Fire in the Belly

Diane Ragsdale posted her provocative take on new research by the James Irvine Foundation on arts participation and recommendations on approaches arts organizations can take to engage audiences.  I wrote 500 word comment and figured, hey, that’s a blog post!  Here it is:

Thanks Diane for this illuminating post, and thanks to the Irvine Foundation for investing in rigorous research and challenging the cultural sector to evaluate it and consider its thoughtful application.

I consult with a variety of arts organizations around the country distinguished by discipline, budget, organizational capacity, business model, community focus and artistic approach. Several are recipients of Irvine grants aimed at engaging diverse audiences here in California.

The range of organizations I work with leads me to the conclusion that the single largest factor in determining whether a cultural institution can expand, or deepen, its connection to audiences is the internal fire (and stomach) to do so. If the goal of the Irvine Foundation is to “boost participation among low-income and ethnically diverse populations that have traditionally been underserved by arts nonprofits” then it should work with the organizations that demonstrate conviction that this goal is essential to their success as well.

I don’t think we should be categorical in stating that the ability of an arts organization to develop programming, grow capacity, recruit talent and earn the rep of being relevant to audiences that have either been traditionally well-served or under-served is a function of how long the companies have been in business or how established they are in a community.

To be sure, old institutions with big budgets, large staffs, and long-standing traditions (and reputations) will have barriers to engaging new audiences in innovative ways that more nimble organizations, already rooted and experienced in connecting to diverse communities won’t.

But rising organizations with less money, fewer staff and deep (but frequently narrow) followings have considerable challenges as well.

And what ought to matter to a funder is the commitment, and game plan, to address those barriers. If convinced of these aspects it is up to the funder to provide sufficient, sustained support to assist a grantee in either expanding the aligned work it is already doing, or adapting to take on this new work.

Outside of the cultural sector we see corporate behemoths that failed to change and upstart competitors that ate their lunch (see Apple vs. Sony); but we also have examples of the world’s largest non-profits that fundamentally, and successfully, changed their relationship to their constituents because the world around them was changing (see the Cleveland Clinic).

For Irvine, and for any funder, looking to support organizations that creatively and honestly engage Californians in the arts (in whatever form), I’d borrow a page from a financial advisor or a good chef and seek to develop a diverse portfolio of grantees and a cupboard full of different ingredients.

Put another way: we need speed boats and cruise-ships engaged in the campaign to increase access to the arts but the captains and the crews of these vessels need to bought-in to the critical importance of the voyage they’re undertaking.

Doubtless there are institutions that can chart a course to a bright future continuing to provide cherished arts experiences to the audiences that cherish them and based on this internal ambition and calculation Irvine may or may not be a good source of support for them. However, I believe that there are many major arts institutions that are sincere in responding to changes in demography and methods of arts participation. Increasingly I see diversifying audiences and engaging communities as top priorities in the Strategic Plans their Boards’ approve and hear a passion to pursue these goals in the conversations among their staff members.

Whether its traditional organizations experimenting with new approaches to serve what is for them new markets, or community based organizations growing their operations to extend their impact, the test for them – and for funders supporting this work – will be the fortitude they show when inevitable challenges arise. Will their Board and Executive leaders continue to support these efforts? Will frontline staff adapt their tactics? Will everyone involved learn new skills and practice using them?

If the answer is yes then I believe there are good odds that support provided by Irvine (or any funder) will end up benefitting both organizations (whatever their size and history) and the communities of which they are a part.

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