(The following post is part of a weeklong salon at ARTSBlog on the subject of “Does Size Matter?” The entire salon is worth checking out, and former Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel has an entry as well.)

How does scale influence impact in the arts? In 2007, back when I was a fresh-faced grad student, I actually addressed this question head on in the eighth post ever published on Createquity. I argued pretty strongly that scale in the arts was a myth, or at least not salient to the same extent as in other fields:

It’s not that I don’t think large arts organizations do good work, or that they don’t deserve to be supported. What I’m going to argue instead is that there is a tendency among many institutional givers to direct their resources toward organizations that have well-developed support infrastructure, long histories, and vast budgets, and in a lot of ways it’s a tendency that doesn’t make much sense (or at the very least, could use some balance).

For one thing, those well-developed support infrastructures don’t come cheap. Consider the case of Carnegie Hall… [snip]

In contrast, small arts organizations are extraordinarily frugal with their resources, precisely because they have no resources to speak of. It’s frankly amazing to me what largely unheralded art galleries, musical ensembles, theater companies, dance troupes, and performance art collectives are able accomplish with essentially nothing but passion on their side. A $5,000 contribution that would barely get you into the sixth-highest donor category at Carnegie might radically transform the livelihood of an organization like this. Suddenly, they might be able to buy some time in the recording studio, or hire an accompanist for rehearsals, or redo that floor in the lobby, or even (gasp) PAY their artists! All of which previously had seemed inconceivable because of the poverty that these organizations grapple with.

The literature on scaling impact in the social sector tends to take for granted that scale is a good thing—that services are provided more effectively when centralized under a strong leader and when efficiencies can be exploited across functions and sites. This logic makes sense when the goal is to solve a systemic problem that is evident in many different  contexts, such as physical places. If you’ve come up with a solution that works in Chicago, why wouldn’t you want to bring it to New York and DC? Arts service organizations, in fact, can likely benefit from economies of scale. Fractured Atlas has certainly been able to accomplish a lot more because its focus is national and cross-disciplinary than would have been the case otherwise, and scale has no doubt been a motivating factor behind Americans for the Arts’s many mergers.

But when you get to talking about arts producers and presenters, which I think is what most people mean when they say “the arts,” the conversation about scale becomes very different. What problem, exactly, is being solved here? It seems like the whole point of the nonprofit arts is to add to the aesthetic diversity that would otherwise exist in the marketplace for creative expression. If the point is diversity, how is that goal served by attempting to scale up institutions? The very commercial marketplace to which the nonprofit arts strive to provide an alternative loves scale – it thrives on it, because scale begets market power, which begets revenue, which begets profit. (Profits worth talking about, anyway.)

Leaving our cultural lives in the hands of commercial entities, many theorists have worried, will result in a boring sameness, an attempt to feed the world’s aesthetic appetite with the equivalent of TV dinners every day.* Our sector takes it on faith that there are forms of artistic expression that have clear cultural value and relevance even if replicating them widely is not practical. I suppose if you believe that these forms are specific and identifiable in nature (e.g., classical music, plays by Henrik Ibsen), then scaling them to help them compete with commercial cultural products would make sense. But if you believe, as I do, that their value comes in large part from the diversity they add to our collective palate, it’s much better to spread the subsidy around.

On a purely theoretical level, my view hasn’t changed that much in the five years since I wrote that thought piece. However, having become more closely involved with several grantmakers (including serving on a couple of grant panels) since then, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for what large organizations can accomplish with scale. The scale that institutions traffic in does not have to do with the creation or presentation of work, but rather the audiences reached by that work. There are arts consumers – plenty of them, in fact – who simply will never frequent a show or exhibition by a smaller, experimental group or venue unless they personally know someone in it. But give that experimental group an institution’s stamp of approval, and those audience members are all over it. That’s got to count for something, and speaks volumes of the curatorial role that large institutions have in the broader ecosystem.

That said, one thing I still don’t see much of on the part of arts funders is a willingness to consider the transformative potential (or lack thereof) of grants. Some years ago, the Hewlett Foundation developed a simple yet very clever rubric for grant selection called Expected Return. One of the ways in which Expected Return is clever is that it accounts for the proportion of a project’s success in an ideal world that can be attributed to the grant you made. The less of the budget you’re responsible for, the less of a difference you’re really making. As I wrote then and still believe now, “Foundations concerned with ‘impact’ should remember that it’s far easier to have a measurable effect on an organization’s effectiveness when the amount of money provided is not dwarfed by the organization’s budget.”

 

*Defenders of pop culture will no doubt cite the many creative achievements of the entertainment industry as evidence against this point – and they are certainly right to celebrate The Wire, Radiohead, and The Lord of the Rings. But for every groundbreaking artist who succeeds in the market economy, there are dozens more who don’t, and plenty of mediocre talents gumming up our headphones and screens instead.

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  • http://www.man-about-town.org Michael Hickey

    IAM – thoughtful and provocative post, as usual. The good thing about large organizations, and indeed the good thing about free markets and capitalism, is their ability aggregate resources. If you want to build a power plant or an aircraft carrier you need lots of capital and expertise to do it. Only large entities can operate at the scale necessary to accomplish such feats. Hello, Temple of Dendur.

