Daily Archives: March 8, 2010

Cultural Development #2: Who does Cultural Development, and Why?

As promised, we’re back with another weekly installment on topics impacting cultural planning and cultural development as we sail on into the brave new post recessionary world.

This week we’re musing about arts councils, cultural commissions, local arts and heritage agencies. Many have quietly gone out of business over the past decade, and others are barely holding on. Is it because they don’t bring value? Ironically, most have brought great value but are no longer seen as necessary.

The real story in most communities is that a wide range of agencies have come to see the value of being cultural development leaders, and the field has gotten very, very crowded.

Downtown “renaissance” groups? They do cultural development.
Regional economic development planners? They do cultural development.
Libraries? They do cultural development.
Tourism office and CVBs? They do cultural development.
Local on-line media and calendars? They do cultural development.
Community foundations? They do cultural development.
Mixed use developers? They do cultural development.
Human services? They do cultural development.

And so on…

Is this failure, or success? Success, certainly. Success has put arts and culture on everyone’s radar, and everyone wants a piece of it. Arts, culture, and heritage have achieved their goal of being “at the big table.”

Does this have to mean the demise of local arts agencies? Or is this the start of a new model, one that is more efficient, more nimble? That depends largely on what local arts and cultural agencies exist to do, and who they exist for.

Unfortunately, in many states the local cultural agencies have become bureaucracies so linked to the disbursement and tracking of state funds that they have little time left to do anything else. There are way too many councils and commissions that annually devote months of paid staff time and almost all their volunteer (board, commission) time to the process of re-granting a total of $20,000 or so of state dollars to twenty or so local organizations, complete with panels, 20 page applications and final reports, annual instructional workshops and yet more final reports. In many places, this has become the full time work load for two or three fairly well paid professionals.

Is this really doing the work of cultural development?

Separate from the granting issue, too many councils have have not broken out of their former mold to become oriented to brand new needs and realities. It is hard to dump the old and transform into something out of the comfort zone, but it has to be done.

In this world of web-facilitated networking, web-based meetings, on-line calendars and consultation, on-line document sharing and web whiteboards, does a stand-alone arts council in a traditional office-cum-gallery-cum-conference room that used for grant-writing workshops make as much sense as it did a decade ago? You know the answer.


Swat teams of cultural development specialists that can move from the tourism office to the downtown renaissance to parks to economic development, paid for by a fund put up by all the agencies that benefit;
Grant teams that handle the (streamlined) re-grants processes for a dozen agencies;
Archivest or curatorial teams;
Others who zoom in with economic development skills, still others who zoom in to work with parks and recreation departments, schools and life long learning providers;

If cultural development is done by many different agencies, it is no longer necessary for an arts council to be the keeper of all the expertise in, say, arts education. That may better be done the education specialists at parks and recreation. (I know, I can feel the arrows coming this way…)

There are many communities where the “calendar” is already managed by an independent entity, but even here there is still more specialization and expertise to develop – web based CRM, customized sales messages, and the like – that might be better accomplished through expansion of that independent organization or by a financially well backed branch of a CVB. (More arrows sighted on the horizon…)

Deploy these teams and specialists within a county, statewide, or even within a multi-state area. In the process, eliminate the redundancy of too many generalists tending the arts fields, in favor of deepened specialization across municipal departments and county agencies.

The point is, cultural development entities need to be designed to meet the need and reach the goal, not the other way around. And the need has to be more than “serving as a granting agency” or even “facilitating advocacy for the arts.”

“Begin with the end in mind,” always. In the current and foreseeable economy, getting the job done is more important than who owns the job. And now that cultural development is owned by many who see its value, why not build on that enthusiasm in creating new and sustainable delivery mechanisms?

This can’t and won’t happen in a vacuum. If the funders of cultural development don’t think this way, and prefer to keep the status quo, guess what will happen? Those that do see the advantages, however, are going to see real gains in cultural development, everywhere.