[Createquity Reruns] Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem

(Welcome to Createquity’s summer rerun programming! Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re focusing on creative placemaking! The article below was the opening shot in a debate about the emerging practice of using art as a mechanism for place-based change that occupied the pages of Createquity for the better part of a year in 2012-13. Among other things, it was Createquity’s most-read post from shortly after it was published until earlier this year, and spurred a comment section that is well worth reading if you haven’t seen it yet. -IDM)

Art Cars Attack, photo by M Glasgow

Art Cars Attack, photo by M Glasgow

(Note: a follow-up to this post, “In Defense of Logic Models,” is now available here)

“I feel like whenever I talk to artists these days, I should be apologizing,” says Kevin Stolarick, Research Director for the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. To most in the arts community, Stolarick is better known as Richard Florida’s longtime right-hand man and research collaborator on his bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Stolarick, who first met Florida just after the academic had cashed the first check for the advance from Basic Books, proceeds to recount how the book’s success led to an explosion of interest from mayors all around the country wanting to redefine their cities as welcoming meccas for Florida’s new Starbucks-drinking, jeans-wearing idea people. Unfortunately, the mayors’ collective interpretation of the lessons from Florida’s book boiled down to, “all we need is to get us some gays and artists and a bike path or two, and our problems will be solved! The problem,” Stolarick tells us, a decade after The Rise of the Creative Class’s publication, “is that it’s a trap.”

This scene is unfolding in a basement auditorium in lower Manhattan, the site of a panel and presentation hosted by the Municipal Art Society of New York to give audiences the first public preview of the ArtPlace vibrancy indicators. ArtPlace, as many readers know, is a private-sector partnership among nearly a dozen leading foundations to support “creative placemaking,” a term invented by officials at the National Endowment for the Arts. Spearheaded by leadership from the NEA, the creation of ArtPlace is perhaps this Endowment’s, and by extension the Obama administration’s, signature achievement in the arts—despite the fact that it doesn’t distribute a cent of government money.

Stolarick’s presence at the event was appropriate, for in many ways it was The Rise of the Creative Class that made the current creative placemaking movement possible. For a time it was the kind of book that smart people buy for all of the other smart people they know – a genuine ideavirus. Florida, more than anyone else, was responsible for conflating creativity, innovation, and artistry in the popular imagination, and among the measures that he and Stolarick developed for the book was a “Bohemian index” associating the concentration of artists in a given metropolitan area with population and employment growth. Though the empirical claims in the book turned out to be built on shaky foundations, they were intuitive (and well-argued) enough that municipal leaders started taking notice. In fact, Carol Coletta, the current director of ArtPlace, was one of the first people to invite Florida to help put his ideas into practice in a real city context as co-organizer of 2003’s Memphis Manifesto Summit. Florida, Stolarick, and their associates became the first widely acknowledged spokespeople for the idea that a vibrant set of opportunities and amenities for creative expression could lead to regional economic prosperity.

But Florida wasn’t the only one drawing public attention to the economic power of the arts over the previous decade. Separately, the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying the relationship between concentrations of cultural resources and various social and economic outcomes since 1994. As then-Associate Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, Joan Shigekawa commissioned a groundbreaking collaboration between SIAP and The Reinvestment Fund to study the dynamics of culture and urban revitalization, work whose influence can be seen clearly in much of the policy that Shigekawa has since helped develop as Senior Deputy Chairman of the NEA.

SIAP, which is led by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert, cites The Rise of the Creative Class frequently in its publications dating from that period, usually to position its approach in opposition to Florida’s. In fact, in 2008 SIAP published one of the most hilariously brutal program evaluations I’ve ever read, following the attempts of Florida’s Creative Class Group (CCG) to turn around three Knight Foundation communities by inspiring volunteer “catalysts” to drive toward the “4 T’s” of economic development (technology, talent, tolerance, and territorial assets). In that evaluation, Stern and Seifert offer a single overarching criticism: CCG forgot about its outcomes. Much like South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, the project team had a clear idea of what it was putting in to the process and what it hoped to get out of it, but a much vaguer sense of how it was going to get from Phase 1 to Phase 3.

South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, image courtesy Wikipedia

Which brings me to my central point: despite all of the attention paid to this issue in the past year and a half, despite all of the new money that has been committed to the cause, creative placemaking still has an outcomes problem. As a field, we have not yet learned the lessons of the Underpants Gnomes. And until we do, I’m worried that we risk repeating Stolarick’s apology to practitioners a decade hence.

Leaving the dots unconnected

“When times were good,” Kevin Stolarick explains at the ArtPlace vibrancy indicators convening, it was easy for city councils, funders, and others to buy into the ideas in Florida’s book on the strength of his celebrity and qualitative arguments. But now that cities are facing more economic pressure, Stolarick continues, “they’re saying, ‘we need proof – and that’s going to take more than Richard Florida’s next book.’”

“Proof” is a word that seems to give creative placemakers hives these days. Less than two weeks prior to the ArtPlace event, I had participated in a webinar given by the NEA to introduce its Our Town Community Indicators Study. Our Town is the Endowment’s public-sector counterpart to ArtPlace – likewise the brainchild of Rocco Landesman, it granted some $6.6 million to communities for creative placemaking projects across the country in its inaugural round last year. The Community Indicators Study is a multiyear data collection effort whose chief purpose is to “advance public understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities.” Yet when, prompted by researchers who were listening in on the call, the NEA’s Chief of Staff, Jamie Bennett, asked the Deputy Director of NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis about causation vs. correlation, this is the exchange that resulted:

Bennett: …Are you going to in some way be able through this project to prove [for example] that arts had a direct impact in causing the crime rate to go down?

Shewfelt: A lot of the language I’ve used today has been very carefully chosen to avoid suggesting that we are trying to design a way to specifically address the causal relationship between creative placemaking and the outcomes we’re interested in.

As a matter of fact, the NEA has chosen to forgo a traditional evaluation of the Our Town grant program in favor of developing the aforementioned indicator system. The project will no doubt result in a lot of great data, but essentially no mechanism for connecting the Endowment’s investments in Our Town projects to the indicators one sees. A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we can’t accomplish the goal of “advancing understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities” without digging more deeply into the causal relationships that the NEA would prefer to avoid.

The vibrancy indicators that were the subject of the ArtPlace convening face a similar quandary. The purpose of the indicators is to help ArtPlace “understand the impact of [its] investments.” And what is that desired impact? During a webinar delivered to prospective applicants last fall, Coletta declared that “with ArtPlace, we aim to do nothing less than transform economic development in America…to awaken leaders who care about the future of their communities to the fact that they’re sitting on a pile of assets that can help them achieve their ambitions…and that asset is art.”

