The Latest City Where Funders See Big Ripple Effects From Investing in the Arts

Is there a city anywhere in America where funders aren't thinking about how the arts can spark new vitality? We're sure there is, but every time we turn around, it seems that we're hearing about yet another metropolis with an ambitious plan for an arts renaissanceand the good things that might come as a result. 

Earlier this month, we wrote about a major arts initiative underway in Boston, spotlighting the role of the Barr Foundation. More recently, big happenings involving the arts in Cincinnati caught our eye, and what's going on here is definitely worth a close look. 

Related: The Arts Are Thriving in Boston—Thanks in Part to This Foundation

At the forefront is ArtsWave, the greater Cincinnati region's leading local arts agency and the nation's oldest and largest united arts fund. It is the biggest funder of operating support for the arts in Cincinnati and also plays a significant role in convening, capacity-building, and organizing within the arts sector in the region.

After a series of workshops at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and months of conversations with board members, local community leaders, and area arts organizations, ArtsWave has announced its ten-year strategy, the "Blueprint for Collective Action for the Arts." Elements will be familiar to anyone who tracks what arts funders are into these days at the urban level. 

Related: The Complex Funder Pushing Creative Placemaking With Millions in New Grants

The Blueprint consists of five main goals that include making Cincinnati a more appealing place for people to live, especially younger professionals; enlivening neighborhoods; strengthening arts education to ensure students have creative 21st century skills; and bridging cultural divides of race and ethnicity. The idea is that this is "an opportunity for the arts to demonstrate that they can 'move the needle'" in terms of boosting Cincinnati. 

The President and CEO of ArtsWave, Alecia Kintner, explained to Inside Philanthropy that the Blueprint is evolutionary not revolutionary. It's an "evolution of our Arts Community Impact Agenda, developed around 2010 when we changed our mission, brand, and name from the Fine Arts Fund to ArtsWave and adopted an impact-based approach to grantmaking instead of the previous allocations model."

Kinter says that was a radical change for the organization and for Cincinnati, because it shifted the question from "What do the arts need?" to "What does the community need, and how can the arts have an impact?" 

That is, indeed, pretty radical, but it's something we're seeing a lot of lately in various places. What's behind this trend? Kinter offers some striking insights with regard to her group's work in Cincinnati. She says,

This change was prompted by a changing philanthropic landscape, including the corporate push for metrics and quantifiable results in other sectors like education and health. We believed that if the arts were to compete for their share of the philanthropic pie, we needed to figure out how to talk about outcomes. It was also prompted by groundbreaking research that our organization commissioned, called the Ripple Report, which changed how we understood what the public values about the arts. It was less about appreciating personal experiences with the arts and instead about the ripple effect of benefits that the public associated the arts with—in particular, a more vibrant regional economy and more socially connected people. Everything changed for us with that insight.

The Blueprint's five main goals are focused on specific opportunities that ArtsWave believes can collectively make a difference in Cincinnati over the next decade. Kintner says they represent the intersection of where Cincinnati's arts organizations are already active and broader community priorities.

Our grantmaking criteria will evolve, in the sense that organizations are going to be asked to show how they are optimizing their individual potential to play certain roles in relation to each of these goals. Organizations that make intentional, measurable programming and operational decisions that help advance these goals will be rated the highest. 

If this kind of talk alarms you, you're hardly alone. Not everyone is thrilled with the trend among arts funders toward a focus on larger, instrumentalist goals that feel removed from an intrinsic valuing of art and support for artists—or how the language of "metrics" is increasingly heard in an arts sector that was once a safe refuge from technocrats. 

On the other hand, keep in mind that a big goal here is to ensure that arts funding remains robust, and Kinter spoke of ArtsWave's ambitions in this regard. 

We hope to keep going on our trajectory of investing more than $10 million in the arts ecology each year. Over the next ten years, if we are successful in our fundraising, that will mean $100 million.

That's good money for a city like Cincinnati, and there are reasons to think that ArtsWave will hit its goals. Kinter points to the organization's recent hefty haul from a fundraising model it has used for decades. 

Dating back to 1949, our organization has conducted the annual public fund drive for the arts in Greater Cincinnati, much like the United Way. In 2015, more than 42,000 donors contributed $12,250,000 to our campaign—a national record. A majority of our donations come through 275 workplace giving campaigns, which for us are all about connecting employees to the arts and to each other... We want to be active partners with businesses in embedding their employees in our region through engagement with the arts community.

Related: Three Reasons Why "Creative Placemaking" Represents the Future of Arts Funding