Arts & Creativity Field Scan

How did organizations’ approaches to engaging audiences and communities impact their crisis experiences and responses?

This is the third post in our series that summarizes findings and lessons from the Arts & Creativity Field Scan. To see all posts in the series, please click here.

Our next set of posts will explore characteristics that led to major differences in how organizations experienced and responded to the Covid crisis. Approach to engaging audiences and communities with art and creativity was the characteristic that correlated with the most meaningful differences. This post focuses on describing those differences; the next post will suggest what these experiences and responses imply for the future challenges of product and practice organizations.

Defining terms

Two main categories emerged when we spoke to leaders about the approach to engaging audiences and communities with art and creativity inherent in their missions and programs:

Product approach, which engages audiences or communities primarily through staging or displaying works of art or creativity.

Practice approach, which engages audiences or communities primarily through supporting or facilitating artistic or creative practice.

While we classified organizations in the interview sample as either a “product organization” or a “practice organization”, in reality many organizations have aspects of both approaches. We chose the category that emerged as more dominant during our interviews and found that the data became well-differentiated when we did so.

In our interview sample of 96 organizations, 53% were product organizations and 47% were practice organizations. Interestingly, all budget categories and all disciplines, except schools and creation spaces, include both product and practice organizations (see Figure 1 and Figure 2 at the bottom of this post for detail). In summary:

• Performing arts, museums and galleries, and large organizations are more likely to be product organizations.

• Place-based are more likely to be practice organizations, and schools and creation spaces are only practice organizations.

• Other (discipline), midsize, and small organizations are roughly evenly split between product and practice organizations.

What differences did we observe between the experiences of product and practice organizations?

We observed four major areas of difference between product organizations and practice organizations: goals during the crisis, programming, audience and community connections, and staff impact.

Goals during the crisis

Product organizations tended to lead with the survival of the organization. They described survival as getting through programming shutdowns and emerging on the other side with enough structure and resources to relaunch programming. Leaders said survival was essential to preserve their artistic/creative form, their artistic vision, or the presence of their form or vision in their specific geography (for example, “we need to ensure that people in this city have an opportunity to see contemporary art”).

Practice organizations tended to lead with meeting the needs of their community of practice or geographic community. They described meeting community needs as supporting individuals during stay-at-home orders and contributing to community health and rebuilding over time. Leaders said they were motivated to provide basic needs for struggling communities, to reduce the stresses of isolation, and to provide a means for processing the impacts of the crisis artistically or creatively.

Programming approaches

Product organizations were unable to quickly relaunch programming, mainly because they said in-person gathering is central to successfully delivering their missions. They immediately began putting archival material, artist talks, and other informational or educational material online. Going into fall 2020 and winter 2021, some product organizations had developed more robust digital and/or outdoor programming as a bridge to relaunching in-person programming. Only a few shared a clear vision for digital/outdoor programming or said this type of programming would remain a focus long term.

Some product organizations, primarily museums, have been able to offer in-person programming at a reduced scale. These organizations questioned how well they could cover programming costs and whether the diminished quality of the visitor experience was worth the expense. A handful of product organizations that didn’t emphasize in-person gathering, such as radio stations, experienced minimal disruptions.

Practice organizations were quick to relaunch programming using new delivery modes. Most delivered programming digitally, although some also delivered it in-person with reduced capacity. Core programming was adapted to these new modes, and new programming was created to address pressing community needs—for example, providing financial support for local artists, or creating arts/creativity programs for local school districts’ remote learning curricula. Many practice interviewees said they were surprised at digital programming’s effectiveness, and they plan to continue digital programming long-term as a supplement to in-person programming. At the same time, we heard two serious concerns about digital programming:

• Digital delivery required a steep learning curve, and it has been taking significantly more time to prepare for digital offerings than it took for in-person offerings.

• Uneven access to dependable, high-quality internet and devices has limited the engagement of individuals and communities that some organizations said most needed support.

There were two major exceptions to the practice organization experience detailed above. They include:

• Organizations with missions that focus outside arts and creativity, such as social service agencies, frequently spoke about momentarily pausing arts and creativity programming to focus on delivering other core services. These organizations ultimately relaunched arts and creativity programming and said it had become increasingly critical to their holistic services.

• Organizations working in media that didn’t transfer well to digital delivery, such as ceramics or sculpture, had experiences similar to product organizations.

Audience and community connections

Product organizations said they were struggling to maintain connections with their audiences. Leaders expressed concerns about remaining relevant to audiences through the crisis period and often spoke about their digital content efforts as reminders that their organizations existed. Once restrictions on gathering begin to lift, interviewees said they hoped that their organizations would remain top-of-mind for audiences, that audiences would feel a rush to return to artistic or creative experiences, and that audience behavior patterns would return to what they were prior to the pandemic.

Practice organizations said they had deepened community connections over the crisis period. Leaders noted that their communities were looking for ways to engage artistically, creatively, and socially. Therefore, they said demand for their programming had continued or grown. The pressing questions we heard from practice organizations were about what community needs would be as gathering restrictions lift and what additional pivots might be necessary to meet those needs.

Staff impact

Depending on their unique financial circumstances, product organizations experienced varying levels of furloughs and layoffs in core staff, which they defined as administrative and/or artistic positions. Some leaders noted that they have been able to restore pieces of their core staff. A few of the larger, well-resourced organizations did not furlough or layoff staff. As a whole, however, product organizations anticipate remaining at reduced staffing levels for the foreseeable future. Leaders noted that another round of cuts is possible in 2021 if in-person gathering restrictions remain in place. We heard many concerns that with extended lay-offs, furloughs, and staffing freezes, restoring staff infrastructure could be an extended, challenging effort.

Practice organizations experienced little to no meaningful change in core staffing, which they defined as program staff and/or teaching artists. Leadership is concerned, however, about mass staff burnout. Staff have faced growing demands from the added time it takes to prepare for digital offerings and from executing new programs to meet community needs. Without a concurrent growth in staff, the same number of people have been asked to consistently deliver more. In addition, leaders of practice organizations that work or live in communities especially hard-hit by the pandemic have faced additional strains from the elevated levels of pain and loss in their communities.

Our next post will suggest what these experiences and responses imply for the future challenges of product and practice organizations.

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.

Figures referenced in the text: