Walls, Programming and Audience: Placemaking Lessons for Arts and Cultural Organizations

In late November, news broke that the $42 million  August Wilson Center for African American Culture is bankrupt.    The New York Times article reporting on the news states that the Center “appears to be a victim of mismanagement by its senior staff and board of directors who borrowed to build a grand palace of culture, but failed to find a wide enough audience and donor base in the hometown of Wilson whose plays are mostly set in the Hill District just blocks away.” The Center’s distressing story is not that uncommon although the scale of this failure has certainly caused many to sit up and notice.  While it’s difficult to know what went wrong, the Center’s bankruptcy provides as good a time as any to reflect on recent research and think about some common attributes and strategies of arts and cultural success stories.

In 2009-2011, as associate director of the MetLife Foundation Innovative Space Awards, I helped develop a national affordable artist space awards program that highlighted the very best examples of how arts organizations and artists of all types create affordable space and engage with community for positive change.  Over the two awards cycles, more than 150 arts and cultural organizations from across the country provided detailed information on start-up operations, management, finance, strategic planning, and community engagement. Taken collectively, the applicants to this program offer clear survive and thrive lessons for arts and cultural organizations (and the city officials and funders/foundations who support them).  These lessons are validated by my MIT research team’s October 2013 publication of “Places in the Making: how placemaking builds places and communities,” and the excellent NEA report on Creative Placemaking, authored by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus.

So, what does this research and examination of placemaking and arts and cultural organizations tell us?

Build support before you build walls

Everything from fundraising to creating a robust membership to providing programing that excites and draws a diverse audience is easier if grassroots support is there. And those activities build public supportThe New York Times article quotes Mark Clayton Southers, a former theater program director at the Center as saying, “You can’t build it and they will come…Not when you’re trying to work with a community that is not traditional theatergoers or cultural consumers.” Mr. Southers has it exactly right. Success is best achieved when the physical building comes AFTER the outreach is started and the audience is established. I could probably offer a few dozen applicants that do this well but in the interest of space, I will put forth the MetLife Innovative Space Awards applicant Burning Coal Theatre Company, in Raleigh, NC.  The Company was founded in 1995 and after six years as an itinerant organization, embarked on a seven-year capital campaign to raise money to renovate the dilapidated auditorium of the former Murphey School for a permanent home. This non-profit put those seven years of fund raising to good use, soliciting in-kind donations from the community and contractors, forming partnerships with the Downtown Housing Improvement Corporation and State and City governments, and building a broad base of supporters and board members.  Because of its work in the community, the company was well-known and respected and garnered lots of goodwill.  All useful things to have when raising money for capital improvements. And useful to have when you shift from funding the exciting new building to funding the more mundane daily operations and staffing needs necessary to provide a full roster of programming, community events, and network-building necessary to thrive and be relevant to your community.

Build the walls (maybe!) and then ignore them

Even after fundraising goals are reached, walls are built, and opening day has past, the savviest organizations understand that ignoring the walls and taking the programming and education to the community is great insurance against empty galleries, half-full theaters, and deficit spending.  And while, for many non-profits, being embedded in the community is a core part of mission, it seems the August Wilson Center faltered here. Mr. Southers is quoted in the NY Times as saying that “the Wilson center struggled to find an audience among the people Wilson portrayed: working-class blacks, many of whom feel unwelcome downtown with its skyscrapers and largely white-owned businesses.”  The most successful organizations find some way to meet their audiences where the community lives – outside the walls of their institutions — and think of the community and the public realm as extensions of its physical domain.

In Burning Coal’s case, the organization uses two strategies to engage with community.  The first is to reach out to different segments of society and convince them that what is happening within the theater is useful in their lives. The second is to produce performances that relate to everyday life by creating works that reflect what is seen on the streets, rather than an idealized version of reality. Achieving this balance requires Burning Coal to juggle performances within its new auditorium with engagement in other locations in the community, such as schools, community spaces and other public areas.   Balancing the presentation of issues to the community with reflection of the community’s life and history in performances requires an artistic program that values connecting to and finding inspiration from its local community.  A great example of Burning Coal’s strategy in action is its “Oakwood Cemetery” play series.  Tapping into local history, these plays and vignettes, written by director of education and resident playwright Ian Finley, and offered annually, take place in the historic Oakwood Cemetery and tell the stories of the famous and not-so-famous people buried there. The cemetery is “full of life,” stories, and lessons that can be learned only if their stories are brought to much larger community audiences.

