Taking Note: “Systems Change” in the Arts—For Better or Worse

By Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research & Analysis
Pictogram of graphs and charts

Few words in the English language induce as much eye-glazing as “system.” Aggressively neutral, the noun still manages to acquire negative overtones in daily usage. (“I couldn’t help it. Blame the system.”) Only for grantmaking organizations, one suspects, is the word shiny and venerated. Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ new report, Seeing, Facilitating, and Assessing Systems Change, recharges this talisman of social-impact investing and program evaluation by showing how funders can be more thoughtful in supporting and scaling projects that aim to transform lives and communities. Lessons abound for grantmakers in the arts.

But first let’s apply systems theory to basic philanthropy. Doing so would reveal that each funding enterprise has its own cultural, social, and political milieu, the interlocking variables of which must be properly understood and manipulated to achieve optimal impact. Over time, the mechanisms for such change (incentives, programs, organizations) exhibit their own patterns of behavior and, indeed, become entrenched “systems.” The good news: funders can avoid this rut by hitting pause and mapping the complex terrains they strive to affect.

The new report counsels several strategies. These include: developing “robust theories of change,” exploring “streamlined giving” (to allow for multiyear funding of projects, thus buying them time to prove impact), and adopting “inter-organizational and cross-sector collaboration, active learning, and appropriate deference to the experience-based expertise of grantees.” The report warns: “Funders become a part of the systems in which they intervene” and so should “be sensitive to this influence, incorporate it into funding considerations, and manage it to the extent possible.”

Consider the data often requested by government and private grantmakers. “Funders and their program partners collect a vast amount of data every year,” the Rockefeller report notes. “However, much of it is unused and tends to focus on resource inputs, activities, and short-term outcomes.” Further, “monitoring and evaluation attached to philanthropic funding tends to be tied to short-term, discrete projects and linear models of change.”

Over the last decade, the National Endowment for the Arts has taken a longer view. This stance is evident in some of the agency’s grantmaking programs and national initiatives and in its research and evaluation projects. My own first serious encounter with systems change occurred when, in 2010-2011, then-Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa wanted the Office of Research & Analysis to map the U.S. arts ecology through a series of interviews, workshops, and a literature review. (Joan had come to the Arts Endowment from the Rockefeller Foundation.) The resulting report, How Art Works, presented the first five-year research agenda for the agency.

Now heading into the fifth year of its current research agenda, the Arts Endowment has committed to systems change in arts-focused research by establishing a set of NEA Research Labs nationwide. Later this year, the agency will release proceedings from a Labs summit that took place in 2019. At the event, summit participants (Lab researchers and their partners) agreed that greater technical assistance and capacity-building for their efforts is of ongoing value and interest.

They might as well have quoted the Rockefeller report, which champions creative forms of “non-monetary support” from philanthropists, “such as making introductions to other funders, boosting social media attention, and providing technical assistance.” Apart from research, the agency continues to support evaluation of arts programs that, in many cases, endeavor systems change. Evaluations of the Arts Endowment’s creative placemaking initiative, Our Town, and of the Arts Education Collective Impact grants, have resulted in a conceptual reframing of those programs, as seen in application guidelines. Meanwhile, the Office of Research & Analysis assists research and evaluation for the Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, which recently launched a National Resource Center to bring clarity and cohesion to a growing field of practice. Next year, working with the Ford and Knight foundations, the agency will release a report examining support systems for artists who use technology as a creative medium.

The Rockefeller report gives many examples of systems-oriented funding in the U.S. and other countries. Funders may want to take a “self-diagnostic tool” on page 38 of the report, to learn if their organization is on board with a systems-based approach to philanthropy.


Some types of system change are intended by grantees and funders, while other types—to paraphrase Malvolio in Twelfth Night—are thrust upon them. On Aug. 11, the Brookings Institution released Lost Art: Measuring COVID-19’s devastating impact on the creative economy, a report by Richard Florida (author of The Rise of the Creative Class and other works) and Michael Seman of Colorado State University. Using data from the labor analytics firm Emsi, Florida and Seman estimate the pandemic’s effect on a set of “creative” occupations and industries from April through July 2020.

Beyond the staggering losses reported at the national, state, and metropolitan level, Lost Art includes a perspective on how arts organizations can refocus their efforts. “With reduced demand for large cultural events as a result of social distancing, there is an opportunity for communities to shift to locally sourced culture,” Florida and Seman write. “Communities can develop strategies to hire local creatives and create online portals and platforms to allow residents and businesses to hire local artists, musicians, and performers for small-scale, local events.”

Similar language emerged in a report earlier this summer, emphasizing the role of local artists and audiences in economic recovery for the nonprofit arts sector. In It for the Long Haul, by Zannie Voss (SMU DataArts) and Jill Robinson (TRG Arts), stated: “[R]ather than focus on messaging solely on what the organization needs in this moment in order to make a come-back, organizations might consider shifting their focus outward to their community’s needs.”

“Ultimately, the communal nature of arts participation will be a strength to communities hungry to come together again and affirm existential meaning after prolonged isolation,” Voss and Robinson added. “On a practical level, myriad research studies regarding consumer confidence put travel at the bottom of the recovery, suggesting that local audiences, local talent, indeed, the local supply chain will reign supreme.”

See here for a recent Arts Endowment blog post discussing the link between arts venues and local community attachment, and the relevance of this factor during COVID-19.