How Cultural Facilities Can Support Creators

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Photo: Flickr user, Brian Kolstad.

Last month, I advocated for separating cultural facilities from the groups that use them. Most of that related to the need to pull apart the fortunes of brick-and-mortar enterprises from the ephemeral nature of entities that create art. Practically speaking.

A second consideration is the fact that giving to the arts is maximized when recipients pursue contributed income separately. Fundraising, after all, is a competitive activity: when competition is reduced by consolidated fundraising — think United Arts Funds — the ultimate level of giving to the sector is also reduced. It’s not surprising that there’s limited data to back this up, and I’d certainly love to see studies that prove me wrong. But the fact is, there are currently fewer such funds representing fewer organizations, and they’re raising a smaller amounts of money. To me, it’s human nature: Funders love the idea that they can simply respond to one ask with one larger gift. But in reality, that gift is inevitably smaller than what they would have given had all sorts of individuals and groups tenaciously pursued them, year after year.

Ultimately, facilities depend on good content. And they are doomed if the quantity and quality of the work falls away. Important is the role that presenters can play in supporting new and emerging artists and groups, advancing good work and maintaining healthy product supply out into the future. This generally requires subsidized access to space and a more hands-on approach to events. Yet the facilities that can take this on tend to be the ones with the capacity to fundraise specifically for such programs, with the support of corporations and foundations that recognize the value of new and emerging local work.

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Key efforts should also be on enhancing the experience — before, during and after the performance. Impacts during a performance are made by the physical environment, by the service provided and by the atmosphere created. These are things facility managers focus on every day, using better technologies, new services (sippy-cups at your seat!) and more customer-centric staff training.

The experience before and after a performance is a newer focus. Per my recent post on this topic, facilities can have a tremendous impact on the extrinsic and intrinsic elements of the performance experience, with more opportunities to socialize and collectively process the experience, better information-sharing and concierge services. The evolution of ticketing systems and related analytical tools provides a tremendous opportunity for facilities to support artists. Facilities can provide subsidized access to these systems and additional modules that producing organizations can use to advance audience development and fundraising efforts on their own.

Another area of support is presenting institutions partnering with producing organizations on education and community engagement programs. The Dana Foundation authored “Acts of Achievement: The Role of Performing Art Centers in Education,” a study on K-12 education programs offered by performing arts centers nationwide. The story was that PACs had gone from simply offering matinee performances of presented events for kids arriving in school buses to developing comprehensive inbound and outbound programs, working closely with local artists and organizations on their design and delivery.

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Finally, facilities can provide other types of back-office operational support, including consolidated purchasing programs for everything from office supplies to media buys; technology support, such as cloud-computing services; and professional development training for staff and volunteers. Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, NY, has basically taken over the operations of Cap Rep Theatre in Albany, providing marketing, development and administrative support for the organization while retaining separate identity and programming, and pursuing financial support on that basis.

In some communities, operational support efforts become a critical element of mission. For example, the Overture Center in Madison, WI, opened in 2004 with a hostile local arts community convinced that the facility was taking audiences and funding away from them. Current Executive Director Ted Dedee has done a remarkable job changing this dynamic through his support of these groups, through access and many of the services described above.

To me, the key to all of this is finding ways for facilities to quietly support artists and producing groups while still allowing them to maintain their separate missions, brands and community-based leadership. I don’t mean to make this sound easy. It is a huge and never-ending challenge to support those who create art while also allowing them to rise and fall based on the strength of their mission and their ability to find audiences and funders for good work. But this is the way forward.