Day III: Building Arts Participation in Rural America

Tuesday closed out with a panel featuring the Montana Arts Council‘s experience with a Wallace Foundation-led initiative to cultivate new audiences for the arts. With folksy aplomb, Cinda Holt took us into the heart of the Montana frontier and described the initiative’s successes and failures with Wallace’s Ann Stone looking on.

Stone began with an explanation of Wallace’s theoretical framework for building arts participation, which comes from a 2001 study by the RAND Corporation that was commissioned by Wallace’s Research and Evaluation department. The study defines three dimensions of participation change: Broaden, Deepen, and Diversify. Broadening audiences happens when you get more of the same type of people to participate in your programming. Deepening happens when you work with the same people you already have, but increase the level of their engagement, for example by having them learn more about the works they see or getting involved in another capacity. Diversifying is when you get folks who are fundamentally different from your current audience and probably wouldn’t have otherwise participated to come to a show or interact with you in some way. Diversification is harder than broadening because, whereas people who are similar to the current audience may not participate only due to practical barriers such as schedule conflicts or a lack of money, the people who are fundamentally outside of that circle may have perceptual barriers to accessing the art as well–they may not think it is relevant to them or be willing to give it a chance.

The Wallace Foundation funded audience development efforts in collaboration with 13 state arts councils earlier in the decade, one of which was Montana’s. There were several dozen projects across the state, but the presentation discussed seven of them in particular that took place in rural communities. Holt began by presenting the results of a survey of Montanans regarding their perception of the arts. The study found that Montanans have a strong interest in family-oriented programming and in seeing friends and neighbors at an event. It also revealed that the arts have a bit of an image problem: even though two-thirds of respondents identified themselves as arts and culture participants, almost half believed that the arts are not relevant to their lives. (Wallace senior communications officer Mary Trudel would say later that the word “creativity” polled much better than “arts” in Montana, though some people associated creativity specifically with engineering.)

The Montana Arts Council used both the Wallace Foundation framework and the study to inform their guidelines for the new program, called Building Arts Participation. I won’t get into the details of every project – suffice to say that there was a wide variety both in terms of the types of projects and the degree of success that they experienced. They ranged from a historic motorcycle exhibition at an arts center in Custer County that brought in attendees from a local biker convention and contributed to a 39% rise in gallery attendance for the year, to an organization that as a result of its new programming suffered from internal fracturing on the Board that ultimately led to its suspension. Overall, many of the projects shared common themes of changing the operational model from a top-down, “bringing the arts to the masses” model to a more community-oriented, listening posture. These changes often led to better relationships with residents, increased attendance and donations, and a healthier sense of public value in the community. The experience even led MAC to introduce a new program called Public Value Partnerships (not funded by Wallace) that focuses on making the connection between the arts, audiences, and elected officials.

I asked Stone about whether Wallace has undertaken an evaluation of its own efforts in the audience development arena to test whether the theories articulated by RAND have borne fruit. While this has not taken place yet, the evaluati staff team is about to embark on internal “retrospectives” to assess what might have been done differently. One issue that has been identified is an overly optimistic idea that arts organization officials would invest the time in reading the RAND publications, which has not taken place as much as imagined. (Perhaps this might be a good time to mention the Arts Policy Library project, which seeks to process such publications for a lay audience.)

It’s fair to say that building arts participation in rural America is still a work in progress, but Montana Arts Council and its partners have at least shown that it can be done.

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