Title: Shaping a triple-bottom line for nonprofit arts organizations: Micro-, macro-, and meta-policy influences
Author: Wyszomirski, Margaret Jane
Publisher: Cultural Trends
Year: December 2013
What it says: The article provides a recounting of the evolution of NEA policies since its founding in 1965 and those policies’ impacts on the nonprofit arts sector. Wyszormirski describes how major NEA policies were conceived and implemented by NEA Chairs in response to political or societal pressures as well as perceived deficiencies in the U.S. arts ecosystem. As these agency-wide policies were gradually integrated into the grant making culture of the NEA and the work of arts organizations, a standard set of metrics for organizational performance emerged: a triple bottom line including financial sustainability, artistic vitality, and recognized public value. The author notes that the original NEA legislation did refer to each of these “bottom line” metrics but the integration of these metrics into the arts nonprofit system was a result of the priorities and improvisations of each NEA chair, as opposed to an overarching plan.
The author states that wide adoption of each of these three metrics happened in an ad hoc and incremental manner, with matching grants and peer panel review as the instruments. As a result of interactions between grantees, panel members, NEA staff, and other funders, these metrics became standard for all arts NGOs, whether or not they were grantees of the NEA. The author also notes that policies combining multiple goals exist in other arenas, and specifically mentions terminology of the “triple-bottom line” of profit-making, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability described in business management literature. On financial sustainability, Wyszomirski puts the NEA at the center of the gradual consolidation of standards. Wyszomirski recounts how the NEA’s understanding of its financial role changed over time from providing direct support, such as a 1966 emergency grant to the American Ballet Theater, to funding that encouraged the ability of nonprofit arts organizations to maintain financial stability. Wyszomirski says that this evolution resulted in the financial sustainability “bottom line” for the arts sector.
Wyszomirski describes three different evolutions of the NEA’s position on artistic merit. In the first phrase, the NEA innovated by departing from an elitist definition of excellence to welcoming a broader range of art forms. Subsequently, the NEA pursued policies that emphasized promoting experimental work by being the funder of last resort. Lastly, the culture wars period from 1989 to 1997 put pressure on the ideal of experimental work. The result was a move by the NEA to link community “buy-in” to the concept of artistic value.
The article notes that the public benefit “bottom line” was present in the NEA’s founding legislation but evolved to become more important and more prominent over time. Wyszomirski says the NEA had always valued both the intrinsic and the instrumental benefits of the arts but describes a shift toward instrumentalism in arts policy in response “to threatened funding reductions and the culture wars” following the 1980s. The study goes through the history of NEA work in arts education and more recently “creative placemaking” activities. Wyszomirski stresses that, after the late 1990s, NEA chairs have pushed instrumental arts activities that produce visible public benefits – activities that enable advocacy efforts of the NEA and the larger arts advocacy community.
What I think about it: The study explains the interplay of different mechanisms that create and disseminate arts policy through the NEA and arts nonprofits in a persuasive way. The assertion that the evolution of standards was driven by ad hoc policy responses, rather than as part of a policy master plan or theory of change, remains important to bear in mind for those who seek to shape arts policy in the future. The aphorism “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” springs to mind. The study includes an assertion that when the NEA chair did not lead on overall policy development for the arts sector, outside actors, such as foundations, took the lead and drove policy. Wyszomirski states that, with the beginnings of the culture wars, “the NEA…was in no position to articulate macro-policy” and “the next reframing of this [financial sustainability] bottom line as a search for sustainability came from private foundations outside the NEA.” However, the study provides less texture on influences and competing or complimentary ideas from these other actors. This paper leaves open the potentially vital question of how private foundations and other non-governmental actors have formed arts sector policy.
What it all means: There is an underlying implication in the study that the arts community ultimately got to the right overall mix of these three bottom lines, even if Wyszomirski stresses that the exact balance will remain in flux. In the future, however, debates over the instrumental versus intrinsic value of the arts, the diversity in the arts, and the mix of nonprofit versus for-profit arts may impact the definitions of financial sustainability, artistic vitality, and recognized public value. Further analysis and research is needed on how other actors, especially private grant makers, are shaping the benchmarks for success in the arts ecosystem in the U.S. Understanding the mechanism for defining success in the arts remains important to Createquity’s investigation on the capacity to create change.