Philanthropedia Blog

Bay Area Arts and Culture

March 8th, 2010 by Erinn Andrews Leave a reply »

As I mentioned in the last blog post about research, we’re sharing our thoughts about each social cause as we begin new research. The purpose of sharing this additional information is to explain why we think these are interesting or relevant areas to research, what we learned about the nuances of the cause, and the difficulties we faced in narrowing the scope of the research, so you, the reader, can understand what we considered as we refined our thinking about the research.

If you are an expert on any of these topics, you should be receiving an email from us soon and we hope you will be compelled to participate! If for some reason we have missed you and you think you have a valuable perspective to offer, please contact me at erinn.andrews@myphilanthropedia.org.

Additionally, I’m sure I haven’t been able to capture every nuance in these sectors, so I invite your feedback and thoughts about how you might think about this work. For those readers less familiar with this topic, I hope you will learn something new and tune in again when we have the results of this research. Thank you all for your participation!

Background

In the 1960s, there was an explosion of nonprofit arts organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1961, before the birth of the national Endowment for the Arts, San Francisco passed a law to require part of the hotel tax to go to funding the arts. Over time, each Bay Area region evolved to have different kinds of arts and culture groups across all disciplines, styles, and ethnicities: jazz, classical, folk, dance, choreography, visual arts, literary arts, poetry, film, video, and so on. In fact, at one point, the San Francisco Bay Area was second only to New York in terms of having the largest number of dance companies. Therefore, with decades of support and development, the vibrancy and variety among the arts in the Bay Area has led to a unique texture in the cultural fabric of this region. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of arts and culture nonprofits, of all sizes and varieties, all across the Bay Area.

The Arts and Culture Landscape

What does the world of arts and culture look like in the Bay Area? Through my conversations with arts experts, I learned that there are a number of ways to look at the landscape. First, one could examine nonprofits according to the two metrics: creation of work or engagement. Creation of work relates to supporting cultural heritage or preservation of art, as well as the support of new work, both in the development and production phase. Engagement in the arts could include introduction to the arts through performances for young audiences, it could include standards-based arts education in the schools, or it could include out-of-school arts learning for youth and/or adults.

Another way to look at arts and culture is by buckets or type of organization: nonprofits might focus on arts education, be considered major arts institutions, be community-based arts organizations (this might include service organizations, art therapy, low-income community programs, etc.), or be considered independent artists and organizations such as dance and theater companies.

A third way to examine this field is to look at organizations by budget size. Small arts and culture organizations might fall under $100,000 in annual budget. Mid-sized organizations might fall in the $100,000-$1,000,000 range. And large organizations might be above one million dollars. The largest arts nonprofits in the Bay Area might have a $4-6 million annual budget (still below that of some of the largest arts organizations in New York).

And yet another way to think about arts and culture nonprofits is to look at them by genre, discipline, or even location. I’m sure there are even more ways one could divide up “arts and culture” as a social cause.

As an organization, we value diversity of expert type in our network of professionals and diversity among the types of nonprofits represented in the expert mutual fund. Therefore, it’s important for us to keep the scope of our research broad enough to allow for this kind of diversity to emerge among the responses of our experts.

One difficult decision we faced was whether to limit the organization size in the scope of our research. An argument can certainly be made for asking experts to only highlight small-medium sized arts nonprofits because they most likely need the additional funding in this down-turned economy. However, we believe that the primary purpose of the research we run is to help individual donors understand which nonprofits are having the most impact in a given sector, rather than which nonprofits most need the additional funding. Therefore, we will invite participants to comment on any size nonprofit focusing on impact and encourage experts to think beyond organizations that have simply been around for the most number of years or are well established. We’re looking for quality of the organization above all else.

Who cares? Problem Statements

In most of our research, we begin by understanding what problems nonprofits in a particular sector are trying to solve. Again, this was a bit tricky to do with arts and culture nonprofits. Here are a few responses from experts to the question, “what problem are most arts nonprofits trying to solve?”

  • Today, people have very little time to reflect on and distill their life experiences. The arts provide individuals with this opportunity.
  • In an increasing capitalist, consumer-focused society, cultural heritage is being lost. Arts organizations must try to preserve these traditions.
  • Commercial publishers seek monetary gains, therefore arts organizations must do what they can to encourage the literary arts to flourish.
  • We are in danger of losing “art for arts sake.” We must encourage the creative expression of human beings because it’s good for the soul and for the mind.
  • Funding for the arts in schools has been cut back over the last three decades. Arts organizations must fill in the gap and develop arts education programs to support students.
  • Arts aren’t about solving problems, they’re intrinsically valuable to human culture, they’re about being alive and expressing yourself.

