How Technology Supports Becoming a More Resilient, Innovative Arts Funder

Posted by Dan Katona, May 21, 2018

The Ohio Arts Council (OAC) was an early adopter of online grants management technology back in 2005, reflecting its belief that up-to-date tools can play a big role in helping it achieve its mission. That early work was successful, and the agency’s subsequent upgrade to an online system built by SmartSimple in 2015 has now paid dividends as well, contributing to recent increases in service to OAC constituents, streamlining of panel processes and costs, and improvements in end-user satisfaction with the grant application process.

The OAC built its new grants management system, ARTIE, at a time when improving the accessibility, diversity, and affordability of arts experiences in Ohio were stated constituent priorities. This meant allowing some time-worn programs to sunset while experimenting with new programs and initiatives: ArtSTART for newer applicants, ArtsNEXT for innovative projects, and TeachArtsOhio, a revamped in-school residency program. Creative Aging Ohio served older Ohioans; Mainstage to Main Street was aimed at rural presenters. These new and reformulated grant programs, launched as ARTIE came online, would have been challenging to administer with a less agile grants management system in place.

Staff outreach to less-served areas of the state also ramped up when the agency launched Fund Every County, which aimed to make direct investments into each of Ohio’s 88 counties during one biennium. We succeeded—along the way also awarding dollars to each of Ohio’s 99 House districts—in part because the process for applying for and receiving those dollars was easier than in the past. Offering online applications and support materials, with nothing mailed in hard copy, and a user-friendly online experience helped smooth the way for new artists and arts organizations unfamiliar with our processes.

In the 30 months since ARTIE launched, we’ve recorded over 16,000 separate user logins to the system, with our daily concurrent user load—how many users are logged in simultaneously—topping out around 70 (surprise: always right before deadlines!). About 4,500 grant applications have been created in ARTIE so far. Constituent responses have been positive, with comments like, “Compared with other government funding we have applied for, the OAC process, ARTIE system, and accessibility of staff is the most user-friendly,” and, “The ARTIE system has saved us a lot of time. The ease of use and the streamlined process is very much appreciated.” Applicant surveys have shown that very high percentages are either satisfied or very satisfied with every aspect of the system we asked about, including ease of completing budget worksheets (82%), ease of uploading support materials (91%), system compatibility (95%), and ease of general navigation (92%).

Our internal processes have benefited, as well. In the past, review panels convened in person and devoted about one-third of their time to closed pre-session review of submitted audiovisual and paper materials, often a half or full day long. But no more. We still hold in-person public meetings, but with panelists reviewing materials at home, meeting lengths have been shortened considerably—meaning reduced panel expenses. In ARTIE’s first year, the agency saved enough in its assessment costs to more than cover the system’s annual hosting fees; ARTIE paid for itself.

Panel experiences have also been positive. Applications are tabbed for panelist review, along with narratives, budget information, and other information displayed on one side of the screen, and scoring and comment space on the other. Unique audiovisual items can be uploaded into ARTIE and panelists can now stream them without navigating to a new screen or downloading them one-by-one.

This fluidity in experience has meant a new way of working for the agency. After many years using a serviceable but static system, we’re now getting accustomed to working with a system that undergoes periodic upgrades on its own, with no prodding necessary (or costs incurred). Quarterly upgrades with new bells and whistles added all the time are routine (with training to match), and we enjoy close ties to SmartSimple’s Support and Development teams. It’s a creative space for experimentation, and we know it will continue to evolve over time as we do. We're proud to be a part of a growing community of arts and culture funders benefiting from the SmartSimple platform through which we can share and learn from as industry peers.

Ohio’s arts and cultural landscape—like that of many states—is always evolving. There will always be new opportunities to consider, and new challenges to be addressed. That’s often the power of the arts: their ability to change shape, adjust focus, bend and twist in response to stimuli, and adapt to meet needs and maintain relevance. Lots of barriers to arts funding exist as well, as everyone in the public sector well knows—and the answer certainly isn’t always a new grant program. But in recent years, the OAC has been fortunate to see its grantmaking technology as more of a versatile tool and less of a barrier to action. We’re thrilled with ARTIE and what it’s brought to our agency, and look forward to what it can do for us next.

Content by Ohio Arts Council, made possible by SmartSimple