Arts Policy Library: Strategic National Arts Alumni Project

SNAAP Report

(For a quick summary of this post, see “Strategic National Arts Almuni Project: The Condensed Version.” SNAAP has responded in the comments.)

Is an arts degree worth it or worthless? Many an art or art history major has had to defend the value of her studies. Indeed, in a Kiplinger article that used data from and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce to determine the “Worst College Majors for Your Career,” fine arts, studio arts, film/photography, graphic design, drama and theater arts all made the list. The article warns college students who are tempted to major in fine arts that the unemployment rate for recent grads is 12.6% (almost twice the national average of 6.8%) and they are 1.8% more likely to work in retail than the average college graduate.

The employment situation for recent art-school grads is anything but aesthetic. Slow job growth and an abundance of fine-arts majors means unemployment is high – the second highest on our list. When fine-arts majors do find jobs, they generally don’t pay well. Even experienced artists can expect to make 20% less than their college classmates. While few people have ever gone into art for the money, the East Village isn’t as cheap as it used to be.

So the recent Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) report that finds that the unemployment rate for arts alumni is less than half the unemployment rate for all Americans is heartening, but surprising. Moreover, the report claims that most arts alumni “are satisfied with the opportunities their ‘primary job’ affords to demonstrate their creativity.” The sunny outlook that SNAAP presents in “A Diverse Palette: What Arts Graduates Say About Their Education and Careers” seems to be in conflict with both the aforementioned Kiplinger article and conventional wisdom. But is it? Let’s analyze what the SNAAP report actually has to say about the prospects for arts alumni.


SNAAP, based at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, was founded for the stated purposes of providing a comprehensive look at artist development in the United States, and identifying how best to connect arts education and training to artistic careers. SNAAP defines “the arts” and “art” as inclusive of

 a broad range of creative activity including performance, design, architecture, creative writing, music composition, choreography, film, illustration, and fine art.

Since 2009, SNAAP has distributed a yearly report based on the results of an annual online survey that it gives to alumni of participating institutions. These institutions include arts high schools, comprehensive colleges and universities, liberal arts colleges and special-focus arts institutions. Institutions pay to participate in the project, with fees for post-secondary schools ranging from $3300 to $7800, depending upon the size of the arts alumni population. The survey comprises eighty-three questions and takes 20-30 minutes to complete.

The most recent 2012 report, based upon results from the 2011 SNAAP survey, presented many positive findings, or at least findings that appear to be positive. Most SNAAP respondents are currently employed. In fact, for the past two years, the SNAAP respondent unemployment rate is less than half the national unemployment rate for all Americans. What’s more, 87% of currently employed SNAAP respondents are “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with their primary job. Even most of those who are working in non-arts fields report general work-satisfaction, and most also say that despite working in an area outside of the arts, their arts training is still relevant to their work.

When asked if they would “do it all over again,” 77% of SNAAP respondents said that yes, if given the chance to go back in time, they would make the same choices as they originally had in terms of institution and major. Indeed, 92% reported that their overall experience at their institution was either good or excellent, and 88% would recommend their school to other prospective students.

Furthermore, arts alumni are also likely to participate in the arts outside of work. The report explains why this is meaningful:

One of the arguments for public support for the arts is that the presence and contributions of artists add depth and meaning to the human experience, thereby enhancing the quality of life for all. Thus, it’s important to know how arts graduates contribute to the arts and their communities independent of their income-producing work.

More than a quarter of SNAAP respondents have volunteered for an arts organization in the past year, and 45% have donated money to an arts organization or artist in the past 12 months. These are significantly higher rates than those in the general population, where just 2% of Americans volunteer for arts, cultural or humanities organizations, and only 6% of US households with incomes under $100,000 have given money to the arts. Moreover, in their leisure time, 72% of SNAAP respondents remain active in the arts community by creating, exhibiting and performing.

But it isn’t all coming up roses for arts graduates. Despite the encouraging employment data, 50% of survey respondents were “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the career advising they received at their school. Nearly half were unhappy with the opportunities for degree-related internships and other work that their institutions provided, and 41% found occasions to network with alumni lacking.

Additionally, 40% of currently employed respondents have two or more jobs, which may be a sign that  they are unable to find full-time work or that their primary job does not provide enough income to live on. In fact, the majority of respondents from all arts majors except architecture earn less than $50,000 per year in their primary job.

Still, the 2012 SNAAP report concludes:

For many of these graduates, going to an arts training institution was “worth it”; they gained invaluable skills that they continue to draw upon whether or not they work as professional artists—both at work and in their non-work time.


Certainly the value of an arts education must be measured as more than the average earning potential of its graduates. Even so, the SNAAP report findings are inconsistent with data reported in the Kiplinger article, which states that there are higher unemployment rates for arts graduates. Why might this be? Let’s analyze the methodology of SNAAP’s research.

Respondent Representativeness

The 2011 SNAAP Questionnaire is only available online, and SNAAP relies on the individual institutions to disseminate information about the survey. This means that SNAAP survey respondents maintained valid email and/or mailing addresses on file with their alumni institutions, or had been active enough on social media to be located either directly by their schools or by Harris Connect, the “people finder” service contracted by SNAAP. Respondents who take the time to remain in email contact with their alumni institutions may be more likely to think favorably about those institutions than those who haven’t. And of the alumni contacted, those motivated to respond to the 20-30 minute survey may have been more likely to hold positive viewpoints about their institutions and present career situations.

The exclusive online availability of the survey, as well as the fact that information about the survey is primarily disseminated online, means that respondents most likely have regular internet access, and that they’re comfortable navigating the web. The survey delivery method may skew toward a more well-off demographic who are able to pay for internet in their homes. The questionnaire takes 20-30 minutes to complete. If you’re using your local coffee shop’s internet to look for work and e-mail resumes, you may not be as inclined to use a half hour of that time to complete an alumni survey as someone who is sitting at home after work watching hulu and cruising Facebook.

Anecdotally, I often hear of individuals from well-off backgrounds enjoying success in the arts, in part because they are able to afford to take unpaid internships, or participate in residencies where they generate no income for months at a time. These opportunities may lead to greater things. Additionally, these are pleasurable experiences, and although one may not be earning a large income, a SNAAP respondent may still reflect on them positively, especially if paying rent and buying food isn’t a concern. Thus, it’s possible that the SNAAP respondents are more financially comfortable in the aggregate than arts alumni as a whole, and if so we might expect to see this bias reflected in the responses. (Unfortunately, while the SNAAP survey asks the age, gender and ethnicity of each respondent, it does not ask any questions about the socio-economic background of the respondent, or whether he or she has additional financial support or means beyond his or her income.)

Danielle J. Lindemann and Steven J. Tepper’s recently published follow-up report on SNAAP’s 2010 survey, which was structured and delivered in the same way as the 2011 survey, acknowledges the survey’s potential response bias: “It is plausible that more financially successful arts graduates are more likely to fill out a survey about their experiences.” However, they counter that results from an earlier study indicate that the SNAAP results are not skewed in this respect. In 2009, SNAAP conducted a shadow study using a variety of incentives, such as a $15 gift card and inclusion into a lottery for a $100 award, as well as different modes of delivery, including paper, web and phone. Their report explains:

We found that there were no meaningful differences in the characteristics of the graduates in the high response rate group compared to the low response rate group. Related to the question of employment, for example, respondents from the higher-response rate sample indicated that they were currently doing paid work an average of 31 hours per week. Comparable individuals from the full SNAAP sample in 2009 indicated that they were doing paid work an average of 34 hours per week.

Still, even if alumni who are financially better off weren’t more likely to respond to the SNAAP survey, the issue of what alumni the SNAAP survey reached remains. More than 36,000 alumni responded to the survey, for an average institutional response rate of just over 20%. But, alumni who have updated their institution with current contact information may already be more inclined to respond positively about that institution than those who haven’t.

Even if there is no bias among respondents to the survey, however, the selection of institutions participating in SNAAP is not random. The 2011 SNAAP survey was sent to alumni from 183 programs in 66 institutions, including 8 arts high schools, 20 private nonprofit postsecondary schools, and 38 public postsecondary schools. These postsecondary institutions include colleges and universities with top-ranked arts programs, such as Maryland Institute College of Art, New York University Tisch School of the Arts, University of California – Los Angeles and Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a number that are less known for their arts programs. At first glance, this seems like a reasonable cross-section of higher arts education across the nation. Still, these institutions have all chosen to participate in SNAAP, and paid a fee for the privilege of doing so. This suggests that they are already paying above average attention to students and alumni of their arts programs. What’s more, of the 58 postsecondary institutions, more than 30% have art programs in disciplines that include fine arts, ceramics, graphic design, multimedia/visual communications, painting/drawing, photography, printmaking, and sculpture, ranked in the top 20 by US News. To put this in perspective, the College Arts Association’s directory of Graduate programs in Studio Art and Design includes almost 250 individual institutions. These arts graduates, with degrees from esteemed institutions, may be more financially successful and happier with their arts training than arts alumni from second- and third-tier schools.

SNAAP’s efforts to increase and test response rates, through its use of Harris Connect and the shadow survey, are commendable. Still, the report repeatedly uses “arts alumni,” “arts graduates” and “SNAAP respondents” interchangeably. Are respondents to the survey representative of arts alumni as a whole? Unfortunately, there is no way for us to know.

Conflicting Interests

As mentioned earlier, participating institutions pay to have the survey sent to their alumni. This potentially creates a bias, if not in the survey’s responses, then in how this data is ultimately interpreted in the final SNAAP report and “packaged” to a broader audience. SNAAP explains why it requires fees from participating institutions:

…as a self-sustaining research project, institutional participation fees underwrite the cost of survey administration, data analysis, and school reports.

In other words, SNAAP needs these fees in order to remain viable. Although the individual institutions’ reports aren’t made public, schools might understandably be hesitant to participate in a study that openly casts doubt on the value of an arts education. In turn, that lack of participation could mean the end of SNAAP. Indeed, the SNAAP report does include negative statistics, but they are always countered with a positive statement, so that the overall tone and takeaway is optimistic. For example, the following passage from the SNAAP report came after a list of mixed results about alumni satisfaction with various aspects of their education:

While the results suggest a variety of strengths and weaknesses for institutions to consider, they also indicate that despite any less than stellar experiences alumni may have had, most who obtained an arts degree have few regrets. When asked if they would still attend their institution if they could start over again, over three quarters (77%) say definitely or probably yes. Furthermore, when asked if they would recommend their institution to another student like them, 88% say yes.

Although the 2011 report findings are not drastically negative overall, it’s unclear whether SNAAP would be in a position to draw attention to a significant and sustained deterioration in these numbers in the future.

Data Comparability

SNAAP reports that the SNAAP respondent unemployment rate is less than half the national unemployment rate for all Americans, which in 2011 was 8.9%.This figure becomes less impressive when compared with the unemployment rate of college-educated Americans, which most SNAAP respondents are. The 2011 national unemployment rate for college graduates is 4%; for SNAAP respondents with a bachelor’s degree, it’s also 4%, and for those with a master’s, it’s 5%. Still, it would appear that arts alumni are not significantly better or worse off than college graduates with non-arts majors, which conflicts with the Georgetown research cited in the Kiplinger article. How could this be?

SNAAP explains that unlike Carnevale, Cheah and Strohl’s Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce study, its employment figures are based upon different measures than those used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The difference in employment numbers between data from SNAAP and from other sources may be due in part to SNAAP’s employment measures, which include intermittent work—not uncommon among professional artists—as among the ways of being employed. The U.S. Census, for example, would label such people as unemployed.

In particular, SNAAP may be counting severely underemployed respondents as employed because they identify as self-employed/ freelancers. Freelancers are often more affected than traditional employees during a recession, from which the US continues to recover. When pockets are tight and businesses aren’t growing, customers are more likely to view purchases of goods like art as luxuries, see participating in a continuing ed or community art class as optional, and need services like design less. In fact, BLS projects that employment opportunities for craft and fine artists will grow by 5% over the next decade, which is slower than the average 14.3% projected for all occupations.

Because of the nature of SNAAP, the project only collects data about arts alumni. However, in order to truly draw conclusions about the value of an arts degree, we would need to see data collected in the same way for a cross-section of majors. Unfortunately, one of the few metrics that could potentially serve as a common yardstick is complicated by SNAAP’s alternative approach to measuring employment status. SNAAP could easily have designed its survey to enable analysis of unemployment figures comparable to BLS statistics alongside numbers derived from the alternative method. It’s unclear why this path wasn’t taken.

Considering the Alternatives

Many of the questions in the SNAAP survey ask alumni about subjective impressions, like these:

In your opinion, how much did [INSTITUTION] help you acquire or develop each of the following skills and abilities?

Please describe how your arts training is or is not relevant to your current work.

Describe how your arts training at [INSTITUTION] is or is not relevant to your participation in civic and community life.

Certainly most arts alumni value the arts—that’s why they chose an arts major—and the SNAAP survey provides them with the opportunity to opine about the importance of the arts. But for most arts alumni, the choice was not between pursuing an arts degree or doing nothing. Instead, the choice was between studying the arts and studying something else. Or perhaps it was between pursing an arts-related graduate degree and gaining additional experience in the workplace, or investing in a home. Respondents weren’t asked to reflect upon the sacrifices that they might have made in choosing their field of study.

I have no doubt that the education that arts alumni received contributed to skill sets that are relevant to their primary employment and civic engagement. But it’s also possible that alumni may have developed equivalent or better skill sets related to their current employment with an alternative course of study. Still, it is encouraging to learn that most SNAAP respondents have found work “congruent with their values and dispositions” that affords them the opportunity to “demonstrate their creativity.”    


So what does this mean? Certainly not that the SNAAP study has no value, nor that arts education is worthless. But the SNAAP report is largely inconclusive. SNAAP respondents are not necessarily reflective of the larger pool of arts alumni. A significant proportion of the participating institutions have top-ranked arts programs. It’s possible that a sample with alumni from a greater range of arts programs would produce the same results, but it’s also possible that SNAAP’s sample is biased. The report also presents an alternative way of measuring employment data, which could be valuable in creating a more accurate view of the employment situations of those who freelance or are self-employed, regardless of whether that work is arts related. Unfortunately, absent a comprehensive employment survey across fields using SNAAP’s method, it tells us very little about arts alumni as compared to holders of college and graduate degrees as a whole.

