Over the last five years, my professional life has centered on the arts and data.
At first separately, working at a growth strategy consulting firm providing research and data analysis to Fortune 500 companies and performing with a modern dance company in my spare time. Then together, as the Communications and Development Specialist at Sustain Arts, a data platform developed at Harvard University that caters to the arts sector. Now, as an Associate Consultant at Vogl Consulting, I work alongside principal Marc Vogl on a variety of projects with local and national arts organizations, and I specialize in helping clients use data.
My experiences have taught me that the for-profit sector and the nonprofit arts sector treat data differently.
In 2012, Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations launched the Sustain Arts Initiative, a technology project to aggregate and present data on the nation’s arts sector. In partnership with the Foundation Center (now Candid) and Fractured Atlas, Sustain Arts developed three regional online data platforms to serve arts stakeholders in Southeastern Michigan, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Chicagoland region. Over the course of the project, 40 individual and institutional donors contributed over $3 million to create innovative technology, bring together an unprecedented array of data sets, and promote the use of data in decision-making and policy-setting among arts organizations, arts funders, and public arts agencies.
Our report on the Lessons Learned from the Sustain Arts Initiative data platform, prepared for the MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Community Trust and Chicago arts funders, describes what worked well in Sustain Arts’ efforts in Detroit, the Bay Area and in Chicago and what could be done differently in future data projects to achieve greater success.
By the Kenneth Rainin Foundation Communications team | Sep 28, 2018 | Arts Blog
The Kenneth Rainin Foundation is partnering with a group of our Arts grantees to work toward creating optimal conditions for making art and supporting artists’ capacity to sustain their creative practices. We’re calling this workgroup and process the New Models Cohort.
Here’s a piece of advice for consultants working with arts and culture organizations: go see their art, not just their offices.
I have worked for 5 years exclusively with cultural organizations and have found that time spent walking through their galleries, watching their plays, concerts, dance performances, attending their film festivals and programming onsite and in-community has paid great dividends.
In the spring of 2017 I joined up with a group of fellow arts consultants and former arts funders to find out what individual artists and culture workers in America thought about the incoming Trump Administration. We created an online survey and 1,100 people from 47 states working in a range of artistic disciplines and types of organizations participated. We also interviewed 15 arts advocates and culture sector leaders. We put together a report that contains findings from our survey and interviews, a synthesis of the comments we collected, key observations from our interview subjects and examples of the different ways artists, arts organizations and arts advocates are responding to the Trump administration.
The former NEA Chair Rocco Landesman says he doesn’t see anything “apocalyptic” for the arts in a Trump presidency. Robert Lynch, the President of Americans for the Arts and a top advocate for the nonprofit arts sector, is more cautious and says Trump’s election “brings some uncertainty in terms of federal support for the arts.” Van Jones, the CNN pundit is blunt: Trump, he says, “is going to start a war.”
If nothing else the recent election cycle has taught us to be very skeptical of those who say they can predict the future. But I have worked to build and strengthen cultural organizations and support artists in America for nearly 20 years and I’ve studied and been engaged in politics too. So while we could wait to see what Trump and an emboldened Republican Congress does before considering our response I agree with Van Jones that now is the time to “hope for the best and plan for the worst.” So, with regard to Trump and the damage his administration and a Republican Congress could do to the arts in America, let’s understand what the “worst’ could plausibly look like.
When I worked as a program officer for a foundation one of our grantees got into trouble with the IRS. They had not paid their payroll tax for several years and the Federal Government was not happy. We, as significant funders were not happy either. But as disappointed as we were in the grantee we didn’t want their administrators to go to prison because, when their bank account was running low, they made very bad decisions about which bills to pay. I was reminded of this episode when I read this horrific story in The New York Times.
The bookkeeper for Healing Arts Initiative, a $5m New York City non-profit arts organization is now in jail awaiting trial on charges of embezzlement. But it gets worse. Much worse. This bookkeeper, and several accomplices, are also implicated in vicious acid attack on the non-profit’s executive director who uncovered their scheme.
Plans are great but they don’t do anything by themselves. And having a strategic plan is no guarantee that your organization will act strategically.
It is encouraging to see numerous organizations recognize the need to think deeply about where they want to go, the resources they’ll need to get there and how they want to acquire those assets to do what they want to do. Sometimes this recognition leads to a comprehensive strategic planning process that results in a unifying, coherent and even galvanizing plan; and sometimes these questions are tackled less formally. What ultimately matters, however, is not the size or shape of a document, but an organization’s ability to follow through on the actions it believes are vital to its success.
Nobody plans on wining a MacArthur Genius award. Each year they’re awarded, and each year the press reports on how totally surprised all the winners were. This seems especially true for the artists toiling away in obscurity (or semi-obscurity). And yet, after Nicole Eisenman told the NYT that she never expected this type of grant, she went on to say what she’d do with the money: “I’ve never had an assistant, I might hire one to handle correspondence and outside stuff.”
