February 1, 2017; WBUR-FM, “The Artery”

With the future of arts funding, particularly public dollars, looking uncertain, arts nonprofits are finding themselves with unlikely partners in their ongoing quest to secure financial support for their mission. In Boston, a 10-year cultural plan released in June 2016 is only the beginning. The plan, known as Boston Creates, was encouraging for arts organizations because it included a list of financial commitments from community foundations, but it lacked a dedicated municipal funding stream for the arts.

This problem was put on the table when individuals from arts organization and advocacy groups in the Greater Boston area came together to discuss strategies for securing sustainable funding for the arts, with a focus on creative problem-solving that could be applied across the nonprofit sector in a myriad of different settings. Several representatives from other cities across the U.S. were there to share their stories.

One common thread in the conversation was the success of unusual partnerships with non-arts organizations, focusing potential funders on the significant role that arts organizations play in their local communities rather than on the strength of the art itself. Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, urged the importance of thinking of the arts within a broader civic context:

We know the arts is about more than putting performances on stage. It’s about making sure that everyone has a fair [and] life that every kid has access to the gifts that the arts bring to a family. […] The arts can really partner with new sectors and make sure we move forward together.

Generally, the attitude towards municipal funding streams is, “It’s nice if you can get it.” Disparate sources of public funds, such as an excise tax on cigarettes of 30¢ per pack or an additional sales tax of 0.1 percent in Denver, create a level of stability in nonprofit arts budgets that can be key to establishing the arts more securely within a community. Many proponents of municipal support projects point to opportunities for arts advocates to join forces with other nonprofits not traditionally associated with arts and culture. In Minnesota, environmentalists and hunting and fishing enthusiasts joined with arts lobbying groups to secure passage of a constitutional amendment that directs funding to groups supporting these causes. In San Francisco, a ballot amendment that combined efforts to curb family homelessness and support the arts failed to reach the required two-third threshold to pass but nevertheless suggests that there is potential for a similar approach combining social services with arts support in the future.

Advocates for this type of blended approach point to the benefits for the community beyond the traditional fruits of a robust cultural life. Matt Wilson, executive director of MASSCreative, adds, “This isn’t to build a stronger arts and culture community; it’s about how we build a more vibrant Massachusetts.”

Even when arts organizations partner together in more traditional alignments, leaders are seeing that they are stronger together. Rather than competing with other similar nonprofits in the same metro area, nonprofit arts leaders have found that joining together pays off. In Philadelphia, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently made an unprecedented grant to a cohort of ten music education organizations. The end goal of the grant is to increase diversity in the professional classical music field, and the multi-year grant of $2.532 million will go to support the region’s most committed young musicians through music education programming at organizations within the Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth (PMAY).

Settlement Music School CEO Helen S. Eaton says of the PMAY partnership:

Our collaborations over the past five years have shown that each of the members’ organizations, aligned to a common goal, are much more than the sum of our parts. […] By working collectively to make sure our promising musicians can succeed, the PMAY collaborative can give them matchless opportunities.

Rather than scattering resources among unrelated organizations, funders are increasingly choosing to make major commitments to blocs of nonprofits that provide security and commitment to furthering the end goal. Because issues like diversity in classical music are so complex, it makes sense that arts funders would want to see their dollars put to work fighting the problem from several angles. Comparative reports allow funders to see how each nonprofit will put their dollars to work, ensuring that new data will make the next grant even more meaningful.

Regardless of whether or not arts organizations partner with each other or reach beyond the traditional confines of arts and culture to join forces with other types of nonprofits, alliances and collaborative funding provide new models that benefit both funders and nonprofits. As the fruits of these emerging projects become more apparent, this trend will become even more visible.—Sophie A. Lewis