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

In 2001, The Wallace Foundation launched a $12.5 million initiative to help a set of small state government offices known as state arts agencies, or SAAs, develop policies and practices to make the arts a greater part of more people’s lives. This report is a look at that effort, the State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation initiative, START. Researched and written by Wallace staff members and based in part on a survey of START participants, it describes what the initiative set out to do, discusses its achievements and shortcomings and reflects on the findings.

The Wallace Foundation has long worked to increase the number and diversity of people who engage in the arts, as well as to make that engagement more meaningful. The foundation initially supported such “participation-building” ventures at individual arts institutions, but in the late 1990s, it began exploring whether other types of organizations – specifically, those that fund the arts – might produce more widespread change. One result was START, which centered on agencies that, although small, are the nation’s leading source of public arts funding. The idea, the foundation said at the time, was to encourage SAAs to “develop new or enhanced standards, practices and program strategies that build greater local participation in the arts.”

The 13 SAAs selected received awards from $500,000 to $1.1 million to carry out three- to five-year efforts such as training their own and arts organization staff about how to build participation, assessing whether grant-making requirements should place more emphasis on building participation, and supporting participation-building projects at arts groups. Teams of officials from each SAA were also required to take part in frequent Wallace-sponsored training sessions. At first these gatherings focused on participation, but later they also tackled broader issues about how an arts agency determines and realizes its value to the public.

For the grantees, START proved “transformational,” as one participant put it, offering the agencies’ staff a rare opportunity to re-think how SAAs could best serve the public and the arts. As START’s ideas about participation and “public value” spread beyond the grantees, the initiative influenced the field, too. Still, Wallace senior staff members developed reservations about START once its focus widened to encompass agency effectiveness, concerned that this shift had diverted attention from the main goal of building arts participation. In addition, neither the foundation nor the SAAs developed adequate ways to track and measure START’s progress, in no small part because the development of a “theory of change” – or, a way to clarify initiative goals, map the course to reach them and, implicitly, provide guidance on how to measure progress – had yet to become standard foundation practice.


  • START spurred most grantees to place more emphasis on arts participation. For example, 82 percent of survey respondents said that because of START, they had funded new grant programs aimed specifically at boosting participation. Whether SAAs substantially shifted funding to participation-building activities is unknown, but two-thirds of respondents reported that a higher proportion of their budgets was currently devoted to arts participation than prior to START.
  • START training left a positive imprint on the SAAs. Respondents gave high marks to the initiative’s education endeavors and what START had taught them about both arts participation and public value.
  • The agencies were greatly influenced by ideas about public value. All respondents reported, for example, that as a result of START they communicated more actively with the public, government officials and others to whom they answer.
  • START’s effects on building participation are unclear because the foundation didn’t initially specify measurements and the SAAs had difficulty establishing them on their own.


  • A “learning community” can be invaluable. Ideas from the learning sessions helped grantees and influenced the SAA field. One wholly unexpected result of START was the development of an effective model for executive education for public agencies.
  • Initiatives need a map and measures. When START seemed to drift from participation to public value, foundation staff members had little way to assess what this meant and whether it was a positive development or an unnecessary detour.
  • Assessing grantee “readiness” for an initiative is crucial. Wallace didn’t fully grasp what, or how much, grantees needed to learn to lead change at the SAAs. An early assessment of SAA “readiness” in this area might have left Wallace senior staff members less surprised when public value training seemed to pull START in a new direction.

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