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 showed, for starters, that a foundation could successfully carry out the task, then new to Wallace, of working effectively with a government agency. START also demonstrated the potential power and influence of foundation-established “learning communities.” But START also highlighted the difficulties that can emerge when certain essentials in design and implementation of an initiative are insufficiently attended to, namely mapping out the steps of an initiative from outset to goal; developing intermediate and long-term measurements to determine what progress is being made; understanding the “readiness” of grantees to tackle the assignment; building in adequate time for an initiative to gel; and planning graceful initiative conclusions.


In 2000, when the foundation was shaping START, the idea of Wallace’s supporting public agencies was untested and Wallace staff members harbored doubts about it. They wondered, among other things, if politics or bureaucracy would hamper progress or if philanthropic giving to government could be viewed as an intrusion of private agendas on public institutions. The ways of government did end up interfering with START sometimes, as Wallace learned when state budget-cutting proposals began to divert grantees’ attention. But fears that the initiative might be criticized as a private encroachment onto government territory proved unfounded in this case and START succeeded in assisting a group of agencies that wanted help. “One overarching lesson is that public-private collaborations can work and can be tremendously influential, more influential than the public sector or private sector by itself,” says Kelly Barsdate, chief program and planning officer for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.


As noted above, survey respondents singled out the “learning community” as one of START’s chief accomplishments. Perhaps even more important is that the START training had influence beyond the 13 SAAs, and the ideas have spread to the field in general. The statewide arts “listening tour,” for example, is now common among SAAs, according to Barsdate.

One wholly unexpected result of START was its development of a highly effective approach for executive education, one that now serves as a model for Harvard as it designs training programs for other groups, according to Moore. Key aspects of that model include:

  • replacing lengthy sessions with numerous shorter meetings over a longer period of time, in recognition of the fact that people often learn best through repeated exposure to the same idea;
  • requiring teams spanning different levels within the organization (executive directors, managers, board members) to take part in training, because the bigger the number and the higher up the participants, the more likely the knowledge will be taken back to and spread throughout the organization;
  • developing conference-call sessions organized around carefully thought-out lessons and presentations. This gives budget-conscious public agencies a low-cost alternative to the expensive, face-to-face consulting common in the corporate world and helps keep the learning going between in-person meetings;
  • complementing discussion of theory with discussion of current agency work and using the latter to give the theory meaning and usefulness.

David Fraher, who as executive director of Arts Midwest, was intimately involved in planning START’s training, adds another item to the list: demanding much of the participants. “We really made people work,” he recalls. “They had to think hard to participate in this program.”


START suffered from the lack of an explicitly stated strategy, or “theory of change,” that mapped out the goals of the initiative, what Wallace support would do to advance those goals, the expected results, and how the foundation and the grantees would measure progress. During START’s heyday, the development of such theories of change was not yet standard procedure at Wallace. The result was that certain important questions remained unexamined in detail, among them how much clout SAAs might reasonably be expected to exercise over arts organizations, given the relatively small proportion of public funding to the arts compared to private funding.

“The START work would have benefitted from a mid-course, strategic discussion.”

Moreover, when START seemed to drift from an emphasis on participation to an emphasis on public value, foundation staff members had little grounding from which to examine what the shift meant and to determine whether it was a positive development or a detour from the core goals of the initiative that demanded a timely, effective response. “The START work would have benefitted from a mid-course, strategic discussion about the aims of the initiative and its success measures that in retrospect might have led either to a course correction to link it more closely to participation-building or confirm that the broader aim of creating public value was sufficient,” one Wallace senior staff member says. “But as it was, we were stuck in no-man’s land.”

The lack of a theory of change hurt in another way, too, because once public value ideas and activity unexpectedly stepped in, charting progress – a tricky business under the best of circumstances for an initiative – became close to impossible. What along the change-chain was to be tracked: Whether the SAAs improved their public management skills? Whether this led to new or different agency practices? Whether these changes caused arts organizations to work harder to broaden, deepen and diversify their audiences? Whether any of this resulted in more people taking part in the arts?

