Woodruff Arts Center Nets a Huge Grant to Promote Educational Programming. So Why Are We Confused?

What if you offered an arts education program and nobody came?

It's a common and mostly secondary dilemma for many arts nonprofits. Secondary because most directors' primary concern is actually coming up with the money to create the program. Once the program is live, then the organization attempts to get the word out, upon which everybody collectively crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.

But sometimes turnout is lower than expected, and that can be a kick in the gut. It's also bad because it (inaccurately) shows foundations that no one really cares about the organization and its programming. Yet what if the organization simply lacked the proper funds to effectively promote their offerings? Then what?

For an answer, we turn to Atlanta, where the Woodruff Arts Center received a $6.6 million grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation to support "Art From the Start," a new three-year program designed to "better connect families and students with the arts center's art and arts education offerings."

In other words, as we'll see in a second, the center has a host of tremendous classes and programs, and the grant will ensure that ever-busy parents not only know about them, but understand that many of these offerings require their presence and collaboration with their kid.

On one hand, this announcement suggests a kind of chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. That is, which comes first, amazing art programs, or the exposure that allows the organization to create amazing art programs? Unlike the actual chicken and egg, we propose a definitive answer to this one. To paraphrase our favorite movie, Field of Dreams, "If you build them, they will come."

The fact remains that the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation never would have opened their checkbook if Woodruff didn't already have some killer programs in place. Examples include:

  • Summer Artsplash: The High Museum will present an exhibit by children’s book author Mo Willems while the Alliance will produce a concurrent theatrical version of his book “Knuffle Bunny.”
  • Sunday Family Series: Every Sunday, beginning in June, free programming will be made available with families in mind, including performances from the Alliance’s Theatre for the Very Young, art-making activities, artist demonstrations, gallery games and tours, concerts on the art center’s central plaza and interactive music experiences.
  • Toddler Takeover: The arts center will produce this annual three-day festival, involving performances, workshops and art activities designed for children 18 months to 5 years.

So what can nonprofits take away from this announcement? First, programming excellence, particularly when it involves a collaborative element between parents and their kids, should remain your north star. Exposure and promotion can wait. Better yet, if you nail the first part and foundations understand the value of your programming, the PR funding can follow.

Second, we come across arts education grant announcements all the time, and this one stood out for three seemingly innocuous words. Expounding on the grant, Woodruff vice president of advancement Janine Musholt noted that, "We know that exposure to the arts benefits students in a variety of ways, from improved test scores to a better understanding of the world around them" (emphasis added).

We'll leave the scientific evidence to the experts, but if you're an arts educator looking for a new talking point, the idea that the arts can improve test scores in our standardized-testing-mad world may have some resonance. It certainly resonated with the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation.

So let's get this straight: First, schools cut arts funding to make room for standardized testing. Next, private foundations pick up the slack, funding arts education to fill the gap. The result? Nonprofits, grateful for the funding, note that their arts education offerings provide a host of benefits, including — yup — boosting students' test scores.

Does anyone else have a headache?