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 keeping with the philanthropic impulses of Lila Acheson Wallace, who established the predecessor philanthropies to The Wallace Foundation with her husband, the foundation has long tried to get more people more deeply involved with the arts. Often, the foundation has targeted its efforts at individual arts institutions,1 but during the latter part of the 1990s, the foundation’s staff began to ask whether other types of organizations could be part of a strategy to produce more widespread results. In 1997, the foundation took a first step in this direction when it launched the Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation initiative, which worked with community foundations to strengthen cultural participation throughout their localities. This effort achieved some success, including establishing community endowments for arts initiatives. But whether it spurred an overall increase in arts participation was doubtful, and Wallace decided an institution with arts as its center – unlike community foundations, which serve a range of philanthropic interests – might be a stronger lever for change.


This report draws on sources including grantee files from The Wallace Foundation; documents prepared for Wallace’s board of directors; published reports about START; state arts agencies’ websites; a foundation survey completed online in summer 2009 by officials from 11 of the 13 START state arts agencies; and interviews with 20 people close to the initiative, including Wallace and state arts agency staff members. Conducting a formal, in-depth evaluation of START was beyond the report’s scope, but the retrospective offers insights that could benefit, among others, funders interested in learning more about the design and oversight of large initiatives; policymakers seeking examples of agencies that have attempted institutional change; state arts agencies and related groups such as local arts councils; and arts organizations. The publication also reflects Wallace’s belief that foundations have an obligation to report on the results of their work as a matter of public accountability.


Wallace found a candidate in state arts agencies, or SAAs, which distribute state and federal arts funding to museums, theater companies, arts festivals and myriad other arts institutions.2 Located in every U.S. state and territory, SAAs typically control less than one-tenth of one percent of a state’s budget, and the arts funding they oversee is relatively small compared to that of the private sector, whose contributions account for more than 85 percent of arts funding.3 Still, SAAs are influential and far-reaching funders in the arts world, dispensing close to $300 million in public funding annually to about 5,000 communities and 24,000 projects.4 The vast majority of this money over the years has provided institutional support for arts organizations or funded the creation, exhibition or preservation of art.5

START’s central idea, then, was to encourage these agencies, as the single most important source of public funding for the arts in the nation, to devote more attention to promoting arts participation among the public. More specifically, as the START “request for proposals” 6 said, the goal was “to help state arts agencies develop new or enhanced standards, practices and program strategies that build greater local participation in the arts and culture.”

Funding government agencies was a significant departure for Wallace, which until 2000 had confined its support to the private, non-profit sector. But in part because the SAAs were small, they presented what one foundation senior staff member describes as a “low stakes” opportunity to test whether a private foundation could work fruitfully with public agencies. With that as a consideration, Wallace’s board of directors approved START in September 2000, and all 56 state arts agencies were invited to apply to take part. Some 21 responded, with SAAs from 13 states then selected: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington. Wallace provided the SAAs about $9.6 million total, in three- to five-year grants that ranged from $500,000 to $1.1 million. Wallace also awarded Arts Midwest, one of six regional groups representing geographical clusters of SAAs, $1.35 million to provide training to grantees about building participation and to disseminate participation ideas to the field. In addition, the RAND Corporation received $1.5 million to research and publish a series of reports stemming from START.

START got under way officially with grant awards to the SAAs in March 2001. Each grantee proposed to carry out a number of projects, and the ventures ranged widely. For example, the California Arts Council sought to establish an arts marketing institute that would promote arts participation through research, assistance to arts groups and communication, while the Massachusetts Cultural Council planned to focus attention on the state’s 160 local cultural councils – organizations and agencies that support the arts in individual communities. But there were common approaches, too, among the 13 grantees. Most planned to train the staff of arts organizations, arts councils and others (including SAA board members) about how to build participation the arts, and to find ways to spread ideas about arts participation more widely in their states through case-study publications or other means. A number sought to place greater emphasis on participation-building goals in their grant-making programs. And several proposed using START funding for projects that individual arts organizations would undertake – bringing more arts experiences to underserved communities, for example, or working through unconventional venues, such as places of worship or social service agencies. [See chart beginning on p. 17 for more detail]