Many artists can relate both to Eisenman’s assumption that a no-strings-attached $625,000 grant is not something that will someday magically drop into their lap and to her having reached a point in her career where what she needs is more help, to have more time, to make more art on her own terms.
Normally I do not gravitate to articles about economic statistics, much less the history of them. But Adam Davidson is a canny writer and I was drawn in by his recent NYT Magazine article about them and the stories they tell and the ones they don’t. Davidson’s essay on why the US Government tracks certain data (the number of employed adhesive-bonding-machine operators, for example) and not others (Python vs. Java programmers, for example) led to an interesting fellow named Simon Kuznets who, although he won a Nobel Laureate for his work categorizing and gathering government data, ultimately concluded that the whole endeavor is pointless.... or at least very very imperfect.
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.
I came to San Francisco in 1996. I was 23. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but knew I wanted to create something. To make something. I had taken the scenic route across the country in my 1965 Ford LTD. Appalachia. Mississippi. West Texas. Vegas. I had a manifesto.
For an East Coast kid like me, under the thrall of Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti, San Francisco and the Bay Area was the place in this strange country where people came to try stuff, and it always had been. Coppola and Lucas left LA to make their movies here.
A friend of mine who works in advertising told me once about a brewing company who came to his firm looking to rebrand their beer. The client was convinced that their poor performance in the market was due to the lame packaging, the unappealing name, and the crummy commercials they’d been running. My friend said that that was all undoubtedly true. Then he took a sip of the beer and realized they had a bigger problem.
Many arts organizations struggle to be financially sustainable and while making a living in the arts is, on balance, a tougher deal than selling beer (I’m assuming, I’ve never sold beer), the core reasons for that struggle are generally not more complicated.
Warning: this post could be annoying, and should be filed in the “nice problems to have” folder. Recently I was speaking with a client about their cash reserve. I thought it was too big. He suggested I sounded a bit like Paul Krugman, and I took that as a complement.
Funders, donors, and non-profit finance professionals have worked diligently with social change organizations for years to help them understand basic principals of capitalization and expand definitions of non-profit capitalization but not enough attention has been paid on how and when to put capital to work.
Any executive director (or CFO) who has agonized about making payroll much less been through a recession, or had a key funder pull the rug out from under them will rightly advocate for a substantial rainy day fund. And I have no argument with that.
The New York Times used to have a section of their Sunday paper called Databank. An expansive collection of financial information thrilling to anyone who couldn’t get enough from the charts and graphs filling the regular weekday Business section. The Internet made the print edition of Databank obsolete a few years ago but since then data has burst through to every other section of the paper, and so it seems, our lives.
Here’s what we know: the Bay Area is an arts mecca.
Throughout this region there are big-budget, world-renowned major arts institutions and armies of radical, boot-strapping individual artists and a dazzling constellation of organizations and producers in between. According to an Artplace America 2013 report, the region boasts two of the nation’s Top Arts Places (the Mission District in San Francisco and downtown Oakland).
The title of Angie Kim’s recent post articulates a vexing challenge for service and intermediary organizations very well: Nonprofit Membership Associations: Serving Members Today or Shaping the Field for Tomorrow? Kim, Director of Programs and Membership for Southern California Grantmakers, contends that these two mandates are not inherently in conflict and membership organizations can say yes to both.
Kim elaborates: An intermediary, membership-based association's primary function is to provide services to its members. But these institutions can do much more than just respond to where their members are now. These organizations, because they are so well connected and influential, are well poised to deliberately shape the future of their respective sectors.
There are 122 million Americans under the age of 50. They have, or will inherit $40 trillion.
When it comes to giving some of this money away, what do they care about?
Through the recently released #Next Gen Donors report it becomes clear that some of their interests and criteria for philanthropic engagement present a serious challenge to the arts and culture sector.
I’ve read two distressing (and lengthy) articles recently about what the latest rise of the 20-something technorati means for the Bay Area. In the East Bay Express Ellen Cushing focused on the disconcerting materialism of engineers and coders who earn gobs of money; in the New Yorker George Packer examined the clunky way in which entrepreneurs and CEOs are getting into the mud politically. Both pieces point out how rich kids and their mega-rich bosses are warping the Bay Area economically and dooming San Francisco to be a de facto gated community/playground for a wealthy and overwhelmingly white elite.
Thanks to Kickstarter $1.7 million was raised for 381 dance projects in 2012 – an average of $4,600 per successful campaign, an amount larger than the median awards given by The Zellerbach Family Foundation’s Community Arts Program and Theatre Bay Area’s CA$H Grant program (those in the Bay Area will appreciate the frame of reference).