Dr. Lisa Donovan

Professor, Arts Management and Co-director, Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network
Headshot of a woman.

Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Donovan

For the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. As we just reached the end of the school year, I thought it was a good time to take a look at some of the work being done in arts education—most particularly, in access to arts education and the arts in rural areas. For that, I turned to Dr. Lisa Donovan, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) where she heads the school’s robust work in this area. MCLA is located in Berkshire county in Western Massachusetts—a rural area that happens to house many outstanding arts organizations. A recipient of three collective impact grants from the Arts Endowment, MCLA has led the charge to bring these arts organizations together with educators, business leaders, social and mental health workers to create a network that give students across the region equitable and sustained immersion in the arts. A lot of this work stems from a 2015 paper Lisa Donovan co-wrote with a grant from the Arts Endowment called "Leveraging Change: Increasing Access to Arts Education in Rural Areas," In doing her research, Lisa discovered that while rural areas tend to share the same challenges, each one offer unique assets on which to build. Lisa explains

Lisa Donovan: Yeah. It's interesting, you know, we thought we were going to be doing a literature review and there was not a lot of literature out there on rural areas at the time. And so we ended up doing a series of interviews, 14 interviews across the country with arts education leaders in rural areas. And we did find that there are a number of shared issues in rural areas and they include things like geographic distance, poverty and lack of economic opportunity, geographic spread, broadband, lack of public transportation,  out migration of youth, that youth tend to leave rural areas. And then we also found that while we share the same issues across rural regions typically, that the promising practices that people were sharing if they were to take root, they really built upon the unique context of those rural regions. So you have shared issues but the promising practices rely on what makes you unique.

Jo Reed: Would you specific and give me an example of something that would make an area unique? And let’s talk about the Berkshires, because that's where you do your work.  Before you begin, describe the Berkshires and where it's located and then let's get into the unique assets that it has.

Lisa Donovan: Great. So, yeah, so Berkshire County is in Western Massachusetts and we are right at the edge of New York State and Connecticut and it's 1000 square mile region. And so there's our big geographic spread going from, you know, all the way north, all the way south. And what's remarkable about our county is that it's fairly rural, it has two small cities but most of it is fairly rural. And with that, we happen to have the most robust set of arts and culture resources here that you really don't see in rural areas, so that's what really makes us unique. We have incredible history here. We have over 50-plus outstanding arts and culture organizations that have they're not just known regionally, but nationally and even internationally some of them. And so that's one of the things that makes us unique. And sometimes people will say when they're reading that ”Leveraging Change Report,” you know, well, this is all great, some of your findings, but we don't have those cultural resources. To which my response is, "Yeah, you don't-- maybe you don't, but you have something that makes you unique. Maybe it's your geographical features. Maybe it's a unique part of history, you know, something that you can capitalize on."

Jo Reed:  And you also found that educators weren't as connected and gain, we're talking about the Berkshires here, weren't as connected to those cultural resources or that cultural resources weren't connecting to educators as much as they might be, that they were opportunities that were being lost.

Lisa Donovan: Yeah, it's interesting because we have 13 districts here and each district has its own superintendent and we have a superintendent's roundtable, but there's a lot of individuality to each district. And so what we find is that with all of these amazing cultural organizations, they're building relationships reaching out to schools that may be close by them but there's not necessarily a sense of how are we creating equity and access to arts education across these 13 districts. So when I was, you know, I've been here in the Berkshires for over 30 years and early in my career I was working in a variety of arts and culture organizations and we had a kind of network at that time and we would have conversations about, you know, how do you get into schools? Well, I left, I had went to Lesley University, for about 10 years --I never moved out of the region but I was working in Cambridge. When I came back I found that many arts and culture organizations had deep connections to schools, but again, it was, it tended to be sort of siloed, that it was built on your own relationship with schools. And so we really started to have this conversation about what would happen if we started to really think like a region. Could we connect the dots and get a sense of regional lift?

Jo Reed: I see. So in other words, District A might have enormous resources with cultural organizations but District D might have none.

Lisa Donovan: Right.

Jo Reed: Or very few.

Lisa Donovan: Yeah. It's interesting with our second Collective Impact Grant, we were doing some mapping.  And we found that almost every school, you know, had relationships with different arts organizations but we weren't really clear on the depth and I guess you could call it dosage. And so it might be a single field trip to Mass MOCA; or it could be a deep relationship with Jacob's Pillow. And so to really get to this idea of equity you'd have to drill down into, you know, how deep are those relationships? And you know, how much access does a particular grade or particular school have?