Whatever the differences in their individual undertakings, all grantees took part in frequent START gatherings to share ideas and information, and learn. Once or twice a year, the grantees met face to face in meetings hosted by Wallace and Arts Midwest at various locations throughout the country. These sessions were supplemented by monthly conference calls built around guest-led discussions on topics important to START or grantee-led presentations in which representatives of one or more SAA would highlight a problem the agency was grappling with and seek input from the group. To try to ensure that the ideas presented and discussed would filter throughout the agencies, the foundation required the executive director and senior staff members of participating SAAs – not just the project directors for the Wallace grants – to take part.

For the initial gatherings, participation-building was top on the agenda, and attendees prepared by becoming familiar, at Wallace’s request, with A New Framework for Building Participation the Arts7, a Wallace-commissioned RAND Corporation publication that outlined approaches for arts organizations interested in getting more people engaged in the arts. Among other things, the Framework offered an expanded definition of “participation building,” which included efforts to accomplish one or all of a trio of goals: broadening, deepening and diversifying participation. RAND also identified appropriate strategies for these three kinds of participation- building, as well as the obstacles organizations could expect in pursuing each.

In part because the Framework focused not on funders (such as SAAs) but on arts organizations, it took the grantees some time to figure out how to apply the publication’s lessons to their START work. Eventually, many of them did, but not on the original schedule of the Wallace grant and not without a number of unforeseen detours, as will be described later in this report.

The SAAs ran into other snags early on, too, most notably the recession of the early 2000s, which, though relatively short-lived,8 inflicted financial wounds, some severe, that did not begin to heal until the 2005 fiscal year9. “The economy went south, and we had mid-year budget cuts,” recalls Ken May, now acting director of the South Carolina Arts Commission. “This caused huge distractions.”


Against this backdrop, Wallace added a new component to START’s training agenda when it recruited Mark Moore, a Harvard professor and author of a seminal book about government management, to provide executive education.10 In July 2002 at a START gathering in Marlborough, Massachusetts, Moore kicked off what would become nearly two years of educating and informal consulting with the START grantees, offering them a new vocabulary and structure for their work. Combining lessons about managerial effectiveness with political management concepts, Moore emphasized the need for government agencies to understand “public value:” the benefits the citizenry wanted and needed and that the agencies could supply. Moore also argued that a core responsibility of public agency leaders was to engage with their legislators, governors and other “authorizers” who confer resources or legitimacy on the agencies. The SAA leaders needed, first, to hear what the authorizers’ priorities were, Moore asserted, and, second, to explain to them the ways in which the agencies delivered on those priorities.

At a time when SAAs were going through what one observer described as the ‘resource meltdown’ of the 2001 recession, public value concepts offered a fresh approach to the SAAs’ political management challenges.

These notions would hardly strike most public management veterans as news, says Anthony Radich, who followed START closely as executive director of the Western States Arts Federation, the regional SAA group covering the 13 western states. But many SAA leaders did not come from public management backgrounds, he stresses, and, therefore, their agencies were often guided by what Radich calls “the castor oil” argument – arts are good for people and, ipso facto, merit taxpayer support. Moore argued that agencies should be guided instead by deep consideration of how the arts, through public funding, could fulfill public wants and needs.