ArtPlace Theory of Change

ArtPlace Theory of Change

ArtPlace’s investments all have a singular focus on “vibrancy,” a concept defined in its guidelines as “attracting people, activities and value to a place and increasing the desire and the economic opportunity to thrive in a place.” While that was as specific as things got during ArtPlace’s first two rounds of grantmaking, the indicators project, which examines factors as diverse as cell phone use, population density, and home values, will go a long way toward concretizing ArtPlace’s primary lever of community transformation. Even so, ArtPlace doesn’t seem any more eager than the NEA to connect the activities of its grant recipients to the broader vibrancy indicators directly. Though the projects themselves are supposed to have a “transformative” impact on vibrancy, ArtPlace isn’t requiring its grantees to collect any data on how that impact is achieved. Furthermore, ArtPlace’s guidelines state clearly that the consortium has no plans to invest in research on creative placemaking beyond the vibrancy indicators themselves, despite its advocacy goals and a desire to “share the lessons [grantees] are learning to other communities across the U.S.”

To be clear, I don’t mean to question the value of research of the type ArtPlace and Our Town are leading. Efforts such as these, Fractured Atlas’s Archipelago data aggregation and visualization platform, Americans for the Arts’s National and Local Arts Index, Western States Arts Federation’s Creative Vitality Index, and others help to draw a clear picture of a community’s overall cultural and creative health and can serve as an essential tool within a broader research portfolio. But in order for those tools to really come alive in a grantmaking context, they have to be grounded in a clear and rigorous conceptual frame for the how the specific funded activities are going to make a difference, and then integrated into the actual process for selecting grant recipients. And that’s the part still missing from the vast majority of these efforts. In an upcoming article for the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus (who co-authored the original Creative Placemaking white paper for the NEA with her mentor, Ann Markusen) writes, “it’s probably unreasonable to expect that a modest, one-year Our Town grant will move the needle, at least quickly….Because the geographic scale, time horizons, and desired outcomes vary across creative placemaking efforts, one-size-fits-all indicator systems may prove inappropriate.”

Without a clear and detailed theory of how and why creative placemaking is effective, policy and philanthropy to support creative placemaking is hobbled. Attempting to predict and judge impact based on indicator systems alone carries with it at least four problems:

  • It doesn’t give a clear road map for project selection that will identify investments most likely to make a difference. Without previous research demonstrating causal interactions between grants given and differences made, it’s hard to know what effect a new grant will have – much less how to compare the potential effects of hundreds or (in ArtPlace’s case) thousands of competing investment opportunities.
  • It doesn’t give us the tools to go back and analyze why certain projects did and didn’t work. Maybe a public artwork succeeds in drawing people to a neighborhood, but real estate values stay stagnant. Maybe development along a transit corridor was executed on schedule, but ridership is lower than expected. Broad, sector-level indicators will only tell us that the project didn’t work – not why.
  • It doesn’t acknowledge the complex nature of economic ecosystems and the indirect role that arts projects play in them. Many economists agree that talented, highly educated individuals are key to community prosperity. But numerous considerations likely play into their decision to (re)locate in a particular place. When are the arts truly catalytic for a community, and when are they merely icing on the cake? Indicator systems would have no way of telling us on their own.
  • It provides little insight on how to pursue arts-led economic development while avoiding the thorny problems of gentrification. Any thinking around policy interventions must acknowledge the possibility of negative impacts as well as positive ones. In the case of creative placemaking, an attendant worry is that longtime residents of transformed neighborhoods won’t have asked for the change, and may be adversely affected by it. To date, there is little shared understanding of how creative placemaking projects that benefit all community residents are distinguished from those that simply replace poorer residents with wealthier ones.

In her Reader article, Nicodemus writes that

The answer to the question “What is creative placemaking, really?” is that funders and practitioners are making it up in real time. We’ve entered an exciting period of experimentation, which makes sharing information absolutely critical.

In the interest of sharing information, then, I will report out below on some lessons I’ve learned from my own research on the topic over the past five years, as well as from a collaboration with ArtsWave, a funder supporting vibrancy through the arts in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region.

Toward a unified theory of creative placemaking: Filling in the blanks

The major deficiency of the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan was that they attempted to connect their activity (stealing underpants) with their intended impact (profit), without really considering the steps in between. To take an extreme example, if I start an organization called “Artists for World Peace” (there is such an organization, by the way), get some artists together to stand in solidarity, and put on a show, it would be unrealistic of me to expect world peace as the next logical result.

Yet most studies of the connection between the arts and economic development have attempted to measure the direct relationship between arts activities (whether single or in the aggregate) and economic outcomes. For example, the Social Impact of the Arts Project examined the correlation between cultural assets and poverty decline in Philadelphia, and a groundbreaking study by Steve Sheppard compared employment levels and real estate values in North Adams, MA before and after the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. These research efforts have done much to shape our collective understanding of urban revitalization through the arts. But they share in common an unfortunate tendency to gloss over the details of exactly how creative activities are responsible for making neighborhoods and communities more attractive, and therefore, more valuable. This gap is especially problematic when one tries to apply the lessons of these studies to a policy or grantmaking context, where the details of how projects are implemented can make all the difference in whether a particular intervention is successful or not.

When I was in graduate school, before I came into contact with any of the research above, I created a simple model of arts-led gentrification to illustrate the specific case of a neighborhood lent a young, “hip” reputation by newly relocated artists. This model is different from others I’ve seen in a few ways. First, it casts neighborhood development as an iterative process, starting with tourism on the local level among artists. In other words, the people who are going to be checking out the happenings in a struggling outpost of the city are not, by and large, yuppies – they are other artists who are colleagues of the ones living in that neighborhood. Second, it emphasizes the role of bars and restaurants as attractors for other neighborhood visitors (including yuppies), whose viability is only made possible by the modest foot traffic generated by arts activities. And finally, it places at the beginning of the process not just arts activities, but specific kinds of arts activities: visible, storefront spaces like galleries and performance venues that signal the presence of art and draw visitors to a particular location.

The Artist Colonization Process

Three years later, some of the thinking reflected above found its way into my grantmaking strategy work with ArtsWave, an local arts agency based in Cincinnati, OH. First, some background: in late 2008, ArtsWave had commissioned a research initiative designed to develop an inclusive public conversation about the arts in the region. Based on hundreds of conversations, interviews, and focus groups with area residents, two key “ripple effect” benefits emerged as especially valued by citizens:

  1. that the arts create a vibrant, thriving economy: neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists are attracted to the area, etc…and
  2. that the arts create a more connected community: diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better.

To its immense credit, ArtsWave didn’t just sit on these results and continue in the status quo. Instead, the 83-year-old united arts fund underwent a total transformation, taking on a new name and organizational identity, and most importantly, adopting these two themes as the new goals for its grantmaking.

