More on SAAs

As I was reading the Rand report yesterday, it seemed that the report itself just expounded a bit more upon the summary at the beginning of the document. As a result, I chose to publish my blog entry. However, when I reached the section on future initiatives by State Arts Agencies (SAAs), I realized there was some interesting information to report and so, I continue today.

The Wallace Foundation granted funds to 13 SAAs to support their State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation initiative (START).

“By many measures, the successful proposals were quite innovative. Several START agencies proposed to teach themselves the latest audience-development and other participation-building techniques so that they in turn could pass them on to selected local arts organizations. Several also proposed to create new grant categories for demonstration projects to model these techniques. Relatively few of the proposals, however, looked beyond traditional nonprofi t arts providers as their instruments for boosting participation.”

The Wallace Foundation brought in Mark H. Moore to speak, a professor from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to speak with the SAAs. Moore has focussed a great deal of work “on developing concepts and tools for public sector strategic management.” After working with him, the SAAs shifted their focus to examining themselves as public service agencies with participation boosting activities receiving a secondary focus.

In theory, all SAAs serve the public interest. But on examination, they found they were really focussing their efforts to help artists, art lovers and arts organizations. Grants were distributed according to “whether programs ‘meet the needs of the field,’ not the needs of the various communities around their states.”

The SAAs are beginning the planning of new programs no longer tend to fund the same organizations on an annual basis.

“They are eager to develop all sorts of partnerships-be they with other government agencies, non-arts civic institutions, local communities, for-profit and amateur arts groups, etc.-any person, group, or institution with the potential to get more and different kinds of people involved in the arts is a candidate. However, even these START agencies are quite anxious about diverting scarce resources away from artists and arts groups they have long known and respected.”

As a result, the SAAs have been changing granting criteria to encourage arts organizations to pay better attention to serving the community needs. It will be interesting to see how private foundations respond to the change in the way SAAs support arts organizations given the Independent Sector paper I cited in April encourage long term support of non profits.

The Rand report cites an interesting anecdote illustrating the way funding policy is shifting.

“A jazz presenter, recounting his dire financial situation, was pleading for money from the agency. The staffer, who has been very involved with the START initiative, responded, ‘We don’t give you money because you need it.’ Startled, the jazz presenter replied, ‘You don’t?’ ‘No,’ said the staffer. ‘We give you money because you deliver something specific to the public that the state would like to have happen.’ According to the staffer, at some level her agency understood this prior to START, but lacked both the framework and the language for making it clear. Now they are in the midst of figuring out what that ‘something specific’ looks like in order to explain it to their would-be grantees. Most of the START agencies are doing likewise.”

The report notes this sort of approach will probably begin to alienate state arts organizations a little. Even though they may not lobby for SAAs as they once did, arts organizations are still better advocates of them in the political arena than members of the general public. The report also notes that legislators might not be pleased if prominent venues in their districts are denied funding. One of the first priorities they suggest is that SAAs begin to strengthen their political ties. The report also encourages SAAs to work hard to quantify the often hard to measure benefits of the arts on communities.

Ultimately, what the SAAs need to do is go to where the people are and discover what it is the people want so they can serve the public at large better. (How this will jibe with The Artful Manager’s recent discussion of the Simple Truth 1 that the general public doesn’t really know what they want remains to be seen.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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