As an artist, arts educator, and arts administrator, I want to believe that an arts education is always worth it. Certainly the median salary of arts alumni should not be the sole factor in determining its value. However, with the average student loan debt for recent college graduates at over $26,000, and many borrowing beyond that to pursue graduate degrees, financial considerations shouldn’t be eliminated from the equation entirely. As I read the SNAAP report, I found myself thinking about Vanderbilt University Law Professor Herwig Schlunk’s groundbreaking 2009 academic essay, “Mamas Don’t Let You Babies Grow Up To Be… Lawyers,” in which he calculates opportunity and out-of-pocket costs for law students, and the likely return for different types of students, depending upon their class rank and the prestige of their program. He concludes that for many, particularly average students graduating from second and third tier schools, law school is a losing proposition.

It’s not possible to determine for whom an arts education is a worthy investment because no similar study has been done for art students. The difficulty for SNAAP is that its first responsibility is to analyze data for paying customers, not to  use that data as field research to draw larger conclusions. Still, at this time SNAAP is the most comprehensive data resource available for pre-professional arts education.

Few people go into the arts for the money. It’s likely that most of us instinctively knew that the median salary of an arts major would be significantly less than that of an engineering or business major, even before Georgetown released their report. SNAAP’s report does tell us that although a career in the arts may not be incredibly lucrative, not all artists are starving. But it also reminds us that an education should be valued for more than the average earning potential of its graduates.

… the worth of an arts degree must be measured by both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits. Much has been made of recent reports using national income data showing that arts graduates have lower than average earnings… Tangible economic benefits are unquestionably important, but calibrating the success of arts graduates only by how much they make does a disservice not only to those who practice their art and apparently derive great satisfaction from doing so, but also to the communities they enrich with artistic contributions through sharing their artistic creations, teaching, and supporting other artists.


For those who would like to dig in to SNAAP’s data in more detail, the 2011 Aggregate Frequency Report is what you’re looking for.

The 2011 SNAAP Annual Report covers the 2010 survey, along with the 2010 Aggregate Frequency Report.

Danielle J, Lindemann and Steven J. Tepper’s SNAAP special report, “Painting With Broader Strokes: Reassessing the Value of an Arts Degree” addresses potential bias issues and further analyzes the 2010 survey findings.

SNAAP publishes nifty interactive visualizations of its survey data, called SnaapShots. Here is the SnaapShot of the 2011 survey data, and the previous version, SnaapShot 2010.

Daniel Luzer critiques the SNAAP survey bias in Washington Monthly.

The Kennedy Center discusses the survey.

SNAAP manager Sally Gaskill blogs about SNAAP’s findings for Americans for the Arts.


Looking Beyond Our Borders for National Arts Education Policies

The former entrance to the US Department of Education. The red schoolhouses were removed by the Obama administration in 2009.  Photo by Andy Grant

Former entrances to the US Department of Education. The red schoolhouses were removed by the Obama administration in 2009. Photo by Andy Grant

Common perception among arts educators in the United States is that the arts are “edged out” of the curriculum because schools value them less than math and reading. Schools value the arts less than math and reading because math and reading are on state tests; in turn, math and reading are on the state tests because schools are required to show growth in these areas under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). If only those federal policies around arts education were different, we often say, things would be better.

But what might a different national policy look like, and to what extent could it change the degree to which arts education is implemented – and implemented well – in public schools?

One way to get a sense of our options is to take a look at how other countries handle this issue. Such an investigation is particularly timely right now, as most states in the US have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – the biggest step we have ever taken toward a “national” system of curriculum and assessments. While the Common Core has generated its own share of debates (head over to Americans for the Arts’s recent Common Core blog salon for a great cross-section of perspectives from arts educators), it nevertheless represents a defining moment in education policy in the United States. A big selling point of the standards is that they are internationally benchmarked. This will provide, in theory, a better sense of how our students are doing in relation to peers in other countries, so that we don’t keep getting sideswiped by the United States’s “poor performance” on the dreaded Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). (Whenever you hear policy makers lament that we are xxth in math or reading, PISA scores are usually what they are referring to.) Other counties even point to the Common Core as evidence that we are finally willing to learn from strides made elsewhere.

So how do arts education policies look in other countries?

This article covers Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany and South Africa. Specifically:

  • What policies and standards are in place at the national level regarding the arts in schools?
  • What dedicated funding streams are available (again, at the national level) for arts education during the school day?
  • What are the roles of federal versus state/municipal governments in implementing/monitoring education?

The first two questions relate to concerns I hear voiced most often about the national arts education landscape in the United States – i.e. that the policies set by The Government (in the broadest sense) aren’t conducive to flourishing arts practice in public schools, or that we don’t dedicate enough money to arts education. The third question is necessary for context-setting –how The Government makes decisions about education depends on whether education is a national or a local responsibility.

Limiting my scope to the national level means a lot is left out, particularly regarding funding. If a country doesn’t have a lot of national funding directed toward arts education, that does not mean that its state and local governments aren’t choosing to invest in it. On the flip side, a country may have strong national policies that are haphazardly enforced at the state and local levels.

Though by no means an exhaustive overview of arts education practice in each country, this article aims to provide a bird’s-eye view of national policies that affect which students get which disciplines during the school day, and how. Let’s begin with a quick refresher on national arts education policy in our own country.

The United States

If you’ve paid even scant attention to public education debates in the last decade, you’ve heard of No Child Left Behind, our much decried cornerstone of national education policy since 2001. No Child Left Behind is an updated and renamed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), originally passed in the 1960s. Per our Constitution, education is a state responsibility – each state is responsible for setting standards in each academic discipline, implementing its own assessment systems, and providing the bulk of education funding. Our federal department of education oversees the ESEA and provides funding for certain provisions of that law (e.g. Title I, which aims to “improve the educational achievement of the disadvantaged”).

Jennifer Kessler’s 2011 Createquity post on ESEA provides a great summary of its history and relevance to the arts. The ESEA was up for reauthorization when Jennifer wrote her article and is still awaiting reauthorization now. The Obama administration has floated a number of ideas for how it would like to change ESEA, but since education did not factor prominently into the 2012 election cycle, the chances of reauthorization happening anytime soon, with or without substantive adjustments, are slim to none.

In the decade-plus since the 2001 version of ESEA/No Child Left Behind was passed, it has been nearly universally blasted by arts education advocates – mainly due to its negative impact on schedule, workload and funding for programs related to the arts. However, No Child Left Behind did include the arts in its definition of “core academic subjects,” as follows: The term `core academic subjects’ means English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.”

Using the single word “arts” leaves a lot up to interpretation. However, the arts’ inclusion as a core subject is important for a couple of reasons:

  1. It places the arts, as a matter of policy, on equal footing with other subject areas
  2. It allows any federal funding designated for “core academic subjects” – including Title I, Title II, and economic stimulus funds –  to be used for arts education

The latter point has faced obstacles: despite Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s 2009 letter clarifying that the arts are eligible for general purpose federal funds, some states have pushed back.  California’s State Superintendent, for example, maintains that schools cannot use Title I funds for programs whose “primary objective” is arts education, but can apply them toward arts-related strategies that have been demonstrated to raise achievement in English and math. As the issue of federal-versus-state control of our education system is both heated and politically fraught (especially in the era of Common Core), Secretary Duncan is unlikely to take anyone to task over this.

Besides general purpose federal funds for education, national funding streams for arts education include the National Endowment for the Arts’s arts education grants and the Department of Education’s Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) Grants Program.  While the NEA’s commitment to arts education appears steady, AEMDD grants are slated to be collapsed with other subject areas under Secretary Duncan’s proposed revisions to ESEA, in favor of creating a new, larger pool of competitive funds to “strengthen the teaching and learning of arts, foreign languages, history and civics, financial literacy, environmental education and other subjects.”

Again, because the effort to reauthorize ESEA is currently dead in the water, don’t expect this or any related proposal to gain momentum in the immediate future. Few people seem to like our major national education law, but even fewer seem to agree on how best to fix it. Until they do, it will sputter along on autopilot as the Obama administration absolves states of meeting its more stringent requirements in exchange for agreeing to equally controversial reforms such as linking teacher evaluation systems with student test scores.

Add the sorta-kinda-national-but-not-really-Common Core movement into this mix and the future of national arts education policies in the United States form a big, bold question mark – but one with a great deal of potential to shift our landscape.


For a glimpse of what we may have in store if the Common Core movement gains enough traction to anchor a “national” curriculum, look no further than Australia, which adopted a standardized curriculum andassessment system in 2008. Australia and the United States have a great deal in common: Australian K-12 education primarily has been the responsibility of state and territorial governments, and according to Robyn Ewing’s excellent overview of the history of arts education in that country, British and North American traditions heavily influence Australian arts education policy. While the arts have been designated one of “eight key learning areas” across the country for more than a decade, visual art and music tend to be taught the most, while drama is lumped in with English/language arts and dance with physical education (sound familiar?).

That’s poised to change, however, with Australia’s Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA), newly responsible for developing and implementing curriculum across the entire country. That curriculum includes the arts as five distinct disciplines: visual art, music, dance, theater and media arts.

That’s right, five disciplines. Our national policy defines the arts as “arts,” and Australia’s gets into specifics. The full curriculum won’t be finalized until February 2014, though you can take a look at draft versions here. In the meantime, our own College Board’s 2011 overview of international arts education standards found Australia’s curriculum “exemplary in the breadth of its scope, the considerable attention to defining its own language, and the lengths it goes to in recognizing the differences in abilities and learning opportunities at the different age/grade levels.” This sample chart gives you the idea (click through for better resolution):

Australia Sample

ACARA states each school should determine how to teach the arts, and how much time to devote to each discipline. Its general guidelines (see page 4 of this document), outline a minimum of 100-120 hours of the arts per year through primary school, increasing to 160 hours in secondary school as students gravitate toward a specialty.

As great as these guidelines may sound, not all segments of Australia’s arts education community are excited about them. ACARA’s goal for students to study all five arts disciplines throughout elementary school has met some backlash in arts education circles, particularly those focused on visual art and music. Because some territorial governments invested heavily in those two disciplines already, they balk at the idea of “watering down” existing programs to make time for theater and dance. (This rad YouTube blog offers a performing arts student’s perspective on the issue.)

The irony of such squabbling is that the arts were originally entirely left out of the national curriculum, and were included as a result of heavy lobbying by a “united front” of all disciplines. As Ewing states,

One of the most significant things about the advocacy for inclusion of the arts education in this iteration of the Australian curriculum was a united stand by the various arts disciplines, which contrasted to the previous fragmented arguments for individual allocations for separate arts disciplines.  At the time of writing this review paper there is some re-emergence of that old fragmentation, with the assertion that some arts disciplines are more important than others.

Fragmentation in arts education communities deepens when resources are scant, and dedicated national funding streams for arts education in Australia are few and far between. The Australia Council for the Arts supports research on the effectiveness of partnerships between schools and the “professional arts sector,” and funds an Artists in Residence Program managed primarily by each state and territory’s arts council and education department. Arts funding in general has taken a squeeze recently. On October 15, Young People and the Arts, Australia’s national service organization representing arts education providers, lost its funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and announced staffing and operations would cease for at least the short term. Arts funding at the university level is getting trimmed as well.

Nonetheless, the country’s commitment to the arts as integral to Australia’s curriculum is impressive – and may provide us lessons for what to expect when (if?) we ever elaborate on that vague “arts” reference in ESEA.


As in Australia, Brazil’s national education policies are undergoing big changes. Unlike Australia’s those changes don’t explicitly have a lot to do with the arts, but they dohave a lot to do with money and the affirmation of access to arts and culture as a basic human right.

In 2000 Brazil ranked dead last among more than forty countries that participated in the PISA. Since then it’s committed to overhauling its education system, and the effort appears to be having an impact on the country’s performance on international tests. The backbone of that overhaul is a recently approved National Plan for Education (PNE) that will structure education policy for the next decade. The plan emphasizes committing resources to education, eradicating illiteracy, and increasing access to elementary and lower secondary school. (To give you a sense of where things stand right now, according to this recent article, students in some rural areas of the country spend little more than 3 hours a day in school, oftentimes without teachers present.)

One of the PNE’s many goals is to expand “mandatory” basic education, currently required of students aged 7-14, to include ages 4-17 by 2016. Doing that requires building schools, raising teacher salaries, professionalizing the teaching industry and finding a whole lot of money. A major sticking point (and victory) of the PNE is that it raises Brazil’s spending on education to a whopping 10% of GDP – nearly twice the rate of our spending.

Where do the arts fall into all of this? While the national government defined the arts as compulsory in 1972, it provides few guidelines for which disciplines to include at which grade levels, or who should teach them. (According to this overview of arts education practice, few arts specialists are in primary classrooms.) The PNE, framed as a “guarantee” of financial and material resources to support the country’s educational infrastructure, doesn’t get into specifics about what should happen in the classroom. It does, however, indicate that all students have a right to the arts and culture. Here is one of the strategies it lists regarding the arts (with apologies for the clunky Google translation):

Promote the list of schools with institutions and culture movements, [to] ensure the regular supply of cultural activities for the free enjoyment of students inside and outside of school spaces, ensuring that even schools become centers of cultural creation and dissemination.

Universal access to arts and culture is listed alongside access to clean water and sanitation as goals of the PNE. This vision aligns with Brazil’s 2010 National Culture Plan and established around the principles of “culture as a right of citizenship,” “culture as symbolic expression,” and “culture as potential for economic development.” With the assistance of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture is also developing a National Policy for Integrating Education and Culture focused on training teachers, establishing partnerships between cultural organizations and schools and creating an asset map of schools in relation to cultural spaces. The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, has a Mais Educação (More Education) program funding schools to work with cultural groups.

Brazil will be a country to watch over the next decade. Brazilian educators Augusto Boal and Paolo Freire, who used the arts to galvanize political expression in the 1960s and 70s, strongly influenced arts education in the United States. As Brazil’s education infrastructure expands and stabilizes its translation of cultural rights into education policy may well influence us again.


Most countries in this survey, including our own, place a heavy emphasis on test scores and are leaning toward standardizing their education systems. Our friendly neighbor to the north is a glaring exception. “National” education policy does not exist in Canada; it does not have a national ministry or department of education, and policies from primary grades through high school are set, implemented, funded and monitored exclusively at the provincial level.

Thanks to this, getting a comprehensive overview of arts education across Canada is a little tricky. Canada’s national universities don’t have any admission requirements related to arts education, and only five of ten provinces require some arts credits to graduate high school. According to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the arts are considered core subjects in “many” provinces, but all arts disciplines tend to be grouped under one program.

