“World class” won’t be enough

An important new RAND report titled “State Arts Policy: Trends and Future Prospects” outlines new thinking and approaches being adopted by some state arts agencies (SAA’s) to position themselves effectively in the changing political environment.

The new thinking involves a shift in purpose and mission for these agencies, which were founded in the mid-1960’s. Originally created to provide financial support to nonprofit arts organizations and artists in their states, the “public benefit” purpose of SAA’s was to increase the supply and availability of high-quality arts activities for state residents. But research has shown that the mission has certain flaws and the stated purpose has not been well met.

At one level, the original mission succeeds in providing important funding for the nonprofit arts sector. But the availability of funding has also catalyzed the growth of new organizations. As a result, increased competition has reduced the funds available as the pool of recipients grew and state funding allocations most often did not.  

The stated purpose “to make high-quality arts available to more state residents” has not been sufficiently realized to justify either increases or, as some fear, any future support from the public. Americans who participate most heavily in SAA-funded activities are, according to the report’s findings, “relatively few and overwhelmingly white, well-educated and affluent.” 

Progressive SAA’s are looking to develop new priorities for their funding, which they believe will resonate more positively with the public and be more defensible in a challenging political climate. RAND’s report identifies three new strategies:

  • An expanded mission based on service to all state residents
  • A commitment to working more closely with political leaders and other state agencies
  • A broader range of policy tools more suited to the new mission

In essence, this shifts the focus of public funding from the historic intent to support institutions to a commitment to serve individuals. The implications of this shift are significant. If the profile of most of the audiences for the arts is that affluent, educated white person documented by research, and you add the fact that these audiences most frequently attend the very few institutions we consider “world class,” it is clear that the purpose of serving the broader public is not being met.

The RAND report focuses only on new strategies for state agencies. I am distressed that these strategies seem to be pretty limited. They suggest that closer alliances with public officials and more sophisticated policy tools are all that is needed. What about actual and accountable service delivery to more people?

This is where our arts institutions themselves will need to make real changes in how and who they serve. Being “world class” will not be enough when the money you need comes from the folks in the neighborhood.