CD: That's very encouraging to find that much spirit and optimism among artists. Are you finding also that funders are expecting arts groups to change the way they do their programming or the way they are thinking about their operations?
HS: I think there is a wide range of views, but we heard pretty strongly that arts funders do have some changing expectations. They are expecting arts organizations to be connected to their communities, to genuinely serve their communities, and to have a base of support in their communities that's meaningful and demonstrable. They are expecting organizations to collaborate more. They are expecting organizations to "do more." Not necessarily to "do more with less" but to recognize that circumstances are straightened and to make cuts in programming, make cuts in their ambitions in accordance with that reality. As one person said, I thought very eloquently, "Anybody can cut 10% in a budget, but when you start to cut 20, 30, or 40% of a budget, it's not the same enterprise, and we expect organizations who are taking those kinds of budget cuts to go back and reconsider what it is that they are doing. What's their mission, how can they accomplish their goals with fewer resources." And so I think there is a bar that's been raised by funders that organizations adapt to these changed circumstances.
CD: You mentioned the issue of mergers and collaborations, which are not simple in the best of circumstances. Are there particular challenges for arts groups around the issue of collaborations?
HS: I think that's really true. We didn't probe that deeply in these interviews but let me opine from my own experience. In part because arts organizations are driven by the artistic vision of a given individual artist or artistic collaborative, marrying those artistic visions, in other words, having two organizations with different artistic visions, is really difficult. It's not quite the same as marrying two social service organizations or two hospitals. So in my view, mergers are going to be difficult in the arts. But where they are more likely to occur is between arts organizations in different disciplines, where a dance company and a theater might merge. Or a dance company and a social service agency. Where there are going to be some cross-disciplinary opportunities to make more than the sum of the parts.
Let me just mention one article that I found very thought provoking: it's by Paul Light in Nonprofit Quarterly in the Winter 2008 issue. Paul is a professor at New York University and a really thoughtful expert on nonprofit management. He was forecasting four different futures for the nonprofit sector and one of those futures was that the whole sector step back and take a look at its assets and the needs of communities and reorganize those assets to better serve those communities. The thought is that we should get out of our silos. Arts organizations, social service organizations, welfare agencies, and what have you, if they thought about their assets together, and aligned the allocation of resources from that vantage point they might go a lot further. One example of this: in the study we did in the Puget Sound area, one museum in that region, looking at its community, and realizing that several after-school programs for children were going to go out of business as a result of the recession, actually invited those organizations to join with the museum. And I believe one of the organizations did actually merge with the museum. So there are lots of opportunities like that, I believe.
CD: You mentioned a list of frequently mentioned characteristics that funders have identified in groups that they think are adapting well and that they think will be able to sustain themselves in these difficult times. Can you talk about what those key characteristics were?
HS: Almost everybody we asked mentioned three or four things, which we thought was a very interesting pattern. First and foremost is courageous leadership - the ability of the leaders of an organization (and that includes board members as well as executive or artistic leadership) to stand up, ask tough questions, recognize that the environment is changed, and make tough choices. A second is a relentless focus on mission — great clarity about what makes that organization unique, what is distinctive about its purpose, and especially in light of the changed environment and reduced financial circumstances, what can be let go. What is core mission, and what is "nice" but not "necessary." A third quality that we heard is flexibility about structure. If you're really clear about your mission, it can take many forms and may take a form very different than the form it took ten years ago. So in some cases the funders were talking about organizations that were selling buildings, going virtual, thinking about their business in a really different way, holding tight onto the mission, but saying "We don't have to do it the way we've always done it because we can't." And finally, a very powerful connection to community. Some people have talked about it as embeddedness — a strong tie between the organization and whatever community it's trying to serve, which can be large or small, national or local, but a real conversation between the organization and the people it's trying to serve.
CD: Can we talk about the new realities that both funders and nonprofits have to face, and then conclude with what you saw emerging as the perceived opportunities for the arts and artists in this climate and moving forward after this crisis?
HS: In the arts field, I think there are many people who would say that we've come through a 50-year arc of development that started with Nelson Rockefeller's creation of the New York State Council on the Arts in 1959. It's been a 50-year public/private partnership and now we have more than 100,000 arts organizations in this country. That's extraordinary growth. But we're either overbuilt or we're under-resourced, or both. It's not really clear that we can sustain 100,000 arts organizations so something's gotta give. Each organization individually — and communities collectively — everybody has to ask "What is essential now? What do we want to sustain? What is extraneous and what can we let go?" I really think that's a reality that's hard to accept but those that get on that truth faster are going to be the ones that are more nimble in responding to it. e just created the Wiki. We met for the first time, last week. And over the next few months we'll see how it's actually used.
HS: Yes, definitely. I think there's a growing sense that many arts organizations might have a very vital and lively lifespan but it might not be in perpetuity. So many funders are saying "Is this an organization that we need to sustain forever? Is there something we can do to help them go out of business gracefully?" I think there's a real reluctance on the funders' part to play God and say "No more for you" but I think they are asking organizations to take seriously questions about whether they can be sustained.
I think it's going to get tougher and tougher to create new organizations. But I also think there are many organizations that really are projects. It's a great idea that may last a year, or two or three years and could then be pursued under the aegis of another organization that's more stable and has more resources to continue. But not everything needs to be its own 501(c)(3).
I think that these are very disturbing times, but I'm full of optimism. I think it's very exciting what's happened in the last year and a half — politically there's a lot of conversation now that says we have to do things differently, so how can we do that. There's a lot more openness to collaboration and partnerships, both within the arts and between the arts and other sectors.
making the most of it.
CD: It's great to hear some optimism in these difficult times. I don't want to close without mentioning that Grantmakers in the Arts is going to be holding a conference here in New York in October, and I'm wondering what you're thinking will come out of that conference. What kind of information will our listeners be able to gain if they're not able to attend the conference?
HS: Grantmakers in the Arts is meeting in Brooklyn, October 19-21, 2009. It's open only to members but there will be sessions on a whole range of topics and the agenda is on GIA's web site. Usually after the conference the proceedings are made public on the web site, and this year in particular there will be an effort to share lessons and to encourage funders to collaborate with each other going forward. I don't know all the plans but I would encourage people to watch the web site during and after the conference.
CD: Thanks to our guest Holly Sidford for joining us today.
© Foundation Center
All Rights Reserved.