My task, starting in January 2011, was to assist ArtsWave in creating a new framework for funding arts & culture activities based upon the ability of organizations to create vibrancy and connect people in the region. With the help of a volunteer task force consisting of ArtsWave board members, staff, community leaders, and grantee organizations, we worked backwards from the idea of “vibrancy” and ended up with an extraordinarily complex theory of change. Here’s the part that specifically deals with cultural clusters and neighborhood economic development:

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: cultural clusters

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: cultural clusters

Some elements of this model will certainly look familiar, though with some new wrinkles added: evening and weekend hours for storefronts, for example, as well as decreased crime and improved physical spaces (in general, not just arts spaces). ArtsWave, however, extended the concept to apply to regional economic development as well:

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: regional development

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: regional development

Note here that the principal lever for the regional development model is that the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region is “differentiated” through the arts. That is to say, it attracts people from outside of the region because it gains a (deserved) reputation for being a more interesting place to be than its peer cities. And what helps differentiate Cincinnati is something we call “extraordinary cultural experiences.” We attach a very specific definition to “extraordinary,” focusing on its literal meaning of “out of the ordinary.” For ArtsWave’s purposes, experiences are extraordinary if they are associated with one of the following:

  • Events or productions with a national or international profile
  • Events or productions that feature something uniquely special about the region
  • Events or productions that feature innovative programming or presentation

Not only do experiences meeting the above criteria help to differentiate the Greater Cincinnati region in the eyes of tourists or prospective residents, they also contribute directly to ArtsWave’s notion of “vibrancy” (the green arrow in the diagram).

What this approach does is explicitly connect the activities of grantees to the broader community change that ArtsWave hopes to create. A key innovation that came out of this process was the distinction between “Sector Outcomes” (in blue) and “Grantee Outcomes” (in purple). We defined grantee outcomes as the farthest point out in the model to which individual organizations could reasonably be held accountable—and those outcomes feed back into the evaluation and selection process at the grant application stage. All other outcomes, the sector outcomes, are a reflection on ArtsWave’s overall strategy, rather than on any one particular investment. This allows us to “aggregate” impact from the level of the individual project to the level of the broader context.

The beauty of designing a model like this is that it allows each assumption embedded in each link on the causal chain to be tested, if necessary. Of course, it would be impractical to do so for every investment a grantmaker might make. But that isn’t necessary. In order to provide the kind of evidence that mayors and other officials are looking for, you only need a few examples to demonstrate replicability. But we have to be sure that those examples really do show the effects of intentional creative placemaking strategy, rather than just a lucky coincidence.

Where We Go From Here

Despite the challenges I discuss in the first part of this article, I’m heartened to see creative placemaking funders taking some positive steps toward a more rigorous theoretical foundation for their work. In particular, ArtPlace is beginning to move in this direction with a list of ten signals grantees can use to judge whether their projects are making a difference. The challenge will be to unpack those relationships with the same rigor as is currently applied to collecting data.

Meanwhile, we would love feedback on the models we have created to describe economic development through the arts. While we are hopeful they can help to move the conversation towards a deeper consideration of the complex mechanisms involved in creating place-based vibrancy, we readily acknowledge that they aren’t perfect. Do they accurately reflect creative placemaking goals and processes? Which aspects of the model are best backed up by existing research and which are shakiest? Which seem intuitively right but have not been studied in depth? What are we leaving out?

If you have comments, questions, or resources to offer, please leave a comment here or get in touch at ian.moss@fracturedatlas.org. And in the meantime, Fractured Atlas will be eagerly researching how emerging evaluation methods in other sectors, such as outcome mapping, most significant change technique, and complexity science, can potentially be applied to the arts.

(Enjoyed this post? We’re raising funds through July 10 to make the next generation of Createquity possible. We are 53% of the way there, but need your help to cross the finish line. Please consider a tax-deductible donation today!)

Share
Leave a comment

[Createquity Reruns] Thoughts on “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy”: Lessons from my Summer Internship

(Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re wrapping up the “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” series, which was my first extended think piece for Createquity back in 2007-08. Following my broadsides from the peanut gallery, I managed to land my first bona fide arts philanthropy job that summer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. So how well did my thoughts on effectiveness hold up after actually getting to experience grantmaking from the inside of one of our nation’s largest arts funders? Find out below. -IDM)

As the twenty or so regular readers of this blog will note, I debuted Createquity last October with a rather brash six-episode litany of “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” in the realm of the arts. I say brash because, at the time, I had no experience running a philanthropic program; all I had were my outsider impressions as a practicing artist and a seeker of grants on behalf of organizations with budgets ranging from a few thousand dollars to nearly $4 million per year. So I thought it would be telling to look back at those posts, nearly one year later, and see how my impressions may or may not have changed after a summer working for one of the more prominent arts funders in the country. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll address the essays in order in which I wrote them.

Thought I: The Nature of the Arts and Their Impact

Original Thesis: Measuring impact in the arts is totally different from measuring impact in other nonprofit areas, in part because the arts occupy a strange netherworld between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

The arts, on the other hand, are a field primarily comprised of organizations that produce a product for consumption, much like for-profit companies. In fact, they are basically for-profit companies without the profit. Their value to society (and selling pitch to funders) presumably lies in their ability to bring products to market that would not have otherwise seen the light of day; otherwise, why fund them at all? However, this definition of value doesn’t match up so well with our traditional notions of social responsibility and moral imperative. Think about it this way: if a mission-driven nonprofit were to be wildly successful, so successful that it had entirely solved the problem it was created to address, it would have no choice but to shut down. For presenters, museums, galleries, ensembles, and the like, there is no such consideration: wild success is merely an invitation and an opportunity for more activity. And why shouldn’t it be? Arts organizations, much as they might like to believe otherwise, don’t really exist to solve some urgent problem in society. At some level, like for-profit companies, they are self-serving: they promote the art itself (the product) rather than who experiences the art (the customer).

Post-Internship Analysis: As part of the Performing Arts Program’s Year-in-Review process, we actually spent a good chunk of the summer thinking about the purpose of the arts and how to measure impact. Although I still think the basic insight quoted above is an important one, my dialectic greatly oversimplified the nature of the nonprofit sector. For example, there are many arts organizations whose primary mission is social rather than transactional in nature, though these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. And certainly there are whole classes of non-arts nonprofits that are not set up to achieve the kind of “total success” that would enable them to shut down (such as schools, hospitals, or community organizations). That said, the larger point seems clear: measuring impact in the arts is a challenge precisely because there isn’t a lot of agreement or clarity in the field about what it is, exactly, that the arts “should” be doing. Is it enough for them simply to exist? Does it matter if it’s “good art” or “bad art,” or if one can even tell the difference? And if they do provide ancillary benefits to society, as a growing body of research suggests, does highlighting those benefits diminish the so-called “intrinsic” value of arts experiences? These are extraordinarily challenging questions that a single internship could not hope to address. At the moment, the answers largely remain up to individual choice and preference among supporters of the arts, though we did try to answer them for the Hewlett Foundation.

Thought II: Philanthropy and Experimentation

Original Thesis: While evaluating impact is important, more is generally better when it comes to the arts. Therefore, a narrow focus on supporting only “successful” or “proven” organizations misses the point, because the true value of an arts scene lies in the interactions and network effects made possible by thriving clusters of arts organizations.

