Creating the Conditions for Arts & Culture to Thrive: How can Arts Service Organizations Help Lay the Groundwork?

Posted by Ms. Megan L. Van Voorhis, Aug 29, 2018

A few weeks ago, Genesee County, Michigan voters approved a millage to support their arts and cultural assets. If you’re not familiar, the seat of Genesee County is Flint, which, based on Google results you might know for its water crisis or a Netflix series. If you’re older, you might know it from the film Roger & Me, but that’s not how I know it. I know it for the Flint Cultural Center—a beacon of light that shaped who my brother and I would become … he, a music teacher and I, a passionate arts and culture advocate.

Words can’t express how proud I am of Genesee County voters for investing in one of their greatest assets; however, they can express this: their collective investment has the potential to be a real game changer for Genesee County, the people who live there, and their arts and cultural community.

How do I know this? Because that’s what happened in Cleveland following passage of one of the largest local option taxes for arts and culture in the country. That story, and the special role of our organization in facilitating this change, is the subject of a publication we just released: Elevating the Influence of Arts & Culture: A Cleveland Playbook. We spent over 2.5 years honing this publication. While I can’t cover everything outlined in the playbook here, I can give you a few insights drawn from the work we did to stabilize our arts and culture sector and position it for greater influence in our community. Think of these as tips for fertilizing the soil to ensure arts and culture can thrive and grow in your city.

Insight #1: Long lasting change involves shifting the way people think

Why it’s important
When it comes to the greater community elevating the value of arts and culture, changing how people think about it and act towards it is key. Information gathering is a foundational step in changing minds and you’ll need two kinds of intel to help influence people’s perceptions: 1) information about arts and culture; and 2) information for arts and culture.

Try this
Work backwards. Go talk to the people you’re trying to influence and ask them what they care about. What are their biggest challenges? What changes are they trying to effect? Ask them if there are particular ways arts and culture could be helpful to them (or if they’ve even considered arts and culture as part of the equation). All of this information better positions you to illustrate how arts and culture can be woven into and make a difference in those things they care about. Ultimately, you’ll be better positioned to articulate exactly how investment in arts and culture will yield concrete benefits from an angle they already understand.

Insight #2: Build unity

Why it’s important
Building common ground among sector players is critical to a thriving arts and cultural ecosystem. As the old adage goes, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” Helping sector players understand how they relate to one another, rather than compete with one another, is an important step, especially when resources are finite. Arts and culture service organizations can play an important role in helping to visualize systems for all of the players and articulating the value add from different parts of the system.

Try this
Gather people regularly from across the spectrum of the arts and culture ecosystem. When done right, this can be critical for establishing a common cause and building unity around sector-wide issues. Keep things as inclusive and transparent as possible. Having only a narrow segment of the sector in on the conversation can breed animosity and distrust, which can later undermine policy advancement. Keep in mind, ongoing conversations without a purpose will quickly lose steam. Start gathering people for discussion when the time is right, when you’re ready, and preferably with a clear end goal that affects everyone.

Insight #3: Collaborate and learn from others

Why it’s important
Sector stability and cross-sector collaboration go hand in hand. Arts and culture service organizations need to spend as much time focusing outside of the arts as they do inside the arts. Collaborating and communicating with other sectors (think community development, healthcare, public safety, education, sustainability, just to name a few) will not only result in a stronger arts and cultural community, but a less isolated one.

Try this
Consider dedicating staff to follow specific sectors. Like beat reporters, their job is to know the key influencers in their designated sector, keep tabs on significant initiatives, and to understand major intersections with arts and culture. Making this a core part of your work will better position you to launch arts and culture from the periphery of community decision-making to a more central place in it.

We won’t stop there.

This is only a small slice of what we’ve learned throughout all our work to stabilize and improve conditions for arts and culture to grow and thrive. Is our work done? No. But I can assure you we will continue to take our own advice from the playbook and apply that to our work moving forward. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens next, and we’re ready for the journey.