This doesn’t mean that arts education policies don’t exist, of course – just that they vary greatly from province to province. By extension, the quality and content of curricula vary as well. Compare, for example, Ontario and Alberta. Ontario requires full day kindergarten programs and English-language schools to provide “the arts” across all grades, though how much art is needed to fulfill that requirement is unclear. The only specific mandate is that students taken one arts credit to graduate high school. Ontario does, however, have a fairly robust arts curriculum that covers dance, drama, music and visual art in grades 1-8. As the College Board notes, “Unusual among the countries studied [in its international comparison of standards], [Ontario’s] curriculum provides … specific examples of possible demonstrations of standardized skills and knowledge [and]… teacher ‘prompts’ in the form of questions.”

By contrast, Alberta defines “fine arts” as an element of its core curriculum through grade 6, but its standards (in visual art, music and theater) date back to the 1980s. They are up for revision and in 2009 Alberta’s Ministry of Education identified certain issues for consideration in its Arts Education Curriculum Consultation Report:

  • the ramifications of renaming “fine arts education” as “arts education” (interestingly, most educators opposed to the change, fearing the “integrity of disciplines” would erode)
  • a near-universal commitment to include dance in any revision
  • a recognition that while flawed, the existing standards allow for creativity and flexibility that might wither if policies became more concrete

The timeline for updating the curriculum and standards is up in the air; while a draft framework was released in 2009, according to the Ministry of Education’s Web site, “revision of Fine Arts programs has been slowed to ensure alignment with current changes underway in education… the implementation of an inclusive education system, and other ministry initiatives.”

While the two provinces contrast in their arts curricula and requirements, their dedicated funding streams – or lack of them – are similar. According to Statistics Canada,  provincial governments allocated less than 5% of their arts and cultural budgets to arts education. Neither province’s Ministry of Education appears to have specific allocations for arts education, though their individual Arts Councils include funding for artist-in-residence programs (an overview of Ontario’s is here and Alberta’s here).

National arts and culture funders, meanwhile, seem to hold arts education at arm’s length even though Canadian citizens value government investment in the arts. Canada’s Department of Heritage supports programs to increase audience engagement and train arts workers, but does not seem to support arts in schools directly.  The Canada Council for the Arts lumps arts education with audience engagement and states that while “there are challenges to equitable and sustained arts education and access for youth and children… the Canada Council is not directly implicated in the development of arts education curriculum.”

In place of formal government infrastructure for arts education, Canada has a number of initiatives supporting K-12 arts learning across the country. The most prominent is ArtsSmarts, a pan-Canadian nonprofit that attempts to reduce disparities between “have” and “have not” provinces by partnering with like-minded organizations and provincial ministries to advance creative process and artistic inquiry in classrooms. It is also plays an active role in national research and dialogue on arts education through conferences like its recent Knowledge Exchange. A very young nonprofit called the Canadian Network for Arts and Learning also hopes to establish a national presence, with an emphasis on research about arts’ impact on learning.

So if our department of education were abruptly disbanded – not a completely farfetched idea, depending on which way political winds are blowing – would arts education efforts suffer a major setback? Not necessarily: despite its decentralized system, Canada performs well on international education metrics and isn’t leaping onto the testing bandwagon that so often “crowds out” arts learning. At the same time, efforts like that of ArtsSmarts make clear that regional governments feel they need broad-scale support, collaboration and exchange to enhance their arts education efforts.


With its rising economic prominence and “remarkable” performance on the PISA, China spurs the majority of our fretting over how to prepare students for a global marketplace. It is also occasionally held up as an example for the need to promote arts education in the United States; Chinese students may kick our butts on standardized tests, some argue, but they aren’t taught to be as creative and flexible as ours.

Such anxiety and pride are both justified. China is an enormous and rapidly modernizing country that has made huge strides in educating swaths of its population in a relatively short period of time. It is also aware of the advantages of our higher education system and its liberal arts ethos.

For the past few decades China’s education policies have focused on reducing disparities between its rural and urban populations. It declared nine years of education compulsory for all children in 1986 and has since put much energy toward ensuring that basic mandate is fulfilled. Despite significant progress, according to UNESCO’s overview of current policies in the country, “by the end of 2007, there were still 42 counties in the west of China which had not fulfilled the ‘two basics,’ e.g. universalizing the nine-year compulsory education and eliminating illiteracy among young people and adults.”

Concurrent with the nine-year mandate, China overhauled its higher education infrastructure from a “free” system to one in which students compete for government scholarships through a notoriously difficult national exam called the gaokao. The gaokao is central to education in China and according to one student is “responsible for killing ninety percent of the creativity” in the country. The exam’s approach has an inverse effect on the amount of arts learning students receive: the closer the exam, the less the arts are emphasized.

China’s elementary curriculum was revised in 2001 with a number of goals, including to “highlight the requirements on the innovative spirit and practical abilities of students, attach more attention to cultivation of their initiatives, encourage their creative thinking… and foster their curiosity and aspiration to knowledge.” Accordingly, visual art and music appear in the curriculum, with standards that seem to place a heavy emphasis on cultivating early interest and enjoyment of the arts, which are linked to character, integrity, spirit of patriotism, and optimism. (Caveat: a thorough translation of the standards is difficult to find, though the College Board provides a rough overview here.)

According to UNESCO, music and fine art are required for two hours a week in elementary school, down to one hour a week in junior secondary school. The first two grades of senior secondary school (e.g. high school) offer one hour a week of “art appreciation.” Based on my conversations with several students from China, those courses are more in line with what we think of as “art history” than in-depth studio courses; not a lot of emphasis is placed on students creating works of art themselves. Those students also stressed that most classes are taught as lectures, with teachers taking very few questions. Not surprisingly, then, dance and drama have very little presence in schools, though after-school programs are available to students in urban areas.

To most Western observers the country’s emphasis on rote memorization is a problem the country will need to tackle eventually, especially as the country considers reforming its higher education institutions to resemble our liberal arts universities. (In fact, some universities are explicitly designed around a liberal arts agenda.) The arts may play a more central role in China’s schools if and when significant university reforms move ahead.


We’ve touched on what might happen to arts education if we didn’t have a national body overseeing schools and student learning. What might happen if we had a bigger one – or, even better, several of them?

Judging by the German model, we’d have more money – or at least an easier time tracking it. While most countries have few government offices concerned with arts education, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education & Research has an entire division devoted to it. Per this fantastic 2010 issue of UNESCO Today, the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth has one too. Not to be outdone, the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media oversees an annual award program of €60,000 (roughly $80,000) to “acknowledge the importance of exemplary cultural education projects.”

Just as in the United States, Australia and Canada, education in Germany is considered a state responsibility. The country moved, however, toward more nationalization in response to its poor performance on (what else?) the 2000 PISA. Among other reforms, national standards and curriculum frameworks for primary grades were adopted in 2003.  As far as I can gather, the arts were not included in that effort.

Nevertheless, by all external appearances Germany is doing such a bang-up job of providing support systems for arts education that untangling them is a daunting proposition.  Luckily, two intrepid academics, Susanne Keuchel and Dominic Larue, beat me to it with a graphic titled “Arts education as a cross-sectional task in German federalism”:

Arts Education As a Cross-Sectional Task in German Federalism Thanks to Keuchel and Larue’s analysis (and a 2008 parliamentary mandate to track this spending), Germany is the only country for which I could ballpark discrete national investment in arts education. Between 2001 and 2007, the Ministries of Education and Family Affairs doled out €9.5-10.5 million ($12.6-$14 million) annually for the arts. Taking current federally-funded initiatives into consideration, one can assume those numbers increased in the last 5 years. The current initiatives include researching Jeden Kind ein Instrument, a pilot program in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia that provides instruments to students ages 6-10, and the recently announced “Educational Alliances to Reduce Educational Deprivation,” which has the Ministry of Education supporting after-school cultural education programs to the tune of €30 million ($40 million) a year.

In short, national support for arts education is abundant and complex. With so many arts-friendly policies in place, do all students in Germany get more arts education during the school day than we might expect in the United States?

The surprising answer is no. How much arts education a student receives depends on how he or she is tracked. All students receive the same basic education (grundschule) from roughly age six through nine. After those first four years, students are divided into one of three programs:

  • Haptschule, designed for students perceived as having lower academic skills. The program lasts approximately five years and culminates in a vocational certificate.
  • Realschule, designed for students perceived as having some academic skills. This program lasts six years, and prepares students for middle-management positions.
  • Gymnasium, for students perceived as the most academically adept and “suited” for university. Gymnasium lasts through what we would consider high school, but is more challenging than the typical high school in the United States.

Visual art and music are included in all tracks, but the recommended allotments of time vary:

  • Grundschule:  85 hours per year
  • Hautpschule: 56 hours per year in grades 5-6, zero beyond that
  • Realschule: 141 hours in grade 5, 113 in grade 6, 56 in 7-9, zero in grade 10
  • Gymnasium: 113 hours year in grades 5-7, 56 in grades 8-10, zero in 11-12 (though electives are available)

We can’t glean much from these numbers (are the content and structure of art offerings the same in all tracks?), but a few things stand out. All students are not expected to learn or have access to the same things, but arts education seems to be universally valued. To quote Keuchel and Larue again,

 “If ten years ago in Germany the need and the importance of arts education were still stressed, today the accents have shifted: one does not ask any more whether arts education is good, but checks upon the quality of arts educational projects in particular cases.”

Even the Germans don’t think they have everything figured out – three years ago, the Enquête Commission of Culture in Germany issued a series of recommendations (summarized here starting page 22) to advance arts education.  Those recommendations include:

  • adding the arts to the Arbitur (the college entrance exam issued to Gymnasium students), probably to address concerns that the arts are “squeezed out” as students prepare for the Big Test
  • developing national standards for cultural education
  • funding more competitions and awards for cultural education
  • developing partnership networks between schools and arts organizations

Germany’s model implies that a country can make a sustained, direct investment in arts education with admirable results. It also implies that the age-old tension between quality and equity does not necessarily go away with increased resources.

South Africa

As the United States reacts against No Child Left Behind’s narrowed curriculum with the Common Core, South Africa reacts against a flexible system with a return to “the 3 Rs.” Spurred by an “education crisis” and “national disgrace,” the country is in the middle of a massive reform that retains the arts as core in its curriculum while adopting the most large-scale, standardized system profiled here.

South Africa spends more money on education (more than 5% of GDP) than any other country on the continent, and by most accounts is getting a poor return on its investment.  With the end of the apartheid regime in 1994, education was made compulsory for all students through grade 9, though the legacies of apartheid and language barriers (South Africa has 11 official tongues) have hampered the country’s quest to provide equal access to education for all its young people.

The first education reform in newly democratic South Africa was “Outcomes Based Education” (OBE). Intended to support a holistic approach to learning that allowed students to demonstrate understanding in a variety of ways, OBE provided few guidelines to teachers. Since many teachers were poorly trained under apartheid, they were ill equipped to deliver instruction through an open-ended system. OBE was scrapped in 2010, with little complaint:

“In theory, at least, OBE turn[ed] the educational process away from a rigid top-down system to one that … let[s] students demonstrate they “know and are able to do” things derived from their growing understanding and mastery of material.  Too often, however… OBE became a treadmill for teachers to create their own student study materials, evaluate a stream of student projects and deal with the administrative tasks and documentation that absorbed hours, even in the poorest schools.”

OBE was replaced by “Schooling 2025,” which outlines a much more rigid and uniform curriculum – driven at the national level and consistent across the entire country — with specific breakdowns of how much time teachers should be spending on each topic, and little choice in what should be taught when, or how. (For an example of how it addresses the arts, see this National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement.) Based on conversation with Yvette Hardie, a theater educator, producer and director in South Africa involved with the curriculum process, textbooks are similarly prescriptive, designed to “teach teachers how to teach” rather than supplement instruction.

Schooling 2025 standardizes assessments and workbooks, and “collapses” certain curriculum areas to ease the burden on teachers. Hence, in grades K-6, the arts are included in a broader subject called “life skills.” Life skills “aims to develop learners through three different, but interrelated study areas, that is, personal and social well-being, physical education and creative arts.” The creative arts include four arts disciplines to be “studied in two parallel and complementary streams – visual arts and performing arts (dance, drama, and music).” As a subject area, “life skills” is typically taught by oneinstructor who, similar to the generalist elementary teacher in the United States, does not have a great deal of arts training.

K-3 students receive six hours of life skills per week, with the arts allocated two of those hours. In grades 4-6, allocations are reduced to 4 and 1.5 hours, respectively. Students receive two hours a week of discrete “creative arts” in grades 7-9, and pick from arts electives in grades 10-12. Schools choose which elective disciplines to offer based on the availability of qualified staff and the “abilities, talents and preferences” of their students. Distinct Curriculum and Assessment Policy Documents have been developed for each discrete arts discipline at those upper three grades.

Only grades 4 and 10 are using the new curriculum so far, though policy documents are complete for all grades. It is too early to tell what the impact of Schooling 2025 on the arts will be. On the one hand, including arts in the standardized curriculum may ensure all students get a basic level of instruction. On the other, the system, designed to scaffold the most poorly trained teachers, is so prescriptive it may prove stifling in the long term.


Amidst this maze of education reforms, priorities, policies and national/state structures, a few themes leap out as relevant to our national dialogue around arts education.

First and foremost, assessments matter. As much as we bemoan the “drill and kill” culture associated with large-scale, standardized testing, all countries (except Canada) are motivated by test scores, whether issued via the PISA or internal metrics. We are also not the only country to see the arts de-emphasized in favor of what is on a test. We do seem to be unique in:

  • When that de-emphasis takes place. China’s gaokao and Germany’s Arbitur are at the end of high school, whereas testing under NCLB focuses on elementary grades. In China and Germany arts learning requirements diminish as students prepare for the test; in the United States, more high schools than elementary schools report teaching art subjects.
  • The scale of testing (the Arbitur is given only to students graduating Gymnasium, which is approximately one-quarter of the student population; the gaokao is technically optional).

As the Common Core is implemented in the United States, the content and structure of its corresponding assessments will impact how much attention is paid to the arts. States participating in the Common Core choose to participate in one of two testing “consortia” – Smarter Balanced or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Both had planned on assessments that would include  complex performance-based tasks alongside multiple choice questions – which seemed to provide an opening for more arts integration. Smarter Balanced’s recent decision to scale down the number of performance tasks is disheartening, but the truth is that we know very little about what the “testing” climate in the United States will look like in the next few years.

