Arts & Creativity Field Scan

How might future challenges differ by organizations’ approaches to engaging audiences and communities?

This is the fourth 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 last post summarized the ways two different approaches to engaging audiences and/or communities with art and creativity—as product or as practice—correlated with different crisis experiences and responses. We summarized four areas of difference: goals during the crisis, programming, audience and community connections, and staff impact. This post suggests what the different approaches to engaging audiences and/or communities could imply for future challenges and what the sector might learn from the experiences of product and practice organizations.

Challenges for product organizations

Short term, product organizations face a set of risky choices as they consider restarting their core in-person programming:

• Wait to launch programming processes until it’s clear that in-person gathering is safe; but risk a delayed start to engaging audiences.

• Bet on when in-person gathering will be safe; but risk canceling programming, losing upfront investments, and harming relationships with newly contracted artists, creatives, and staff if in-person gathering isn’t possible at the projected time.

• Program for smaller audiences, in-person or digitally; but risk further eroding financial health if program-related revenue covers an abnormally small proportion of program-related expense.

As noted in the previous post, organizations may already be in a state in which the downside of the second and third choices leads to organizational failure. However, the pressure to relaunch could result in organizations pursuing those options despite the risk.

Longer term, product organizations face fundamental questions about audience and donor behavior and their own adaptability. If audiences and donors do not return to pre-pandemic levels, how feasible is it to appropriately shrink operations and still deliver strong programming? How prepared are organizations to evolve their artistic/creative vision, programming, organizational structures, and business models?

Capital infusions are one way to mitigate these short and longer term risks.

• Short term, product organizations would benefit from support to help them pursue the restart approach (or approaches) they feel is most strategic while minimizing the net impact of possible financial losses.

• Longer term, these organizations would benefit from support to deliver strong programming as audience and donors reestablish behavior patterns, especially since leaders anticipate revenue will be slow to return.

• Those organizations that choose to pursue a path of deep, purposeful adaptation would benefit from change capital to support them through the resource-intensive change process.

Challenges for practice organizations

The biggest short term risk practice organizations face is mass staff burnout and departures leading to organizational faltering or failure. The risk could grow as organizations begin preparing for the restart of in-person programming. As noted in the previous post, many practice interviewees noted they are leaning towards hybrid programming models, offering substantial digital and in-person programming. If organizations seek to prepare for, launch, and maintain hybrid programming models with current staffing levels, an already difficult situation could become impossible.

Longer term, practice organizations face fundamental questions about future community needs. As we emerge from the pandemic, how can organizations best contribute to community rebuilding? How should their programming portfolios continue shifting to meet community needs? What resources would allow organizations to address shifting needs in a way that doesn’t rely on excessive sweat equity and threaten organizational viability?

As with product organizations, capital infusions could mitigate short and longer term risks.

• Short term, practice organizations would benefit from resources to help them right-size to the current demand for programming and build flexibility into their systems to support continued adaptation.

• Longer term, these organizations would benefit from risk capital that allows them to sustainably test new programs, retire irrelevant programs, and bring on the staff needed to deliver programs as community needs continue to shift around them.

What might we learn from product and practice organizations?

As we at TDC have reflected on the findings, we see a compelling lesson emerge from the tension between the leading goals of product and practice organizations—safeguarding the organization and meeting community needs, respectively. What would happen if organizations with one leading goal borrowed practices from the other?

Organizations putting most of their resources into maintaining themselves (often product organizations in this study sample) may risk becoming increasingly irrelevant to a growing portion of the population, as they said they feared. The approaches to borrow from organizations that have centered community needs are the ones that leaders of those organizations perceive have led to growing relevance:

• Setting honest and precise definitions of the audiences and communities they serve;

• Staying in constant conversations with these audiences and communities;

• Focusing programming on contributing to audience and community wellbeing rather than extracting dollars to support a business model; and,

• Cultivating a board and staff interwoven with audience and community members.

To us, adopting these practices does not require fundamentally changing one’s mission. However, it does suggest a critical reflection on whose artistic or creative traditions an organization truly represents, and who an organization is truly designed to serve. If these groups do not align with organizational aspirations and/or each other, then organizations should fundamentally reorient instead of adding appendages.

Organizations putting most of their resources into meeting community needs (often practice organizations in this study sample) may risk breaking their organizations and their staff, many of whom are unpaid, underpaid, or working excessively. The approach to borrow from organizations that have emphasized self-preservation is enhancing the level of attention paid to what they truly need to continue existing in a more secure state. We do not mean to suggest that a focus on organizational health should supplant a focus on community health. Instead, we are suggesting that stronger actions to bolster organizational health could help ensure that organizations are present and able to meet evolving community needs; and, they could help ensure that organizations are operating in ways that do not take advantage of the passion and energy of committed staff.

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.