A Few Thoughts on Strategy for Social Change

Author: 
Ian David Moss

To ensure that Calgary's Arts Plan is as bold as possible in its aspirations, and is truly reflective of the best thinking on the arts in North America, we have engaged Shannon Litzenberger and Ian David Moss to serve as "consulting critics" of the process. To view a PDF version of this article, click here

It’s an honour and a privilege to be asked to comment on the great work Calgarians are doing to envision a new future for the arts in their community. I had my first encounter with your lovely (but very, very cold) city just this past November, when I was invited to speak at the ArtsSmarts Knowledge Exchange on the subject of creative placemaking. Hopefully my outsider’s perspective will be of some use to this process in the months ahead.

Let me begin by introducing myself and the work I do. As research director for Fractured Atlas, the largest arts service organization in the United States, my work focuses on marrying data and strategy to promote effective decision-making in the arts. I’ve been involved with a number of projects along that general theme, but most relevant for this audience is a collaboration with a funder in Cincinnati called ArtsWave to determine new grant strategies for their support of the arts in the region. In addition, for the past five and a half years, I have written and edited a cultural policy blog that takes a bird’s-eye view of trends and conversations happening in the arts both in the United States and internationally.

I’ve seen a lot of cultural planning efforts start and end in the years since I got involved with this work, and I’ve noticed a number of traps that are easy for participants to fall into. I see a few of them lurking in the background here, so I’d like to call them out at this relatively early stage so that they can be considered and dealt with as necessary. Before I get to that, though, I want to take a moment to commend the leadership in Calgary for some of the truly forward-thinking elements of #YYCArtsPlan.

Vox Populi

I have a confession to make: I’m in love with the Citizens’ Reference Panel. Just reading the bios of the 36 participants in the Phase II final report was almost enough to bring a tear to my eye. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but you have to understand: it’s so rare for the professional arts community to get real, sustained, substantive feedback from the citizenry in its community. In my experience, most arts organizations’ idea of “outreach” involves opening dialogue with audiences, which already limits the conversation to a small and non-representative slice of the general public. I think Calgary Arts Development, as a publicly funded institution, was exactly right to think bigger than that and open up the gates to people whose experience with and interest in the arts was tangential at best. It is incredibly valuable for those who strive to make a living in the arts to hear from this constituency, and I am jealous that you have that very, very special opportunity. Please savour it.

With that said, there is a difference between incorporating citizen input into the process and putting nonprofessionals in charge of that process. It is the responsibility of Phase III participants to add body and grounding to the values espoused by the public as represented by the Citizens’ Reference Panel. In so doing, there will need to be a bit of refinement of what’s been put on the table to date. You have already begun that process by voting to rank the visions and recommendations that came out of Phase II, and Shannon Litzenberger has provided a very helpful reframing/focusing of the original list in her contribution. Nevertheless, there are a few things to keep in mind as the final strategy gets developed. Below, I’ve detailed some of the issues that I see as being very likely to come up in the conversations ahead.

Clarification Around Goal-Setting

I should state upfront that I approach this work through the lens of social sector program evaluation. If you’ve never heard the terms outputs and outcomes, or logic models and theories of change, you might want to read this article to understand what I mean when I use such language. I have found these core concepts absolutely essential to a rigorous understanding of how any collective action or policy intervention will get from point A to point B.

I would encourage Phase III participants to take a critical look at the set of visions from the standpoint of identifying the “to what end?” behind each. To me, the visions that convey a strong sense of intrinsic merit (i.e., that don’t beg for further justification) are the following:

·       The arts in Calgary are for everyone

·       Calgary welcomes, supports, and appreciates artists

The goal “A holistic approach to arts learning” might also be in this category if the vision statement consisted only of its first sentence. However, the second sentence (“Calgary is recognized internationally as a vibrant cultural centre”) seems only indirectly related to arts learning. I would also encourage clarifying whether the vision emphasizes pre-professional arts training, arts learning in a regular school context as part of a broad-based education, or arts activities for amateur adults, as each of these suggests quite different policy approaches.

By contrast, there are several visions that I would characterize as a “means to an end,” rather than goals in and of themselves. Most of these have to do with helping the arts sector to work more efficiently or access more resources than are available presently. The question is, why? What will solving these problems allow the arts sector to do that it cannot do now? I sense that there are goals and ambitions motivating these visions that have yet to be articulated. It would be good to get them out into the open sooner rather than later.

·       Accessible, sustainable and integrated arts spaces: How will having more/more accessible/more integrated space open up new possibilities? Why do those possibilities matter to Calgarians?

·       Integrating the arts in municipal governance: Undoubtedly a worthy project, but what is the real goal? It seems that the main concern is to get the city “out of the way” of all of the positive arts activity that’s going on. If that’s the ambition, then it should be articulated thus, but that still seems like a means to an end rather than a project with intrinsic merit for Calgarians.

·       Creating a network for better communication: The vision description states, “these networks foster Calgary’s reputation as a city for the arts and will increase a sense of pride and participation amongst Calgarians.” If that’s the case, then the vision isn’t a network for better communication – the vision is Calgary’s reputation as a city for the arts and a sense of pride and participation amongst Calgarians. A network for better communication is merely a strategy for getting there.