I found this part of my conversation with experts to be particularly interesting because while these are “problems,” most arts experts with whom I spoke don’t believe the purpose of arts organizations is to actually solve problems. This makes arts and culture a very unique social cause for Philanthropedia. I don’t think this will fundamentally change the way our research is run, but it’s important context to understand as we frame the survey and as we analyze the results in the weeks to come.

High-Impact Arts and Culture Nonprofits

Impact in the nonprofit sector is always hard to define, yet I have found that it’s even more difficult to define in arts and culture. How might we measure impact in the arts world? First, from a more objective standpoint, donors or funders might look at the “staying power” of an organization which could be evaluated by measuring the growth of support over time. One could look for evidence that someone cares about this work: attendance numbers, subscription numbers, percentage of the house that’s full, and/or donor support. Second, one might look for more subjective measures: what do organizations achieve with what they have or how much programming can they produce on a given budget; what’s the scope of this activity and what’s the quality of this activity? And then there’s the dimension of whether the performance, exhibit, reading, etc. was enjoyable, interesting, or thought-provoking to an audience member.

With the help of a few experts, I’ve come to this definition for what a high-impact arts and culture nonprofit might look like: A high-impact arts and culture nonprofit is one which is successful at creating or producing something of value to those who care about the arts and culture. A high-impact arts and culture nonprofit is able to contribute to the field by creating meaningful work and/or helping others develop an appreciation for the arts and culture.

Scope of the Research

Given all of this information and context, we decided that in the survey, we’d ask experts to recommend nonprofits that could be developing or producing new work, be focused on performance, preservation and promotion of traditional culture, have an educational component, serve any age or type of audience, have any budget size, and/or represent any genre or discipline of art. We are interested in arts nonprofits that have had real impact in their community and do outstanding work, NOT nonprofits that have simply been around for many years or most need additional funding. This research will be focused on organizations, not individual artists.

We’re excited to see the results of this research and share it with donors to help direct more funding to some of the great arts and culture nonprofits in the Bay Area who are really making an impact. As we begin this process, I’d love to hear what you think about these ideas. What other nuances did I miss? Do you agree with these definitions? If not, how might you define impact of arts and culture nonprofits? I invite you to share your thoughts and look forward to hearing from you.

21 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing the thinking behind your work. A few years ago, the newly minted Silicon Valley Community Foundation launched a Community Input Process facilitated by myself and Steven LaFrance. One conversation focused on arts. Of course it was limited to Silicon Valley but the findings and likely have broader application. See: http://www.siliconvalleycf.org/news-resources/community-input-project.html. Participants were by invitation. Not sure if the list is public but having a convrsation with them might be informative. Good luck!

  2. Hi Jara,

    Thanks for pointing me to that resource. I read through the 4 page brief on the arts–it’s a great summary of major trends in the arts sector in Silicon Valley. The point I found most interesting was the observation that there’s been a shift in “why the public values art.” The experts with whom I spoke also mentioned the “arts for arts sake” reason for supporting the arts, but then noted that most folks have moved away from that as the main reason donors or funders would be interested in supporting the arts.

    Thanks again for your feedback!
    Erinn

  3. Hi Erinn,
    Thanks for the interesting discussion. I’m especially pleased that you picked up on the tension between the way that philanthropists generally talk about other causes and the way that art and culture demands to be talked about. I’m a believer that the arts are not (primarily) out to solve problems, other than perhaps the “lack of art,” but rather to create a virtuous cycle that honors human achievement, enhances quality of life in local communities, and builds social capital both among and between diverse populations. This is not merely an academic question. While helping the Hewlett Foundation to define the strategic objectives of its Performing Arts Program two years ago, I noted that the continually self-renewing nature of strong arts communities was in tension with the linear, goal-oriented structure of the rest of the foundation’s programs. For example, the Foundation has made a strong commitment to ending climate change. If an organization whose sole mission is ending climate change should succeed in that mission, the only responsible thing for that organization to do at that point would be to close up shop and dissolve. Similarly for organizations devoted to other “problems” such as curing a disease, ending poverty, bringing parity to educational opportunities in the US, etc. – their missions lead themselves quite naturally toward a linear logic model. In contrast, for an arts organization engaged in generating new work or bringing it to audiences, the success of its activities is merely an invitation to undertake more of those activities. If you put on a show that thrills audiences and breaks new artistic ground, that doesn’t mean you’re done – it only means you’ve set the benchmark for next year!

