Arts organizations are undergoing a cultural shift


Consultant Richard Evans says the arts create a sense of place, but it’s especially important that a community’s arts culture features adaptive programming. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

The role arts organizations play in the makeup of a city is changing.

A move from structured arts organizations to more flexible and adaptive programs is occurring, said Richard Evans, president of New York-based EmcArts, an organization that works with clients to take on complex challenges.

Evans spoke at the Grand Rapids Art Museum March 9 as part of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy’s Strategic Leadership Series.

His discussion focused on how social innovation and creative placemaking within arts organizations can help the overall social good for both communities and the organizations.

Evans said the art world is entering a new era — a changeover from one he believes started in 1957 when the Ford Foundation helped energize the sector and create structured growth for a professional arts community across the country.

Up until about 15 years ago, Evans said this worked, as organizations continued to have growing budgets and measured their success on the number of eyes that saw the art within.

He said art museums and arts organizations created “a scarcity of artistic talent,” by extracting art from the community and selling it back at a high price.

“It led to a burgeoning of the arts that we’d never seen before,” Evans said. “It’s sort of a Ponzi scheme — at some point, you reach a limit of growth.

“Interest in art was changing and people wanted to be involved.”

The hierarchal world of the arts organizations provided stability by using command and control cultures with strategic planning, capital endowments and fixed assets.

Now, Evans said, in a cultural shift, arts organizations need to operate in adaptive systems with open and nimble structures and use cultural professionals to help engage with a community’s creative potential.

“It better reflects talents in the community, and we probably live in more of a creative time than ever before,” he said. “This is not a question of a new program here or there, but a fundamental shift.”

Following Evans’ talk, a panel of five representatives from Grand Rapids arts organizations discussed their take on the subject. The panel was made up of Bob Dean, executive director of Grand Rapids Children’s Museum; Kristin Mooney, public affairs specialist with Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum; Henry Matthews, Grand Valley State University director of galleries; Miranda Krajniak, UICA executive director; and Grand Rapids Art Museum CEO Dana Friis-Hansen.

Most of the panelists are on board with the idea of engaging the community through more programming and collaborating with each other to better span the city, but getting donors and boards to buy in could pose a problem.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink,” Friis-Hansen said. “Within the institution, some people will be excited and some people with struggle with the changes. That is one of the challenges but one of the opportunities because you can be a change agent.”

Mooney said the Ford Museum has realized its most successful exhibits are the ones that use community involvement and feedback, rather than one based on what experts believe the public needs to see.

Evans said to ask for a major cultural shift to happen all at once is a lot, so incremental changes are best.

“Whole organizations have to change, not just a group of champions,” he said. “You don’t have to focus on a whole organization but a piece of real work, and use that as leverage to get more people. Start small and strategic and roll.”

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