Art Works Blog

In Seattle, the Arts Mean Business

I was perusing [Seattle's] Mayor McGinn's regular e-newsletter, The Reader, and noticed a terrific feature about the work that the city's Office of Economic Development was doing in support of small businesses, and about how small businesses create jobs. But I wondered, why aren't the arts featured? The arts industry in Seattle is made up of small businesses, and while most are not-for-profit, the arts also do their share of generating jobs. We needed a way to make that more visible to the general public and our political leaders. I immediately went to my director and he, being someone who is always open to ideas, followed up with the mayor. He came back to me just as quickly and said that we had the go-ahead to create a new arts jobs program. And that's how "Arts Mean Business" was born.

What had I gotten myself into? I had to develop and implement an entirely brand-new program from scratch. But what an incredible opportunity! Fortunately, in 2009, our office had been selected by the National Endowment for the Arts to distribute $250,000 of federal stimulus dollars through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), providing $5,000 and $15,000 grants to 22 arts organizations to support 82 distinct arts administration, education, production, teaching artist, and artist jobs. So we already had a funding model to build upon.

But one of the things I wanted to do differently this time was to focus on job creation rather than job retention. Over the past four years, with the recession, our office has been encouraging arts organizations to take the opportunity to re-evaluate what their core missions are and what programs and services are the most relevant to their constituencies. Why not build on this thinking and develop a funding model that would inspire organizations to think strategically? One that would encourage them to figure out:

  1. Who are we as an organization? What makes us unique?
  2. What are our most meaningful programs and services? What do we do that people are willing to pay for or invest in with donations or time?
  3. What job position can help us better connect who we are and what we do with people willing to support that?

So the basic purpose of the Arts Mean Business funding program is to fund arts jobs crucial to the implementation of sustainable revenue strategies for Seattle arts, cultural, and heritage organizations. The program will provide one-time funds for positions that will make a difference in each organization's ability to generate extra revenue to carry out its mission. These may be for salaried or contract positions, part- or full-time, or simply additional hours for an existing part-time staff person. Since we had a feeling this would end up being a very competitive grant, I wanted to make sure that everyone who applied could benefit from the process, whether they received funding or not. That the grant workshops and the process of putting the application together would get arts organizations thinking about their role in the local arts ecosystem, and about what would it take to become more viable, sustainable businesses.

The response has been amazing. First, it's been a perfect way for us to promote the impact of the arts and the results of the Arts & Economic Prosperity IV. Second, it reminds the broader community that the arts are an industry and we do create jobs. And finally, it's gotten the local arts sector thinking entrepreneurally. We've had standing-room only grant workshops. What's most exciting however, is that many of the organizations attending the workshops and/or calling in to apply have clearly been talking with multiple staff to figure out how best to approach this opportunity. They've been putting their heads together and evaluating their own organizations, trying to figure out what they need. What a concept! Using a funding program to spark the creative juices of local arts administators!

There have been a few who have wondered why we're not allowing grantwriting positions as possibilities for the grant. And I've had to point out that while on the surface that may seem like a revenue-generating position, having more grantwriters isn't going to lead to increased revenue for the field as a whole if they are all competing for the same dwindling amount of funding. If, instead, each organization focused on how they could perhaps get the people who were already supporting them to increase their support, that would be a more effective approach. If every person who walked through their door once each year simply came back twice.

So what types of jobs are going to be supported through this program? That really depends on each organization and what's going to make the most sense based on its mission and who it serves. For instance, a theater group offering stellar productions may realize that a lot of their patrons frequently ask about acting training opportunities for their kids. So they may decide to create an education director position to put together a training program for their patrons to enroll their children in, which can expand their revenue stream. Or a museum that frequently exhibits the work of local artists and gets numerous inquiries on how people can purchase the pieces may expand their gift shop to include a gallery space for featured artists to sell their work. They may also apply to expand the hours of their gift shop manager to include curatorial duties. Or a dance company may choose to apply to hire a patron services manager whose focus will be to ensure that every audience member who attends a dance performance has such a great experience that there will be repeat visits throughout the year. The patron services manager's duties may also include developing relationships with the local business community to offer discounts for the dance company's patrons. In all three of these examples, each company is looking at jobs that connect the company's mission with its community and enhance their patrons' experience.

While we don't know yet which applications will be selected for funding, if the buzz the program has generated is any indication, we'll have an interesting report demonstrating that the arts do mean business.

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