So if I’m an agency funding the arts, in some sense I’m not so incredibly concerned with the specific effectiveness of each individual organization I’m supporting. Of course you want your money to be used wisely, but it’s a good thing for the size of the art scene to be able to accommodate the full population of artists who want to work in your geographic area of interest; in other words, to grow according to the supply of artists, not audience demand. So it does not make sense, I would argue, only to fund the blue-chip institutions like the art museums, the symphony orchestras, and the major theater companies in hopes (for example) of lending international prominence and legitimacy to the community. Such a top-down approach potentially leaves out a much larger underground network of artists doing their best to scratch out a living with no institutional support, despite creating significant value for their local communities and economies.

Post-Internship Analysis: As it turns out, the notion that smaller, community-oriented arts organizations are undervalued or represent the future is a common theme in creative economy literature, expressed in various forms by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert at Social Impact of the Arts Project, Duncan Webb of Webb Management Services, Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class, and others. And the importance of experimentation and risk-taking in philanthropy writ large has been highlighted by Sean Stannard-Stockton, Lucy Bernholz, the Skoll Foundation, and plenty of other thought leaders in the field. So it’s heartening to know that my views on this are, if not exactly mainstream, at least echoed by actual professionals who are working in this space. With that said, there are still plenty of donors out there who just want to give to the symphony and the art museum, and that is their prerogative. What we really need is more research to understand the effect that multiple organizations in the same geographic area have on each other and the community, and how that varies systematically across different settings.

An analogy came to me this summer when I visited Yosemite National Park. While exploring one of the giant sequoia groves, I came across a placard explaining that until recently, workers would suppress fires in the park that they thought were endangering the sequoias. They changed the policy when they realized that the fires actually help the sequoias grow by improving conditions for young seedlings and reducing competition from other species. I’ve come to believe that arts policymakers tend to their communities’ art scenes much like park rangers, constantly learning the ways of the forest and implementing strategies to ensure a thriving and diverse environment for public enjoyment.

Thought III: (Dis-)Economies of Scale in the Arts

Original Thesis: Narrowing the argument from the previous essay, I contend that giving to large organizations specifically represents a suboptimal use of most foundations’ resources. Many large organizations have high administrative costs or bloated artist fees that are hard to justify, and are only driven higher by the perception that those organizations can raise money hand over fist. (This, of course, puts pressure on those organizations to deliver on those perceptions, increasing competition for fundraising personnel and raising administrative costs yet further.)

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. 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.

Post-Internship Analysis: This really comes down to thinking about overhead in terms of percentages versus absolute dollars. It makes sense if you buy that the impact of an arts organization is proportional to its budget. But is that true? Is a $10 million organization at least twice as important and successful as a $5 million organization? There seems to be an assumption among many in the field that (on average, at least) it is, but I’m not so sure. An orchestra is only going to employ so many musicians regardless of how big its budget gets. There are only 365 days in the year that a theater company can put on a show. Not to mention that the more money an organization raises, the more connections and relationships it builds in service of raising future money. People like to give to winners, after all. I may be biased by my belief in distributive efficiency, but it still seems to me that we’d be wise as a field to fight against this impulse, and look for those high-risk, high-reward, small-dollar investments that can make all the difference.

Thought IV: Funding Activity, Not Individuals

Original Thesis: Awards or European-style blanket subsidies for artists are problematic because they tend to increase stratification and reward artists more for being visible than for being good. Instead, foundations should look to build and sustain a marketplace in which the currency is artistic merit rather than the ability to draw a crowd.

Where foundations can add value instead is in setting up and supporting systems by which artistic activity is generated in their communities. How might this be accomplished? The first place I would look is what I would call nexuses for art. Where is art shown, produced, performed, bought, sold, consumed, marketed, supported? It’s not just the museums and the concert halls. It’s the dive bars, the galleries, the coffee shops, the off-off-Broadway theaters, the bookstores, the record stores, the radio stations, and the occasional entities that serve as all of these things and more. Finding a way to get money to these organizations is tricky because many of them are set up as for-profit entities. Yet, from the artists’ perspective, many of these tiny businesses fulfill just as important a function as the city’s performing arts center or marquee theater company, despite being labors of love for their proprietors that often operate completely outside of the support structures that exist to make art available to a wider public.

Post-Internship Analysis: I’ve softened my stance a bit on funding individuals, since there are some artists whose activity is not well served by any marketplace, but I still don’t see any reason to be giving out $50,000 grants to established artists. I continue to believe fervently in the second point of the essay, the need to focus on infrastructure in arts communities. Particularly, the connections between nonprofit arts organizations and the for-profit arts industries are not well understood in any sort of systematic way. This is a great opportunity for further research.

Thought V: Meeting the Artists Where They Are

Original Thesis: Arts funders should let artists do their work, and not get too involved with the subject matter or specific details of their creations.

A composer or a playwright is not like a graphic design shop or an IT consulting firm that will create something to a customer’s specifications, no questions asked. The whole point of supporting the arts, to my mind, is to encourage innovation, expectation-challenging, and all what goes along with leading a creative life. Laying out the path ahead of time with too-great specificity potentially squashes the very thing that makes the arts special….I’ve seen projects in the music world greenlighted for little reason other than the possibility of getting a grant for them. Were those always the best projects to undertake, either for the organizations/artists themselves or for the field as a whole (e.g., audiences)? For example, if the most talented artists are unwilling to create works to specification, does that mean that less talented artists receive those opportunities instead and ultimately become better-known to the public as a result? Or if a high-dollar-value grant also includes an educational workshop component, will the panel end up selecting a fine composer who is terrible in the classroom?

Post-Internship Analysis: Luckily for me, this issue just didn’t come up very much during my internship, thanks primarily to the Hewlett Foundation’s philosophy of funding most organizations with general operating support. In general, though, I continue to advocate thinking carefully about how upfront restrictions on grant opportunities can mess with the fundraising and (sometimes) programming strategies of arts organizations.

Thought VI: The Philanthropist as Speculator, Not Gatekeeper

Original Thesis: Grantmakers enjoy a special privilege and thus shoulder an exceptional responsibility to the field by virtue of their access to resources. This isn’t Monopoly money we’re playing with: these are real decisions that affect the lives of real people. As such, grantmakers should seek familiarity with the entire arts community, not just funded organizations.

With that in mind, I would be heartened to see a more proactive approach toward outreach and community presence from grantmaking organizations, particularly foundations. From my perspective as someone representing two small, newish performing ensembles in New York, it seemed like staff members of funding entities attended only events presented by current grantees, if they even attended those. A few, such as NYSCA, had formal “artistic audit” processes by which a potential applicant could request attendance by program staff at a particular performance, but this process had to be initiated by the applicant organization. I knew and still know of no funding organization that makes significant, formalized outreach efforts to more fully understand the arts community that it serves. By “outreach,” I specifically mean measures to amass institutional knowledge, intelligence if you will, about the widest possible range of players in the arena, including organizations that are neither current grantees nor current applicants. To my mind, that’s the only way an organization tasked with supporting an arts community can truly have its “ear to the ground,” so to speak.

