From START to Finish: Lessons from The Wallace Foundation’s Work with State Arts Agencies – An Arts Participation Report

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 From START to Finish: Lessons from The Wallace Foundation’s Work with State Arts Agencies

START set out to help state arts agencies develop practices and policies “that build greater local participation in the arts and culture.” Did it accomplish this goal? The answer is, “in part.” Responses to a survey of SAA grantees and interviews with some of the participants and others tell the story of an initiative that brought important new ideas and ways of working to both the START agencies and the broader SAA field. Whether these changes led to START’s ultimate goal – engaging more people in the arts – remains unknown because START grantees and the foundation were unable to measure the results of their work. But if it can be acknowledged that there are milestones along the route to greater arts participation, the grantees reached a number of them.


In July 2009, representatives of all 13 START SAAs were asked to complete a 20-question online survey about the initiative. Representatives from 11 responded, and their answers suggest that one of the signature achievements of START was that it spurred agencies to reorient their work and place new emphasis on building arts participation in their states in ways that continue to this day:

  • A large majority of the agencies (82 percent of the responding SAAs) said START had prompted them to fund “new grant programs aimed specifically at boosting participation.”
  • Close to three quarters (73 percent) rewrote “one or more program descriptions to require grantees to include participation-building as a goal.”
  • Ten of the 11 agencies that responded to the survey said that that because of the initiative they had “required some or all grantees to report on their grants’ effect on building participation.”
  • Two-thirds of the agencies altered staff responsibilities to stress participation.

In some states, the changes touched grant programs agency-wide. New Jersey’s SAA, for example, not only introduced a “Building Arts Participation” grant program, but also began to weigh participation-building in all grant areas, including the largely freed-from-strings operating support grants that arts groups covet,12 says Steve Runk, executive director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

For some START SAAs, one approach for building participation involved reaching out to smaller arts groups that had potential to tap new audiences but lacked sophisticated grant-writing machinery. After the South Carolina SAA simplified its grant application to model it on tax preparation software that emphasizes fact over narrative, smaller arts organizations became “as competitive” for grants as larger counterparts better equipped to devote time and effort to lengthy prose, according to May. Whether such changes succeeded in substantially shifting SAA funding from other priorities to participation-building remains unknown, but two-thirds of survey respondents did report that a greater proportion of their agency budgets had been devoted to arts participation in recent years than prior to START. It’s also clear that grantees took the participation- building ideas of the RAND Framework seriously, as evidenced by the frequent mentions on SAA websites today of agency dedication to “broadening,” “deepening,” and “diversifying” participation.

These accomplishments are all the more notable because they did not happen easily.

These accomplishments are all the more notable because they did not happen easily. For one thing, with the RAND Framework Wallace gave START grantees a set of ideas about how arts groups could build participation – but little guidance on what government funders could do to prod arts groups to take these actions. This confusion surfaces in the survey, where 9 of the 11 respondents indicated that the initiative’s goals were, at first, not completely clear to them. “That was a place where the learning design might have been better planned,” says one informed observer of START.

In addition, the changes did not occur without resistance, especially from arts organizations accustomed to grant-making tilted heavily toward artistic merit, with little consideration of matters like participation. Combs, the former executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, recalls the friction that developed when the council introduced grant guidelines that asked arts groups to report on such matters as their impact on their communities and how they were reaching their audiences. “They felt we shouldn’t ask [such] questions, that they were beyond reproach,” says Combs, who today heads South Arts, representing SAAs from nine southern states. “… It didn’t make us heroes at all.”


By establishing a vibrant “learning community” of SAA grantees, START schooled a significant portion of the nation’s state arts agencies. When asked to rate the aspects of START that had had the most significant impact on them on a scale of “1” (“not at all significant”) to “6” (“extremely significant”), the survey respondents gave some of their highest marks to the initiative’s education endeavors. “Learning about and discussing what ‘building participation’ in the arts means” earned an average score of 5.8, while “learning from other START grantees” earned a 5.6, as did “Mark Moore’s teachings on public value.”13 In a typical answer to a question about what worked best in START, Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, replied: “The training; reading; opportunity to meet with the ‘thinkers and doers;’ time spent working with our peers in other agencies. We continue to use what we learned through the START initiative and what we learned allowed us to make some incredible changes in our agency.”