Secondly, including the arts as “core” is important, and defining them as “arts” has weaknesses AND strengths. To many of us, the victory of “arts as core” under ESEA was muted by a sense that the definition should be more specific. Vagueness has its drawbacks: I’ve had numerous people – including museum educators – express surprise that my work in “arts education” includes theater. Seeking validation of each specific art form through our definition of “arts” is understandable. Australia, as the only country to name five arts disciplines in its curriculum, recognizes this. The country should be lauded for its goal to provide all students instruction in five art forms, but the discipline in-fighting leading up to and resulting from Australia’s policy changes is instructive. Even if we extend school days across our country, we have to acknowledge the trade-off between breadth and depth of experience. Requiring students to participate in many arts disciplines within the school environment prevents them from gaining a lot of experience in any one.

Similarly, a strong national arts education “mandate” can be a double-edged sword. Enacting pan-Canadian arts education policy is difficult, if not impossible, without a central body overseeing education. Nonetheless, Canada isn’t clamoring for a department of education (maybe because despite its de-centralized system, its PISA scores are pretty high). Australia’s ambitious national requirements around the arts in schools, meanwhile, leave some states grousing the new curriculum doesn’t honor or acknowledge quality work that has already taken place.

Germany occupies an interesting middle ground between these two, in that the federal government issues few distinct arts education policies, but does invest a great deal in support of arts education. (Brazil will be interesting to watch for a similar, non-arts-specific reason – its current education plan provides few specifics for how things should happen in a classroom, but a whole lot of resources to give that “how” breathing room.) Beyond providing financial resources, Germany’s national ministries lend visibility to the intersections of arts and education, and assert that the arts play a central role in the country’s identity despite the fact that all students are not provided them equally.

More arts-education friendly policies in the United States might not mandate that all children learn x, y and z. They may instead continue to affirm “arts” as core, while supporting assessments that accurately capture student gains without overburdening schools. With the Common Core on the horizon, we have a lot to learn about whether something resembling a national curriculum is even viable. As we do, the models above, for all of their strengths and challenges, provide hints of where we may wind up.

(The author would like to thank the following individuals who  assisted in the research of this piece by answering questions, sharing resources and expertise, and/or providing connections to people who could: Octavio Camargo, Agnieszka Chalas, Yvette Hardie, Volker Langbehn, Kate Li, Jessica Litwin, Christopher Madden, Jennifer Marsh, Tom McKenzie, Ian David Moss, Scott Ruescher, Jason van Eyk, Shannon Wilkins and Yang Yan.)


Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: the condensed version


This is a skin-and-bones summary of my full Arts Policy Library write up.  Head that way for a much more thorough and nuanced discussion of “Fusing.”

Holly Sidford’s “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy” calls for a major overhaul in arts philanthropy in the United States. It argues that arts philanthropy, as currently structured, perpetuates inequality across the arts and culture sector by disproportionately funding large institutions that focus on Western European traditions.  The report cites a number of present-day factors that make the case for change all the more pressing, including:

  • The changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States and widening gap between the rich and poor
  • artists breaking new ground in finding ways to apply the arts toward social justice goals
  • inherent inequities in organizations’ access to private and public capital, with the largest 2% of organizations receiving 55% of all gifts, grants and contributions

The report does an excellent job of calling attention to organizations doing compelling work with arts and social change, and raises important questions about entrenched inequities in arts philanthropy. Unfortunately, it does not provide a clear vision of how funders should redistribute their resources, in large part because it conflates different segments of the arts sector (i.e. organizations pursuing social justice, small arts organizations, culturally-specific organizations, and individual artists) and fails to acknowledge varying levels of quality and impact within these categories.  This problem and others manifest in ways including:

  • A misleading interpretation of income inequality among arts organizations. Without considering what large organizations’ budgets are used for, it seems premature to conclude that funding a large organization perpetuates inequity. Furthermore, although the 55%/2% statistic has often been cited by those reading the report as evidence of foundations’ lack of attention to smaller organizations, it refers not just to foundation grants but also to contributions and gifts from individuals. Essentially, all it tells us is that some organizations have larger budgets than others.
  • Lack of evidence that small and mid-sized organizations can better advance social change than large ones. By virtue of their broad reach, large organizations may represent an attractive return on investment to funders seeking to reach a large audience in a short amount of time. Many large institutions represent a variety of cultures, provide free or reduced priced events, and offer targeted outreach activities.
  • Lack of articulated need for funding. “Fusing” states that artists, tradition bearers, and culturally-specific organizations are already rising in number due to demographic shifts, but doesn’t specifically address what additional role private philanthropy should play in that process. Should foundations support these artists and organizations to continue doing what they’re doing or ask that they expand or shift their scope?

None of the issues undermine the assertion that inequities exist within the arts sector, but they do raise questions about the extent to which those inequities are problematic, and whether they are problematic for the same reasons that the report identifies.

Where “Fusing” does succeed is in compelling us to think more deeply about how and when the basic notion of equity informs arts funding. Private funders can, as “Fusing” suggests, seek out and learn from the higher-quality work undertaken by arts and social change organizations, and support systems for our field to become more thoughtful in exploring and documenting the impact of arts. They can also fund third-party research to study both the intended and unexpected consequences of arts programming in underserved communities. We could use a better understanding of how newer, more grassroots organizations evolve as they expand their scale and scope. These organizations may not now operate under a “classic model,” but the models they do offer seem like fertile testing grounds for better understanding not just the impact of artist-activism, but the impact of private grant support on that activism.

Shifting arts grantmaking toward a greater focus on equity is a long-term process. Managing that shift well requires our collective willingness to set ideology aside and question, examine and clarify the benefit and impact of artistic practice on all communities.

Leave a comment

Arts Policy Library: Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change


(For a quick summary of this post, see “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: the condensed version.”)

Holly Sidford’s “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy” calls for a major overhaul in arts philanthropy in the United States. It is one of a series of reports commissioned by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) as a follow-up to its 2009 Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best:  Benchmarks to Assess and Enhance Grantmaker Impact. NCRP established benchmarks for funders to strive toward in order to “maximize their impact and best serve nonprofits, vulnerable communities and the common good.” Those criteria, along with their associated benchmarks, are as follows:

  • Values: at least 50% of grant dollars provided to benefit marginalized communities (defined broadly using 11 categories, which include the economically disadvantaged; racial/ethnic minorities; victims of crime/abuse; single parents; and LGBTQ citizens), and 25% for advocacy and civic engagement
  • Effectiveness: providing at least 50% of grant dollars for general operating support and 50% as multiyear grants, and ensuring that application and reporting timelines are aligned to grant size
  • Ethics: maintaining a board that serves without compensation and includes representatives from the community it serves
  • Commitment: paying out a minimum of 6% of a foundation’s assets annually in grants, and investing at least 25% of those assets in ways that align with its mission.

“Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change” examines how current practice in arts funding holds up against the NCRP benchmarks, and calls on the field to refocus its energies and resources in a number of different ways.


The central argument of “Fusing” is that arts philanthropy, as currently structured, perpetuates inequality across the arts and culture sector, and across society as a whole, by disproportionately funding large institutions that focus on Western European traditions. According to the report, this practice is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • It “restricts the expressive lives” of a large swath of our society
  • It benefits institutions patronized primarily by the wealthy, and, by extension, benefits the wealthy themselves, flouting justification for the tax-exempt status foundations and arts organizations enjoy
  • It ignores emerging practices within the artistic landscape, threatening to render arts philanthropy irrelevant
  • It undermines the potential of arts and culture to be tools promoting democracy and social change

This practice is not new. Arts philanthropy, Sidford argues, was from its early days “not motivated by a desire to relieve suffering, help the poor or find systemic solutions to pressing social problems,” but to reinforce an elitist system in which wealthy individuals patronized museums and orchestras to signal their status. Arts and culture philanthropy was firmly divorced from any funding meant to address social inequity. To this day, “early arts patrons’ preference for the European high art canon, and for the institutions that reflect and support social elites, continues to frame funding patterns.” To support this claim, “Fusing” examines Foundation Center data on how many funding allocations for arts and culture are made with the specific intention of benefiting disadvantaged communities:

95% of the foundations analyzed gave grants with a primary or secondary purpose of arts and culture. But only 10% of these arts and culture grant dollars were classified as benefiting one of the 11 underserved populations included in the NCRP’s analysis, and only 4 percent were classified as advancing social justice goals.

Furthermore, the Foundation Center data suggests “the greater a funder’s commitment to the arts, the less likely it is to prioritize marginalized communities or advance social justice in its arts grantmaking… arts funders whose main focus lies outside of the arts appear to value the catalytic role of the arts in serving social justice goals more than funders with larger arts portfolios.”

GRAPH 9: The Greater a Funder's Commitment to the Arts, the Less Likely They are to Prioritize Marginalized Communities or Advance Social Justice

Sidford cites a number of present-day factors – demographic, aesthetic/artistic, and economic – that she believes make the case for change in philanthropic practice all the more pressing.


“Fusing”’s demographic data, mainly drawn from the 2010 U.S. Census, centers on the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and persistent inequities in education, civic participation and health care.  Each of these inequities, according to Sidford, is currently being addressed in some way by artist-activists and community-based cultural organizations that are not receiving the recognition or support they deserve. Their existence, and the fact that there has been an “enormous increase in the number of cultural organizations in the past two decades,” underscores the “universal desire for arts and culture in every community” – a desire that needs to be acknowledged with broader philanthropic support.


Despite being persistently undervalued and underpaid, artists play a vital role in preserving non-European cultural traditions, contemporizing and blending them to create new ones, and breaking new ground in finding ways to apply the arts toward social justice goals. “Fusing” cites Americans for the Arts’ 2010 “Trend or Tipping Point: Arts and Social Change Grantmaking,” which reports growing funder interest in supporting arts and culture projects that intersect with other social justice goals such as health and education. Many organizations engaged in this type of hybrid work, however, “do not fit the classic model of an arts institutions, operating more on a collectivist or community organizing model” that renders them difficult to assess or to assign to a particular funding category.

Cultural Economics

The report’s final case for change revolves around the distribution of funding, pointing to inherent inequities in large, mid-sized and small organizations’ access to private and public capital. According to data from the Urban Institute, organizations with budgets under $500,000 generated 51% of their revenue from contributions, gifts and grants, while the largest nonprofits with budgets over $5 million reported receiving just over 60% of their revenue from such sources:

TABLE 1: Arts Nonprofit Revenue Sources by Budget Size

The disparities appear even greater when looking at how all contributed revenue is distributed across arts organizations of various budget sizes. Only 18% of all contributions, gifts and grants made to arts nonprofits in 2009 went to organizations with budgets less than $500,000, despite the fact that these organizations represent 84% of the total. By contrast, 55% of contributions, gifts and grants go to organizations with budgets more than $5 million. Put another way, organizations that in number represent only 2% of the nonprofit arts sector receive 55% of public and private subsidy:

TABLE 2: Distribution of All Arts Nonprofit Revenue By Recipient Budget Size

Sidford suggests that these disparities are likely mirrored individual donor practice, citing a study by The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University that found more than 70% of highly affluent households gave to the arts in 2009, compared with less than 8% of the general population. Artists and organizations serving marginalized populations, she argues, have more difficulty soliciting individual donations because their constituencies are less able to provide financial contributions. Recent drops in public arts funding  (including a 20% decline in local government expenditures on the arts between 2008 and 2010) make circumstances all the more bleak considering that public funding has traditionally been moreaccessible to cultural groups serving marginalized populations. “Shifts in public sector funding,” Sidford writes, “have both immediate and long-term implications for the cultural ecosystem, particularly for the smaller, newer, edgier parts of that system and the artists and groups serving our least advantaged communities.”

Recommendations for Moving Forward

In light of these trends and challenges, “Fusing” asks that arts and culture-focused foundations “make equity a core principle of [their] grantmaking by paying more attention to the people who will benefit from [their] grants and the processes by which the arts and culture provide those benefits.” To assist in this process Sidford provides questions designed to help funders make equity a greater focus in their work. The questions are grouped under five broad purposes for arts philanthropy:

  • Sustaining the canons (defined as “important works from established traditions”)
  • Nurturing the new (including new artistic works and new audiences for that work)
  • Arts education (including media literacy, art appreciation, and advocacy for equity of access to arts education for all children)
  • Arts-based community development (“endeavors and organizations that intertwine artistic and community goals”)
  • Arts-based economic development (includes arts incubators, spaces for artists, cultural tourism, etc)

The questions under each category focus primarily on diversity (i.e. “Are we recruiting actively applications from artists and organizations working outside the European canon?” “Are artists from diverse cultural backgrounds involved in the programs we fund?”) and breaking down traditional silos between arts and non-arts funding (i.e. “Are we funding both arts and non-arts organizations doing this work?” “Do we recognize art and social change as a form of artmaking?”) “Fusing” concludes by challenging funders to re-examine longstanding assumptions about the role the arts can and do play in our society,“asking, in an authentic way, ‘What is the purpose of philanthropy in the arts today?’”


As noted above, “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change” was written with the intent of applying the NCRP’s criteria for effective grantmaking to the arts. Those criteria generated a good deal of discussion and controversy when they were released. Members of the philanthropic community, such as then William and Flora Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest, questioned whether funders should prioritize reducing poverty and discrimination over other social goals such as addressing climate change, pursuing medical breakthroughs, or supporting – you guessed it – the arts. “Fusing” takes NCRP’s criteria for philanthropy, and their underlying premise that serving disadvantaged populations should be a focus for all grantmaking, as a given.

Like the NCRP report, “Fusing” provoked strong and varied reaction across the arts and funding communities (GIA’s online forum on equity in arts funding provides a good sample) when it was originally released. It also provoked a strong and varied reaction in me. Reading it evoked frustration similar to what I feel when I read arts education reports that draw conclusions affirming my fundamental beliefs (i.e. that the arts are a powerful learning tool for children), without providing clear evidence for those conclusions. I understand and support the arguments the reports are trying to make, but wish they did a better job making them.

“Fusing” contains a number of such arguments – about the role of philanthropy and of art in society – that are more values-driven than data-driven. In many cases those values align with my own. I believe, for example, that the arts provide concrete social benefit beyond simple aesthetic pleasure. I believe that all members of our society do not have equal access to that benefit, and that is a problem the private funding community can and should address.  “Fusing” does a very good job of affirming those beliefs for me, both by calling attention to organizations doing some very compelling work with arts and social change, and by raising important questions about the extent to which entrenched inequities in early arts philanthropy continue to the present day.

Unfortunately, “Fusing” does not provide a clear vision for how funders should redistribute their resources in response. Two questions loom over the report: 1) in which contexts are the arts the most efficient and effective means of addressing social inequity?, and 2) how can private grant resources most efficiently, effectively and sustainably address inequities within the artistic field?

