Yesterday, I wrote about two of OFA’s programs, Building Infrastructure and Supporting Start-Ups. In this final segment, we’ll explore OFA’s other two programs along with its evaluation procedures. One program, Art and the Public: Engaging Non-Artists in the Artistic Community, seeks to address the ever-increasing gray area between professional artists and passive audience members. The other, Arts Research: Harnessing Science on Behalf of Creativity, aims to increase our knowledge of arts benefits and the merits of specific arts programming.

Art and the Public

Art and the Public as a whole is designed to engage communities more deeply in the arts than by simply bringing a performance to their neighborhood or school and expecting them to turn into lifelong arts patrons overnight. A central theory behind the Art and the Public program is that many of the arts’ most acute benefits flow from participation at a creative or performative level, rather than from “appreciation” alone. As such, the most significant project of the A&P program would be an annual citywide festival rotating among the four disciplines of art, music, theater, and dance. This festival would involve simultaneous events all over the city, featuring participatory opportunities for adults and children alike. For example, organizers might set up in places like Flushing Meadows Park, Central Park, Coney Island, and so on for NYC Paints, with materials on hand and art instructors roving around to answer questions and show off particularly interesting or fun creations. An NYC Sings event would be a giant choral festival with sheet music to be provided, various types of music in different locales, and so on.

Another Art and the Public project would be the Ortiz Club, a series of themed discussions about current artistic creations. Again, events would be neighborhood-based and provide an opportunity for arts lovers to meet and interact while engaging with the works in question more deeply.

Finally, Art and the Public would present performances and exhibitions of lesser-known and emerging artists in combination with better known ones across the city. The model would borrow elements from both traditional rock festivals (that combine artists of varying notoriety) and the Wordless Music series (that combine artists from different genres). The pool of Supporting Start-Ups applicants and grantees would receive consideration for exposure through this program as well.

Arts Research

As I’ve written in the past, the research on the benefits (both intrinsic and instrumental) of the arts is still in many ways in a nascent stage. OFA has an opportunity to dramatically change that with targeted efforts to learn what we don’t yet know.

Despite a long history of support from the philanthropic community, the role of the arts in society remains one of life’s great enigmas. Countless individuals can tell passionate stories about how the arts have changed (or even saved) their lives, yet the actual benefits of the arts on a large scale are not well understood. In contrast to programs aimed at, for example, reversing climate change or ending poverty, initiatives in the arts can rarely claim such concrete, easily comprehended goals. This is in part due to the multiplicity of positive effects associated with active arts creation and participation:
  • individual benefits such as the development of self-esteem and the pure enjoyment of experiencing or creating art;
  • educational benefits such as improved visuo-spatial reasoning, enhanced school performance, and lower delinquency rates;
  • social benefits such as the development of professional and personal networks;
  • cultural benefits such as the building of links between disparate groups and the promotion of tolerance and diversity;
  • economic benefits related to cultural tourism and community revitalization; and
  • society-wide benefits such as better integration of creativity into the workforce and a livelier political and civic discourse.

While a growing body of literature attempts to study in depth the various social impacts of the arts, both consistent, reliable data sources and robust, sophisticated studies remain few and far between, particularly in comparison with fields like healthcare and education. Furthermore, those studies that do exist overwhelmingly tend to examine quantity of arts experiences without considering the quality thereof, thereby missing perhaps one of the most important determinants of impact. Finally, rigorous evaluations of individual arts programs are rare, with the result that most artistic providers are “flying blind” as to the true impact of their work and must base important strategic decisions on anecdotal evidence and intuition alone.

Arts research efforts at Ortiz would connect seamlessly with other programs at the foundation, incorporating literature review and sometimes small-scale studies in support of the theories underlying those programs (for example, the Arts Research program may study past attempts to turn for-profit enterprises into nonprofits in order to understand best practices and pitfalls in such efforts). I also shamelessly borrowed the cultural asset map concept from my work last summer at the Hewlett Foundation, proposing to create a version of the tool for New York City that would help to inform better grantmaking decisions and enable a baseline assessment of arts health.

Beyond that, the Arts Research program would engage in proactive research of important questions facing the field, with a particular focus on questions that have not received sufficient attention to date. To wit:

Professional evaluators with proven track records of innovation and rigor will be invited to compete for these contracts. Where possible, a technical advisory board will be employed to guide methodologies and serve as an independent check. Initial areas of focus will include:
  • further study of the intrinsic benefits of the arts, with particular focus on different types and intensity levels of artistic experiences
  • examination of how much the quality of arts programming as perceived by producers and consumers affects its impact on the latter
  • efforts to clarify the causal link between neighborhood artistic activity and economic revitalization

Finally, the Arts Research program would offer a competitive opportunity for organizations to have their own programs evaluated professionally — whether or not they are existing grantees of the foundation. There’s one catch, though: participating organizations would have to agree in advance that the results of the evaluation would be made public, no matter the outcome. (Opportunities to respond and engage in dialogue about controversial studies would be made available, of course.)

Through it all, it’s very important that the foundation be able to evaluate itself. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a truly independent evaluation that is initiated in some way by the entity being evaluated. So, we decided to do the next best thing and place evaluation responsibility with the Board, which at least bears ultimate financial responsibility for the organization. An evaluation committee will develop goals and targets with staff on a yearly basis and a strategic framework for programs a few times a decade. We also decided to incorporate formative evaluation elements in programs themselves, through focus groups and site visits. Finally, just to keep everyone honest, I inserted this language in our report:

Furthermore, all foundation staff will regularly participate in the New York City arts community as patrons, ticket-buyers, and visitors, both to grantee organizations and non-grantee organizations. Each program staff member will be expected to attend a minimum of two performances or exhibitions a week throughout the year, vacation weeks excluded, and each non-program staff member and each board member will attend a minimum of two arts events a month. These visits will be unannounced and tickets or entrance fees will be paid for by the Foundation to ensure an unbiased audience experience. Staff will fill out basic reports for the Foundation’s internal databases describing the attendance at the event and anything notable or unusual about what transpired. The purpose of this regulation is threefold: first, to ensure that Foundation staff remains “in touch” with developments in the arts community through firsthand experience rather than the secondhand received wisdom of grant applications; second, to enable the Foundation to pursue giving opportunities proactively when appropriate, particularly in the context of its Supporting Start-ups program, rather than being able to respond only to organizations with existing grantwriting apparatus; and third, to “check up” on grantees as a way of informally auditing their activities and checking future proposals for internal consistency.

We also delved quite a bit into the operational details of the foundation (my colleague Michael Shay created an extraordinarily detailed 10-year budget and investment plan based on extensive research of peer institutions), but I figured this blog’s readers would be more interested in the program stuff. So, how’d we do? If you had $800 million to give away to the arts, where would you put it?