Monthly Archives: October 2010

Cultural Councils for the Future

I love arts councils – or cultural councils, culture and heritage councils, whatever they may be called – and have probably clocked well over a half million frequent flyer miles just on working with this structurally vital segment of the cultural and creativity sector. Out of the cultural councils that haven’t folded or been eliminated due to budget constraints, my bet is that at best only 30 percent are both healthy and focused on future-oriented needs as opposed to the traditional services and rationale. The field needs a radical remake: cultural councils have to get out in front again to make a substantive difference in saving and transforming community arts.

1. My calculations in reviewing thousands of Form 990s from scores of metros around the county suggest that at least 70 percent of United States arts and cultural nonprofits either have on-going structural deficits, have such low (or nonexistent) working capital – or have both dilemmas – that they are as stuck as Sisyphus, constantly trying to roll their institutional rocks up the hill only to watch them slip back down. Cultural councils know (and have championed) the cause of fiscal health, but at the same time they get stuck furthering the bad practices. An example is when I see a cultural council devote four months’ staff time and hundreds of volunteer hours to “pass through” $10,000 in state grants into ten $1,000 grants, at a negative cost benefit ratio of easily $50,000 administration for the $10,000 in grants. This is neither a smart business practice or making wise use of limited resources. (In fact, I have to wonder what the state agencies that have passed this yoke along are hoping to accomplish.)

Instead, cultural councils should be facing the dragon straight on: putting their constituencies’ structural deficits on the table, calculating the needed working capital, and defining new business approaches that can turn things around. Right now, there is a huge opportunity in helping nonprofits to digitize and sell tremendous amounts of e-product, and there are new opportunities in beneficial mergers and subsidiary development. Unfortunately, not many cultural councils can seem to get away from those maddening re-grant cycles to study, gain expertise, and lead their constituencies toward this point.

2. Cultural councils have largely adopted the creativity-sector language and inclusiveness made popular by Richard Florida, but have dragged their collective feet in expanding their services to the larger creative sector that goes far beyond nonprofit cultural groups. I recently attended a cultural commission meeting that opened with one of the commissioners telling the story of her daughter’s most recent business and financial successes with international public art commissions, and of how she has built a solid business based on sophisticated marketing plans and business strategies. That same commissioner went on to wonder at the dichotomy between the way the council sees individual artists – step children who should perhaps form local nonprofit associations – compared to the way artists create successful businesses.

Those councils that have small business development programs, start up loans, training in international sales and marketing and who even represent their constituents on trade missions overseas are on the right track, but they are the distinct minority. Yet in an increasing number of US markets, there are more for-profit artists/cultural/heritage businesses than nonprofits. This shift to for-profit cultural businesses is particularly profound among young creatives, who almost unanimously tell me they have absolutely no interest in founding nonprofits. They’d rather look for venture capital.

(I know one such creative who was recently fired by the board of the theater company he founded – by the board members he’d recruited – because he couldn’t “win” enough grants. He walked away from the nonprofit model, found investors, and is in the business of producing shows booked year round by dozens of casinos around the country. Business keeps rolling in. Dollar for dollar, he’s now the biggest player in his local cultural community, but has real difficulty fitting into the framework of the “arts community” served by the arts council.)

3. Cultural councils know that arts education in the United States is almost more of a mess than it was twenty years ago. Rounds of budget cuts have eliminated many bright spots developed over the past decades: magnet schools for the arts have ended, and little to no (or backward) progress has been made in enforcing arts learning standards. Record numbers of students are headed to music conservatories and art schools, but symphony orchestras, opera companies, and art galleries are closing and eliminating jobs and career paths. At the same time, there are entirely new creative fields waiting to be explored.

There are marvelous national and international models in which councils lead in fostering local-level understanding and curriculum that pairs creativity and innovation, targeted as much as fostering the creative inventors of tomorrow as encouraging new innovations in the arts. These should be the manifestos that cultural councils champion, the pilots they support.

4. Many cultural councils have extensively justified the economic impact of arts and culture, and deserve great credit for elevating the discussion of culture as an economic sector. It is vital, now, that they take the next steps of working hand in glove with their municipal planning departments, economic development commissions, business improvement districts, CVBs, redevelopment agencies, and other stakeholders to anchor economic development with arts and creativity enterprise and venues (for profit and nonprofit alike).

The best and the legendary cultural councils are doing this, and have been showing results for years. When cultural councils put together investment groups to build hotels and condominiums, lead the charrettes for redevelopment zones, help corporations work through how they can include theater spaces in bank buildings, determine the unifying elements and principles for zones, downtowns, suburbs, corridors, gateways and more, they are demonstrating culture as real economic development.
Time for a change? The exciting news is that many foundations and corporate leaders see the potential and are striving for change. Economic development commissions are taking increasingly active roles in fostering new thinking. Academics from MIT to community colleges are making the arts-innovation-invention links. Municipal planning departments are asking their cultural councils to lead in shaping unifying principles for development projects. CVBs are taking the lead in rebranding their communities around cultural assets. Exciting new thinking is underway. Our challenge? Make this the norm for the next generation of cultural councils.