·       Strengthening investment in the arts: This is everyone’s favourite, but in program evaluation, we’re taught that “more funding” is never a goal. And indeed, the vision statement is quite vague about what this increased investment would be used for or why it’s necessary.

Shannon’s proposed reframing of the vision statements does a great job of addressing the problems I’ve described. But I would also respectfully suggest that each of the five goals that I’ve identified as problematic can be fit under the two that I pulled out at the top: the arts in Calgary are for everyone and Calgary welcomes, supports, and appreciates artists. Conveniently, these two visions match up very well with the tenor of the January 26 summit, as summarized on artsplan.ca: “The vision of our attendees is that by 2023, Calgary…will be a city…where the arts include everyone, and everyone includes the arts.”

For reasons I’ll discuss below, I think narrowing the conversation to fewer goals will enjoy the dual advantages of easier communication and greater chance of success.

Including All the Steps

The Citizens’ Reference Panel very helpfully identified a set of core values to guide the planning process. The visions that came out of Phase II reflect these values, but the differences between today’s reality and the “better world” that each presents, not to mention the rationale for the change, are not always readily apparent. Lara Schmitz articulates this gap well in a comment responding to one of the recommendations, the “Try It Out” program. She writes,

If we are interested in making art for everyone, perhaps we first need to know why it is not for everyone right now. Truly, why are Calgarians not attending? And out of those reasons, what can we do to change that?

Until there is a strong, collective understanding of answers to questions like the above, any specific strategies to “fix” the problem of less-than-universal-appeal of the arts risk being misguided. At a minimum, if such answers are not readily available, new initiatives like a “Try It Out” program should be undertaken within the context of a learning environment so that their results, positive or negative, can help provide the answers.

In my speaking and writing about arts policy, I often emphasize the importance of “including all the steps.” It’s very tempting when engaged in this sort of planning process to jump immediately to specific strategies to counter problems or opportunities that have been identified. The challenge with this approach is that it ignores the complexity of how the world actually works. To take an extreme example, if we want to create peace between the world’s nations, starting an organization called “Artists for World Peace” and putting on a show to benefit UNICEF isn’t likely to do it. Instead, we need to ask ourselves why peace doesn’t exist in the world and what it would take to change the factors getting in the way of a brighter future before we start talking about the role that art could play.

These are the principles we tried to adopt while working on ArtsWave’s outcome-focused grantmaking strategies. ArtsWave’s story is a fascinating one, and I encourage you to read up on it in detail, but briefly, it is an 85-year-old organization formerly called the Fine Arts Fund that raises money to support arts organizations in Greater Cincinnati. In 2008, to better understand the motivations and attitudes of the general public towards the arts, the Fund commissioned The Arts Ripple Effect report, which identified two “messages” that Cincinnati-area residents found more compelling than others in supporting the idea of the arts as a public good worthy of their support. Those messages were:

·       A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument.

·       A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.

In response to the report, the Fine Arts Fund expanded its mission, adopted the new name ArtsWave, and used these messages as the inspiration for the new goals of its grantmaking strategy. To support that strategy, Fractured Atlas helped ArtsWave develop a massive theory of change, outlining how specific grants could, over time, have an impact on community-wide realities.

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My point in bringing this up is to show that even with only two goals, the detailed strategy document we came up with to get from point A to point B is incredibly complex. While I don’t mean to discount the importance of dreaming big, the reality is that making change in any social context is not an easy process, and depends on the cooperation of many factors beyond any single individual’s control. I could be wrong, but I suspect everyone will be happier in 2023 having made real progress on a few well-defined fronts rather than halting steps in a variety of directions.

Final Thought: Who’s Calling the Shots?

I will close by reiterating how lucky Calgary’s arts community is to have had the opportunity, just as Cincinnati’s arts community did, to hear from members of the general public about how the arts relate—or could relate—to their lives. I strongly encourage Phase III participants to pursue further refinement of the visions and strategies in a way that fully respects and honors these citizens’ contributions and the values that they have identified as important to them. I say this because I recognize that there will likely be areas of tension between the public’s and arts producers’ visions for the arts. For example, the Phase II report indicates that “representatives of leading arts institutions, community organizations, festivals, as well as independent artists…were less supportive of recommendations they felt might limit the independence of artists or arts organizations,” such as increasing programming for underserved demographics and partnering with public schools. These concerns are completely understandable, but if one ambition is to grow the resources that the public makes available to the arts community, the arts community must be responsive, at least in part, to the public’s desires. Not only is that necessary to ensure broad-based buy-in for the Arts Plan, but indeed to ensure the long-term sustainability of public support for the arts in Calgary and elsewhere.

I look forward to seeing what comes next!

Ian David Moss helps funders, government agencies, and others support the arts more effectively by harnessing the power of data to drive informed decision-making. As Research Director for Fractured Atlas, Ian designed and leads implementation of the organization’s pioneering cultural asset mapping software, Archipelago, which aggregates and visualizes information about creative activities in a particular geography in order to better illuminate who’s making art, who’s engaging with it, where it’s happening, and how it’s made possible. A member of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council, he was previously Development Manager for the American Music Center and founded two first-of-their-kind performing ensembles: a hybrid electric chamber group/experimental rock band and a choral collective devoted to the music of the past 25 years. He holds BA and MBA degrees from Yale University.