Other organizations use different approaches to bring their work to the community.  Side Street Projects in Pasadena, CA began life as a traditional arts organization but searched for an answer to an unsustainable situation after the rising real estate market forced three moves in nine years. The solution? The organization is now housed in vintage trailers and school buses — a strategy that provides a nimbleness and flexibility well-suited to the community it serves.  These vintage trailers are outfitted with wood working stations and travel to the Pasadena Schools where Side Street Projects has a contract to provide the third grade art curriculum for the Unified School District.  Why build something and wait for an audience when you can set up shop on a vacant lot in the middle of the neighborhood and then bring programming and events right to where they are needed most?  For people who don’t have the experience of attending cultural events, or are stretched for time, or who may be reluctant to travel downtown to a facility that seems to have very little to do with their daily lives, bringing the events and programming to them – in their community, on their block, in their local institutions – is a great way to engage new audiences, create broad grassroots support, and create new pathways for conversations and collaborations.

Program, program, program

It’s not the walls and not the space, but the activities and people within them that define success.  Fundraising efforts must have two goals – building the facility and supporting the operations necessary to bring it to life.  A building campaign that leaves a depleted budget for community outreach, educational offerings and programming is short sighted and naively optimistic. In our MIT research on placemaking, the case studies offer some compelling lessons in this regard. Even the most high-profile, highly designed of public places – Discovery Green in downtown Houston, Bryant Park in New York City, Eastern Market in Detroit – all rely on programming 365 days of the year to attract users, answer community needs, and create well-worn paths that speak to the extraordinary success achieved when spaces and places offer a multitude of things for people to do, to watch, and to buy.  Because Discovery Green was created as a public park without the surrounding residential and commercial uses to ensure its success, park planners program hundreds of events and activities each year.  Bryant Park offers over 600 free events and programs yearly. These places become a canvas for the activity, learning, community discussion, and collaboration that make organizations and public places relevant in our lives, which in turn compels us to support them and cherish their existence. You can’t do that when your organization is cash-strapped; a common attribute of successful leaders?  They have their eyes on capital costs, maintenance needs and programming expenses–understanding that all three need to be in the black and robust enough to support a vibrant organization that can engage with the community in the community.

Think broadly about “public” space and your “audience”

Cultural facilities around the world are looking at ways to break down barriers to communities and create “public” space within their walls while also shifting events and programs into the community public realm. Thinking of public space in this fluid way helps build relationships and creates support. The partnership between the Pasadena Unified School District and Side Street Projects is possible only because of this blurred line between the organization’s space and public space; the mobile trailers and buses move throughout the community and bring the arts organization wherever it is needed. Burning Coal Theatre Company has a beautiful permanent theater but it still takes plays and events outside its walls…keeping its presence in the community a key part of its mission.

Both “Places in the Making” and “Creative Placemaking” publications highlight the importance of organizations and project efforts building cross-sector relationships and partnerships. Markusen and Gadwa Nicodemus list “mobilizing public will, ” attracting private sector buy-in,”  and building partnerships across sectors, missions, and levels of government as key factors in success. In our MIT research, we find that best placemaking projects are ones that engage multiple players across all phases of an effort in a never-ending process we call the Virtuous Cycle of Placemaking.  That means that the efforts to reach out to potential programming partners, community organizations, funders and collaborators continues at a similar pitch to the initial capital campaign efforts.

I like to think of all the possible partners, collaborators and visitors as “audience”  and I encourage my clients to do likewise.  And I like to think of these folks, not as a passive audience but rather, as an engaged audience..participating in an interactive, iterative relationship that allows an organization to speak to the needs, passions, fears, and dreams of a community.  There is nothing better for transforming an ivory tower “destination” into a relevant, vibrant, beloved fixture of the community.

The positive benefits, good will, and funding opportunities created by a flexible and open approach to partnerships and space, along with a deep and heartfelt look at “audience,” should not be underestimated. In the case of the August Wilson Center, it’s seems appropriate that the building be thought of as a community center in the broadest possible terms.  After all, the people  of the nearby Hill District were inspiration for Wilson’s plays.  In a fitting parallel, why not use the community once again, this time as an inspiration to breathe life into the empty spaces and negative balance sheets of the Center that bears his name?

Photo courtesy of flickr:  thomas alan   cc license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en