Moore’s ideas also challenged a notion, long held in at least some agencies, that SAAs were somehow more akin to private than public funders. For many of the grantee SAAs, this was empowering. “We’d been this odd stepchild within state government, working alongside non-profit organizations in the state,” says Vicki Vitiello, senior program director for arts participation and learning at the North Carolina Arts Council, where she helped manage START. “We had been working for the public all along but did not use all the government tools at our disposal – like access to other state agencies, clout and the authorization of the people. Learning to do so was a beautiful shift.” In addition, at a time when SAAs were going through what one observer described as the “resource meltdown” of the 2001 recession, public value concepts offered a fresh approach to the SAAs’ political management challenges. The ideas prodded grantees to question the ingrained habit of many SAAs to refrain from forceful engagement with public officials, for fear of politicizing grant-making decisions.11

Moore’s teaching offered some grantees a new way to conceive of and shape their work, while giving virtually all of them a new way to communicate, “a matter of rewording what we were doing so the public value came through,” as Gerri Combs, former executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, puts it. The result was that by almost all accounts, the Marlborough meeting became a watershed moment for START. “People left that first convening just lit up,” says South Carolina’s May. “They were electrified.”

Many grantees returned to their state capitals to reconsider their agencies’ efforts in light of public value ideas, and initially foundation senior staff members were impressed by rave reviews they heard about the training sessions. Nonetheless, as time wore on a number of senior staff members at the foundation grew concerned that this new public value focus might overshadow the participation-building work that was the goal of the initiative and Wallace’s longstanding priority. “START seemed to help the state arts agencies use the public value framework to strengthen their position, the obvious problem being that this was not tied directly to increasing participation,” one Wallace senior staff member recalls thinking when initiative’s direction seemed to change.

Foundation misgivings notwithstanding, many of the START SAAs spent the years after the Marlborough meeting juggling both public value and participation-building projects. Much of that activity will be discussed in the next section of this paper, but the work in the state of Washington was one example. There, the SAA applied the public value teachings by developing what Kris Tucker, executive director of the Washington State Arts Commission, calls “a new conceptual framework for understanding, documenting and communicating about our work,” one that led the agency to more effective discussions with state legislators, among other groups, she says. At the same time, the commission launched a START-supported participation- building endeavor to develop the arts in some 20 underserved communities, including rural areas like the small and largely Hispanic city of Wapato, where 200 students worked with local artists to produce metal sculptures that helped turn a vacant lot into a park.

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1. Today, for example, the Wallace Excellence Awards initiative supports exemplary arts organizations in selected cities to identify, develop and share effective ideas and practices to reach more people.

2. Most SAAs were set up shortly after the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, in part to distribute federal funding within the states but also to act as a state counterweight to federal arts governance. Julia Lowell, State Arts Agencies, 1965 – 2003: Whose Interests to Serve?, 2004, The RAND Corporation, p. 5.

3. How the United States Funds the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, 2007, p. 1.

4. State Arts Agency Funding and Grant Making, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, March 2010.

5. From 1987 to 2004, according to one analysis, SAAs devoted on average about 70 percent of their grant funding \ to institutional support of arts organizations and to the creation, exhibition or preservation of artworks, while well less than 10 percent was dedicated to building arts participation. See Laura Zakaras, Julia F. Lowell, Cultivating Demand for the Arts: Arts Learning, Arts Engagement and State Arts Policy, 2008, The RAND Corporation, pp. 77-78.

6. Wallace generally invites specific organizations to apply for the foundation’s grants, asking that they complete an RFP, “request for proposal.”

7. Kevin F. McCarthy and Kimberly Jinnett, A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, The RAND Corporation. 2001.

8. Economists say that the recession began in March 2001 and ended in November 2001. Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions, National Bureau of Economic Research.

9. In the early 2000s, state legislative appropriations for SAAs declined steadily each year from a total of about $447 million in 2001 to about $277 million in 2004. The decline began reversing itself in 2005, when about $294 million was appropriated. See p. 2 chart, “State Arts Spending Holds Steady,” National Assembly of State Arts Agencies press release, Feb. 7, 2005.

10. Mark H. Moore, Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government, Harvard University Press, 1997.

11. Julia Lowell, The Arts and State Governments: At Arm’s Length or Arm in Arm?, 2006, The Rand Corporation, p. 9.