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Learning from Experiments in Arts Innovation

BY Josephine Ramirez
Josephine Ramirez
As Arts Program Director, Josephine is leading the implementation of a new grant
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| Dec 05, 2012 1

Staying relevant amid a shifting landscape is an obstacle that’s very familiar in our field: arts organizations are challenged to meet the changing expectations of communities they serve. My predecessors at Irvine responded to that growing relevance gap in 2006 and launched the Arts Innovation Fund (AIF), a multiyear initiative that provided support for 19 large, established arts institutions in California to experiment with different ways they might adapt. The grants were intended to create the necessary space and freedom to try something new — and to learn from it.

We all know that a robust and vibrant arts community is essential to the general well-being of our many communities in California and beyond. And we also know that the past several decades have seen a significant overall decline in the number of people who attend arts events in California and throughout the U.S.

Findings from this initiative are now available following an independent report by Slover Linett Strategies. In keeping with the theme of innovation, we’re pleased to make an overview of these findings available in an exciting new format: an interactive infographic designed for viewing online or on your tablet. These findings are significant to arts organizations of all sizes, as well as to funders, policymakers and others who care about the vitality of the arts.

During the course of the initiative, Arts Innovation Fund grantees experimented with 28 different projects as they sought ways to adapt and change. These experiments provide important lessons for the field, exploring how arts organizations can become more relevant, robust and connected to the communities they serve.

AIF was an exciting initiative that I participated in as a grantee (having initiated the Active Arts program at the Los Angeles Music Center where I previously worked), and have been honored to shepherd during the closing years of the initiative as Arts program director at Irvine.

For me, one of the most important lessons from this multiyear experiment is about how it profiles our shift as a field away from the concept of audience development and toward a larger question articulated in the report, How do we make the arts more meaningful to more people — and to more kinds of people? This is an especially significant lesson for Irvine, and we will continue to pursue answers through our new Arts program strategy.

As we see in the most successful AIF projects, many arts institutions successfully implemented organizational changes that will allow them to better adapt in the future due to this “think outside the box” approach that was supported by AIF. This was a key finding for us and helped us focus our new grantmaking strategy on supporting grantees to increase their capacity to adapt to the widespread demographic changes and technological advances that are reshaping the way Californians engage in the arts today.

For more lessons learned, details and recommendations, download a PDF of the full report, A Laboratory for Relevance: Findings and Recommendations from the Arts Innovation Fund, and a separate collection of case studies that provide information about all 28 projects. You can also view three new videos that describe the aims of the Arts Innovation Fund, the need for change and lessons learned.

We would love to hear your thoughts on these findings: are these recommendations “on target” for arts nonprofits in a changing environment? Do they resonate with your experience of arts institutions? Are there other ideas that arts organizations can explore to become more relevant? Are there particular experiments among AIF grantees that will inspire you to think outside the box in your organization?

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As Arts Program Director, Josephine is leading the implementation of a new grantmaking strategy to “promote engagement in the arts for all Californians.” View full bio »

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Robert Pincus Friday, 04 January 2013

I have sifted through the Arts Innovation Fund Findings and Recommendations pretty carefully and found them quite useful and instructive. They distilled some of the thoughts I had, as I both participated in and observed the process of what transpired at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during our AIF grant period.

I found the emphasis on the “Relevance Gap” to be thought-clarifying and provoking. Of course all those within museums believe art is not only relevant but vital to a vibrant culture. If we didn’t think this way, we wouldn’t be working with passion in museums. But the point of this concept of the Gap is to try to identify with the audience, to see museum programming through their eyes. To my mind, any museum exhibition or event hopes to appeal to a spectrum of the population, though we all know that some people find museums appealing and others don’t, as is the case for theater, opera, etcetera.

I don’t think it is admitted often enough, in these findings or any other reports/studies I have read, that no matter how much a cultural institution hopes to be democratic in its reach, it is wholly democratic only in an ideal sense. Expectations should be realistic, however, at any institution. Keeping up with what the audience wants is a valuable goal and if approached correctly, will hopefully increase the audience; it will cut against the general trend of declines in attendance and funding mentioned in this report.

I appreciated the praise, in this report (as I am sure others at the museum do), for the flexibility of programming at MCASD during the three-year span of the AIF grant, as with the mention of the exhibitionViva La Revolucion and the art works it spawned outside the museum. I also took note of the additional praise for improvements to the website, membership and our dedicated education space. I think these were genuine accomplishments.

Additionally, late in the time period of the grant, MCASD organized Loading Dock Lunches in an interdepartmental fashion – a way of reaching out to the community that surrounds the museum downtown, which proved to be effective. This, and the launch of Think Tank -- a kind of round table with museum staff and members of small art spaces and organizations that has already yielded a collaborative “zine” and a collaborative offsite exhibition – were salutary developments directly related to our Lab sensibility fostered by the AIF grant. And we do hope to sustain both.

I observed that there was large enthusiasm in the findings for institutions which emphasized audience participation: the Oakland Museum of Art redesign and companion activities, the Los Angeles Music Center’s Arts Active Project, etcetera. There was also large interest in the pursuit of offsite projects that extend an institution into communities where they have not been a big presence, as with the Old Globe Theater’s scene shop in Southeast San Diego. These are salutary developments in the pursuit of connections to our communities, without a doubt. MCASD, like all arts institutions and venues, faces the challenge of addressing the relevance gap, while remaining true to its mission and the high quality of its programming.

The opinions expressed in the Comments section are those of the commenters and not necessarily those of the Foundation.

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