Yes, It Can Be Done: A Philanthropist on Transforming Rural Communities Through the Arts

CMF's Doctorow center for the arts

CMF's Doctorow center for the arts

Not long ago, I wrote about the Maine-based Libra Foundation betting big that the arts can transform a depressed small rural town in that state called Monson. I've also noted that ArtPlace America has been ramping up its commitment to rural communities to revitalize places that face deep economic challenges, and more recently, a growing opioid epidemic. 

Peter and Sarah Finn can relate.

In 1998, the couple founded the Hunter, New York-based Catskill Mountain Foundation (CMF), an organization committed to transforming rural communities through the arts. Over the next five years, the foundation plans to inject $20 million—in addition to the $45 million already invested—into the Catskills region to improve facilities and to finance new programs to support the arts.

If you're looking for someone with a pulse on the state of arts philanthropy in rural America, Peter Finn is the man to talk to. Recently, I had an opportunity to do just that.

Our discussion looked at why large institutional arts funders tend to ignore rural areas, the definition of successful audience engagement, and some of the challenges facing rural arts organizations moving forward. Here are some highlights.

Turning Around the Fortunes of a Community

The genesis of the CMF dates back to the early 1990s, when the Finns took over a family property in the town of Hunter. "The community had gone through a long decline," Peter said, and "many buildings on Main Street were for sale, and some buildings were in a serious state of disrepair and collapsing."

Peter and Sarah grew up in families that were very involved with the arts and had read stories about communities that were transformed through arts-based economic revitalization efforts. So in 1998, they started the Catskill Mountain Foundation in the hopes that they could turn around the fortunes of Hunter. It also didn't hurt that Peter and Sarah both spent their adult lives in business. (Peter is a Founding Partner at Finn Partners, a global marketing communications firm with 14 offices worldwide and over 500 employees.)

"We are used to developing a plan and a budget, and staying focused on accomplishing the mission," Peter said. "Our clear vision for what we wanted the Catskill Mountain Foundation to become and our persistence have been keys to our success."

In 2018, the CMF will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Its program offerings include over 20 performances and 200 films a year, artist residencies, education programs, a piano performance museum, gallery and bookstore, and, for good measure, an operating farm.

Its success is all the more startling when you realize that Hunter, New York has 2,732 residents.

Why Do Funders Pass On Rural Communities?

The problems facing rural communities are deep and complex. Yet we generally don't see rural areas receive a proportionate amount of support from large institutional funders. I asked Finn why this was the case.

"Many large grant entities, both foundations and government agencies, seem to prefer to fund urban areas for clear reasons. Many urban areas have significant needs and funding in urban areas can have a positive impact on more people." Funders, quite understandably, want the most bang for their buck, and more people live in urban areas.

It all makes for a reasonable piece of conventional wisdom, but is it accurate? Does an urban-centric strategy truly generate the most bang for the buck? 

Scan Inside Philanthropy's archives and you'll find examples of huge urban philanthropy efforts whose return on investment is murky at best. Most recently, David Callahan wrote that despite an influx of $1 billion from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to Flint, Michigan, life has mostly become worse in the city over the past half-century.

Finn's smaller-is-more-impactful approach flips conventional wisdom on its head: Funders can move the dial more effectively by operating in more concentrated communities.

"I have friends who have devoted themselves to solving large world problems, and sometimes it seems that it is almost impossible for them to have an impact," he said. "Because I focused my efforts on making a small corner of the world better, I was able to see a significant positive impact over time."

And while the rise of creative placemaking in rural areas suggests the conventional wisdom may be changing, it may not be enough in the grand scheme of things. "With increasing numbers of people moving to large cities, I think it is likely that the funding preferences of foundations and government agencies won’t change," Finn said. "This leaves the rural areas to individual lead donors."