I don’t think we have concrete answers to either question, and the report muddies the waters further by failing to distinguish consistently between the different segments of the arts sector it identifies as disenfranchised. Specifically, it conflates arts organizations (and individuals) pursuing social justice, arts organizations serving specific non-European ethnic communities, small arts organizations, and individual artists. Clearly, some organizations meet all these descriptors – they are culturally-specific, artist-led, justice-seeking and resource-starved. But rather than keeping consistent focus on the intersection of those qualities, the report treats them somewhat interchangeably. This is more confusing than illuminating, since many small arts organizations, individual artists and culturally-specific organizations have little in common beyond being ignored by mainstream institutional funding.

Collapsing together these segments of the arts sector makes it difficult at times to discern what the report is actually arguing for. For one thing, the report’s data doesn’t clearly align with its recommendations. By emphasizing large organizations’ share of foundation giving, for example, the report implies that funding should be redistributed to small organizations – but never specifically recommends this course of action. For another, its bold but largely unsupported assertions about the role of arts and culture in communities (like “these artists and arts organizations are powerful agents in the struggle for greater fairness and equality”) lump all such entities together without acknowledging their varying levels of quality, capacity, relevance, and impact. As a result, it’s difficult to know which practices deserve greater support, or how to identify them.

Below are some specific ways in which these issues manifest.

The 55%/2% statistic

One of the most jarring (and often cited) statistics from the report is that the “richest” 2% of arts organizations receive 55% of all contributions, gifts and grants made for arts and culture – reminiscent of the “99-percenters versus 1-percenters” divide that fueled the Occupy Wall Street protests this time last year. On the surface it doesn’t seem particularly fair that the largest 2% of organizations would receive the lion’s share of arts funding – but those large organizations tend to have large buildings to maintain, a heck of a lot more people to pay and a broader programming scope. Some of them may be incredibly efficient with the resources they are given, and others may be extremely wasteful – but without considering what their large budgets are being used for, it seems premature to jump to the conclusion that funding a large organization perpetuates inequity.

Moreover, redistributing private grant resources might not even make all that much difference.  It’s a common misperception that the 55% number refers just to foundation funding. In fact, it also includes contributions and gifts from individuals, which are actually twice as important as foundation funding for arts organizations in the aggregate. Moreover, according to the report, the proportion of the revenue that large organizations receive from contributions, gifts and grants relative to their budget size (61%) isn’t much different from the proportion received by midsized (59-60%) and even the smallest organizations (51%). Essentially, this statistic is telling us simply that some organizations have larger budgets than others.

That revelation would be more compelling, and provide more cause for alarm, if it were accompanied by findings that culturally-specific organizations tend to receive a proportionally smaller percentage of their grant requests compared to their euro-centric counterparts, or of a substantial inequity in the amount of funding small organizations receive relative to the number of people they serve. But without such context, the most famous number coming out of “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change” is not particularly meaningful.

Capacity and need

”Fusing” argues forcefully that past inequities, in arts funding and beyond, have created a caste system in which organizations that serve marginalized populations are at a disadvantage in obtaining capital relative to established institutions. But “Fusing” presents little evidence that small or mid-sized arts organizations are inherently better equipped to advance social justice than large ones – and that they have a concrete need for more funding in the first place.

Some large arts institutions already spend a substantial amount of money presenting, documenting, conserving and protecting works of art and performance from a wide variety of cultures for the benefit of present and future populations. Others, by virtue of the scope of their work, may be in a much better position to examine themes relevant across cultures, foster dialogue and exchange programs with artists in other parts of the country and the world, and so forth.  If funders wanted to influence broad-scale change by reaching a large audience in a short amount of time, large organizations might actually represent an attractive return on investment. A substantial number of them already aim to engage a wide array of audiences, either through targeted outreach activities or by providing free or reduced priced events.  For example, well over half of concerts by American orchestras, many of which were the earliest beneficiaries of “elitist” early arts funding practices, are now specifically performed for community engagement or education.

Many programmatic advantages large organizations enjoy are resource-based, of course, and redirecting funding toward small and midsized organizations would obviously allow them to do similar work. Why, however, should we assume that the small and mid-sized organizations would do a better job of advancing social equality if they had more resources?  Sidford might argue that culturally-specific and social justice-driven organizations, which are mostly small, would advance equality simply by virtue of their very being. But if the need here is for more culturally-specific, social justice-driven organizations, their numbers appear to already be growing without substantial foundation support. Using the example of the Silicon Valley, Sidford writes, “in 2008, 70 percent of the region’s 659 cultural groups were less than 20 years old, and 30 percent of the new organizations were ethnically-specific… While Silicon Valley may be somewhat ahead of the national demographic curve, related changes are occurring in communities across the country.”

If the number of “artists and tradition bearers” is already on the rise as a natural result of demographic shifts, what additional role is there for private philanthropy to play? Should foundations support these artists and organizations to simply continue doing what they are already doing, or instead ask that they expand or shift their scope? How would the strings (justifiably) attached to traditional grantmaking practice affect what the report implies is a naturally occurring growth in artistic expression and exploration? “Fusing” provides few insights on these important but difficult questions.

Sidford writes,

“activist-artists, tradition bearers, and progressive cultural institutions are using their skills to illuminate our increasing cultural diversity, and to challenge our increasing social, economic and educational divides.  They are helping disadvantaged groups give voice to their stories… They are assisting people to exert their political and civil rights… These resources are at every community’s disposal and, with greater philanthropic support, they can be deployed more extensively and effectively” (emphasis mine).

With greater philanthropic support, any resources can be deployed more extensively. Whether or not they are also deployed more effectively, and in particular more effectively than the larger organization down the street, is a different and more complicated question than “Fusing” acknowledges.

None of the issues identified above undermines the assertion that inequities exist within the arts sector. They do, however, raise questions about the extent to which those inequities are problematic, and whether they are problematic for the same reasons that the report identifies.


“Fusing” does not, in my mind, provide a comprehensive argument for how private grant dollars should be restructured to better address social ills, but where it does succeed is in raising very strong and pointed questions to compel us to think more deeply about how and when the basic notion of equity informs arts funding. What I find to be Sidford’s best and most thought-provoking question isn’t included in “Fusing,” but raised in GIA’s online equity forum: “What if we could start fresh and design a new system of support for arts and culture in this country,” she asks, “with equity as one of its fundamental tenets?”

If “Fusing” had been written as an extended meditation on possible answers to that question, I suspect the resulting essay would envision, among other things, a much greater government investment in the arts. Government institutions in a democratic society are, in theory at least, more naturally aligned toward equitably serving the public, and providing basic services to the disadvantaged, than private institutions. ”Fusing” highlights this point in noting that public arts’ agencies “broad mandate” has historically made their funds more accessible to cultural groups serving marginalized communities. If the demographic and aesthetic statistics in “Fusing” had been applied toward arguing for greater and more stable public investment in the arts, I doubt I would have found as much to quibble with.

Barring a massive reinvestment in public arts funding, which given our current economic and political environment isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, uncertainties remain about how and how much the role of private funders should change. As mentioned earlier, two unanswered questions hover over “Fusing,” both of which have implications for private grantmakers. To revisit them one at a time:

1) In which contexts are the arts are the most efficient and effective means of addressing social inequity? 

This question is one that, as a field, we are only beginning to answer. As the report states, “in the past 100 years, we have made a science of developing nonprofit arts institutions but we are still relative neophytes in understanding the role of the arts in catalyzing individual and community capacity, and sustaining individual and community health.” Private funders are well poised to help us deepen that understanding in two ways: first, as “Fusing” suggests, by seeking out and learning from the higher-quality work undertaken by arts and social change organizations; and second, by supporting systems through which our field can become more systematic and thoughtful in exploring and documenting the impact of arts programming on the general public. This latter strategy could take two forms. The first involves incentivizing/requiring grantees to collect more specific information on who their programs are reaching and how exactly those audiences are being served. (The Cultural Data Project springs to mind here as a potential resource with opportunity for expansion.)

The second involves funding third-party research to study both the intended and unexpected consequences of arts programming in underserved communities. Sidford refers to existing research on the impact of art and social change, and implies that established best practices exist (“documented in a growing body of various resources including books, studies, films and websites”). The report doesn’t delve into either in detail, however, so it’s unclear how many models exist and which could (and should) be brought to larger scale. Increased funding for third-party research would be less burdensome to small organizations, which lack infrastructure to support robust research and data collection. It could also help refine best practices and research tools that could then be applied back to large and midsized organizations.

2) How can private grant resources most efficiently, effectively and sustainably address inequities within the artistic field?

The answer(s) to this question will depend in large part on how those inequities are defined. They include inequity of access to artistic and cultural capital, inequity of access to and preservation of cultural heritage, inequity of access to audience, and so forth. If we focus on inequity of benefit from artistic practice, broadly defined, then I think we could use a better understanding of how newer, more grassroots organizations evolve as they expand their scale and scope, both with and without private funding support. Sidford states that “many [such] organizations do not fit the classic model of an arts institution… their internal structures and more informal than conventional arts institutions, their modus operandi more nimble and opportunistic, and their resources almost never in line with their commitments.” As the aforementioned “science” of building nonprofit arts institutions has taught us, organizations undergo fundamental changes in both their administrative structures and their delivery systems as they build up private grant support. These organizations may not now operate under a “classic model,” but the models they do offer seem like fertile testing grounds for better understanding not just the impact of artist-activism, but the impact of private grant support on that activism.

“Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change” raises compelling questions about inequities in arts and culture funding that demand to be taken seriously. In the end, I cannot dispute the claim that many small and culturally-specific arts organizations deserve to receive more attention and resources than they do.  In order to determine how best to identify and support them, however, our field must identify and pursue learning opportunities that can help arts funders be as efficient and impactful with existing resources as possible. As Sidford notes, shifting arts grantmaking toward a greater focus on equity is a long-term process. Managing that shift well requires care, experimentation, and a lot of trial and error. It also requires our collective willingness to set ideology aside and, without apology, question, examine and clarify the benefit and impact of artistic practice on all communities.



From Grassroots to Institution, Growing With Integrity

"Rhythm & Rest" by the Animus Collective, 2009" at FIGMENT NYCPhoto Credit: Suzie Sims-Fletcher courtesy of FIGMENT

“Rhythm & Rest” by the Animus Collective, 2009″ at FIGMENT NYC
Photo Credit: Suzie Sims-Fletcher courtesy of FIGMENT

For the past two and a half years I’ve been involved with FIGMENT, a non-profit organization that produces participatory art events in a growing list of cities, including New York, Boston, DC, Detroit, Jackson and Pittsburgh. When I first joined FIGMENT in 2010, it had already grown from a one-day event on New York City’s Governors Island attended by about two thousand people in July of 2007 to an annual weekend-long participatory arts festival attended by tens of thousands. FIGMENT had begun to expand geographically, producing a weekend event in Boston, and temporally, with a dedicated summer-long FIGMENT area on the Governors Island featuring an artist-designed minigolf course and an interactive sculpture garden. Since then, the organization has continued to grow, with events and members in cities across the United States, and even internationally—there are plans for FIGMENT events in Canada and Australia. Last year, FIGMENT received its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and this year it hired its first paid employee (the organization had previously been run entirely by volunteers). Also for the first time this year, FIGMENT will be providing some artists a small stipend beyond the cost of materials. Past Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel also works with FIGMENT, and recently profiled the organization’s growth in a piece for Americans for the Arts.

Because of my own personal investment in FIGMENT, I’ve become increasingly interested in the effects of institutional support on alternative arts organizations and projects. This grassroots/alternative arts group is hiring paid staff, providing artist compensation, creating guidelines and consistent branding for events, and receiving more mainstream institutional support and recognition. How will its ability to carry out of its principles, which include participation, decommodification, inclusion and access, be affected?

To understand what FIGMENT might encounter in the future, I thought I’d investigate how more established non-profit arts organizations have fared during similar transitions. Perhaps the organization can benefit by looking at the successes and pitfalls of other groups.

In 1974, a trio of actors founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in a Deerfield, Illinois Unitarian church with a commitment to ensemble collaboration and artistic risk. The company’s stated mission was to “advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.” In the past nearly 40 years, the organization has had numerous expansions—first to the basement of a Catholic school, then to a 134-seat theater at the Jane Hull House Center in Chicago, again to a 211-seat space at 2851 North Halsted Street in Chicago, and finally to its present home, a theater complex at 1650 North Halsted. Today, Steppenwolf is an ensemble of 43 artists, including actors, directors, playwrights and filmmakers, with an annual audience of over 200,000 and an operating budget of $13.5 million. The company has won numerous awards, including a National Medal of Arts and a Tony Award for regional excellence.

As Steppenwolf has evolved, it has remained financially solvent while strengthening its community engagement, even as many performing arts organizations are struggling with a decline in subscription rates, or tickets for an entire season of programming can be renewed annually. In fact, Steppenwolf has also suffered from attrition in subscriptions, which means a decline in a steady, predictable stream of revenue. However, the organization used this funding issue as an opportunity to re-examine its core values. A 2011 study by the Wallace Foundation on building arts audiences profiled Steppenwolf’s strategy for building deeper relationships with both subscribers and non-subscribers. The paper outlined the company’s “Public Square” initiative, which included post-show discussions after every performance led by facilitators who are specifically trained to progress a dialogue within the audience; additional online content, with access to interviews, articles, podcasts and videos for each production on its website; and a series of social events that are free and open to the public and offer the opportunity to explore thematic elements of current productions. The strategy led to a 61% increase in multi-performance ticket sales, as well a deeper level of audience engagement. In short, Steppenwolf’s institutionalization has not resulted in the compromise of its values, but instead has actually furthered them.

Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco is another organization that has maintained and expanded its mission since its inception forty years ago. Founded in a former bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, it began as an interdenominational space that sought to bridge artistic and spiritual ideas. The organization produced alternative musical performances, theater pieces, screenings, readings and workshops. Four expansions and relocations later, Intersection continues to provide such programming in addition to maintaining a gallery space, sponsoring artist residencies with individuals and collectives, and promoting community engagement via collaborative and educational opportunities. In fact, it is such an established cultural institution that in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article, Visual Arts, Literary and Jazz Program Director Kevin Chen acknowledged that “Intersection is no longer alternative.” But far from losing its way, Intersection has become an institution that smaller, alternative organizations now look to for support.