    But large organizations also have disadvantages: they can be ponderous, bureaucratic, centralized, and unable to appreciate or support fragmented, micro-level objectives. In this sense, they are actually less efficient at dealing with diverse environments, because they are built to deliver standardized solutions.

    Scaled and standardized solutions, as you note, are good at finding efficiencies within systems. But systems don’t actually produce art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a commanding budget of over $300 million annually and the Met is great at aggregating art, but it doesn’t actually produce art in anywhere near the volume of the thousands (and tens of thousands) of small culturals and individual artists sprinkled around NYC. You could say that this means art production and creativity cannot be scaled because they are inherently inefficient. I prefer to think, however, that art making and creativity are designed to interrupt and disrupt systems, re-envision them, refine them, and replace them. Which means they also require scale to address large issues – and that scale is achieved through strength of numbers and diversity of approach.

    In this sense, the scale of the arts and culture environment in NYC is actually highly efficient. Oh, and worthy of lots of philanthropic support. And here’s the final rub: philanthropy tends to prefer giving larger grants to fewer organizations “at scale.” There are many reasons for this, including the fact that philanthropy is itself a highly inefficient way to accomplish anything, and that most of philanthropy is not about creating systemic change. Would that this were not so, but there it is. We agree therefore that a commitment of smaller grants to more organizations, somewhat conversely, would actually increase scale in the arts.

  • http://www.hhh.umn.edu/projects/prie Ann Markusen

    Is Big better? Should “Scenes” be given priority?

    Ann Markusen

    I’m glad Ian David Moss raises the problem of big versus small in arts and culture. Recently, Amy Kitchener of the Association for California Traditional Arts and I wrote a piece for Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, “Working with Small Arts Organizations: How and Why it Matters” (http//www.giarts.org/article/working-small-arts-organizations). We explore how small arts organizations pop up, flourish, and sometimes flounder mostly under the philanthropic radar. How they enrich our culture and engage diverse and underserved communities, often fostering artistic expressions not adequately served by larger organizations. We reflect on Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ (ACTA) intermediary work in the Community Leadership Project and our joint field research on small organizations for the James Irvine Foundation-funded California’s Arts and Cultural Ecology (2011) (link) to show how small arts organizations are undercounted, especially in the Cultural Data Project; how they differ from larger organizations; and how broad-ranging, flexible, sustainable and valuable they are. And we share how funders can better work with smaller arts nonprofits to further their missions. Small, we argue, isn’t even an accurate depiction of many arts organizations that deploy huge amounts of volunteer input, much of it from artists, that have a big impact but don’t show up when organizational size is proxied by budget.

    And In a new research paper, “Shaping the Future Through Narrative: The Third Sector, Arts and Culture,” (International Regional Science Review, published on-line on June 13, 2012 as doi:10.1177/0160017612447195 due out in print in January, 2013, Noah Isserman, a young social entrepreneurship scholar at Cambridge University and I explore the durable bias across the nonprofit sector for funding large organizations. We explore why “big is better” narratives are so common in the third (nonprofit) sector and why they should be subjected to evidence. We scrutinize the narrative that bigger organizations are better because of economies of scale, professional staffing, sustainable operations, and better measurement and explore, too, the counter-argument that smaller organizations generate superior social returns due to flexibility, innovativeness, and community-embeddedness.

    Beware of prioritizing urban “scenes,” though. Many people live in small rural towns or in heavily ethnic areas of cities where they may be served admirably by one arts multi-disciplinary organization (e.g. New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in northwestern Minnesota, showcased in our Artists’ Centers study (http://www.hhh.umn.edu/projects/prie/PRIE–publications.html), Joel Jacinto’s Filipino dance organization in Los Angeles in our Crossover study (http://irvine.org/news-insights/publications/arts) or the Arnaudville case study in Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and my Creative Placemaking (www.nea.gov/pub/CreativePlacemaking-Executive-Summary.pdf
    Full paper: http://www.nea.gov/pub/CreativePlacemaking-Paper.pdf). Scenes are attractive to young people who are looking for learning and opportunities, and retired people bored with culture-thin suburbs. But others, including seasoned, accomplished artists and writers, choose to leave cities and live in small towns where they can help build something new, create a local theatre company, turn young people on to artistic careers they never dreamed of, capture larger shares of area residents’ discretionary income and produce lots of intrinsic value. Migration data that I cranked for Minnesota showed that young working (employed and self-employed) artists flock to cities, often from small towns and regional colleges, but in their 30s and 40s, there is an actual reverse migration away from larger metro areas and a net gain in the rest of the state. Fortunately, arts funders in Minnesota have nurtured small regional arts centers for decades, and the NEA and state arts and cultural programs are doing so across the country. In immigrant and ethnic communities, as our Irvine study also shows, there isn’t a separation of artist apart from community–artists are of the community rather than footloose people who gravitate to cities.

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