2007 may not seem like that long ago, but in retrospect it was a watershed year. The campaign of the first African American president of the United States kicked off in February; the iPhone was first released that June; the Great Recession officially began in December. It also turns out that 2007 was a big year for startup social enterprises engaged in field-building and knowledge production. I recently returned from my first visit to the Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) conference, the largest gathering of impact investors in the world. SOCAP got its start in 2007; so did GiveWell, the charity rating agency dreamed up by two wunderkind hedge fund managers in their mid-20s, which now (along with its spinoff organization, the Open Philanthropy Project) shapes more than $100 million in giving every year. Not to mention ProPublica, the Global Impact Investing Network, and others.
Among this illustrious group of organizations celebrating their tenth anniversary this year is a little arts policy think tank you might know as Createquity. On October 26, 2007, a modest post here entitled “Hello, world” promised a simple chronicle of a young artist’s journey through business school, with little hint of the much more meaningful work to come. It’s a big milestone for us, one that we savor with pride. But this particular birthday is also bittersweet, because Createquity will not be joining our decade-old brethren for the next ten years. This year, 2017, will be Createquity’s last.
To understand why we’ve decided to end Createquity’s run, it’s necessary to travel back in time a bit. When we relaunched Createquity as a bona-fide think tank for the arts three years ago, I knew full well that we were plotting an ambitious path rife with pitfalls. We were taking on an insanely complex mission—to review, understand, and synthesize arts research more comprehensively and strategically than anyone had ever attempted before—with hardly any institutional infrastructure or startup financial support.
It was beyond audacious. But we felt strongly that to try and fail would be better than not to try at all. Arts leaders are drowning in information. Every year, governments, foundations, universities, and scientists invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars generating research about critical issues in the sector. But according to a 2016 survey sponsored by the Hewlett and Knight Foundations, nearly 80% of arts administrators have difficulty keeping up with information in the field, and only 5% typically read research reports all the way through. With so many professionals lacking time to fully engage with research or a framework to apply the findings in practice, a huge amount of potential goes to waste.
When Createquity relaunched in 2014, our vision was to facilitate progress towards a better world by compiling, vetting, and interpreting relevant insights from the research literature for people with the ability to make a difference. And in three years, we came a long way toward pulling off that vision. We delivered deeply informed analysis and surprising insights on topics including the benefits of the arts, arts participation patterns, artist careers, cultural equity, and the history of the nonprofit arts sector. Our research-driven features have received tens of thousands of page views—according to figures provided to us by the National Endowment for the Arts, more than the NEA’s own flagship research publications. Most importantly, in my view, we began to create a robust logic for how all of this research could optimally inform leaders’ decisions affecting the health of the arts ecosystem—decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the United States and beyond.
With the exception of a single six-month stretch, we did all this with less money in our annual budget than what I got paid to stuff envelopes all day in my first-ever arts job. At first, the resource-scarce environment didn’t faze us. Createquity had been a 100% volunteer operation in its previous incarnation, after all, with no budget or legal entity separate from my bank account. We were passionate, we believed in what we were doing, and most of us were employed full-time elsewhere or had other gigs to pay the bills. Sure, money would be nice, but it wasn’t the main point.
But then we started doing the work. And let me tell you, to do this work justice takes time. Hundreds of hours of time for every project we did. Over the past three years we’ve completed seven formal research investigations resulting in ten feature articles. That represents just a small fraction of an expansive research agenda we designed during that same period to help us identify, in a very literal sense, “the most important issues in the arts and what we can do about them.” With team members contributing just a few hours a week on average, getting through that research agenda was slow as molasses and put extraordinary strain on our capacity.
In theory, this is a simple management problem with a simple solution: increase your capacity. Alas, doing so proved to be anything but simple. Both firsthand experience and conversations with media industry experts quickly established that ads, subscriptions, and individual donations (including crowdfunding campaigns) could be a helpful revenue supplement for a niche publication like ours, but far from a core anchor. Providing research or consulting services for hire could have helped pay the bills, but would have run a very high risk of taking us off mission as the unsubsidized work took second fiddle to business realities.