The success stories of Steppenwolf and Intersection for the Arts have achieved an almost mythic quality in Chicago and San Francisco—it’s the dream that that many non-profit arts organizations aspire to. But for every Steppenwolf or Intersection, there are multiple failures like The Franklin Street Arts Center, Collective for Living Cinema, Minor Injury and Matzo Files. It’s more difficult to find information on these defunct spaces and groups, which can seem to disappear in a day. Some began expanding, and then folded due to lack of funding, or were absorbed by a larger, more mainstream entity, resulting in a compromise of artistic vision and mission.

P.S.1 is one such example of an alternative arts organization that expanded beyond its means. Founded in 1971 by Alanna Heiss through the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, an organization that developed exhibitions in abandoned spaces across New York City, the center’s original mission was to showcase young artists and offer an exhibition space for risk-taking works that weren’t necessarily saleable or commercially viable. From 1994-7 P.S.1 underwent an $8.5 million gut renovation and expansion, adding an elevator and sculpture garden and redesigning their galleries. Although its subsequent 2000 merger with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was billed as a win for both organizations, enhancing MoMA’s contemporary art initiatives and giving P.S.1 access to MoMA’s collection and marketing resources, in reality, P.S.1 needed a larger institution to rescue it after the expansion had depleted its financial resources. Now renamed MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art controls the center’s finances and has the right to appoint its board members. In 2008, after a planned 7-year transition period for the center and MoMA, Heiss was forced into retirement. In his 2008 New York Magazine article, Andrew M. Goldstein recounts his lunchtime conversation with Heiss and Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director:

“I told him I didn’t want to retire,” Heiss explains. “And he said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to work another couple of years.’ And he said, ‘I think I’m going to go ahead on the retirement plan.’ And now we’re talking about what I might do.” Lowry says the discussions are ongoing—“These are not easy conversations”—but he made clear that he and MoMA’s board considered Heiss’s retirement necessary for P.S. 1’s evolving future within MoMA. “From my perspective, the seven-year period was a transition period; the goal was to get to know each other and make things work, and then at the end of that transition period to move on,” he says.

P.S.1’s institutional expansion—the addition of space and staff, as well as the support it received from the established MoMA–transformed it from an alternative arts space to a branch of a commercial contemporary art museum. It now throws parties sponsored by Volkswagen, and launches exhibitions anchored by established artists who can draw crowds. Recent and current exhibitions at MoMA PS1 include a Kraftwerk installation that coincided with the electronic-music pioneers’ MoMA retrospective; “September 11,” which showed work by heavyweight artists like Diane Arbus, John Chamberlain, William Eggleston, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Alex Katz, Barbara Kruger and Yoko Ono; and a solo show of work by Huma Bhaba, who has work in the collections of The Whitney, The Saatchi Gallery, MoMA, and the Met. The final Warm Up of this year was DJed by Thom Yorke’s new project Atoms for Peace. This programming may be worthy in its own right, but it’s not the risky programming meant to give emerging artists a platform that the original P.S.1 was founded on. Administrative practices that enable sustained revenue should allow for more risk-taking and challenging work, but unfortunately, as with P.S.1, this is often not the result.

Building—creating a space or expanding a space– is arguably the purest form of institutionalization. It’s a concrete statement that an organization intends to be around for the long-term. “Set in Stone,” a recent study by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, examined the results of the physical expansions of cultural organizations between 1994 and 2008, drawing on data from more than 700 construction projects. The authors looked at how new facilities related to organizations’ missions; the additional staff, technical support and marketing expertise needed to effectively operate new spaces; how new facilities helped or did not help organizations to engage the surrounding communities; and the relationship of funding streams to new spaces. The final report explains:

In many cases, the actual need for a new facility had not been demonstrated (even though there was often great enthusiasm about getting underway with construction); the connection between a new facility and delivering more effectively on mission was in many instances quite murky; realism about how a new facility could be sustained once built was frequently missing – both in terms of the financial resources and staff needed to successfully run a new facility. The list goes on. New facilities would open, organizations would then run into financial problems because of insufficient revenue, or an inadequate endowment, or because they couldn’t service the debt they incurred to build, or because the building was too costly to operate, or it turned out to be beyond the organization’s capacity to administer and sustain.

Although most of the organizations, projects and budgets in this study are much larger than FIGMENT or other young alternative arts organizations, the takeaway is still relevant: The most successful projects were motivated by both artistic mission and organizational need. Project leadership was clear, consistent and sustained throughout the process, leaders provided efficient timelines and effect feedback, and expenses were controlled during construction. While this study was specifically about physical expansions, I also believe that these points hold true for other types of expansions, such as in staff or geography.

With all of this in mind, then, the question remains: how can FIGMENT remain “alternative” even as it receives more mainstream support?

FIGMENT strives to provide opportunities for emerging artists to showcase interactive works that wouldn’t necessarily be commercially successful. The group quite literally takes art out of the museum or gallery, primarily using outdoor spaces such as public parks for its events. According to FIGMENT co-founder and executive producer Dave Koren, this strategy has helped FIGMENT remain inclusive and accessible by showcasing a broad array of work from many artists in large, free spaces that are easily reached by the public. FIGMENT’s open call for project proposals also facilitates a transparent and wide-ranging curatorial process. FIGMENT once decided not to go forward with an event in Mexico City because there wasn’t enough time to do an open call for art there. The organizers there had proposed to approach specific artists and collectives, but FIGMENT decided that handpicking people and projects for the event would privilege particular groups and run counter to the organization’s principles.

Koren says that this open call process is especially important when there is a limited amount of space, as there is in FIGMENT’s season-long area on Governors Island, which includes an architectural pavilion, an interactive sculpture garden, and an artist-designed minigolf course. Works are chosen for this exhibition via an open call for proposals with specific, intensive guidelines and a rigorous jury evaluation.

As FIGMENT expands to new cities, ensuring that the new organizers, teams and artists understand FIGMENT’s mission is not always easy. “They get the big picture, but not always the specifics that it involves,” Koren says. He recounted one group that planned to have a bar tent with beer for sale, similar to what one usually finds at an outdoor concert. He had to clarify to them that this would violate FIGMENT’s decommodification principle. “FIGMENT seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We will not substitute consumption for experience.” FIGMENT events aren’t places to sell things, whether that be art or food or beer. For that reason, FIGMENT doesn’t want to endorse a vendor, or rely on commercial vendors as a source of revenue.

FIGMENT has recently been the recipient of some substantial grants, including one from the NEA, and the group continues to apply for funding in the form of grants from foundations. However, the group is wary of relying on these grants as a main source of revenue. Many grants have very specific criteria; it’s important that the group doesn’t lose sight of its own mission while trying to fit a grant’s standards. Ultimately, as FIGMENT builds its community, it hopes to build its donor base along with it. According to Koren, “what we’re seeing is that someone first comes to FIGMENT as an artist, then takes a greater role as a team member, and then also becomes a donor.” It’s this community of donors, it is hoped, who will sustain FIGMENT.

Institutionalization in the form of paid staff, money for artists, and physical or geographical expansion results in budget increases. Therefore, financial support from other institutions as well as from a group’s community also need to grow. The challenge for alternative arts organizations is in both growing that revenue and not compromising on artistic mission and principles. Will FIGMENT remain FIGMENT—retaining its essence and principles as it expands to Texas and California and Australia and beyond? Will its institutionalization further its mission, or weaken it? Will support from major funders lead to a realignment of values? Only time will tell, but the best predictors may be those outlined in the “Set in Stone” study: motivation, leadership and implementation. If these are the criteria, FIGMENT seems to be positioning itself well for the challenges ahead.

Leave a comment

From Palate to Palette: Can Food be Art?

Can food be art? Photo courtesy of Jacquelyn Strycker

Can food be art?
Image courtesy of Jacquelyn Strycker

Last night, I cooked broccoli rabe with caramelized onions and vegan fennel sausage, along with a creamy parmesan polenta and a crusty whole wheat rosemary bread made from the Camaldoli sourdough culture that I feed flour to each day. Like many artists I know, I love to cook. My bookshelves are filled with equal numbers of art books and cookbooks. I often spend between one and two hours making dinner each night. I used to feel guilty about this—worried that my time would be better spent in my studio drawing or printing or otherwise artmaking—but then I came to see that making food—combining textures, flavors, scents and colors—is also creative. Indeed, I know many artists who are also passionate about food, and have come to consider food a part of their practices. A recent New York Times opinion piece even claims that food “has replaced art as high culture.” Yet the same article argues that food is not art.

Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art.

A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.

Is this true, or do chefs deserve a place at the table with painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians and performers? Can food be art?

In fact, there’s a long tradition of food as artistic medium. A paper by Howard Coutts and Ivam Day published by the Henry Moore Foundation describes the European sugar sculpture, porcelain and table layouts from the 16th through 19th centuries. Dining was not just about eating food, but also about its elaborate display. Tables were adorned with sculptures made from marzipan, wax or sugar paste. Court artists and designers “of the highest caliber” were the creators of these edible works. Coutts and Day describe an 1815 feast given in the Great Hall of the Louvre by the Royal Guard to celebrate the final defeat of Napoleon:

Huge pièces montées, in the form of gilded sugar military trophies, crafted by the patissier Carême, were displayed between the tables. At this level, table decorations were an aspect of political and social prestige, and required the skills of the finest artists and craftsmen of the time.

More recently, we can look at German artist Wolfgang Laib’s milkstones and rice pieces. Laib’s milkstones are large square slabs of marble that have been hollowed out and filled with milk, resulting in reflective white squares. His “Unlimited Ocean” was a grid of 30,000 piles of rice installed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Laib uses these natural materials to create ephemeral and sensual experiences.

Leah Foster's "Muffin Tops"Image courtesy of the artist

Leah Foster’s “Muffin Tops”
Image courtesy of the artist

Similarly, we can also look at the work of emerging artist Leah Foster, who has created elaborate installations using cupcakes. For Muffin Tops, she used thousands of cupcakes and glazed surfaces of the gallery with batter and frosting.

But food as medium is not the same as declaring that a meal is art. We get closer to this with relational aesthetics and social practice, which often use food to facilitate social interaction and community. Last year, Rirkrit Tiravanija replicated his installation, Untitled (Free/ Still) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Museum goers were able to enter a gallery and receive a bowl of vegetarian thai curry over rice, take some water from a stocked refrigerator and then sit at one of several communal tables. The work was originally installed at 303 gallery over 20 years ago. The artist describes the original installation in a conversation with MoMA’s Director, Glenn Lowry.

So when you first walk in, what you see is kind of haphazard storage space. But as you approached this you could start to smell the jasmine rice. That kind of draws you through to the office space. And in this place I made two pots of curries, green curries. One was made how Thai restaurants in New York were making it. To counter that, on the other pot was a authentically made Thai curry. I was working on the idea of food, but in a kind of anthropological and archeological way. It was a lot about the layers of taste and otherness.

A Fallen Fruit Collective "public fruit jam" Photo credit: Julian Bleeker

A Fallen Fruit Collective “public fruit jam”
Photo credit: Julian Bleeker

Fallen Fruit Collective is another example of participatory art involving food. David Burns, Matias Viegner and Austin Young use fruit as a material to explore notions of “urban space, ideas of neighborhood and new forms of located citizenship and community.” One of their most popular projects are their “public fruit jams” in which they invite members of the community to bring fruit and collaborate with one another to make jams. The collective explains:

Working without recipes, we ask people to sit with others they do not already know and negotiate what kind of jam to make: if I have lemons and you have figs, we’d make lemon fig jam (with lavender). Each jam is a social experiment. Usually held in a gallery or museum, this event forefronts the social and public nature of Fallen Fruit’s work, and we consider it a collaboration with the public as well as each other.

But ultimately the aforementioned projects are art first and food second. We don’t really care how Tiravanija’s curry or Fallen Fruit Collective’s jams taste; food is the means to creating a social work. Rather than art made from food (food as medium), or art that uses food to create an experience (food as impetus), is there art that is food that is art?

Future Farmers Victory Garden Seeds Photo Credit: Mark Simpkins

Future Farmers Victory Garden Seeds
Photo Credit: Mark Simpkins

We start to get there if we look at small-scale food production. Community gardens are now often viewed as both organic, local food sources and art projects. Victory Gardens 2007+ is a project developed by Garden for the Environment and the City of San Francisco’s Department for the Environment with “lead artist” Amy Franceschini. Both an art project and a model/ support system for urban gardening, they’ve received funding from art institutions like SFMOMA and the Fleishhacker Foundation. The project aims to create a network of “urban farmers” who utilize rooftops, window boxes, backyards and unused plots of land for food production. It includes the development and distribution of seed starter kits to home gardeners, food-production educational initiatives and the development of a city seed bank. The success of the gardens and seed bank are integral to the success of the project, making it equally about art and food production.

If food production can be art, why don’t we also consider the cooking of food as art? Combining and transforming materials is a fundamentally creative activity, whether those materials are paints, clays, musical notes or edible ingredients. In fact, gastronomy is even included in some countries’ ministries of cultural affairs. The embassy of Peru’s Public Diplomacy department lists “gastronomy, including the promotion of the Peruvian national drink, Pisco,” in the six types of cultural programming that the embassy supports, alongside visual arts exhibitions, cinema and music. Last year, Spain’s Ministry of Culture partnered with Casa Asia, the Cervantes Institute and the Spanish Embassy New Delhi to promote Spanish “culture industries” in India. The programming included a lecture from José Luis Galiana of Basque Culinary Center, the first university-level education centre in Gastronomic Sciences in Europe. And, in 2010, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) honored the “gastronomic meal of the French” as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”

If cuisine can be recognized as culture, then why aren’t we also acknowledging it as art? At street fairs in Brooklyn and on, handcrafted, small batch artisanal foods like habanero ketchup, black garlic mayo, buffalo jerky and sea salt chocolate caramels are sold alongside knit scarves, hand sewn quilts, embroidered tea towels and beaded jewelry. The most recent Renegade Craft Fair– a juried marketplace of handmade goods– had vendors selling items like letterpress stationary, molded soaps, screenprinted t-shirts, ceramics and carved wood furniture, as well as local honey, cookies, spices and bonbons, and offerings from Chickpea & Olive and La Crêpe C’est Si Bon. The DIY movement has embraced food as craft.