Post-Internship Analysis: This was my polite way of saying that funders need to work hard and get out of the office once in a while. In theory, I absolutely stand by this, maybe more so than anything else I’ve written. All through the summer I keenly felt that sense of responsibility of which I speak above, fully aware of the weight my opinions and recommendations suddenly held. However, I found it harder to live up to my own standards in this regard than I anticipated. Even with my very limited portfolio of grant applicants (most of my time was spent on the cultural asset map initiative), it was a challenge to inform myself as much as I wanted. The main stumbling block is the sheer volume of information that must be tracked, prioritized, and deeply understood on a daily basis. Reading a grant application is only the beginning–there’s analysis to be done, facts to be checked, context to be gathered, conversations to be had, performances to attend, and summaries to write up. Multiply that by a few hundred organizations, and you’ve got yourself a pretty decent chunk of work even without considering nonapplicants. This is not to say that a more proactive approach of the kind I envisioned isn’t possible, but it does beg the question of what information is most important and how to gather it efficiently. I wonder if we could learn anything from our equity analyst friends about this.

(Enjoyed this post? We’re raising funds through July 10 to make the next generation of Createquity possible. We are more than halfway there thanks to the generous support of our readers, but need your help to cross the finish line. Please consider a tax-deductible donation today!)

Share
Leave a comment

[Createquity Reruns] Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy: Part VI – The Philanthropist as Speculator, Not Gatekeeper

(Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re continuing the “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” series, which was my first extended think piece for Createquity back in 2007-08. For the sixth and final post in this series, I write about grantmakers having their ear to the ground not just for current grantees but also for arts organizations that haven’t even applied yet. -IDM)

I’m going to wax philosophical for a bit here and talk about values. Everybody knows that philanthropy in the nonprofit sector, and the arts in particular, is a big deal. Leaders of most nonprofit organizations spend the bulk of their professional lives worrying about where (figuratively or literally) the next paycheck will come from. Development operations are sucking up more and more of organizations’ budgets, along with a greater fraction of executive directors’ and CEOs’ core responsibilities. New nonprofits are forming at a rate outstripping foundation growth, increasing competition for the opportunities that do exist. All of this leads to financial uncertainty and heightened stress levels for existing organizations, inhibiting long-term planning, depressing real wage rates and contributing to rapid employee turnover in the sector.

In this kind of environment, it’s important to remember that grantmaking organizations enjoy an incredible privilege—and also shoulder an immense responsibility to the field and to the public. It is all too easy to underestimate the amount of influence that our current funding system concentrates in the hands of a few individuals. A discussion over lunch or a meeting in a conference room can effectively change the fate of an organization forever, along with all of its employees and all of its artistic partners. As such, I believe it’s dangerous for grantmakers to make decisions based solely on narrow interpretations of donor priorities. To be sure, for small family foundations and individual donors, such an approach is perfectly defensible (though I strongly encourage all donors to take the time to educate themselves about the field in which they are giving). But given the scarcity of resources available, I do believe larger foundations and government agencies that hire professional staff have an obligation to consider the overall needs of the field when making funding decisions.

With that in mind, I would be heartened to see a more proactive approach toward outreach and community presence from grantmaking organizations, particularly foundations. From my perspective as someone representing two small, newish performing ensembles in New York, it seemed like staff members of funding entities attended only events presented by current grantees, if they even attended those. A few, such as NYSCA, had formal “artistic audit” processes by which a potential applicant could request attendance by program staff at a particular performance, but this process had to be initiated by the applicant organization. I knew and still know of no funding organization that makes significant, formalized outreach efforts to more fully understand the arts community that it serves. By “outreach,” I specifically mean measures to amass institutional knowledge, intelligence if you will, about the widest possible range of players in the arena, including organizations that are neither current grantees nor current applicants. To my mind, that’s the only way an organization tasked with supporting an arts community can truly have its “ear to the ground,” so to speak.

I can already see the sweating brows of arts program directors who wonder how something like this could be accomplished with their staff of four, or two, or even one. Well, the first thing that I would say is that I consider this a legitimate justification for foundations and government agencies to spend more of their budgets on overhead (i.e., staff). On the whole, I think it preferable for large foundations to amass knowledge about the arts internally rather than outsourcing that knowledge, as is commonly done, to panelists or regranting organizations. After all, such solutions involve overhead too, and at least the internal route offers a better chance of consistent standards and practices. Secondly, foundations are nonprofits too, which means that when capacity is tight people need to multitask. Surely the comptroller or executive assistant is qualified simply to show up at a performance, make a note of the size of the venue and how many people are attending, describe the audience reaction, and record other observational characteristics of the event (such as any obvious technical glitches). The goal here is not to create a document that will make or break a grant application, but rather to amass a record over time that could bring to light clear patterns, for example of consistently excellent stage management or a lack of programmatic variety from event to event. I would also suggest that staffers attend events unannounced and pay for their tickets (with their employer’s money, of course)—partly to maintain the integrity of the intelligence-gathering, and partly so as not to deprive the presenters of much-needed earned revenue by forcing them to provide comp tickets. This way, when a new applicant comes in and claims that their festival the previous year was “presented to much acclaim” to “more than 5,000 audience members,” the funding institution will already have an idea of whether the proposal underplays or overstates its case.

Journalists, no less than funders, have privileged access to a limited number of levers of influence over the artistic community. Going back to my time in New York again, when I was trying to get journalists to come see the shows I was putting on, I always respected the ones who acknowledged my existence, even if never actually resulted in a mention in their magazines or blogs. It showed me that they were serious enough about their jobs to take a chance on someone who wasn’t already well known. It showed me that they valued the excitement of finding a diamond in the rough more than they feared sitting through a mediocre performance. That is the kind of person I want covering my local arts scene, and that’s the kind of institution I would want funding it too.

(Enjoyed this post? We’re raising funds through July 10 to make the next generation of Createquity possible. We are 43% of the way there, but need your help to cross the finish line. Please consider a tax-deductible donation today!)

Share
Leave a comment

Createquity’s Cott Respect

We just received yet another wonderful endorsement from a man many of you probably hear from daily. Thomas Cott, industry expert and valued purveyor of arts knowledge through You’ve Cott Mail, has generously provided the below video to help support Createquity’s Indiegogo campaign. He joins Andrew Taylor in asking you to invest in Createquity’s exciting future as we move from inquiry to action, building a new advocacy-focused think tank built on the research-driven ethos you know and love. We’re changing the site because we believe we can do more to help the arts field move forward – please donate to help make it happen!

If you’re reading this via email, click here to watch the video.

Share
Leave a comment

[Createquity Reruns] Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy: Part V – Meeting the Artists Where They Are

(Welcome to Createquity’s summer rerun programming! Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re continuing the “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” series, which was my first extended think piece for Createquity back in 2007-08. In this installment, I argue that artists need general operating support. -IDM)

One of the memes that’s been coming out of the “best practices” camp for philanthropists the last few years is that organizations need more general operating support, rather than the project support that many funding entities are accustomed to providing. The advantage of general operating support (or GOS) is that it can be shifted around to different parts of the organization depending on needs, rather than being tied up in one program that may turn out to be overfunded relative to other priorities or encounter unforeseen problems. A funding base that is heavy in GOS thus gives a grantee much greater flexibility with which to design its offerings, which is appropriate because organizations on the ground are likely to understand their constituencies better than their funders (and certainly better than a haphazard aggregate of funders that may have different priorities and agendas at stake, which is pretty common in this field).