Jo Reed:  Well, let’s back for a moment and talk about the approach of collective impact to increase access to the arts and to arts education in rural areas. What is collective impact?

Lisa Donovan: It's a great question. So collective impact, I would define it as a cross sector approach to addressing complex problems, problems that can't be solved by any one sector working alone. And so one of the things that we were working on here is again, how do we increase access to arts education in this particular rural area. And in order to do that we can, you know, we can gather the arts and culture organizations together and have conversations and work together, but we're stronger if we're also in conversation with business leaders and social services and schools, educators, administrators. And so when you take that cross-sector approach, you're more likely to get to real change.

Jo Reed:  How does collective impact work in practice? How is it implemented?

Lisa Donovan:  There are a variety of I guess 5 different conditions for collective impact and we've been really working on those. And so they're things like can you have a backbone organization that's managing or coordinating your efforts? And in a rural area, this is another finding from leveraging change, rural areas don't usually have the capacity for a single backbone. And so we designed our network so it would serve as a collaborative backbone organization, so we were able to sort of meet that condition. There's continuous communication that in order to coordinate the work that you need to be communicating constantly about what's happening and that's been a huge issue in a rural area such as Berkshire County where there's a lot going on and you don't always know about that. So how are we tightening up how we're communicating? There are shared measurements and so one of the things we're working on right now are: are there indicators, for example, in our Creative Youth Development programming, that we could agree on no matter what organization you're working with could you identify a Creative Youth Development criteria that you'll collect in your data collection? And what would it mean to say, "Here's our findings," not just for your organization but across the region. So another important condition for collective impact is having a shared agenda. And so as part of our process, we created a blueprint for arts integration and education where we worked with our cross sector voices to really think about what are the issues in Berkshire County. And I'll tell you a little bit more about that in a second. But that blueprint became our vision for what we wanted, how we wanted to activate arts integration and arts education to help our region address some of its concerns. And then the last one is mutually reinforcing activities. And the idea here is that maybe one organization can only, you know, contribute certain amount of time and energy to activities or programming to help with change. But if every organization is doing that and we're coordinating, again, you get that regional lift. So I think that mutually reinforcing activities is something that we've been really attending to.

Jo Reed: That makes perfect sense. Let me ask you this about something that isn't unique to the Berkshires but is very specific to it. And that is it also draws a lot of people who don't live there, not just tourists but people who have their second home in the Berkshires. And I'm curious about the discrepancy between the way people who have a second home there and their buy-in as opposed to people who are there all year around and how cultural organizations program for people who are there the entire year.

Lisa Donovan: Yeah, yeah. It's a great question. So this is one of the things we've really been focused on in the last couple of years, especially. O ne of the things that was a core strand of the blueprint was that there was an acknowledgement that we needed to do more around community engagement, that often people who live here year round don't necessarily see that the arts are for them; they tend to think initially, "Oh, that's really for our tourists." And so this is where education is so important that, you know, if we could work with our students K-12 and beyond, giving them access to the arts so that they understand that this is part of the unique place that we live, that we would develop a clear sense of a Berkshire identity. We have a superintendent who said to me, and I love this quote. He said, "You know, going to school in Berkshire County should be substantially different than anywhere else because of what we have here. And so a lot of the cultural organizations have been doing amazing work to create access through school opportunities whether that be field trips or bringing artists into schools, providing free admission to our cultural organizations. We've worked with the Massachusetts Cultural Council. They have a Cultural Rx program that allowed some of our medical professionals to give prescriptions for students who are in challenging situations to go to a museum as part of a prescription.

Jo Reed: They do that in England. Yeah, that's part of the National Health System.

Lisa Donovan: Yes. And I think it's been inspired in part by that. We are also working with different communities. Last night, we met with the Berkshire Black Economics Council. And the Black Arts Council, which was just being formed to really think about how does the Black community think about their experience with cultural organizations? And that conversation led to map about what our youth might need. A couple weeks ago we met with the LatinX community representatives and so they're saying things like, "Hey, we'd love to see ourselves more in the offerings. We'd love to see local artists presented." So I feel like there's a whole attending to listening to community and being responsive right now happening in the Berkshires that's really exciting.

Jo Reed: I’m sure it is an interesting conversation because   where there's such an economic divide between the second home people and the all-year-round people that t really can make things very tricky in trying to come up with a regional approach to things.

