Reflections on the 2017 Americans for the Arts Annual Convention: Framing is Everything—Social Impact Opportunities in the Arts

Posted by Ms. Mariama Holman, Jun 29, 2017 0 comments

As we review this year’s Americans for the Arts Convention in San Francisco, we must pause to note the purpose and potential of arts in our society.

In our Opening Plenary Session, Bryan Stevenson, public interest lawyer and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, revealed the desperate situation of America’s justice system—highlighting just how powerful artists, arts organizations, and the entire arts ecosystem can be as a healing salve to the most vulnerable.

Stevenson has spent over 20 years working in close proximity to those facing the direst ends of America’s social system. But he is not alone doing so—he claims the arts have always been right alongside him. During his stirring speech on the beginnings of genocide and terrorism within America, he brought up a notion reinforced in a later session by Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert Lynch and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The arts are not for the artists’ sake, but for society’s sake. The arts and culture sector is waging a war to save lives with the power of creative production.

According to Stevenson, “We can only solve problems when we get proximate. Only in being proximate, can we make a difference.” The arts give society the closest proximity possible to the poor, helping others understand the systematic issues that create and recreate cycles of institutionalized inequity.

Bryan Stevenson gives the opening keynote at Annual Convention.

Artists and creative-thinkers are the world’s redeemers, collectively charged with a mission to improve not just the quality of life of a community, but the social determinants of its success: educational, psychological, corporal, and economic well-being.

This is a tall order, but the arts have been fulfilling it for eons. But how often do artists see themselves as the social entrepreneurs they truly are?

It’s all a matter of framing. As learned in the Racial Equity Preconference at Annual Convention, framing is the narrative one creates about ideas, pictures, symbols—the impressions formed about oneself, others, and the environment they inhabit. Non-profit and for-profit are simply tax delineators, but an entire world of framing has developed within those terms, where some organizations see themselves as charities rather than economic and social value producers.

In truth, arts organizations do not come to society requesting a “hand out,” but offer a “hand full”—building more socially equitable, sustainable, and economically prosperous communities.

With this “hand full” mentality, arts organizations are value producers, like businesses. But instead of operating for the sake of financial return alone, they seek sustainable and meaningful social impact. When arts organizations change how they view themselves, they change how they engage the world around them.

At the “Investing in the Arts for both Financial and Social Impact” session, moderated by Julie Muraco from Praeditis Group LLC, attendees learned that with a change in framing, investment opportunities traditionally open towards for-profits could be accessed by non-profits, too.

With greater access to capital markets comes greater possibilities—which the arts actually owe to the communities and populations they pledge to serve.

To put this in perspective, American corporations, foundations, and individual donors contributed approximately $390 billion in 2016 as charitable aid. Meanwhile, the stock market circulates trillions of dollars’ worth of funds yearly.

In just a few weeks of research, UpStart Co-Lab identified 22 creative places and business that would be prime candidates for funding—totaling $1.54 billion dollars. These include real-estate projects under the banner of creative places offering affordable housing and workspaces.

The barriers to entry are mainly structuring financially sound projects. Nationwide, organizations like the Local Initiatives Support Coalition, Enterprise Community Partners and the individualized microfinance institution Kiva have already problem-solved some answers to these finance issues and realized successful arts projects.

Conference tips for engaging potential social impact investors

Muraco advises organizations to start local. Local financial institutions are generally more tied to nearby community development issues, and therefore better sources for seeking social impact investing.

She also adds that there is strength in numbers. Organizations should partner with one another to present a corpus of projects together, making a stronger case for social (and financial) returns.

In presenting a case for program impact to socially minded investors, we defer to tips from Lightning Round: The Evolution of Evaluation:

  • Define key performance indicators of program quality and build a realistic picture of how the organization’s programming execution actually matches up to this standard.
  • Consider using these questions to start thinking about how to track effectiveness:

    • How many lives were impacted?
    • What attributes (attitudinal, economic, etc.) changed in the target population/audience before and after programming?
    • Do not be afraid to ask the target population how they benefited from the programming and use this response to determine future success criteria.
  • Borrow evaluation models from non-arts organizations, learning from the likes of healthcare and the social sciences.
  • As needed, seek funding for appropriately evaluating and measuring results.

Per Bryan Stevenson’s speech, the arts’ rightful place is fighting the world’s largest social issues, and artists and arts administrators are the troops on the front line of combat. Framing is everything. The creative community is the solution social impact investors have been waiting for. Swing for the fences! 

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