Arts Capacity Building Laboratory Shows Lasting Impact

ArtsLab began in 1999 as a multi-funder collaborative to support capacity development in small and mid-sized arts organizations in the Upper Midwest. The program aims to help these arts groups thrive; it recognizes the key contributions they make to community vitality and identity while at the same time acknowledges their fragility and under-capitalization. Over a period of fifteen years, thirty-nine organizations have participated in ArtsLab from both urban and rural communities, including many from communities of color. ArtsLab has received grants from the F.R. Bigelow, Bush, Mardag, McKnight, Saint Paul, and Wallace foundations, and the United Arts Fund. Arts Midwest provides central leadership and program coordination.

ArtsLab’s grantmakers worked together to design and learn from the program, pooling resources that would otherwise have been allocated differently and toward larger-budget cultural organizations. These grantmakers’ intent was to form not only a learning cohort of grantee organizations, but also one in which they themselves would participate. ArtsLab’s grantee-participants, its funders, and its consulting faculty group each represent components of the action research approach of ArtsLab as a learning laboratory.

ArtsLab supporters recently commissioned a report about the program’s results. Capacity-Building and Resilience: What participants learned through ArtsLab, is the study I developed in collaboration with research advisor M. Christine Dwyer, of RMC Research. Our exploration involved meeting in-person with eight diverse organizations that had been participants in the multi-year ArtsLab program. The conversations were about the continuing impact of the program on organizational development, especially the impact of the program’s combination of group workshops, seminars and retreats; peer learning exchanges; mentorship; and grant funding made available to support identified barriers to fuller organizational capacity.

We found strong evidence that these lively and important organizations benefitted from ArtsLab’s multi-year capacity-building approach. Not only did cohort members learn from the menu of materials offered through group training, such as workshops about strategy, capitalization, and fund-raising, but also from each other’s ideas and experiences. ArtsLab gave these organizations more tools to see themselves “from the outside in” and helped them understand ways to advance their enterprises in addition to their artmaking.

The full report includes profiles of the eight study organizations and our summary findings. One takeaway? Grantmakers should reconsider their typical “wait and see” approach to struggling organizations when these groups serve a vital constituency and purpose. Instead? Lean in.

Copies of the report and organizational profiles are available on the Arts Midwest website. A panel discussion about the program and this report is set for the Grantmakers in the Arts annual conference, October 12-15, in Houston, Texas.