In addition, some grantees have gone on to adapt START learning techniques for their own use. The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, for example, has created a “community of learning and best practice,” in which arts organizations meet regularly to discuss what might be holding people back from taking part in the arts in the state and to develop ideas for removing those barriers. The Massachusetts Arts Council has applied other “learning community” principles to its work; it requires for instance, that at least two staff members from arts organizations participate in Council training programs so that the ideas and information that emerge have a better chance of taking hold in the organizations. The Council has also developed training programs that run for extended periods, so participants can try out what they’ve learned and then bring their real world challenges back to the group for brainstorming.

Furthermore, teaching and learning about participation went beyond SAA offices. Going into the initiative, many SAAs said they intended to use a portion of Wallace funding to educate arts groups about engaging more people in the arts, and according to the survey, the agencies did just that: all respondents reported having “provided more or better training on building arts participation to arts organizations.”


It’s hard to overstate the influence of the public value teachings on the SAAs, especially in invigorating the agencies’ responsiveness to state residents and government decision-makers. Fully 100 percent of respondents said that as a result of START’s emphasis on public value, they had “worked more actively to communicate with state legislators, the governor and/or other state government officials about the importance of the arts.” And 10 out of 11 said they had “increased efforts to communicate with the public about the value of arts participation,” a finding clear from even the most cursory visit to the agencies’ websites today. In early 2010, North Carolina’s, for example, announced a survey “to seek the opinions of New Hanover County and Wilmington-area residents on the role of the arts in community life and the importance of an arts council to the region;” Ohio’s invited readers to post stories on the SAA website about what the arts meant to them; and Arizona’s featured photographs from the latest Arizona Arts Congress in Phoenix, an annual event at the state capitol where “the value and impact of public funding for the arts and arts policy are discussed and debated between legislators and arts advocates.”

Moore, the Harvard professor, recalls that at first, many SAAs rejected his exhortation that they become a louder voice on the public and political stage. But eventually, they embraced the idea. Perhaps the best known example comes from Montana, where in the late 1990s fiscal conservatives in the state legislature and others opposed to public funding for the arts had led an effort to eliminate the state’s arts agency altogether. Influenced by START, Montana Arts Council officials launched a “listening tour” throughout the state to meet legislators face to face, learn what they valued and then connect those values to the arts and creativity.14 These activities eventually built legislative support for the agency’s work, but the sequencing was key: listen first. In Arizona, the SAA produced “52 Reasons to Support the Arts,” a deck of cards, each sleekly illustrated to give a different argument for the benefits of culture. And when, in the middle of START, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts faced a state budget crisis so severe that the agency’s dissolution became a real possibility, the SAA joined forces with other threatened agencies in a loud and persistent public relations campaign that ultimately saved the arts council.15

It’s also important that the public value teachings had impact beyond the 13 START grantees. The word was spread in a number of ways. Arts Midwest published Moore’s co-authored book Creating Public Value Through State Arts Agencies, for example, while the group that represents SAAs throughout the country – the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies – has incorporated public value teachings in its trainings for SAA staff and trustees, and in its publications. 16 Today, you “can’t go in a room with SAA leaders and not hear about ‘public value,’” says Radich, of the Western States Arts Federation. START, he said, made “a fundamental difference in a field that had a real need.”

Today, you “can’t go in a room with SAA leaders and not hear about ‘public value.’” START made a “fundamental difference in a field that had a real need.”

Arlynn Fishbaugh, executive director of the Montana Arts Council, sums things up this way: “Mark Moore totally changed our lives. It was his public value work that was transformational for the entire state arts agency field in America.”


A major shortcoming of the initiative was its failure from the outset to find ways to gather credible evidence for whether or not SAAs singly and collectively succeeded in accomplishing START’s ultimate goal: building arts participation.