One of the dangers of project support, when pursued too zealously, is that it can take the funded organizations away from their core mission—and often, then, their core competencies. Grantmakers need to remember that any money they have to offer, no matter how small it may seem to them, acts as a powerful incentive to those on the other side scrounging for every penny they can. Attaching program-related restrictions or conditions to the use of funders’ money may direct attention to the causes or ideas in which they are interested, but the long-term effect on the field can sometimes be deleterious if organizations are jockeying among themselves for opportunities that take resources away from what they are actually good at.

I think the same principle can be applied to artists, either when they are funded directly or when their activity is supported through a grant to an organization. A composer or a playwright is not like a graphic design shop or an IT consulting firm that will create something to a customer’s specifications, no questions asked. The whole point of supporting the arts, to my mind, is to encourage innovation, expectation-challenging, and all what goes along with leading a creative life. Laying out the path ahead of time with too-great specificity potentially squashes the very thing that makes the arts special. What’s more, the non-alignment of incentives that I talked about in the previous paragraph is even more severe for individual artists trying to make a living from their creative work. I’ve seen projects in the music world greenlighted for little reason other than the possibility of getting a grant for them. Were those always the best projects to undertake, either for the organizations/artists themselves or for the field as a whole (e.g., audiences)? For example, if the most talented artists are unwilling to create works to specification, does that mean that less talented artists receive those opportunities instead and ultimately become better-known to the public as a result? Or if a high-dollar-value grant also includes an educational workshop component, will the panel end up selecting a fine composer who is terrible in the classroom?

Furthermore, I can tell you from my own experience and that of my friends that it is somewhat demoralizing for an artist if the only realistic path to receiving anything resembling professional compensation is to create a work that has nothing to do with what you’re about. Artists are very invested in creating public identities that reflect their personal aesthetic goals and ideas—not to mention devoting their limited creative time and resources to projects that similarly reflect those things. If you’re a creator-for-hire, it’s much harder to maintain that kind of integrity and voice in your own work. It’s a choice that many artists trying to make a living must grapple with.

I would like to think that most philanthropists who truly believe in the arts can trust creators enough not to try to do their work for them. Of course there could be occasions when highly directed creative activity is entirely warranted. This is not a black-and-white issue. But in general, I think it’s worth considering the potential unintended consequences of a “top-down” strategy of arts giving, especially if that strategy becomes the norm.

(Enjoyed this post? We’re raising funds through July 10 to make the next generation of Createquity possible. We are 40% of the way there, but need your help to cross the finish line. Please consider a tax-deductible donation today!)

Share
1 Comment

[Createquity Reruns] Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy: Part IV – Funding Activity, Not Individuals

(Welcome to Createquity’s summer rerun programming! Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re continuing the “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” series, which was my first extended think piece for Createquity back in 2007-08. In this installment, I argue against providing direct support to individual artists [what?!] and using artistic merit as a criterion for grants. -IDM)

For years, artists have complained about the National Endowment for the Arts’s 1996 decision, under pressure from Congress, to eliminate individual artist fellowships (except for literature). Nevertheless, it seems that a number of local and private arts agencies and foundations have instituted programs in the past 25 years that support artists in their work directly. Many of the more high-profile of these, including the MacArthur “Genius” grants, the United States Artists fellowships, and prizes such as Columbia’s William Schuman Award, essentially function as general operating support grants for individuals, with no particular deliverables expectation and a closed selection process that operates via nomination.

In the previous segment of this series, I argued that giving more grants to smaller organizations helps to diversify the risk of giving to any one organization while broadening the effect of the money distributed. There’s another factor to consider as well. Because the bulk of foundation and government resources goes to organizations that boast not only the largest artistic budgets but also the greatest market share, there’s a steep stratification within the artist community between elements that are subsidized by outside funding and thus pay “professional” rates for artists’ services, and elements that exist outside of that infrastructure that rely on largely volunteer or far-below-minimum-wage labor in order to get by. Essentially, what this means is that some artists are able to live reasonable or even comfortable lives making art for a living, while other artists of equivalent ability get bupkus. There is little resembling an artistic “middle class” whose members receive remuneration for their services that is respectable, yet not out of proportion with the direct economic value that they generate.

Funding artists directly has the potential to exacerbate this problem. First of all, the growth of artistic stature is spiral in nature: the more citations, awards, and high-profile work you already have, the more you are likely to receive in the future. That momentum makes an artist more visible to funding organizations whose expertise is more usually characterized by a broad understanding of the field rather than an encyclopedic knowledge of thousands of people working in relative obscurity. As a result, awards that fund artists directly, particularly those that do not function via an open call process, tend to go toward individuals who are already doing better, both reputationally and financially, than their peers. In the worst case, it increases the stratification already present in the field on a basis that has more to do with hearsay than intrinsic artistic merit.

I don’t think it’s incumbent upon foundations to judge artistic merit. There are plenty of other people in this world who are perfectly capable of doing that, and arguably more qualified: curators, journalists, other artists, audience members themselves. Where foundations can add value instead is in setting up and supporting systems by which artistic activity is generated in their communities.

How might this be accomplished? The first place I would look is what I would call nexuses for art. Where is art shown, produced, performed, bought, sold, consumed, marketed, supported? It’s not just the museums and the concert halls. It’s the dive bars, the galleries, the coffee shops, the off-off-Broadway theaters, the bookstores, the record stores, the radio stations, and the occasional entities that serve as all of these things and more. Finding a way to get money to these organizations is tricky because many of them are set up as for-profit entities. Yet, from the artists’ perspective, many of these tiny businesses fulfill just as important a function as the city’s performing arts center or marquee theater company, despite being labors of love for their proprietors that often operate completely outside of the support structures that exist to make art available to a wider public.

The artists, in some ways, are only the end product of this multifaceted ecology of organizations. A company that receives no donations, yet values artistic mission over profit, is a company in a precarious position, completely exposed to market pressures. Any time one of these organizations fails, untold numbers of artists (not to mention audiences and communities) are negatively affected. My electric chamber ensemble, Capital M, had the honor of playing one of the last shows ever at the legendary experimental music venue Tonic. The ten-year-old for-profit club, which two years earlier had raised more than $100,000 from fans and angel donors to avert another financial crisis, was only the latest in a string of music venues to close or relocate in the face of enormous pressure from the New York City real estate market. Its demise inspired Take It to the Bridge to organize a protest outside the venue and gather signatures demanding that the city provide musicians with an equivalent replacement. In my opinion, support of these kinds of organizations is an oft-overlooked but critically important way to bolster the livelihood of a varied and active artistic community in a local area, with all the attendant benefits that such activity provides.

(Enjoyed this post? We’re raising funds through July 10 to make the next generation of Createquity possible. We are 36% of the way there, but need your help to cross the finish line. Please consider a tax-deductible donation today!)