Lisa Donovan: Definitely. You know, one of the youth ambassadors last night was naming transportation. Now that's one of the shared challenges of a rural area. And she was saying, "We want to get out. We want to be interacting with the arts scene here. Sometimes it's hard to get there." And so how might we think about that? And so you find innovative solutions where Jacob's Pillow just has been renting out a bus and will take anyone who wants to show up on performance nights from Pittsfield, bringing people from the small city into Becket, which is a really rural region of the county. So, this community engagement piece is a central piece and it's very complex because it's about building relationships to a whole variety of communities and starting early through education, addressing discrepancies, as you're saying, coming up with shared solutions for issues whether it be transportation or I've not been to a cultural organization and I feel like I need to have a primer to sort of understand what that experience is and what the expectations are.

Jo Reed: And to be invited in.

Lisa Donovan: Yes. And to have a sense of belonging, I belong here.

Jo Reed: They want me here.

Lisa Donovan: Yes.

Lisa Donovan: Exactly.

Jo Reed: And also,  the cost. That, I mean, I love Mass MOCA. I really do. But $20 dollars for adults, that can be a heavy lift for a family.

Lisa Donovan: It can. I will say, I was just talking with a teacher who came to this event last night and she said she brought two classes, 52 students, <laughs> to MOCA. I think they were expecting half that and they got in free. And they all left with a pass to come back.  "When you come back, bring your family," you know. And so again, thinking about not just individuals but how are we building that sense of you're welcome. We want you here. You belong. This is for you.

Jo Reed: You’re the director of the C4 initiative. Describe what that is and it contributes to this effort.

Lisa Donovan: So, C4 is the, it represents our collective, the overarching collective impact initiative and it stands for creative compact for collaborative collective impact. And it really is, it has several pieces to it. The first piece is focused on career readiness. This is another issue that we've uncovered with the blueprint that in order to really connect deeply with our youth, to encourage them to not only see what's here but to encourage them to connect with it, to stay in the area, that there are internship opportunities at our arts and culture organization. Several years ago when we did a survey we found that only 17 percent of our guidance counselors felt that they had strong career pathways in the arts. And so we thought, okay, there's something to bite off. And so we've been actively working with our guidance counselors, with our superintendents' round table and through our arts educator professional learning networks to create a kind of clearinghouse for information about the arts. And so that includes a grid of here's all of our cultural organizations. Here's the different kinds of activities that happen there --if there's an interest in communications or marketing or the business end of things or artist liaisons, right. So we're trying to do a little bit more organizing, connecting the dots, having a shared template so that if you're going to create and opportunity for an internship for a high school student or a college student, that it's on the same form so that students don't have to go digging around your website. So career readiness is one strand of our C4 initiative. The second piece of it is the establishment of a network. One of the key ideas is that in rural areas one of the promising practices that we know works is networks. And so we've created a network called BCAN, Berkshire Cultural Asset Network, which is inviting all of our arts education and community engagement staff from our cultural organizations to be part of this network. We have three co-chairs representing a large organization, a mid-sized organization and a small organization because we've realized that everyone needs something different. And that network has allowed us to collaborate in new ways, to share information, to learn together and to again kind of activate that collective impact approach.  And then the third piece of the C4 initiative was to create a podcast class of all things, a podcast series. And this was really about establishing the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts where I teach as a backbone. So before this we had the collaborative backbone and this grant from the National Endowment for the Arts really allowed us to center the work at MCLA as we know it.

Jo Reed: The podcast series is called?

Lisa Donovan: "Thinking Like a Region." And we decided to do this because I'll just share one story that really struck home. I was meeting with an economics council here and I was presenting about why arts education, it was so important. And at the end of the conversation this guy says to me, "Okay, so just, I just don't understand. If you're going to be a plumber, why would you need a painting class??" And it sort of stopped me in my tracks. <laughs> I realized, "Okay this, there's something here to be learned.” And it's that we have a translation problem I think sometimes in the arts that I think unless you're immersed in the arts or have had an arts experience, it's very hard to understand how the capacities that you gain from being immersed in the arts or through arts education, how they might translate to other areas. And so we ended up having a conversation around “well, does a plumber, you need to be able to closely observe, have a sense of discipline, attention to detail.” And at that point, you know, I think the conversation shifted but it made me realize, okay, somehow we have to do more translating. And so the goal of this podcast is to center on the County and people who have relationships in the County and leaders in different sectors who have grown up with arts education or had immersive experiences in some way, shape or form that can talk a little bit about their current role and how the creative capacities that they gained through arts education or the arts in general, how that maps to their work right now. And it's been fascinating.

