Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many nonprofit arts organizations were facing challenges, including declining or stagnant audiences across multiple art forms, causing many to question the very value of their existence. This was certainly true for the 25 organizations in Wallace’s Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative, which ran from 2016 through 2019.
This brief from arts researcher Francie Ostrower and her team at the University of Texas in Austin, who studied the BAS initiative, captures thoughts from leaders of the 25 organizations on sustainability and how they might fit into a changing arts landscape. Not surprisingly, all of the organizations felt it was important that their organizations continue. Interestingly, however, even before the pandemic and movement for a deeper reckoning with racial justice struck across the country, leaders from a majority of the organizations expressed how essential it was for them to develop and/or maintain strong bonds with their community. Since then, the need for such change has only increased.
Ostrower points out that the BAS organizations are all large and well-established, with predominantly white leadership—a decision that itself would be questioned if the initiative were beginning today. Still, the brief may offer some ideas for consideration and further conversation as organizations reopen and reimagine the future. Ostrower is also following up with the organizations to see if and how their thinking has changed post-pandemic.
A few key highlights from the brief:
- In addition to their artistic value and contributions to their art form, a large portion of the organizations (40 percent) suggested that significant changes were needed in order for their organization to continue.
- Rethinking and/or increasing community engagement could require that an organization rethink the way that it operates; adding a few additional “community” events is not enough.
- In many cases, at least for this group, a change in leadership helped facilitate a deeper level of community engagement and orientation.
The brief is the fourth report from Ostrower and her team on the BAS initiative. A 2019 literature review found little research about the effectiveness of various audience-building strategies, but highlighted questions organizations might want to consider in their efforts. A short brief, Data and Deliberation, focused on how the initiative arts organizations used data, while another short brief, Millennials Are Not a Monolith, focused specifically on that target audience. A final implementation report is slated for publication in 2022.