Share
Leave a comment

[Createquity Reruns] Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy: Part III – (Dis-)Economies of Scale in the Arts

(Welcome to Createquity’s summer rerun programming! Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re starting with the “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” series. “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” was really the reason why I started Createquity. I wanted to have an excuse to write down some of the ideas that had been bubbling around in my head after five years or so of working in the arts, and I ended up publishing six essays in the series over the fall and spring of my first year in business school, in 2007-08. Reading over these posts, I’m struck by how much of my thinking in those early days still reflects my thinking today, even though my perspective was far less informed back then than it is now. -IDM)

When we left off last time, I was advocating for funding agencies to adopt a spirit of experimentation in their philanthropic strategies for the arts. However, I haven’t yet talked explicitly about an idea that goes hand-in-hand with that strategy: diversifying grants across many different (and often smaller) organizations, instead of concentrating them in a few very large ones.

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, which due to union constraints (the subject of a current strike over on Broadway) routinely pays its top stagehands north of $300,000 a year. The astronomical salaries that symphony orchestra conductors make (up to $2.5 million annually; and that’s not counting guest conducting gigs with other ensembles) are being paid for by someone, after all. If those kinds of numbers seem a little insane to you, well, you’re not the only one. This is one of the dirty little secrets of the arts—very few people seem to be aware that their local orchestra conductor might be making bank on par with their favorite NFL players. And yet this information is all publicly available on government forms thanks to the incomparable Guidestar. (pdfs; registration required)

An important thing to note is that the forces driving these compensation figures into the stratosphere cannot be described as “nonprofit” in any meaningful way. The labor unions, for example, are not particularly interested in giving Carnegie Hall some sort of break because of their IRS status. From their perspective, this is the top gig in town and they should be remunerated accordingly. Similarly, the conductors and soloists extracting huge appearance fees from the major orchestras are being represented by for-profit management agencies such as IMG and Columbia Artists. Another large expense for many arts organizations is the rent for their office buildings that ultimately winds up in the hands of property-owning for-profit corporations. Foundations that are truly interested in “effectiveness” should ensure they are aware of the extent to which their charitable dollars may ultimately be making rich people richer.

Those are only perhaps the most egregious examples of money ending up where it may not be doing the most public good. The administrative overhead costs of maintaining such a budget can get quite high as well. The more money that needs to be raised for the organization to maintain a certain level of operation, the more fundraising staff need to be hired to support that activity. And, of course, since fundraising professionals know damn well that their services are in demand, they know to ask for a substantial salary from an organization that clearly has the resources to give them what they want. Which they then have to figure out how to pay for by raising yet more money. Do you see how this can become an upward spiraling process?

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. 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.

The best part of giving more money to smaller organizations is that it actually reduces the risk for the funding agency by diversifying its portfolio. Think about it like this: if you were investing stock in each of these companies instead of grant dollars, your broker would call you crazy to divide a million dollars among four of them rather than forty, or better yet four hundred. Sure, some of them will fail, but think about the missed opportunities with the ones that succeed. To only fund the largest organizations would be akin to confining one’s endowment investments to the blue chips on the NYSE while completely ignoring emerging markets.

(Enjoyed this post? We’re raising funds to make the next generation of Createquity possible. We are 35% of the way there, but need your help to cross the finish line. Please consider a tax-deductible donation today!)

Share
3 Comments

Andrew Taylor Thinks You Should Donate to Createquity

The Createquity team has been humbled by how many amazing arts thinkers and leaders use this site as a resource for their work. Now that we’re in the throes of our first-ever Indiegogo campaign, some of those folks have been generous enough to give us their thoughts on what makes Createquity special. Andrew Taylor, American University Arts Management Program faculty member, fellow arts blogger at The Artful Manager, and pillar of the U.S. arts community, offers a few words of support in the short video below. Please donate to help us reach our $10,000 goal!

Click here to see Andrew’s video if you’re reading this via email.

Share
Leave a comment

[Createquity Reruns] Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy: Part II – Philanthropy and Experimentation

(Welcome to Createquity’s summer rerun programming! Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re starting with the “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” series. “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” was really the reason why I started Createquity. I wanted to have an excuse to write down some of the ideas that had been bubbling around in my head after five years or so of working in the arts, and I ended up publishing six essays in the series over the fall and spring of my first year in business school, in 2007-08. Reading over these posts, I’m struck by how much of my thinking in those early days still reflects my thinking today, even though my perspective was far less informed back then than it is now. -IDM)

When we left off last week, I noted that it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of the arts when we don’t all agree what it is, exactly, about the arts that makes them worth funding. Is it because they contribute to American cultural literacy, the idea being that people are somehow more erudite and interesting if they have a familiarity with what’s going on in various fields of artistic endeavor? Is it because supporting the arts in America means contributing to a body of American artistic work that we can all, as a nation, be proud of? Or is it about something more practical, like improving math and science test scores for kids, or promoting economic development in impoverished urban areas? Or is it about something completely different, like exposing underserved populations to an experience traditionally enjoyed by upper classes?

The RAND Corporation published a nice study a few years ago called Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Value of the Arts. The authors identified a range of benefits, ranging from simple individual emotions such as pleasure and captivation to complex public phenomena such as development of social capital and expression of communal meaning. One of the main points that the authors make is that the public dialogue about the arts tends to bias what they call instrumental benefits, such as improved test scores and learning skills, over intrinsic benefits like extended capacity for empathy and creation of social bonds. Think about that for a second: what can we say about these instrumental benefits as distinct from the intrinsic benefits? That’s right—the intrinsic benefits are really hard to measure! They are what my economics professors might call an “externality”—a force that undeniably exists but that cannot be represented in the model we’re using. So without a reliable objective standard to use as a measuring stick, one might ask, how can grantmakers in the arts properly judge the effectiveness of arts organizations in manifesting these outcomes?

This question really gets at one of the central paradoxes in arts funding. The process of applying for grants is supposed to be objective; otherwise funders might as well pre-select the grantees themselves, right? Applicants depend on a fundamentally meritocratic system that will allow them access to resources in exchange for a quality effort on their part. But making a decision is not as simple as collecting a bunch of numbers and plugging them into a formula. Assessing the “artistic quality” or “integrity” of an applicant’s work certainly doesn’t work like that; nor does evaluating the real impact on audiences of art that has a social or political mission. Even the numbers are not always our friends. Take attendance figures, for example: 800 casual listeners at an open-air concert may not be directly comparable to 50 viewers of an experimental dance show or 100 teenagers seeing a theater piece about AIDS.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers with this, but here’s what I can tell you about my own philosophy. I believe in the intrinsic value of the arts to do all of these things and more. Furthermore, competition between organizations that are engaged in the creation or presentation of artistic work is not an issue the way it can be for service organizations. Rather than divide the market, a high concentration of organizations and artists pursuing their passions will create cumulative network effects that expand the possibilities for all who are involved, from increased cultural tourism to higher land values, to more employment opportunities and a more creative and ambitious workforce. This is the great value in having a critical mass of organizations that contribute to an active “scene” in a particular area: it can go a long way towards redefining that locality as a creative, fun, and attractive place to be.

