Arts & Creativity Field Scan

What’s the current state of arts and creativity organizations?

This is the second post in our series that summarizes findings and lessons from the Arts & Creativity Field Scan. For the introductory post, please click here. We hope you’ll return for future posts to learn more about the headlines introduced below.

Since March, organizations have faced significant hardships and levels of uncertainty that led to periods of paralysis for many.

Around 95% of the organizations in our sample offered primarily in-person programming. Therefore, unsurprisingly the Covid crisis forced nearly all of them to immediately cease their programming starting in mid-March. This resulted in significant loss of revenue, especially earned revenue, and threatened core economic models. Organizations were forced to adapt quickly to remote work, for which few were prepared. Staff leadership spoke frequently about the seemingly unsolvable challenge of supporting the well-being of their staff while working hard to figure out how to proceed in the face of the pandemic. Constantly shifting, diffuse, and sometimes contradictory public health guidance significantly complicated planning.

Starting in May, with uprisings elevating the ongoing crisis of systemic racism, many organizations said they were motivated to examine the ways they had been contributing to or dismantling systemic racism. We heard that the resulting discussions often led to tensions among and between staff, board, and/or funders. For many, these tensions slowed their response to audiences, communities, artists, and creatives. Organizations with a mission focus on one or multiple racial identity groups tended to have the opposite experience, quickly enhancing their work with audiences, communities, artists, and creatives.

Reflecting on their experiences overall, respondents consistently spoke about struggling to solve deeply interconnected and complex problem statements without clear answers.

The pre-Covid characteristics of organizations strongly influenced how they responded during the crisis.

According to our interviewees, their fundamental organizational characteristics—mission, values, practices, relationships, assets, and barriers—had not changed since February and March and shaped their set of potential responses. To provide a few examples, we heard:

• From a values perspective, organizations that focused on preserving an art form or their institution pre-Covid maintained this emphasis; similarly, organizations that focused on serving a particular community or facilitating creativity maintained that emphasis.

• While decision making processes may have expanded or contracted slightly, the core stakeholders involved in those processes and the relative weight of their voices remained the same.

• Organizations practiced in change were able to adapt quickly, while those primed to move slowly and steadily struggled to pivot and adjust.

• External relationships—with communities, partner organizations, unions, etc.—previously built on mutual support were often enhanced; those not built on mutual support often seized up or ended.

Similarly, we heard that pre-existing organizational strengths were tested and weaknesses were exposed and highlighted. More than a few leaders said they were afraid their organizations would break down.

The dominant narrative about the Covid crisis “shutting down” the nonprofit arts sector tells only a portion of our sample’s story.

About half the sample organizations—those that engage audiences or communities more through staging or displaying works of art or creativity—were not able to relaunch most of their programming in the spring. A few were able to fully or partially launch core programming in the summer. This half of the sample organizations laid off or furloughed significant portions of their paid staff. A few of the smallest and largest organizations laid off or furloughed 80%, 90%, or even 100% of staff. Organizations that could not relaunch programming spoke about the pain of losing connections to their audiences and donors. They also expressed great worry about their relevance in this shifting world and culture. In lieu of their usual programming, most of these organizations immediately began sharing digital content, and over time virtual programming offerings expanded. At the same time, only a few organizations in the sample articulated a clear vision for virtual programming or saw it as a longer-term focus.

The other half of sample organizations—those that engage audiences or communities more through supporting artistic or creative practice—quickly adjusted and relaunched their programming after an initial shut down. While some lay-offs occurred, these organizations faced two other staffing challenges: first, the pressure to reorient longstanding programming approaches to a virtual format; and second, the pressure to work harder to meet the growing needs of communities. Contrary to the experience of the other half of our sample, these organizations often spoke about deepening their connection with their communities. Digital delivery of relaunched programs became the immediate norm for these organizations, though we heard mixed opinions about its efficacy and how much virtual engagement they would offer longer term.

An upcoming post will focus on the differences summarized in the last two paragraphs.

Despite the hardships, almost all sample organizations have remained viable and minimized immediate net financial damage.

With all the shut downs and pivots, we were surprised that the majority of organizations in our sample avoided serious net financial damage. The clear trend was organizations ending their fiscal year 2020 with about the same net result that they had budgeted. This was made possible primarily by painful expenses cuts—including layoffs, as noted above—that mirrored revenue losses. On the revenue side, many organizations benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program, and all organizations spoke about their appreciation for the increased support coming from donors, community members, and foundations closest to them. Lastly, those organizations that had capital to tap did so. These organizations said they were fortunate to have the flexibility that capital provided. However, they also expressed concern about the future since frequently the capital they used had been raised for other purposes.

We heard widespread concern that what lies ahead could be more painful than what has already transpired.

Looking to the future, leaders said they had built their plans for the coming months on unavoidable risks. The major bets we heard were on increased contributed revenue, the ability to stay open or reopen in the winter and spring of 2021, and a modest level of earned revenue. All agreed that enhanced contributed support will be needed for at least the next few years, and without it believe their organizations cannot survive. Other unanswered questions that are causing great concern include:

• How will our audiences and communities engage with us as the pandemic continues to unfold and we begin emerging from it? What will they be willing and able to pay for programming?

• Will we be able to retain the talent—staff, artists, creatives—we’ve cultivated? Will we be able to find the talent we’ll need in the future?

• What is the business model on the other side of all this?

Do you have a question or a reflection? Leave us a comment! We are excited to hear your clarifying questions, requests for additional information, reflections on how our findings align or conflict with your own experience, and interpretations of the findings and their implications. We are also interested in hearing suggestions for new research questions as we continue to explore how this crisis and its impacts evolve.