This was frustrating for a foundation that has become increasingly determined to secure hard evidence of the effectiveness of its initiatives. But it was also frustrating for START participants, at least one of whom came away with the impression that Wallace lost interest in the initiative after concluding that its effects could not be quantified. “Because there wasn’t a lot of ‘wow, look at these numbers!’ immediately, I think the foundation didn’t know what to do with it,” said one SAA staff member who took part in START.

START’s unexpected turns also slowed and changed the direction of RAND’s commissioned research, which was to have been completed by 2005. Originally planned as six short reports documenting SAA participation-building efforts and identifying “best practices,” the research ended up looking at SAAs in general, documenting their history, analyzing their situation and offering suggestions for possible future directions. Ultimately, four RAND publications were published, the last in November 2008. Works in the series have been requested by, among others, SAAs looking for training materials for their boards. And the third report in the series, Cultivating Demand for the Arts: Arts Learning, Arts Engagement and State Arts Policy, has become the Wallace website’s most downloaded arts publication, an influential exploration of how public and private institutions and policy can support greater appreciation of the arts among more people, ultimately boosting arts participation.


Wallace did not fully grasp what, or how much, SAA managers needed to learn in order to lead change at their agencies. If there had been a detailed assessment early on of SAA “readiness” to re-examine and re-order agency priorities, with all the political difficulties that might entail, foundation senior staff members might have been less surprised when public value training, with its emphasis on political management skills, seemed to pull START in a new direction. “I think I didn’t appreciate that the career paths for people who end up in these jobs do not include the kind of organizational development, change management, strategic planning concepts you might have in MBA programs or similar programs,” says one Wallace senior staff member. In retrospect, this staff member believes that the training “might have been a necessary precursor to the kind of change we were looking for,” rather than a detour.


Recognition of the SAAs’ readiness for this kind of work would also have given Wallace a more realistic idea of how many years START would need to be successful. A number of SAA officials interviewed for this report remarked that change did not take hold in their institutions after one “aha!” moment. In North Carolina, for example, it was one step for staff members who attended the Wallace training sessions to learn and fully absorb the material, and another to pass the lessons along to colleagues back home so the agency as a whole could change. “I think that’s the biggest lesson of all: that change takes forever,” says Vitiello of the North Carolina Arts Council. “There has to be a constant reinforcing long-term, ‘we believe this.’”

Moreover, an expectation that in a multi-year venture something unexpected – such as recession – was bound to occur and affect grantees might have led to greater equanimity at the foundation about the initiative’s pace.


The last of the SAAs’ START projects was to have ended in August 2006, but none of the 13 SAAs finished on time, and in at least three states, grant work was continuing in 2009. The primary reason for the delay was likely START’s unforeseen road bumps, such as the time required to insert RAND Framework ideas into grantee projects, the toll the recession took on SAA managers’ attention, and the time and energy the SAAs needed to devote to shaping agency work around public value. One result of the staggered (and extended) completion dates may have been the sense, reported by a few grantees, that the initiative ended for them without an appropriate feeling of closure. “It felt like it sort of fizzled,” is how one START participant puts it. Some of the START grantees were clearly looking for a stronger foundation acknowledgement of the significance of their efforts.

In the end, no one could produce firm evidence that the hard work of these START grantees got more people from more diverse backgrounds to spend more time more deeply engaged in the arts. But in 13 small state offices from Trenton, New Jersey to Olympia, Washington, public servants who set out almost a decade ago to change how they do business so that the arts might become a bigger part of people’s lives believe START made a difference. “If we asked the staff in 1998, ‘who are you here to serve,’ probably a lot would have said, ‘arts organizations, artists, and schools doing a good job of arts education,’” says May. “Now you’d hear, ‘we are here to serve the people of South Carolina and make it possible for them to enjoy the benefits of the arts in their communities.’”

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