Eighty-two percent of the SAA respondents said they had obtained evidence of changes in arts participation in their states since START had gotten under way. But fully two-thirds also found the evidence they had gathered was either “not very” or “not at all” reliable. Among the agencies that sought to track arts participation, there were few discernable patterns of performance. One SAA reported “anecdotal” evidence that despite budget cuts at the SAA, arts participation in the state had been “good.” Another said that trends it was watching indicated declining participation in the arts. Still another said that because it had changed the definition of what constituted the arts, comparisons between now and the past were difficult to make.

This dearth of “metrics” comes as little surprise given how daunting the task of performance measurement can be, especially in the arts. Difficulties range from the expense and time it consumes to political tensions over what should be quantified and assessed.17 Still, Moore says that one of his disappointments in working with the agencies was that they had been unable to make more progress in trying to assess the impact of their work. Such measurements are a key to discerning strengths and weaknesses of government efforts and then correcting the uncovered problems, he believes. They also could help the agencies press a stronger case for themselves with decision-makers. “Until you get there,” Moore says, “you are going to have trouble exerting much leverage.”

Moreover, the lack of measurements left Wallace and the field with a serious hole in considering the outcomes of START. In interviews, several Wallace senior staff members remarked that, in retrospect, the foundation hadn’t focused enough attention on metrics when it designed START. A few years into the initiative, as part of a larger annual effort at Wallace to assess the foundation’s overall effectiveness, Wallace began to collect information about START SAAs’ efforts to increase participation and improve the agencies’ ability to deliver public value for their states. The foundation looked at such things as whether the grantees perceived that political support for their work had increased, whether START agencies had adopted performance measures tied to participation and whether there had been changes in annual legislative appropriations to the arts agencies. But this late-in-the game attempt to systematically track results didn’t yield a reliable accounting of progress18 and remained unpopular among START agencies because they didn’t see the connection with their work. One Wallace senior staff member today laments the inadequacy of the belated attempts at performance measurement: “We weren’t using [reliable] measures, so there may have been fabulous benefits to START, but we don’t know now, because we had no [adequate] metrics,” the staff member says.

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12. The application for the Council’s general operating support grant, which generally commits the council to three years of funding for the grantee arts organization, says that candidates will be evaluated on criteria including “active efforts to identify and remove barriers to building broader, more diverse audiences and deeper arts experience.” Applicant organizations are asked to submit a narrative that discusses three issues: “mission/ history,” “artistry and programming,” and “public benefit and access.” Among the questions candidates are told to respond to in this last area are, “how does the organization identify, measure and document its public benefit?” Applicants are also asked to “state the organization’s established goals for broadening, deepening and/ or diversifying that participation and reach, as well as any specific efforts and strategies undertaken or planned in those regards;” to describe “any efforts to eliminate barriers to participation and to increase access for and outreach to underserved communities;” and to answer “what other barriers to participation (economic, geo graphic, cultural, linguistic, physical, transportational, perceptual, etc.) has the organization identified, and what strategies are in place to overcome them?” Organizational Grants: Guidelines and Applications, 2009-2010, New Jersey Council on the Arts, pp. 23 - 24.

13. In fact, the only aspect of START that surpassed learning opportunities for impact on SAAs was the START grant itself, respondents said.

14. Lowell, The Arts and State Government, pp. 25-31.

15. Mark H. Moore and Gaylen Williams Moore, Creating Public Value Through State Arts Agencies, Arts Midwest, 2005, p. 44. CurrentAreasofFocus/ArtsParticipation/Pages/creating-public-value.aspx

16. It should be noted, however, that several people interviewed for this report – SAA staffers and outside observers of START – believe that more could have been done to disseminate lessons to the field, through such means as pairing START SAAs with non-START agencies in a kind of mentorship program.

17. Moore and Moore, Creating Public Value Through State Arts Agencies, pp. 90-91.

18. Problems ranged from questions about the validity of data on attendance at arts events to difficulty interpreting trends in legislative funding.