    In recognition of this fundamental difference, I suggested that the Performing Arts logic model be paired with a diagram showing the performing arts landscape as an interdependent ecosystem, and shaping the “goals” of the program around strengthening this ecosystem. The outcome of those discussions is this document now posted on the Hewlett website.

    Since my philosophy regarding funding the arts is ecosystem-focused, I am very much in favor of focusing energies on what I call the infrastructure of the arts. This involves taking a step away from trying to judge the artistic merit of individual organizations and artists, an inherently subjective process fraught with cultural and political minefields, and instead empower the system itself to make decisions about what to put out there in the world based on authentic creative inspiration rather than more mundane factors such as what will make money. Because to me, the most important factor that distinguishes the nonprofit arts from other endeavors is that they provide a space in society for sheer possibility, in which imagination is limitless, not to be held prisoner by unrelated considerations. Note that this does NOT mean that the arts don’t have ancillary social, economic, and educational impacts on society, or that those impacts aren’t important. But I believe that those impacts are a reflection of the inherent value contained in that space that the arts provide for experimentation, risk-taking, and sheer whimsy that is not always easy to find in the rest of our lives.

    What does this mean in practical terms? I believe in creating and facilitating an artistic marketplace to parallel the commercial marketplace, in which the currency of success is the respect of one’s peers rather than butts in seats or the market share of wealthy donors one can capture. I’ve written about this at length here, but suffice to say for now that I would favor directing funding to support the mechanisms by which artists receive payment for their services, essentially endowing a wide swath of people who evaluate artistic merit on a regular basis as part of their jobs with their own grant portfolios that they can distribute how they wish. This has the effect of decentralizing power and reducing unhelpful pressures on nonprofits that all too often enable a small but disproportionately powerful coterie of donors and subscribers from imposing their preferences on what everybody else gets to see. Importantly, such efforts need to look beyond the “usual suspects” in order to facilitate a truly healthy ecosystem; orchestra conductors and regional theater artistic directors would qualify as part of the infrastructure, for example, but so would dive bars in the Tenderloin and for-profit record labels. A thorough examination of strategic funding opportunities in the Bay Area would examine which elements of the overall arts environment are overserved and underserved by current funding streams and practices, and move to correct those imbalances through targeted infusions of capital.

    • What thoughtful feedback, Ian; thank you for contributing your perspective. I really like your definition of impact for arts nonprofits/artists. To me, impact is an output. So if I’m interpreting your ideas correctly, it sounds like the output you value from nonprofits or artists is experimentation, risk-taking, and whimsical creation. Another measure of impact you might consider is the respect a nonprofit or artist earns from a peer. And, above all, you value keeping diversity within the arts alive and possibly, always changing.

      I believe many of the experts with whom I spoke would agree with you. And while many of the professionals who participate in our research are highlighting individual nonprofits doing great work (as they define it), some identify foundations (also nonprofits) as doing the best work, likely for the same reasons you cite. There is value in being able to assess the whole sector and redirect funding to shape the environment (to encourage diversity within the sector or some other goal). I hope you’ll participate in this research and contribute your well-informed and thoughtful perspective.

      Thank you again for your comments!

      • That’s actually a really good distillation of what I said. In fact, I think it could be boiled down even further. I would say that for me, the desired outcome of subsidizing the arts is “cool stuff that we wouldn’t otherwise get to see.” The extent to which stuff is “cool” or not is inherently (and highly) subjective, but respect from peers is as good of an objective proxy as I can come up with.* The “otherwise get to see” element can be measured by comparing the nature of the artistic product to other products already available on the commercial market. So if philanthropic subsidy produces artistic work that is both respected by peers and substantially different from what’s widely available on the commercial market, then the subsidy is justified and the investment is a success.

        One could also envision an alternative track which focuses on underserved audiences: people who, for whatever reason, can’t easily access even the cool stuff that is widely available. Think the poor, people in prisons, people in nursing homes, etc. In that case the criteria for success changes to “stuff they enjoy that they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.” The key difference here is that it doesn’t matter if the artistic product is especially impressive or significant on a broader stage – what matters most is whether audience members enjoy it or connect positively with it in some way.

        *This is going on the theory that if something is popular with audiences, then it should be able to support itself on the commercial market. Of course this isn’t always the case, but in practice I think artistic peers are good at spotting future potential commercial successes, so it works out in the end.

  4. Great clarification and additional description! I like the way you break it down–producing work that adds to the diversity of art that’s out there and producing work that adds value to the lives of those people who are least exposed to art (or at least connect them with it)!

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