Here Are Five Big Trends Facing the Arts Sector. Are Foundations on the Same Page?

The Huffington Post recently published a piece by Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert L. Lynch looking at "Five Macro Trends That Arts Organizations Need to Watch."

Lynch's piece addressed what nonprofit directors should be thinking about rather than how they should respond to grantmaker priorities. That said, these trends, in most cases, are inextricably linked with arts-focused grantmaking. And so we'd like to take the opportunity to focus on some of Lynch's key takeaways and juxtapose them with related grants from some of the sector's most influential foundations. 

First off, Lynch contends that nonprofits are expected to play by for-profit rules. Specifically, organizations need to wean themselves off foundation dollars and build funding models predicated on robust in-house revenue generation — ticket sales, merchandise, services, etc. Lynch contends that private funding for the arts stands at a mere 30 percent, with two-thirds of that figure coming from individual giving.

We've certainly seen many foundations take a more hands-on approach by gently (or not so gently) prodding grant recipients to do the things they should be doing: growing the donor base, embracing social media, reaching new audiences, and so on. For example, we recently saw that eat-your-vegetables strategy in Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's two challenge grants to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) and the Guggenheim Museum's Conservation Department. 

Next up, Lynch notes that target markets are changing and expanding, particularly in terms of increased attention to racial equity and environmental issues, as well as the ever-evolving definition of "arts engagement." To the latter point, while studies show that there has been a declining share of the population attending an art museum or live performing arts event, Lynch contends "there is nothing traditional about the landscape of cultural consumption today."

Truer words were never spoken. As we've noted elsewhere here on IP, there is no uniform definition of "arts engagement." And with Silicon Valley billionaires and foundations like Wallace betting big on engagement, and with it, some sort of quantifiable standard to gauge effectiveness of an arts program, this could prove problematic.

Lynch's third trend involves the need for arts organizations to prepare for impeding environmental crises. Our take on the Getty Foundation's assessment of its $2.9 million Fund for New Orleans initiative notwithstanding, we've yet to see a massive influx of foundation dollars flow towards disaster preparation at arts organizations. (Then again, we have seen some foundations gravitate towards general operating support, which organizations could subsequently use for disaster preparation — or anything else for that matter.)

Lynch's fourth trend involves the need for ongoing training and development for nonprofit arts organization leaders. In most cases, these leaders will be motivated Baby Boomer types with no plans of retiring anytime soon, thereby frustrating Millennials who may feel compelled to take their talents elsewhere or start their own organization from scratch. Foundations, of course, are keenly interested in developing next-generation arts leaders. For related case studies, check out the Rasmuson Foundation and James Irvine Foundation's work here and here, respectively.

Lastly, Lynch reminds us that no arts organization is an island. Organizations will increasingly turn to community partners in an effort to combine resources and expertise, while simultaneously reaching new audiences. Examples of this phenomenon include the Theatre Communications Group's extensive work with the military community, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation's efforts to help arts organizations stay in a rapidly-gentrifying San Francisco, and the fast-growing field of creative placemaking, supported by heavy hitters like Kresge and ArtPlace America.