So if I’m an agency funding the arts, in some sense I’m not so incredibly concerned with the specific effectiveness of each individual organization I’m supporting. Of course you want your money to be used wisely, but it’s a good thing for the size of the art scene to be able to accommodate the full population of artists who want to work in your geographic area of interest; in other words, to grow according to the supply of artists, not audience demand. So it does not make sense, I would argue, only to fund the blue-chip institutions like the art museums, the symphony orchestras, and the major theater companies in hopes (for example) of lending international prominence and legitimacy to the community. Such a top-down approach potentially leaves out a much larger underground network of artists doing their best to scratch out a living with no institutional support, despite creating significant value for their local communities and economies.

Arts funders have traditionally been somewhat reluctant to support such scenes directly because of the difficulty evaluating their performance with precision. Most young, DIY, entrepreneurial arts organizations lack infrastructure and a certain professionalism of presentation, even if the art itself is top-notch. I feel, however, that an intense focus on objective evaluation in such cases is short-sighted, since the risk associated with the failure or ineffectiveness of any given organization is relatively small. Instead, funding agencies would do better to examine the effectiveness of the “scene” as a whole: i.e., to what extent prospective and current grantees are communicating with each other, creating employment opportunities (both artistic and operational), benefiting from synergistic partnerships, and generally contributing to the artistic profile and quality of life of the community as a whole. By adopting a less risk-averse strategy and being open to experimentation in their philanthropy, arts funders can better serve both the artist community and the public while embodying the most inspiring attributes of the field they are funding.

(Enjoyed this post? We’re raising funds to make the next generation of Createquity possible. We are 31% of the way there, but need your help to cross the finish line. Please consider a tax-deductible donation today!)

Share
Leave a comment

[Createquity Reruns] Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy: Part I – The Nature of the Arts and their Impact

(Welcome to Createquity’s summer rerun programming! Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re starting with the “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” series. “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” was really the reason why I started Createquity. I wanted to have an excuse to write down some of the ideas that had been bubbling around in my head after five years or so of working in the arts, and I ended up publishing six essays in the series over the fall and spring of my first year in business school, in 2007-08. Reading over these posts, I’m struck by how much of my thinking in those early days still reflects my thinking today, even though my perspective was far less informed back then than it is now. -IDM)

Measuring impact is a hot topic in the nonprofit world right now, if the title of the 3rd Annual SOM Philanthropy Conference, “Achieving Effectiveness In Philanthropy,” is any indication. Understandably, foundations want to have confidence that their money is being used effectively by the organizations they entrust it to. Furthermore, many staffers and donors in the field come from corporate backgrounds where a premium is placed on deliverables and results, and hope to apply the discipline contained within that culture to the nonprofit sector. In many ways this is a good thing: nonprofits are notorious for inefficiency and amateurish management, and by developing extensive evaluation techniques foundations hope to lead the way toward a more accountable, professional future.

Here’s the rub, though: measuring effectiveness in the arts is a different animal altogether than measuring effectiveness in other program areas, like healthcare or social justice. To illustrate why, let’s take a step back for a moment and think about the differences between the for-profit and non-profit sectors in general. In most cases, the primary goal of a for-profit company is to maximize value for its shareholders by selling a product to consumers. From the outsider’s perspective, then, the focus of the company is on the product. In other words, when we think about Microsoft, we think about Windows. When we think about Starbucks, we think about coffee. Now, what about nonprofit organizations? I would argue that the focus there is not on the product so much as the customer—broadly defined as the recipient of the organization’s services. Take a support group for people with AIDS, for example. Again, from a total outsider’s perspective, the most important thing is not what they’re doing (i.e., the specific programs or services they offer) but who they’re doing it for. When I think about Greenpeace, the first thing that comes to mind is not the specific programs or initiatives they operate—it’s the environment.

In most nonprofit disciplines, funding agencies primarily work with mission-driven service organizations. These are nonprofits that exist in order to improve infrastructure, advocate for interest groups—in short, to correct or alleviate a perceived problem in society. With such organizations, measuring effectiveness can be defined fairly concretely, say in the number of meals served at a soup kitchen or in the passage (or not) of particular legislation that a group was pushing in the local government. Of course there’s more complexity to it than that, but the point is that mission-driven organizations in non-arts fields can generally be evaluated relatively easily and accurately using quantitative and/or results-focused methods.

The arts, on the other hand, are a field primarily comprised of organizations that produce a product for consumption, much like for-profit companies. In fact, they are basically for-profit companies without the profit. Their value to society (and selling pitch to funders) presumably lies in their ability to bring products to market that would not have otherwise seen the light of day; otherwise, why fund them at all? However, this definition of value doesn’t match up so well with our traditional notions of social responsibility and moral imperative. Think about it this way: if a mission-driven nonprofit were to be wildly successful, so successful that it had entirely solved the problem it was created to address, it would have no choice but to shut down. For presenters, museums, galleries, ensembles, and the like, there is no such consideration: wild success is merely an invitation and an opportunity for more activity. And why shouldn’t it be? Arts organizations, much as they might like to believe otherwise, don’t really exist to solve some urgent problem in society. At some level, like for-profit companies, they are self-serving: they promote the art itself (the product) rather than who experiences the art (the customer). As a result, making an argument to donors for support of the arts can be exceedingly difficult, and the arts sometimes take a back seat to other priorities in the philanthropic arena.

That doesn’t mean that there is no argument to be made, however. For me, the role of the arts in a creative society is to define a space in our lives in which the impossible becomes possible. The arts are about celebrating and honoring creativity and innovation for their own sake, not as a means to an end such as financial gain. They need support precisely because a constraint of income inevitably constrains imagination, and the whole point of the arts is to see what happens when imagination runs wild.

Beyond that, however, the arts can be extremely useful to society. This can be seen perhaps most dramatically in the network effects that artists help create when they congregate in undervalued urban neighborhoods (Williamsburg in Brooklyn being a prime example). As an educational tool, the arts have applications in everything from grade-school math to graduate-level management. Not to mention that there are increasing synergies all the time between traditional arts fields and highly creative commercial enterprises such as graphic design, video games, motion pictures, and so on. The arts, in no small way, serve as R&D for society—they provide a leading edge from which other sectors draw inspiration. Their influence “trickles down” into popular culture through numerous intermediaries, providing jobs and creative fulfillment for many in the process. The true impact of the arts is thus difficult to measure properly. For example, my experimental rock band Capital M was made possible in no small part by the money the American Music Center received from the likes of the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations to pay my salary every year. Yet those organizations have no way of accounting for those kinds of residual second- and third-generation ripples created by their investments.

So how can we go about measuring—or even defining—the impact that we want the arts to have? I’ll explore that question in my next installment, Philanthropy and Experimentation.

(Enjoyed this post? We’re raising funds to make the next generation of Createquity possible. We are 30% of the way there, but need your help to cross the finish line. Please consider a tax-deductible donation today!)

Share
Leave a comment