The design community has also begun welcoming cuisine into the fold. Core77 Design Awards includes a category for “Food Design.” The Vitra Design Museum Boisbuchet in France has hosted a lecture by food photographer, designer and cookbook author Emilie Baltz. And in 2011, I attended Talk to Me: A Symposium at MoMA, a program that featured presentations and panel discussions related to the Architecture and Design’s concurrent exhibition, Talk to Me: Design and Communication between People and Objects. Marcus Samuelsson, the acclaimed Ethiopian-born and Swedish-raised chef and owner of Red Rooster Harlem was one of the panelists. Samuelsson passed out spiced nuts to rapt audience members, and spoke about how he designed the menu at his restaurant so that it would reflect the diversity of the Harlem community in which it’s located: dishes include soul food and Dominican cuisine with nods to Samuelsson’s own Swedish heritage, all using foods from local farmers and artisans. He was both chef and designer.

An edible menu from Moto Photo credit: Seth Anderson

An edible menu from Moto
Photo credit: Seth Anderson

We can also look at molecular gastronomy as a point of intersection between design and food. Also referred to as modernist cuisine, it involves the application of scientific principles to cooking in order to create surprising and inventive aesthetics and textures in food. At Moto, a Chicago restaurant that specializes in this type of cooking, diners may be served a deconstructed/ reconstructed avocado, be asked to put on a smoked glove to eat a chocolate dish, and finish their meal with a printed elderflower-marshmallow menu. The restaurant’s kitchen includes a lab where chefs conduct technological experiments to create innovative dishes with flavors that often seem incongruous to their appearance, disrupting diners’ notions of what food can be.

The art world is beginning to notice. In October, Suzanne Anker, Chair of the BFA Fine Arts department at the School of Visual Arts, organized a conference called “Molecular Cuisine: The Politics of Taste” that investigated “the importance of taste from the perspectives of the culinary arts, sociology, art history and theory, anthropology, as well as the cognitive, material and biological sciences.” Anker’s projects at SVA include overseeing the creation of a Nature and Technology Lab, where, among other things, students can experiment with alternative growing systems like aquaponics, and a molecular gastronomy kit that gives them the tools to create items like olive oil foam, balsamic vinegar caviar and strawberry spaghetti.

The Edible Schoolyard at MLK Middle School in Berkeley Photo credit: mental.masala

The Edible Schoolyard at MLK Middle School in Berkeley
Photo credit: mental.masala

But it shouldn’t just be novel high-tech cooking techniques that warrant our attention. The art world needs to include chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Alice Waters, David Chang and Christian Puglisi in its conversation as well. Waters’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, opened over four decades ago with seasonal menus created from organic, locally-sourced ingredients, serving as a model and inspiration for the locavore and slow food movements. Her Edible Schoolyard Project, begun in 1996, integrates gardening, cooking and sharing school lunch into the academic curriculums of participating institutions. Chang’s Momofuku empire serves food that combines techniques from and pays homage to wildly varying fare including Asian street food, French cuisine and McDonald’s. Puglisi’s Relea is committed to providing creative, organic, environmentally responsible meals while simultaneously eliminating the exclusivity associated with fine dining. These chefs aren’t just cooking inventive and delicious cuisine. They are also using food to tell stories, conjure memories, and to establish philosophies, such as a connection between cooking, community and sustainability.

The arts, including painting, sculpture, installation, dance and music, are in part about creating a sensory experience—something for the audience to see, feel or hear. And perhaps more than any other discipline, food has the ability to appeal to all of our senses—a combination of colors, textures, crunches, smells and tastes goes into the making of a meal, and the selection and transformation of those elements is creative. When a creative, sensory form also has the capacity to express philosophies, inspire multiple interpretations, conjure narratives and/or allude to complex meanings, it is art, whether the medium is paint or piano or polenta. Food has not replaced art as high culture; it is art.


Around the horn: fiscal cliff edition

A friendly reminder that the deadline for the Createquity Writing Fellowship is noon Eastern time on Tuesday, January 8. All it takes is a 250-word statement of interest to get started. Look forward to reading your submissions!



  • Senior program officer Lynn Stern is leaving the Surdna Foundation’s Thriving Arts and Cultures program.
  • The New York Times‘s veteran culture editor Jonathan Landman has accepted a buyout from the Gray Lady.


  • Mark Zuckerberg has committed half a billion dollars to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. This is interesting in that community foundations have been increasingly seen as a relic of past generations of donors, with new millionaires and billionaires choosing to distribute their philanthropy with the help of private wealth advisors instead. This gift, coming as it does from one of the scions of the technology world, could change that in a big way. Dan Lyons reluctantly gives Zuck the slow clap.
  • Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center may be plenty controversial, tearing up as it did significant chunks of the neighborhood, but one thing that’s pretty great about it is that none of the concessions stands are operated by national chains. Instead, “you can get barbecue from Williamsburg’s Fatty ’Cue; Cuban sandwiches from Fort Greene’s Habana Outpost; pizza from Gravesend’s Spumoni Gardens; and, in an inspired old-school-new-school mashup, a confection called a concrete that combines Junior’s black-and-white cookies with ice cream from Blue Marble.” Here’s hoping other developers take the hint and start buying local.


  • After a period of impressive growth, Ovation, the only cable channel exclusively devoted to the arts (as traditionally defined), is being dropped by Time Warner Cable. The story is well worth a read, as it is an object lesson on what happens in the commercial marketplace for culture when profit maximization is the goal. Despite costing Time Warner a mere seven cents per subscriber, it (along with other low-rated networks) is being shed to help pay for major increases in the network’s most expensive channels, mostly sports-related. If you’re a Time Warner customer and would like to voice your concern, Ovation has set up a website for the purpose.
  • Greg Sandow has been offering an interesting series on “mavericks”/bright spots in classical music, including this profile of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston.
  • More on the mysterious Woodruff Arts Center embezzlement fiasco.
  • Crowdfunding French style means helping the Louvre acquire $3 million ivory statuettes.


  • Some end-of-year looking back and prognostication: Nonprofit Law Blog recounts the big nonprofit moments of 2012; Thomas Cott crowdsources arts predictions for 2013, and Barry Hessenius says nothin’ much will change this year. (I think Barry’s got it right.) Meanwhile, Tim Mikulski possibly reveals too much in recounting the top posts on AFTA’s ARTSblog in 2012.
  • Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating interview with Jaron Lanier, an internet pioneer and futurist who has now turned against many of the hacker-derived “information should be free” principles he once embraced. In explaining his change of heart, he cites the music industry as exhibit A of what went wrong.

    “I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines.” (They still had mega-concert tour profits.) “Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’ “And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal level—this isn’t working. And I think you can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say there’s too much wrong with these experiments.”

    And then there’s this:

    “To my mind an overleveraged unsecured mortgage is exactly the same thing as a pirated music file. It’s somebody’s value that’s been copied many times to give benefit to some distant party. In the case of the music files, it’s to the benefit of an advertising spy like Google [which monetizes your search history], and in the case of the mortgage, it’s to the benefit of a fund manager somewhere. But in both cases all the risk and the cost is radiated out toward ordinary people and the middle classes—and even worse, the overall economy has shrunk in order to make a few people more.”

    Read the whole thing.



  • Here’s some advice from a pro on live-tweeting events and conferences in an official capacity.
  • “My five-year-old could have painted this” is so over. Now it’s, “my pet snake could have painted this!”
Leave a comment

Createquity in Quotes: 2012

Becker’s statement gets at some of the main challenges in measuring the “impact” of a work of public art—a task which more often than not provokes grumbling from public art administrators. When asked how they know their work is successful, most organizations and artists that create art in the public realm are quick to cite things like people’s positive comments, or the fact that the artwork doesn’t get covered with graffiti or cause controversy.

Katherine Gressel, Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation (January 7)

But more than that, I sometimes wish we wouldn’t take what we do so damn seriously all the time. Maybe this is coming from someone who’s spent too much time on Roadside America, but I think that by pretending that all artwork is sacred, we unwittingly make failure (acknowledged or not) unacceptable. Of course art is subjective, but that’s precisely the point. Maybe it’s okay to hate a specific piece of public art, if that’s one’s honest response. Maybe we should be encouraging honest responses. Especially to public art, which, unlike a bad performance, is still there the next day and, unlike bad museum or gallery art, is visible to you whether you want it to be or not.

Ian David Moss, Uncomfortable Thoughts: Is Public Art Worthy of Hate? (February 21)

Given all the above, it may seem ironic that it is Kickstarter that has seized the mantle of democratizing access to the arts in the public imagination, rather than the NEA. A closer examination, however, quickly reveals why. In recent years, the NEA has focused on arts access from the perspective of the audience, particularly through geographic reach. The Endowment publishes national studies on arts participation twice a decade, supports touring programs through its network of regional partners, and frequently supports established organizations that are capable of bringing in large crowds consistently. But these measures are often not so friendly to the creator. The NEA’s focus on pre-existing institutions, its requirement that applicants hold tax-exempt status, and its extensive application requirements and lengthy review process all erect barriers to participation no less formidable than those that face artist-entrepreneurs who come to Kickstarter without access to a video camera.

Ian David Moss, Art and Democracy: The NEA, Kickstarter, and Creativity in America (April 9)

So if audience engagement is about utilizing the work of art to facilitate authentic, personally-relevant connections with others and the work of art itself, it seems we have an army of individuals waiting in the wings to be asked to the party. Teaching artists, still frighteningly in the margins of our quest to reinvent arts institutions, are experts in audience engagement. They do the following things exceedingly well:

  • Teach cognitive skills needed to think artistically and creatively
  • Teach aesthetic education, or the ability to make sense of art, not skills-based art-making
  • Understand how to create questions and activities that are relevant to diverse ages and levels of arts education
  • Work across the community, from performing and presenting works for discerning adult audiences as well as in schools in rural and low-income neighborhoods
  • Understand that what they do is spiritual in nature, and help create a link to individuals’ higher selves.

Kelly Dylla, Why Teaching Artists Will Lead the Charge in Audience Engagement (May 10)

Art and science have a longstanding relationship, and it does a disservice to both to pretend that isolation from one another is the best approach. For example, there is a long history of illustration in biology. Chemistry uses pictograms with specific rules to convey structures and arrangements of atoms and molecules. Many of these traditional methods have specific rules to most accurately represent ideas, or particular aspects of an idea. These methods of visualization are developed to work within the scientific community, frequently to the exclusion of the lay person. But interesting things begin to happen once those strict rules of representation are relaxed. Most specifically, in Dance Your Ph.D. we see scientists imagine their works through dance.

Shane Crerar, Understanding Through Tangential Questioning: Art, Dance Your Ph.D., and the Large Hadron Collider (May 16)

One of the reasons people sometimes feel anxious about evaluation and measurement is because they’re afraid of being held accountable, especially to things that they don’t have full control over or to metrics that don’t seem relevant to what they’re trying to do. When that happens, there are enormous incentives on managers and their supervisors to “cook the books” or otherwise game the system to show results that look better than reality, because any failure—even failures that are no one’s fault—reflects on them personally. That’s the danger of trying to enforce a data-driven culture without first developing the theoretical frameworks that determine what data you’re trying to collect. Because logic models separate the person from the program, they can distinguish between lagging initiatives that might just need more time to prove themselves, and failures of design that can be transformed into productive learning opportunities.

—Ian David Moss, In Defense of Logic Models (June 28)

The survey bias may significantly undermine one of the five goals of the study, to “measure levels of cultural engagement, broadly defined” in the Inland Empire and Central Valley. Given that both Phase 1 and Phase 2 display signs of pro-arts bias, it’s difficult to take the reported levels of overall cultural engagement at face value. The four other goals don’t require as broad a view of the data, and Cultural Engagement serves them much better. They include exploring and defining what arts engagement means for the target regions; understanding differences in engagement across demographic cohorts; investigating the settings in which people engage with the arts; and developing recommendations for how Irvine can more effectively support arts and culture. Even if the report’s numbers for the general public represent an already arts-interested population, results showing an expansive definition of arts and culture, differences in engagement among racial/ethnic cohorts, and a wide variety of arts settings are likely relatively unaffected. WolfBrown’s recommendations to adjust Irvine’s funding to reflect these findings seem to rest on a fairly strong foundation.

—Jackie Hasa, Arts Policy Library: Cultural Engagement in California’s Inland Regions (July 3)

Nevertheless, what “Discovering Fiscally Sponsored NYC Dancemakers” does show is that fiscal sponsorship is a major force in the New York City dance world. Sponsored projects account for hundreds of distinct enterprises and at least $3 million in annual expenditures. They reach tens of thousands of audience members and serve something like a thousand artists (assuming a reasonable rate of overlap between projects). And remember, this is just in one discipline and one city of the country.

Ian David Moss, “Discovering Fiscally Sponsored NYC Dancemakers” (September 17)

In any particular place, changes in the proposed indicators will not be attributable to the creative placemaking intervention alone. So imagine the distress of a fundee whose indicators are moving the wrong way and which place them poorly in comparison to others. Area property values may be falling because an environmentally obnoxious plant starts up. Other projects might look great on indicators not because of their initiatives, but because another intervention, like a new light rail system or a new community-based school dramatically changes the neighborhood. What we’d would love to have, but don’t at this point, are sophisticated causal models of creative placemaking…

—Ann Markusen, Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success (November 9)

Shared delivery does not reflect what I or, based on anecdotal evidence, the majority of people within my age bracket received in terms of arts education. My fifth grade generalist teacher was a woman named Mrs. Gonzalez. I saw her every day, and she taught me math, reading, science, history and so forth. My school had a visual arts specialist, Ms. Peters, whom I saw once a week. Art never really came up during my math/reading/science/history lessons, and math/reading/science/history never really came up during my art lessons, so if Mrs. Gonzalez and Ms. Peters worked together behind the scenes, their collaboration wasn’t readily apparent to me. The only visiting teaching artists I recall encountering in elementary school were members of a theater company who performed an abridged version of Macbeth during a school-wide assembly in our cafeteria. Afterwards they sat on plastic chairs and answered questions. They stayed for about an hour, and we never saw them again.

Talia Gibas, Unpacking Shared Delivery of Arts Education (December 3)

Here were the most-read articles from the past year, in case you missed them:

  1. Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem
  2. Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation
  3. Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success
  4. In Defense of Logic Models
  5. Unpacking Shared Delivery of Arts Education
  6. Parklets: Coming Soon to a City Near You
  7. Art and Democracy: The NEA, Kickstarter, and Creativity in America
  8. Burning Man is Dead; Long Live Burning Man
  9. Why Teaching Artists Will Lead the Charge in Audience Engagement
  10. Apply for the Spring 2012 Createquity Writing Fellowship
Leave a comment

The Top 10 Arts Policy Stories of 2012

From Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History's Family Fallapalooza

From Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s Family Fallapalooza

Each year, Createquity offers a list of the top ten arts policy stories of the past 12 months. You can read the previous editions here: 2009, 2010, and 2011.  The list, like the blog, is focused on the United States, but is not oblivious to news from other parts of the world. This year, for the first time, I opened up the creation of this list to Createquity authors past and present, and I am particularly grateful to Jackie Hasa for contributing the entries for orchestra labor strife and SOPA/PIPA versus the internet. If you’re interested in being a part of a growing and increasingly active team here, a reminder that the deadline for the Createquity Writing Fellowship is coming up on January 8.