Jo Reed: You mentioned this was a podcast class as well as a series—so I’m assuming students are involved?

Lisa Donovan: Yeah, so we have run a podcast in class called "The Art of the Podcast." We've run it twice and we set it up as a dual enrollment class. So we've had both high school students and MCLA students participate. And so we have students, we brainstorm who we might interview and then students identify who they're interested in. The first time we taught it we did it as teams, so we had a high school student and college student interviewing together. That was their choice. And in this last class, we had a class of college students and we each of them did one interview. And they had to research the person that they were going to interview, design their questions. They had to go through the interview process and then they also had to learn how to edit the content and to write up the show notes.

Jo Reed: So they're getting an entire skill set in audio production.

Lisa Donovan: Exactly. As am I. <laughs> As am I.

Jo Reed: Yes. And "Thinking Like a Region," so we'll definitely have a link to that and how often do you anticipate the podcast posting?

Lisa Donovan: So we have 12 episodes right now. And so what we're calling it, we're doing it like a season and if we, if we're able to secure more funding and continue the process, we will continue; so we're just looking at that now. And we are releasing them once a month. So we've just released our very first one which was an interview with Tessa Kelly who leads The Mastheads, which is a program in Pittsfield. And so Tessa, she's trained as an architect and she talked about as an architect and designer that the skills that are required in terms of active listening and being able to listen to the goals of the folks she's working with and translate them in to design.  And you know, it's been interesting because each interviewee really brings fresh language to the table in terms of how they describe the impact of the arts and those skills.

Jo Reed:   There are many reason why the arts are vital for everyone –but particularly for younger people, I think  because art demands empathy.

Lisa Donovan: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: And, and it also really asks for curiosity.

Lisa Donovan: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: I think those are two traits that cannot be nurtured enough.

Lisa Donovan: You know, I totally agree. And it's interesting because, you know, we've started to expand the list of people that we're interviewing and one of our students interviewed this-- a student at MCLA whose name is Kyrie Clark and he's a photographer. And he really talked about the expressive quality of learning through photography and about his own background learning about being a photographer and how it gave him the opportunity to be expressive in new ways. And that he felt it changed the way that he interacted with people and that the arts could provide different ways to connect. So I really feel like that empathy piece, that sort of social, emotional learning connection especially now coming out of the pandemic, just really important.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I think it's key. Yeah. So how did you get into this work, Lisa?

Lisa Donovan: Well, in terms of the podcast or in terms of arts education?

Jo Reed: No, in terms of arts education.

Lisa Donovan: Ah. Good question. Well, I growing up, I fell in love with theater, you know. I was writing my own shows, creating snacks and charging my parents to come watch me perform.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Lisa Donovan: I knew from day one I wanted to be a theater artist and so, through high school I participated deeply in theater and I will say for me, you know, looking back, it's really how I found myself. I found that I learned so much about myself from stepping into the roles or people who were not me, characters I was embodying. And through that process, I learned who I was in different aspects of my identity and I also learned my, you know, I learned public speaking skills and leadership. And the first time I got paid to act, I realized it wasn't my jam.


Lisa Donovan: And I was surprised about that and what I realized is that the thing I loved about theater was the learning that happened. SO it was less about being an actress and getting paid to be an actress and much more about this curiosity as you're saying and personal exploration. And so I ended up being an arts administrator in my early career, but there was always something missing and it was that piece I needed to be deeply connected to the creative process, but always through learning. And so it took me a while to kind of figure that out.

Jo Reed: And now you're at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, MCLA. Just give us a teeny bit about that school and why you chose to work there.

Lisa Donovan: Well, it's a-- it is a gem, I have to say. It's a small liberal arts college in North Adams about a mile from Mass MOCA and what I love about it is I'm working with undergraduates and I get to know every single one of my students. And I get to really see them inside of class, outside of class. Because of where we are, it's a spectacularly beautiful area, because of the incredible arts and culture resources in the area, the opportunities for students, especially students in the arts, are endless. And one of the things that's really unique about the Berkshires in general is that with all of these amazing resources and the outstanding folks that we draw, you know, into our cultural organizations, it's very easy to access people. It's easy to each out to, you know, the Director of Education at Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the head of Jacobs Pillow or Mass MOCA and have a conversation or have students have a conversation. So I feel like it's a small school with lots of access to incredible arts and culture resources.  And Berkshire County was named the second most arts-vibrant medium-sized community in the nation by the National Center for Arts Research in 2018. And so we're recognized for our creative pursuits and to me, in addition to all that this region offers, I think that higher education can be a catalyst for change, especially in regional work, even more so in rural regions. And so really connecting the dots, we have this amazing, vibrant arts community and Higher Ed can help to amplify that. We can be a convener. We can help to connect. So I think we're an ideal backbone organization.

