The Arts Sector Has Recovered from the Great Recession. But Where Is it Going?

Arts nonprofits have been doing a lot of soul searching in the aftermath of the Great Recession. And countless research outlets have been happy to add to this conversation by publishing provocative reports addressing everything from overall spending trends to the struggles of African-American and Hispanic arts organizations to certain demographics' lack of engagement.

These reports can be read in two ways. The first is from the perspective of the organization itself. Nonprofit directors can look at the data and see how their organizations stack up with their peers. The second, of course, is through the lens of the foundations. Sometimes these reports explicitly spell out what grantmakers are thinking, which will influence organizational decision making. Other times, readers need to extract these priorities. Either way, it's a useful exercise.

And so it is through this latter lens we'd like to consider a robust and optimistic piece published earlier this month in Nonprofit Quarterly, titled "Staging a Comeback: How the Nonprofit Arts Sector Has Evolved since the Great Recession." This in-depth article does a great job of addressing some of the fundamental challenges facing nonprofit arts organizations over the past eight years, including undercapitalization, addressing an evolving audience base, and managing staff. 

But our intention is more forward-looking. Now that the sector has (hopefully) stabilized, we're particularly interested in what the piece had to say about both present and future foundation priorities. Three trends jumped out at us.

New strategies to boost audience engagement

The Wallace Foundation's big $40 million effort to boost engagement has made headlines over the last year, but the study cites two specific strategies that seem to be increasingly popular among foundations and arts organizations. First, in order to "broaden their relevance, appeal, and reflection of America’s changing demographics," funders like the Ford Foundation "have made racial equity an organizational priority." (For an example of Ford's efforts in this area, check out our take on their "The Art of Change" initiative here.)

In fact, we'd like to take the NPQ article's sentiment one step further by arguing that goals like racial equity are part of the broader trend whereby foundations increasingly support the "artist as activist." This recent post provides over a half-dozen examples of foundations linking arts with the goal of fomenting social change.

Which bring us to that second strategy for boosting arts engagement. According to the article, "funders likethe Kresge Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation also have invested heavily in creative placemaking." Again, it's a topic we've looked at quite a bit, most recently in this piece, which coincidentally connects creative placemaking with the goal of solving social problems.

Success is relative (and possibly even temporary)

This one is interesting as it is refreshing. One could be forgiven for thinking that in this age of Big Data, organizations would be rightly concerned with measuring performance to justify their existence. This fear is warranted — although it depends on which foundation cuts the checks. The article notes that "the Knight Foundation and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund are among the funders that no longer require arts grantees to be nonprofits or jump through other hoops to demonstrate their "permanence.'"

Broadening the definition of the arts ecosystem

Lastly, from to the NPQ article:

Across the country, foundations are increasingly pooling funds to provide professional expertise that will allow nonprofits — and not only in the arts — to thoughtfully (and confidentially) explore long-term collaborations, shared spaces, alliances, and mergers.

This trend, of course, doesn't exist in a vacuum. In many ways it is in response to — or a necessary ingredient of — supporting larger goals like boosting audience engagement. Take creative placemaking, for example. It's an activity that requires the involvement of multiple parties, including banks, community leaders, and even politicians.

To see what we mean, check out Kresge and Surdna's $1.3 million, two-year project called Catalyzing Culture and Community through Community Development Financial Institutions to support their creative placemaking efforts by addressing the biggest obstacle facing entrepreneurs today: lack of access to capital. The program frees up lenders to experiment with projects they might not have considered otherwise.

All in all, Nonprofit Quarterly's piece paints a generally upbeat picture of the sector's future. Check out the entire article here.