July 5, 2007
Executive Director's Column
One major premise that has persisted through the four decades since the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) jump-started the creation and funding of state arts agencies is that the primary vehicles through which government would provide access and excellence in the arts would be not-for-profit, tax exempt organizations. In a changing environment, even this premise is worthy of scrutiny. The consequences of increasingly sophisticated for-profit provision of leisure time options, the advent of digital technology and short-comings in public education are all at play. The not-for-profit arts world is engaged in entrepreneurial adapting and hybridizing (yes, we will need new words!) to address the always increasing relative expense of labor-intensive endeavors in a technological society, to diversify revenues, and to aggregate capital in ways that enable it to compete with for-profit leisure time providers. Public arts agencies, many of whom have created companion foundations and fostered statewide not-for-profit service groups in order to meet specific needs, are faced with additional changes in their environment related to increasing skepticism about the effectiveness of government in general, the resulting demand for measures of accountability, the growing popular understanding that it takes public-private partnership to realize a significant goal in any field, and human and financial resources reduced during the 2001-2004 fiscal years. At the same time, knowledge-based wealth-producing strategies associated with the “new economy” have evolved into the “creative economy,” innovative planning and programming has integrated the work of state arts agencies more thoroughly in the agendas of their governments, research continues to document the public value of the arts in education and health care, the arts advocacy community is increasingly sophisticated and has new tools to work with, and some regional economies are yielding good tax revenues at the state level.
In this dynamic environment, state arts agency leaders find that their most basic questions have a new complexity:
- What are “the arts” that state arts agencies are mandated to support? Are they primarily a set of institutions and individual professionals? Are they a set of skills and knowledge to which everyone has a birthright? Do they include the trades and/or the parts of various jobs that draw heavily upon creativity? Are they a kind of experience for which everyone has a need and/or a right?
Roughly 40% of SAA grant funds is delivered as general operating support, the most flexible and useful form of financial assistance from the perspective of grantee groups. As Congress has restricted NEA funding options, corporate cultural funding has trended to cause-related marketing, foundations are typically providing project support and looking for short-term exit strategies, and the arts are losing market share in the giving of the newest generation of philanthropy, state arts agencies represent one of the last sources of general operating and season support for arts organizations, as well as one of the few sources of support for individual artists. The question remains, however, given current trends in the “experience economy,” in philanthropy, and in public expectations of government, how much of its mission a given state arts agency (acknowledging that cultural environments and infrastructure vary enormously from state to state) can accomplish as time goes on with a program and service array designed primarily to support its not-for-profit arts organizations.
- Who are the appropriate partners and recipients of government support to provide these arts? If the art produced by not-for-profit organizations is distinguished from art produced elsewhere by its quality, breadth, diversity, accessibility and educational function, then perhaps this sector deserves continuation of its privileged status as the focus of public funding and services. If the most important measure of participation in the arts is the artistic creativity demonstrated by the general populace, or if one theorizes that broadened familiarity and understanding of the arts will lead to the establishment and support of organizations and artists to meet the resulting increase in demand, then arts education should be a priority—certainly in the public school system, but perhaps from whoever can provide it most effectively. To the extent that the arts are trades and manifested in on-the-job creativity, leadership and program strategies are called for that generate investment from the business community and economic development funding sources. To the extent that the arts are a kind of experience, perhaps public funding and support should go wherever the quality and range of artistic experience can be most effectively provided, regardless of for-profit, not-for-profit, government or hybrid status.
- Is the political support resulting from current programs and services going to be sufficient to maintain the positive impact of the state arts agency over time given how the environment is changing? The most common experience of state arts agencies includes a doubling of their budgets during the 1990’s, a steep cutback during the recession that followed the new millennium, and some recovery as the economy has improved over the past few years. They perceive that support from the beneficiaries, stakeholders and authorizers of their programs and services has produced gains and limited losses as circumstances allowed, so it would be natural for them to conceive of improving their public value as building on the relationships they already have—adding initiatives and new collaborations incrementally. Some SAAs, however, notably in the West, did not experience significant budget increases in the 1990’s. A small number of SAAs have had extreme budget cutbacks since then and have not yet recovered significantly. These SAAs have strong motivation to reconsider long-standing assumptions about the leadership and grant making roles that will build public value in their situations. Arts learning in the public education system, a necessary foundation for the success of almost every other strategy to improve participation in the arts, commands about a third of SAA grant funds, but this strategic investment, highly leveraged with school-community partnerships, very professional staff services and networking at every governmental level, has limited the damage rather than resulted in overall gains in the availability and quality of arts education. The national coalition that comprises the Arts Education Partnership has been successful for a decade in sustaining an investment from the federal arts and education agencies, and from the foundation community. The coalition advocacy coordinated through the national Cultural Advocacy Group has sustained and increased U.S. Department of Education funding for arts education. Will continuing current advocacy strategies at each level of government build on the gains in arts education and turn the losses around?
- How will changes from current programs and services affect the make-up and influence of the constituency that advocates for the agency’s resources? The current balance of general operating support for not-for-profit organizations and arts education investment, supplemented by project and initiative categories and augmented by staff and contract services has evolved over a 40-year period. It has established and sustained a state government commitment to state arts agencies characterized by increases in good economies reflecting the growth of state government budgets and by survival during recessionary periods. It is my own belief that this funding and service pattern can still generate significantly more investment from state government because advocacy by its stakeholders and beneficiaries is nowhere near as systematic and embedded in relationships that share and convey the value of arts experiences as it can be. However, the projects, initiatives, partnerships, communications and strategic approaches SAAs experiment with generate a steady stream of alternative organizing principles and potential roles. For instance, the benefits and risks of SAAs expressing their value primarily in terms of creativity and its cousins—the creative economy, the creative class, creative communities, etc.—and in different degrees reshaping programs and services accordingly are now being tested.
As state arts agency leaders consider choices that will shape their next four decades and beyond, they will find it useful to draw upon the insights that history provides, the most current information about trends in their environment and the array of approaches being tested to address them, and the most creative thinking of colleagues within and outside of the state arts agency field. NASAA is dedicated to being the primary knowledge resource for these choices. Your comments, suggestions and questions are always welcome. Now is a good moment to mark your calendar for Assembly 2007, NASAA’s Annual Meeting in Baltimore, MD, December 6-8.
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