Measuring Audience Engagement

As grantmakers increasingly rely on metrics and benchmarking to guide their funding activities, arts organizations have learned that engagement, while critical, is also subjective. The Wallace Foundation is spending over $50 million to help organizations address this very challenge.

Finn's approach suggests that organizations needn't overthink things too much.

"For the Catskill Mountain Foundation, engagement means purchasing tickets to its performances or films, signing up for its studio arts courses, or signing local children up for one of the free or subsidized youth arts programs. Using these measures, we have seen a significant increase in engagement over the past few years." 

Another important form of engagement is "attracting others to invest in the community. Others who have invested significant amounts into the community have stated outright that they were inspired to do so by the work of the Catskill Mountain Foundation."

Indeed, this type of engagement points to what I previously dubbed the philanthropic "snowball effect." It's the idea that an arts organization can start a chain reaction and over time, create a sustainable arts community. That's precisely what occurred in the Catskills.

The CMF has helped "incubate and launch quite a few other now successful arts organization in our community and in the region," Finn said, "and its early leadership in the region has contributed to attracting other arts organizations to move to the area."

Building a Vibrant Rural Arts Community

Maybe less obvious is the role of housing as a critical component of a rural arts-based development project. "Housing is important because it enables us to bring artists to our community for short stays, or for longer residencies," Finn said. CMF has a number of accommodations for artists, including facilities in the village of Hunter made up of four guesthouses with 22 bedrooms. 

Finn also cites effective communications with local stakeholders and the broader community as a critical input to rural arts-based community development. "There are many components of our communications program, including e-mail blasts to those who have signed up for our weekly newsletter, our website, our free monthly magazine which is distributed both locally and regionally, periodic meetings with local elected officials and other key individuals."

"We also provide free arts programs for local children through the local school, and heavily subsidized arts programs during the summer for local children. These are very popular and have a significant positive impact on how local parents feel about the Catskill Mountain Foundation. 

"Finally, we bring world-class artists to our community, enabling both residents and visitors to see performances that they otherwise would have to travel far to see."

Challenges Moving Forward

For all the reasons discussed, attracting foundation dollars to rural communities isn't easy. Add potential federal funding cuts to the mix, and the long-term prognosis looks even more ominous. But looking beyond funding, I asked Finn to reel off some of the other challenges facing the CMF and other like-minded rural arts organizations. He listed four.

First, a feeling among some locals that change is not welcome. It's an idea we sometimes see in urban creative placemaking, where some longtime residents can view arts organizations as interlopers and gentrifiers. Finn's experience suggests that rural organizations aren't immune from this perception. "The Catskill Mountain Foundation encountered this at times during the past 20 years," Finn noted, "but seems to have finally gotten beyond this."

Second, attracting sustained participation from the local community. "For a performing arts organization, this obviously means selling tickets," Finn said. "It has been a struggle at times to attract large audiences, but we do seem to have finally broken through over the past few years." 

Third, finding talented staff. "We have been lucky that we were able to hire several excellent staff members when we first launched who are still with the Catskill Mountain Foundation. But in rural communities, the pool of talent to select from is limited."

And lastly, the perennial specter of donor fatigue. "It is relatively easy to attract money in the early years for an energetic new arts organization that seems to be on path to success. All organizations encounter bumps in the road, and some donors are lost in this process. There has to be a core of key donors committed to sticking with the mission for the organization to become both successful and sustainable."

These challenges underscore an obvious reality: Successful arts-based development in rural communities is difficult, and it's not getting easier anytime soon. But with foresight, a holistic model, sustained engagement and $45 million and counting, Peter and Sarah Finn's Catskill Mountain Foundation has provided an illuminating 20-year case study into how it can be done properly. The fact that the Catskills is so close to New York City and has many Gotham expatriates and second home owners raises questions about how replicable this model is elsewhere. Still, the achievements of CMF are impressive. 

"Historically," Finn said, "the Town of Hunter was once known as a bar town. Today, it is known as a family arts community."

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