Is Our Understanding of Diverse Arts Organizations Wrong? A Tale of Two Studies

Data can be misinterpreted. Interpretations are relative. Numbers are contextual.

This is particularly true as it relates to a new study from the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) at Southern Methodist University that looks at the distinguishing characteristics of arts organizations that primarily serve Asian American, African American, and Hispanic/Latino communities. The study was inspired by a report by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, titled "Diversity in the Arts: The Past, Present, and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies."

Both studies examine the challenges facing "diverse" organizations. Both examined key financial and demographic data points. And both provide data-driven insights and recommendations around the challenges these organizations face. Yet the NCAR paper, "Does 'Strong and Effective' Look Different for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations?" diverged from the DeVos report in two main areas.

The first involves how we interpret the overall health of diverse organizations. DeVos claims diverse organizations are generally smaller and "less secure" than their mainstream counterparts. For example, the 20 largest mainstream organizations studied have a median budget of $61 million; the 20 largest organizations of color have a median budget size of $3.8 million. NCAR, meanwhile, says the following:

Based on its research, NCAR found that culturally specific arts organizations are not disproportionately smaller than their mainstream peers. Taking into account their sector and age, the data shows that they are generally younger and therefore at a different stage in their evolution than mainstream organizations. 

In other words, NCAR argues that size should be viewed through the lens of an organization's maturity. Smaller needn't mean "worse off." Or as Zannie Voss, director at NCAR notes, "We recognize that culturally specific organizations have particular characteristics that should be understood for what they are, neither good nor bad nor a sign of ineffectiveness but simply a different starting point." 

Similarly, NCAR examined the operating characteristics of diverse arts organizations to see how they perform across a variety of metrics. In the process, they discovered important differences based on demographics and art sector. For example, African American organizations tend to have fewer programmatic offerings and generate lower annual attendance and program revenue, but have more contributed revenue, especially from individuals, foundations and corporations.

The takeaway? Diverse organizations' ecosystems are, well, diverse. Context is everything. The deeper you dig, the more nuances you'll find, suggesting that certain organizations may, in fact, be more "secure" than a cursory glance would indicate. To that end, NCAR's report also calls for a more "equitable measure of performance" across sectors.

This brings us to NCAR's second point of contention. When the DeVos study was first published, it generated some controversy by proposing that funders might see greater results by providing larger grants to a smaller number of "effective" organizations, rather than continuing to fund a larger number of organizations through smaller grants. 

Certain outlets ran with this recommendation, interpreting it as a recipe for letting smaller — i.e. less financially secure — arts organizations wither on the vine. It's a kind of "survival of the fittest" phenomenon. We won't get into the weeds of DeVos' argument here, except to say that NCAR disagrees with this approach, noting:

NCAR argues that the funding model proposed by DeVos would be detrimental to the cultural ecology, as it could effectively reduce the overall number of smaller organizations and therefore diminish the level of diversity, dynamism, and innovation in the field. NCAR calls for a deeper understanding of culturally specific organizations before significantly altering or abandoning their funding.

All that being said — and despite the provocative headline of the NCAR press release that read "National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) Releases White Paper Countering Findings of the Devos Institute..." — we'd like to leave you by accentuating the areas of agreement.

Both reports appreciate the inherent complexity and contextual nuances of the sector. Both understand that terms like "success" and "secure" can be relative. And both acknowledge that foundations like to fund well-managed and "effective" organizations.

You can read the entire NCAR report here.