That left grant funding as the obvious answer—obvious not just because it was the only realistic alternative, but also because the funding community is a core audience and beneficiary of Createquity’s research. But the national funding landscape is almost perfectly set up to make a project like Createquity extremely difficult to capitalize. The vast majority of arts funders’ portfolios are restricted to specific geographies, to the point that we found we couldn’t even win grants in our ostensible home of Washington DC because our services were not locally targeted enough. The very few grantmakers that do fund on a national basis typically eschew general operating support and are largely uninterested in supporting grantees indefinitely. These are among the reasons why the arts field has, since the 1980s, dug a formidable graveyard for failed think tank initiatives, some of which have become so buried under the weight of history that I only learned about them for the first time earlier this year.
Even so, our first year out of the gate gave us hope that we might defy the odds. After a successful crowdfunding campaign enabling us to redesign the website and hold our first planning retreat, we quickly staffed up our editorial team, laid out a research agenda, and started reeling in our first funders, culminating in the fall of 2015 when we raised a round of seed investment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a business planning process.
As we’ve written about before, one of the most important outcomes of the business planning exercise was the recommendation to package Createquity’s remaining research investigations into a two-year initiative. To speed up the process and make it more robust, we would outsource the investigations to professional contractors through a competitive process, leaving the Createquity research team to manage the various overlapping projects in centralized fashion. We called it the Synthesis Project, and we expected that following this “surge” of funding to conquer the frontloaded inquiry part of our research agenda, we could shrink Createquity back down to its grassroots form for the follow-through (focusing on advocating specific action steps associated with priority issue areas). That way, we would skirt the challenges of long-term sustainability that had doomed so many knowledge-building initiatives of the past.
We had phone calls and meetings galore, hosted events, shook down every prospect, called in every favor, and deployed every bit of reputational capital we had in our efforts to get the Synthesis Project funded. It wasn’t enough. The planning grant we received from Mellon in 2015 was to be the last new institutional funding to come our way. On top of that, in the past two years, our two largest general operating funders each decided to refocus their portfolios locally, which meant that we no longer fit their guidelines. All in all, keeping Createquity funded at even a basic level in the years ahead was shaping up to be a major ongoing challenge.
Ultimately, we decided that it was better to close up shop than continue to fight what increasingly looked like a losing battle. We are using these final months to make connections across the threads of different investigations we’ve done and articles we’ve written over the years, tie up loose ends, and, as much as we can, tease out what it all means for practice.
Next week, we will be publishing four briefs laying out the insights we’ve gathered on the issue areas of arts participation, cultural equity, arts careers, and the benefits of the arts. Over the next couple of months, we will be polishing up our internal training materials and resources to make it as easy as possible for people in the arts community to carry on aspects of the work we’ve started in their own spaces and in their own names. And in November and December, you can expect to see some parting thoughts from our team to philanthropists and researchers seeking to optimize their investments in the arts in the decade ahead. Our goal in all of this is to activate the latent potential of our work over the past ten years into the most accessible and actionable content possible. The goal, in short, is to go out of business in style.
Our tentative plan is to cease publishing at the end of 2017. After that, the website will stay up in an archival state indefinitely. Of course, if someone decides to make another go at something akin to the Synthesis Project and wants to pick up where we left off, we will do our best to facilitate that.
I want to be clear that I still believe strongly in the mission of Createquity. This announcement comes just two days before the start of the 2017 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference, which I’m extremely fortunate to have the honor of attending for the ninth year in a row. My wish for Createquity’s final birthday is for all of my friends and colleagues at that gathering to consider the urgent need for a more efficient, networked, strategic, and meaningful approach to building knowledge in service of improving lives through the arts. Though Createquity’s window of opportunity to bring that vision to life has closed, our experience has only reinforced my faith that doing so is not only possible, but tremendously worthwhile.
Many folks have asked what’s next for me. I’ve begun an independent practice working with philanthropists, investors, and governments to deploy resources for good in the social sector; you can read more about that work here. I also expect to continue writing in 2018 and beyond, though about a different set of topics than covered here, and will share more information about that in a future post. In the meantime, although I will miss the environment of learning and intellectual ferment that Createquity has provided in my life for ten years, I am excited and energized by this opportunity to bring a decade of inquiry and discovery to a graceful and meaningful conclusion. I am grateful to all of you for your role in that journey, and I invite you to join me in being a part of Createquity’s final act.
Cover image: “Dramatic golden sunset” by Cindy del Valle