Contributed revenue and the ‘arts bubble’

Dec, 05 2016 / In /

guest post by Peter Linett, chairman & chief idea officer of Slover Linett

Not long ago I worked with a cultural organization that was planning an exhibition of American objects from the time of the Revolution. They wanted to tell the story of that period in ways that would have narrative drive and emotional resonance, not just for people who were born in this country but also for immigrants and other newcomers, foreign tourists, etc.—people who weren’t brought up with our founding mythology. Yet when I mentioned Hamilton, which had just become an inescapable cultural reference point and which had managed exactly that kind of accessible, powerful, and artful retelling of the American birth-story, some of the people in the room looked puzzled.

It wasn’t that they disdained the musical or found its re-envisioning of the Revolutionary story less legitimate than their own work. (This wasn’t the old case of ‘high culture’ looking down its nose at ‘low’ or popular culture). It just felt unrelated to their work. The comparison I was making came from the far side of a categorical wall—a barrier that separates our work and traditions and assumptions in ‘the arts’ or ‘the museum field’ from the work and assumptions in other domains. What did a Broadway show have to tell us about the way a museum exhibition could feel?

I thought about that moment while reading NCAR’s latest report on arts fundraising. The audience research my colleagues and I have conducted over the last 15+ years suggests that people donate to arts & culture organizations for many of the same reasons they pay money to attend them. Both kinds of participation depend on a complex blend of personal and social identification, experiential and aesthetic pleasure, and the desire to promulgate and share that identification and pleasure. All of that depends on relevance: the sense that this experience, this artist or artwork, this organization is talking to me. Speaking my language. Telling me something that’s important to both of us.

The trick is, what each of us finds relevant is determined not just within cultural categories but across them. That Netflix series I binge-watch shapes how I react to the season brochure I get from my local nonprofit theater—and to the plays themselves when I attend. The juxtapositions on my favorite Spotify playlist color my response to the program I hear at the symphony this weekend. And Hamilton’s tunes and wit and of-the-moment energy are in my head when I flip through a new biography at the bookstore or walk into a history or art museum.

The arts don’t exist in a bubble, yet we often act as if they do. At such moments, we cut ourselves off from both audiences and donors who may not share our assumptions, conventions, language, and ideals for how arts or culture experiences should work. On the fundraising front, we limit ourselves to the donors, trustees, and foundation program officers who are already in the bubble with us—a much smaller group of supporters than we might otherwise have access to. Private philanthropists and large foundations that used to support the arts automatically, as an intrinsic and obvious social good, have become more interested in the arts as means to some other valuable end (that is, when they’re still interested in the arts at all). Many funders and, increasingly, individual donors are looking at the arts from outside of the bubble, seeing new possibilities and seeking to spark and support new ways of thinking and working in our field. Even members and subscribers have, in the research we’ve conducted in recent years, begun to express a desire for arts organizations to “shake things up”—to update the experiences they offer by letting in some of the values and principles that animate other areas of contemporary culture.

Of course, many arts practitioners and organizations—many of you—are right there with them. The most interesting innovations in the arts & culture sector today are taking place at the edges, where categories and hierarchies get fuzzy and the arts intersect with other contexts and purposes. “Arts and” thinking is tearing down those walls: arts and social justice; arts and comprehensive community development (aka creative placemaking); arts and the environment; arts and educational innovation (not the same as arts education); the crowded and exciting arts-science landscape; and so on.

So when I read the (very rigorous and thorough) analysis in the NCAR report, the question of the bubble hung over every graph and table. It’s impossible to know why people are supporting the organizations whose data is gathered here, nor what proportion of that support comes from within the traditional frame of assumptions about what the arts should look like, what they’re for, and whom they’re for. Illuminating those proportions and seeing how they change over time would require a different kind of study, not to mention additional grappling with boundaries and definitions (where does the category called “the arts” stop and some other category start? how do we decide what activities and behaviors we want to measure?).

Still, there’s fair amount to be hopeful about here, including the relative stability of contributed support from all sources over the last few years. Yes, it’s disheartening to read that targeting programming to Asian Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos is negatively correlated with support by individual donors and trustees (though it’s positively correlated with foundation support, as one would expect). But I hope and expect to see that change in future editions of the report. Let’s all stay tuned. The NCAR team continues to do our field an important service by putting tools like these in our hands.


Peter Linett is chairman & chief idea officer of Slover Linett, a social research and evaluation firm that works with museums of all types, performing arts organizations, arts funders, and other cultural and community organizations. He recently founded Culture Kettle, a nonprofit catalyst to explore evolutionary questions about public engagement in culture, broadly defined. Linett serves on the editorial board of Curator: The Museum Journal, where he was previously associate editor for theory and practice. He is also on the advisory boards of Guerilla Science and Museum Hack, and was an associate of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago from 2008–2014.