Jo Reed: And a program that you co-lead called BRAINworks is actually housed there. So how does BRAINworks fit into this equation?

Lisa Donovan: Yeah,  BRAINworks is an acronym for the Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network. So as part of this collective impact initiative, a really central piece was to create opportunities to engage with educators to provide training in deep arts integration. And both in teaching them, you know, how to integrate the arts across the curriculum and also to do that in collaboration with our arts and culture resources. So BRAINworks is now a portal to everything arts education. We have a shared calendar there. We will be listing all of those internship templates there. We spotlight interesting arts educational work that's happening in the county. Our podcast series will live there. And teachers also developed curriculum to be shared. So it's a little bit of a treasure trove.

Jo Reed:  I’m glad you mentioned arts integration—I know you’ve written a series of books on the subject—so you can give us a working definition of arts integration.

Lisa Donovan: Yes. So I really think about arts integration as learning in, through and with the arts in collaboration with other content areas. So it's really cross disciplinary exploration with arts at the center. And the key focus from my perspective is that there's equal rigor. So if I am creating an infographic in math and I'm doing it using the elements of design and visual art, that I'm teaching the vocabulary of visual art and not just how we're using statistics. So there's equal rigor in both content areas and that means how you're teaching, how you're engaging students and also how you're assessing learning.

Jo Reed: As you do this work of arts integration and collective impact and expanding access to the arts in rural areas, what surprised you?

Lisa Donovan: That's interesting. Oh, so many things. I think the power of the network. So, some of these investigations have made me realize how embedded, you know, rural life is in me.  So I grew up right on the Hudson River in the Hudson River Valley. There's something unique and really special about rural areas where we know people in different ways. We're connected in different ways. We tend to play so many different roles. And how do we make that visible to those of us in rural regions and how do we capitalize on it, you know? So that's one piece. Another piece is that it is amazing to me to be you know, immersed in life in Berkshire County and see all that we have here and knowing that it could be even so much more just by connecting the dots, just by talking to each other, knowing what each other's doing and really thinking about how do we collaborate to make sure that every young person feels like the arts and culture are for them and that they have early and sustained exposure and immersion in that. That kind of thing. It's also made me realize particularly the collective impact approach and I love that this is a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts because I think the deep thinking and structure of the grant really honors the value of working across sectors and so often, at least in my early career, I was all about the arts and I was in my bubble and it wouldn't occur to me to work with someone in social services or someone in health or someone in business. And now that I see the potential for that I feel like arts can be a strategy for change for our region. And the things that we need here in terms of community engagement, in terms of pro social youth development, how are we keeping young people in the county? How are we supporting their needs? How are we preparing them for careers that they want to have? We can do that so well in the arts. I think we can do it better than anyone else. So, it's been really fun to discover across sectors where this work can take us. And each grant has allowed us to take the work just so far and now as this grant is ending, it'll end this month in fact, you know, we were saying last night to this group, we know the next steps. We need a youth council. We need to listen to youth at the county. We need to continue the podcast. We need to continue to develop these career pathways. And we can only do these things well, if we're synchronizing our efforts.

Jo Reed: And I think that is a great place to leave it. Lisa, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time. Thank you for the work you do.

Lisa Donovan: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

Jo Reed: That was Dr. Lisa Donovan—she’s a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, director the C4 initiative, and the author of an arts integration book series. We’ll have links to all of these and the podcast “Thinking Like a Region” in our show notes. 

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us where ever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Dr. Lisa Donovan discusses her work at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) to increase access to arts education equitably in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Donovan talks about the success of the collective impact approachworking across sectors to create lasting change-- the support of the Arts Endowment through its Collective Impact grant program, the unique assets of Berkshire County, the challenges it shares with other rural areas, and the networks and programs created to meet those challenges and make the arts and arts education easily accessible to all its students across the region.

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Links to programs and topics discussed in the podcast:

MCLA Institute for the Arts and Humanities

Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network

Integrating the Arts: Teacher as Curator

Intergrating the Arts: Teacher Created Materials

The C4 Initiative

Thinking Like a Region