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[Commentary] Grantmaking for a Broader Definition of Arts Engagement

October 11, 2012

Sharon DeMark is a program officer for the arts at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, a network of foundations, funds and organizations that share knowledge and services to achieve the greatest possible impact through charitable giving. Learn more at mnpartners.org.

Sharon_demark_headshotIn the nearly three decades during which the National Endowment for the Arts has surveyed Americans about their participation in the arts -- typically defined as attending events such as jazz or classical concerts, operas, plays, or ballets, or visiting art museums or galleries -- participation has shown double-digit rates of decline, with only 35.6 percent of adults having attended an arts event in 2008. And yet the same 2008 NEA data also show that when the definition is broadened to include engagement in the arts via broadcasts or recordings, some 74 percent of American adults -- more than double the number who reported attending an arts event -- participated in an arts activity.

What's driving this shift in how Americans experience the arts? Clearly, technological innovation is one major driver of change. High-definition films of live Metropolitan Opera performances are selling out at movie theaters across the country, while local opera companies -- which must charge far higher ticket prices than the local movie theater -- struggle to expand their audiences. The creation and distribution of media arts has become so affordable and accessible that anyone can make a film or record an album that can be seen and heard by millions. Indeed, YouTube reports that every minute, seventy-two hours of video are uploaded to its site.

Lower levels of exposure to the arts at a young age is another factor in the decline in arts attendance. Given funding cuts in recent years, millions of children and young adults have had little to no access to arts education in their schools. An NEA report shows that adults who took classes in at least one art form in childhood were about 50 percent more likely to attend an arts event, compared with adults who took no arts classes as a child.

A third factor in the shift in arts attendance is America's growing diversity. A report commissioned by the James Irvine Foundation concluded that many people of diverse ethnic and cultural heritage define art differently from the way institutions that design studies about arts engagement do. These studies may not include activities like quilting or venues such as parks, both of which may be included in the definition of art among communities such as African Americans or Hmong and Mexican farm workers. As these communities come to constitute a growing percentage of the American population, a failure to recognize a broader definition of arts leads to an underestimation of the level of artistic engagement.

In recognition of these significant changes in the way Americans experience art, many institutions -- both long established and new -- are aggressively rethinking their approach to arts engagement and seeking ways to invite audiences to create, curate, and respond to art. In Minnesota, for example, the Walker Arts Center hosts Open Field every summer, where anyone with a passion (like knitting or photography or life-sized board games) can share it with the larger community. This past August, more than ten thousand people gathered on the field for the Walker's first-ever Cat Video Film Festival, which showcased dozens of short videos curated by the community from among the more than ten thousand submitted for consideration.

Similarly, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts hosts a weekly outdoor Summer Dance series that annually attracts hundreds of dancers, young and old. Springboard for the Arts has partnered with the city of Saint Paul and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation to engage individual artists and community members in arts activities along University Avenue, which has seen ongoing construction for more than two years as the site of a public infrastructure project.

Given the evolving definition of arts and arts engagement, it's interesting to note that the lion's share of arts funding goes to larger, more established institutions across the country. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy reports that only 2 percent of the nation's arts organizations have budgets of more than $5 million, yet in 2009 these organizations received 55 percent of all contributions, gifts, and grants.

While large institutions are helping to redefine the art experience, as demonstrated by the Ordway and Walker programs, there is ample opportunity for arts funders to identify and support smaller and less-established organizations. In California, the Irvine Foundation has shifted its approach to supporting arts engagement for all residents. In Minnesota, the McKnight Foundation changed its focus from providing institutional support to funding individual artists. And with the NEA leading the way with its Art Works and Our Town programs, some grantmakers are supporting a shift toward the role of the arts in community vitality and economic development. For example, ArtPlace, a consortium of public and private funders, supports "creative placemaking" in communities across the country.

At the Saint Paul Foundation, we have broadened our definition of art and seek to support organizations that provide opportunities for all people to participate in the arts in meaningful ways. In addition to supporting major institutions in the region in bringing together community members to experience theater, music, dance, and visual arts from around the globe, we have funded Mu Performing Arts' Community Stories program, which helps Asian youth build self-esteem through the theatrical telling of their own stories, as well as the American Composers Forum's program for teaching music composition in city schools. We also support Arts Lab, which seeks ways to help small neighborhood-based organizations strengthen their capacity to serve communities -- and have seen groups like Bedlam Theatre and TU Dance thrive by offering more community members a direct artistic experience.

We look forward to seeing how the evolving definition and experience of art will play out in future studies and analyses. And as that definition continues to expand and change, the Saint Paul Foundation, along with many other funders, will continue to seek the most effective ways to support everyone's opportunity to be creative and innovative, to make meaning, and to connect with others through the arts.

-- Sharon DeMark

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