Tag Archives: cultural council

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.

The New Generation Local “Cultural” Council

By my calculation the US local arts agency movement is now – post recession – into its 4th generation. The first generation were the few pioneers who promoted the very concept of a local coordinating agency in the arts. Then came the big boom second generation, promoted heavily by the presence of federal and state leadership. (These included the NEA Locals Program as well as state programs that provided incentives and grants to launch local arts agencies and provide them with funds to re-grant.) Then came the third generation of retrenchment and loss as many local arts agencies simply closed their doors due to a lack of resources and equal lack of focused purpose. And now rising from the ashes are the fourth generation of councils, with a lineage and concept consistent with their heritage, but a new focus and tremendous urgency.

The hallmarks of this new generation are:

1) They are far more inclusive in their concept of “culture.” While “arts” councils have long done “cultural plans,” at the end of the day most of these councils were still just about preserving, protecting, funding, coordinating, and advocating for the arts sector. Increasingly, new generation councils (including those that have lasted from pioneer days, and have actively sought to remain relevant) are inclusive of heritage, history, humanities, and the arts. Zoos, libraries, heritage centers, science centers and more are now the constituents of progressive local councils.

2) These councils are given new energy and focus by local economic development leaders who want a very vibrant cultural life that appeals to the companies and workers they wish to attract. The pressure on them is now coming from the outside, rather than from within the arts, history, heritage, humanities field. Equally, their success is measured by the economic development leaders, to whom they are increasingly accountable.

3) Regionalism is in, redundancy is out. Those same economic development leaders are unlikely to be interested in local arts or cultural agencies in every city or suburb within a region. A hub and spokes, maybe. A “virtual” office, sure. But no redundant overhead.

4) Return on investment is key. Those that are directly in the business of boosting attendance – i.e. on-line ticket sales service for the region, “big list” database back office services for every nonprofit, centralized experts that rove between organizations saving each on cost and providing what each can’t afford alone – these are among the new interests of those that provide funding. SWAT teams – archivists who provide services to all the house museums in a region, IT teams, roving HR experts, web designers and more – these are “fee for services” offerings that funders want to see strengthen the overall field.

5) New business models, new money. The new generation councils are expected to establish a culture of new business models within the entire sector they serve/lead. These business models hold down costs, may include mergers, and make no assumptions about “business as usual.” At the same time, the new generation councils are expected to implement substantial efforts to really and truly deal with the monetary fuel needed to sustain the sector. This may mean regional taxing districts, workplace giving, dedicated revenue, pooled funds or more. They are expected to be high level brokers among the funding community, able to accomplish what others before them could not.

6) Similarly, these sector-wide councils work fluidly with for profits and non-profits. They know how to package their sector for the tourism business, how to support new business recruitment, work comfortably in tandem with those in recreation, public lands and resources, pro sports, and other “quality of life” sectors.

7) They may increasingly be in the development business, as partners, pre-development planners, owners, administrators, landlords. As regions take a look at the duplicated cost of running multiple facilities that could potentially be served by a centralized administration, the entire spectrum of development and facility management tasks are growing.

8) They are funders, but in a very streamlined way. Many former generation arts councils burdened themselves and their constituents with the weight of excessive paperwork and grants reporting to the point of the absurd. Twenty page applications and final reports for $500 grants became the reason to spend months of salaried and volunteer arts council time. More and more funders have pointedly asked the new generation of cultural councils for efficiency, streamlining, sensible approaches.

9) At the same time, the new cultural councils are demanding of their grantees. Gone are the days of making sure every organization always gets some funding. In are the days of holding organizations accountable for smart business practices, even if it means cutting off all funding to those that don’t pass. It is a tough new world.

Ready for the challenge? These new generation councils will be exciting, powerful, results-oriented entities. Dive in. Your region is waiting.

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.