2012 was a year of cautious optimism for the arts. As the economy continued its slow recovery, for the first time in four years, government funding at the state level did not see a decline, and the slash-and-burn tax-cutting fervor of political conservatives seemed to be blunted by November’s election results, at least temporarily. There were stories of individual organizations making good, and ambitious initiatives seemed to be around every corner. And yet in certain contexts, the arts were still or newly facing dark days. Arts communities in much of Europe and the Western world struggled with austerity measures, as did orchestra musicians in the United States. And in many Muslim countries, art and artists found themselves in the middle of (or even the target of) oppression, strife, and violence. One comes away from this list with the sense that things are going to be interesting in 2013.

10. Nina Simon reboots the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

I don’t normally include innovation stories from rank-and-file arts organizations on this list, but Nina Simon’s transformation of Santa Cruz MAH has been so far-reaching and impressive that its broader fieldwide significance is hard to deny. It’s not just about the numbers, though Simon has those too: attendance has more than doubled, the busiest day drew triple the participants over previous years,and there’s now a $350,000 cash reserve. More interesting, however, is the combination of Simon’s fame and her daring programming that has put the MAH “on the map” in a way that simply wasn’t the case before. Simon is the rarer-than-you-might-think example of a consultant who has successfully transitioned into an executive role, and in the process she has eagerly seized the opportunity to reshape a struggling institution into a playground for her (and the community’s) ideas. Through new programs like the You Can’t Do That in Museums Camp, an exhibition-as-exhibition, and more, Santa Cruz MAH is charting the frontiers of what it means to be a participatory museum, and we get to have a front-row seat by virtue of Simon’s long-running and admirably transparent blog, Museum 2.0. Simon’s approach may not be right for every arts organization, but it surely presents one very clear vision of the future, one to which attention must be paid.

9. The European funding model shows more cracks

Let’s be clear on this one: the core Western European philosophy of seeing culture as an essential arm of government is not on the verge of dissolving, and the wealthy countries that have historically been most faithful to this notion–including Germany, France, and the Scandinavian nations–have so far shown little willingness to abandon it in favor of American-style privatization fever. At the fringes of the European Union and beyond, however, government-centric cultural policies underwent substantial stress in 2012. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, the national museum closed due to lack of funds provided by a non-functioning government; in Greece, spending on the arts has dropped 35% since 2009, and in Italy, Rome’s MAXXI Museum has been put into receivership. Arts Council England, having already suffered major cuts two years ago, is looking at a potential loss of 150 staff, while cities like Newcastle are looking at even more drastic cuts. This is a trend to watch in 2013.

8. SOPA/PIPA vs. the Internet

In early 2012, an enormous Internet protest caused both houses of Congress to indefinitely postpone voting on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA).  These bills sought to regulate Internet content in the name of fighting piracy, which split arts organizations into two opposing camps—those with a vested interest in strong copyright protections, which included many major entertainment industry unions and associations, and those concerned that the bills’ more draconian regulations would dampen creative exchange, which included a broader range of organizations, from McSweeney’s to Fractured Atlas to Dance/USA.  After tabling SOPA/PIPA, Google and other major tech companies helped Congress draft the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (the OPEN Act) as part of a more balanced approach. Public comments on the OPEN Act are encouraged, even as its sponsor, Darrell Issa (R-CA) pushes for a 2-year moratorium on Internet regulations.  Efforts to control the web also failed on the international stage, when a U.N. committee charged with rewriting Internet rules couldn’t get buy-in from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and dozens of other nations due to concerns over censorship.   Lawmakers may not resolve these debates in 2013, but in the years ahead, we will doubtless see continued efforts to regulate Internet behavior.

7. The arts face violence and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa

Where to begin? In Syria, where the ancient city of Aleppo has been devastated by that country’s civil war? In Mali, where a fundamentalist group called Ansar Dine has destroyed world-famous heritage sites in Timbuktu and threatened musicians with bodily harm? In Somalia, where some 18 media figures, including a popular poet and playwright, have been assassinated by the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Shabab, for daring to mock the militants in public? In dozens of countries where mass protests broke out, some turning violent, in response to a video made by an American filmmaker and con artist with insulting depictions of the prophet Muhammad? In the midst of all the tragedy, we also had uplifting stories like the role that young artists had in galvanizing Egyptian dissent during the Arab Spring. From our comfortable perch in the US, it can sometimes feel like the arts are a frill, a plaything for the privileged, or simply inconsequential. It seems fair to say that in this part of the world, today, the arts matter.

6. State arts councils turn the corner

State arts councils reversed a four-year slide in 2012, finally coming out of the annual budget appropriations process in the black. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies reports that total appropriations rose 8.8% in the aggregate to $282.9 million, although most of this change is attributable to substantial increases in Florida, Michigan, and the District of Columbia, each of whose appropriations more than doubled over the previous year. (Michigan’s budget grew an astounding 366.8%, albeit after having sustained equally astounding cuts in previous years.) In addition, two anti-arts governors found themselves with egg on their face this year, as the recently vanquished Kansas Arts Commission made a triumphant return as the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, and the South Carolina Arts Commission fought off yet another veto threat from Governor Nikki Haley. Other states with budget increases of $1 million or more included Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio. (Update: See comments for info about Connecticut.) And while the Arizona Commission on the Arts continues to receive no legislative appropriation from its state government, it did win a ten-year re-authorization against the odds. The year was not completely free from bad news, however, as the arts councils in Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Utah all suffered double-digit cuts, continuing a trend in the first three states.

5. Labor strife reaches new heights in orchestras and beyond

This year was rife with labor unrest in the arts, most notably among orchestras. Driven by fundraising shortfalls and sometimes debt from capital projects conceived in flush times, musicians walked out—or were locked out—all over the U.S. Unions in Chicago, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Spokane, Louisville, New York, Philadephia, San Antonio, and Indianapolis all successfully reached deals that ranged from modest raises (San Antonio) to 32% wage cuts (Indianapolis). The strife will continue in 2013: in the Twin Cities, both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra have been locked out for months, with no resolution in sight. We’re also seeing some signs of resilience and cooperation, as the previously disbanded Syracuse and Utica Symphony Orchestras vowed to return for the 2012-2013 season. In 2013, we may see more attention paid to the Colorado Symphony as a potential model. Following their own labor conflict in 2011, they revised their contract to allow for more organizational flexibility. For instance, the orchestra can now play in smaller groups, allowing them to perform in communities around Denver in minor venues.

4. Rocco steps down

It wasn’t a surprise, but it was news nonetheless: Rocco Landesman left the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) after three-plus eventful years as Chair. During his tenure, he set the agency on a technocratic course with more explicit attention paid to the instrumental benefits of the arts, particularly their economic value. His highest-profile accomplishment while in office was the creation of two new grant programs to encourage “creative placemaking,” Our Town and ArtPlace (more on that below). His most enduring legacy, however, may turn out to be his work, along with Senior Deputy Chair (and now Acting Chair) Joan Shigekawa, to develop partnerships between the NEA and other branches of federal government and to set the research office on a more strategic path. Lastly, it was during his tenure that the NEA began more explicit efforts to welcome the public into its decision-making process, offering a series of live webcasts of convenings and meetings including those of the National Council of the Arts, the body that oversees the NEA. No hints as of yet as to who may replace him, but we won’t likely know until well into 2013.

3. The Detroit Institute of Arts gets a millage

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) was in a pickle. The venerable museum was facing a financial downward spiral, and it was one of the few institutions of its kind not to receive funding from either its city or state. The solution? Advocate for a millage (a form of property tax) to support the DIA in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, in exchange for free museum admission for residents from those counties. The measure passed in an election on August 7, and will raise a whopping $23 million annually for the DIA over the tax’s 10-year duration.  There are charitable and less charitable ways to interpret this development, and arts world response seemed to be divided between them. On the one hand, here was an example of a cultural institution demonstrating relevance to its community in the most direct, unimpeachable manner possible: a majority of residents in three counties, urban and suburban, voted to tax themselves so that this institution could survive and thrive. On the other, the DIA raised and spent an enormous sum of money – $2.5 million – getting a piece of legislation passed that benefits only one arts organization – itself. No matter how wonderful the DIA may be, that precedent is a bit worrisome.

2. The creative placemaking backlash

It was just last year that the #1 arts policy story was “Creative placemaking ascendant,” so it’s not surprising to see that the movement has come back to earth in 2012, facing public relations challenges on multiple fronts. Much of the discussion has focused on the way that the NEA’s Our Town program and its private-sector cousin, ArtPlace, plan to track and measure the impact of the grants they make – a dialogue begun here on Createquity with May’s “Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem” and continuing in the fall with further back-and-forth between researcher Ann Markusen and the NEA’s Jason Schupbach and Sunil Iyengar. But creative placemaking’s PR hiccups this year went much further than that. They started small, with the revelation that much of ArtPlace’s grant funding is geographically restricted, meaning that applicants in many parts of the country face longer odds than others, and a brutal exposé by the Los Angeles Times of problems within the ArtPlace-funded Watts House Project. By the summer it seemed that criticism and skepticism was pouring in far and wide, from sources as diverse as Thomas Frank (author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?) and Roberto Bedoya, and leading to trite headlines like “Hipsters won’t save us” in mainstream publications. To make matters worse, Richard Florida decided in the midst of all this to re-release his most famous and now-controversial bookThe Rise of the Creative Class, prompting a rash of articles attacking the intellectual origins of creative placemaking work. Some of the criticism has been fair and some of it considerably less so, but there’s no sign as yet that the creative placemaking juggernaut is slowing down as a result of it.

1. Election 2012

This last item is unusual, in that it’s more about what didn’t happen this year rather than what did happen. As things turned out, the balance of power in Washington hardly changed at all and we can look forward (I guess?) to divided government for at least the next two years. By contrast, most analysts agree that if Mitt Romney had won the election and Republicans had regained control of the Senate, both of which were distinct possibilities through most of the summer and fall, what little arts policy infrastructure remains at the federal level would very much have been in jeopardy. Romney had made no secret throughout the campaign of his disdain for the NEA, the NEH, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, even bizarrely choosing to make Big Bird an issue in an otherwise well-received first debate with the President. And it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that conservatives, fresh off a massive gain in Congressional seats during the previous midterm elections, would have felt empowered to take a hacksaw to domestic spending following even a narrow win. With these outcomes averted, it’s likely that funding levels will stay steady or suffer relatively minor cuts in the near future, though with the seemingly endless negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” and debt ceiling, anything could still happen. Election Day also saw the unfolding of some arts policy stories at a local level, most significantly the passage of an important new income tax in Portland that will fund arts grants and arts education.

Honorable mention:

Happy New Year to Createquity readers far and wide, and we look forward to what 2013 brings!


Around the horn: Wayne LaPierre edition


  • The Detroit Institute of the Arts, having convinced residents in three counties to pass a property tax supporting the institution in exchange for free admission, is facing a lawsuit on the basis that the deal doesn’t include special exhibits.




  • Interesting and entertaining perspective on collective impact and the need to support direct-service and backbone organizations simultaneously, with response by FSG’s Emily Gorin Malenfant.
  • More examples of transparency in action: Kevin Bolduc and the Center for Effective Philanthropy are revamping their flagship product, the Grantee Perception Report, in response to feedback from customers - and blogging about the process.
  • Peter Singer (author, The Life You Can Saveon donating to the arts:

    “Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious,” he writes in his book.

    He has heard two counterarguments repeatedly since the book came out in 2009. One points to the work that, say, art museums do with disadvantaged children. “I can see how that would be a worthwhile thing to do,” he said. “I’m not sure how well it compares with saving kids from dying from diarrhea or malaria.”

    Then, there are the crumbling buildings again. “I’m certainly not suggesting that when the roof of the Met starts to leak that you don’t repair it,” he said. “But I would not give a penny to the Met to buy another painting.”



  • The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), an annual survey of arts training program graduates, has published “Painting with Broader Strokes: Reassessing the Value of an Arts Degree,” a supplementary report on the 2010 survey results by Danielle Lindemann and Steven Tepper.
  • Maribel Alvarez offers a review of Maria Rosario Jackson’s latest for LINC, “Developing Artist-Driven Spaces in Marginalized Communities.”
  • The James Irvine Fund has released a report on the its Arts Innovation Fund grants (undertaken under its previous program strategy last decade), conducted by Slover Linett Strategies. The report is accompanied by a nifty tablet-friendly interactive highlighting key findings.
  • The Future of Music Coalition is leveraging its Artist Revenue Streams data to engage in some mythbusting regarding how musicians make (or don’t make) money.
  • Arts education data in Los Angeles shows a complex picture of trends over the past 15 years.
  • Wow. Did you know that more than half of the US patent lawsuits in 2012 were brought by “non-practicing entities” – also known as patent trolls? These companies obtain patents with no intention of actually using them for inventions, but instead to “threaten young companies with lawsuits as soon as they obtain funding; or hamstring older companies, forcing them to divert cash into costly licenses for absurd patents rather than pay for costly defenses in uncertain, patent-friendly jurisdictions.” Good to know for anyone (such as Richard Florida types) relying on patents issued as a measure of innovation. Yuck.
  • As mentioned here previously, the Twin Cities is currently suffering a symphony drought, with both the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras shut down in the midst of labor strife. This probably isn’t the most empathetic response imaginable, but my first thought upon reading the headline “Orchestra fans getting restless” in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune was, wouldn’t this be a great natural experiment for measuring the value of orchestras to a community? I mean, you don’t realize how much you appreciate something until it’s gone, right? The evidence presented in the article suggests that some audience members are finding substitutes (“a few classical groups have noticed a spike in ticket sales”), but a substantial number are staying home. Independently organized concerts by locked-out members of the Minnesota Orchestra are selling out quickly, though obviously in an environment of substantially reduced competition. I could imagine all sorts of possibilities – a rare economic impact study that actually takes into account opportunity costs, for example, or a more scientific survey of orchestra subscribers to find out what they’re doing with themselves at night.
Leave a comment