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First Person: Mary McCullough-Hudson, President and CEO, Fine Arts Fund

Cincinnati’s Fine Arts Fund is now ArtsWave, the result of revamping its mission and changing its focus. President and CEO Mary McCullough-Hudson talked with Community Wealth Vanguard about balancing mission, innovation, and sustainability. One element influencing the case for change was a report the Fund commissioned, The Arts Ripple Effect: A Research-Based Strategy to Build Shared Responsibility for the Arts.

What factors led the Fine Arts Fund to evaluate its social impact?

There were a number of factors, but two overriding ones. One was driven by some overarching concerns about the sustainability of the sector. About four years ago, our community foundation gathered the leaders of the major arts and cultural organizations, as well as civic leaders and business leaders and foundations, to really examine the infrastructure. Cincinnati has always had sort of larger-than-life arts and cultural organizations and there had been some growth, including a new organization coming online—the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. And this was before the economy took the turn. [It raised] some questions about are we really looking holistically at all the resources needed to sustain this, to keep it strong going forward?

So that was sort of an internal look, but then at the same time, there were questions we were being asked, whether or not we were leveraging our arts and cultural assets to the benefit of the community in as effective a way as possible. . . . Things like our ability to attract and retain talent, especially younger and international workers.  Also, the whole idea that we are a very broad, and getting even broader, geography and the whole growth of our population outside of the beltway and how are we linking our community together—keeping the urban core strong, but also making sure that we are addressing the needs of residents who are increasingly living and working outside of the downtown. So all of those questions led us to say, “We need to take a hard look at this.”

Were there threats to the organization’s sustainability that led to this process?

I think there were. We have the most successful united arts community campaign in the country. We have a depth and breadth of nationally and, in some cases, internationally recognized arts and cultural organizations. And so, the sense that everything was fine—there was a feeling that that was a fairly thin veneer under which there were challenges, increasingly, to try to sustain all of this. And again, this was before the economy tanked. Also, a growing sense that we were too concentrated in our dependence on certain aspects of funding. Our broad-based funding was strong, in terms of the campaign, but our public sector funding was not.

Why did the Fine Arts Fund expand its mission?

Really, it came out of a lot of conversations with the community. Once we started asking those questions, we said, “We have to better understand our customers, our marketplace.”. . . One of the things that we learned very clearly is that the vast majority—almost 80 percent—of our donors had no transactional history over the last five years with any of the top largest 22 of our arts and cultural organizations. So that caused us to take a step back and say, “What is motivating those folks to give, because they’re not going to the things that we have been traditionally selling?” . . . . We then embarked on a year-long study, that literally involved 500 conversations with citizens around the region about what they value about arts and culture. Beyond the individual consumer appeal, what do they think is valuable about arts and culture to the community?

And the results of all of those conversations and all the research really led to two overriding values that came back to us from the community: people value arts and culture because it creates vibrant neighborhoods—whether the neighborhood is downtown or is a suburban neighborhood. . . . the other one was this really visceral sense that arts and culture bring people together in a way that allows people to share experiences and breaks down barriers. . . . So that’s what really drove our articulation of new goals for the organization. Instead of being very inwardly focused on what are the financial needs, primarily, of our arts organizations, we turned it around and said, “What are the values that we think arts and culture can have for the benefit of the broader community?”

How are you reaching out to a wider audience as you launch ArtsWave?

We had a public engagement event on Sunday [September 26, 2010], where we invited the community to come and help us paint a downtown street to bring vibrancy in a neighborhood . . . We were overwhelmed by the response. A year ago, we did something similar, which was our Splash Dance, where we invited people to participate in a surprise dance on our town square. So this year, we invited five artists to create a design, and that design was actually informed by a community gathering of people from the neighborhood and the broader community to talk with the artists about what they love about the city and what they love about the arts. The artists went away and created a design.

Then, we invited the community to come help us bring that design to life. Without very much marketing at all, this was pretty much word of mouth, we had 1,100 people sign up online to come help us paint. By the end of the day, we had 1,500 people who came, who all wanted to take part in creating this community work of art. That was, to us, a very visible way to demonstrate what we mean about connecting people. Folks came from all over the region. There were young people, there were old people, there were families, we had college sororities, Boys and Girls clubs, people from the neighborhood. It was really one of the most remarkable days I can remember having spent in this community—it was just amazing.

How will you measure increased community impact and economic vitality from the arts?

Well, that’s the next step, frankly. We have outlined our ultimate goals of the kind of impact that we want to have on the community. We have outlined a few specific ideas . . . We believe the arts has the best opportunity to impact things like young people being excited about learning. That neighborhoods are lively and instill pride. That arts bring together people who wouldn’t come together otherwise. But the hard work is still to come and we didn’t want to get too far down that path without engaging the arts and cultural organizations to really help us and to understand, what are the most important things to measure and then to talk amongst ourselves about how do we do it? How do different kinds of organizations measure it at their unique level, so that we can then aggregate that to have a few macro measurements . . . the whole idea of having cascading measures and metrics is really something that the next year’s work is about. . . . But as long as we have that ultimate goal in sight and we all agree that that’s where we want to have the impact, the specifics of how we measure against that will be a work in progress for some time.

Can you share any key lessons from the process?

You cannot overcommunicate. Every time you think you’ve made the case often enough, you understand that it’s still not being heard. That’s only fair—people only listen when it becomes real to them. One of the things that we have learned as a community over the last many years is that there is no substitute for good research. . . So that’s one lesson. Consensus-building takes a lot longer than you think it’s going to when you start. Recognition that changing 60-plus years of stable funding for our core institutions, especially in this economic time, is requiring a longer transition phase than might have been necessary in a different economic environment. Conversely, I think the economic downturn has generated a greater awareness of the need to rethink old models and has, in many ways, helped reinforce the case for change.

We feel really good about the work we’ve done. I have to say Community Wealth Partners has been an extraordinary partner and so when I talk about the value of quality research and consultation, I absolutely put them in that bucket. And their flexibility—we had to change courses a couple times in the process—was incredibly helpful. So in many ways, what is the Churchill line, “This isn’t the end, this isn’t even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.” Now we’re out in the open and we can really roll up our sleeves and do the work.

One of the keys is that you took yourself out of your normal role.

During the course of the six months that I spent being a loaned executive to the cultural partnership work, I got the chance to see the world through other people’s eyes. . . . And it’s amazing what happens if you allow yourself that—I became a complete convert. I did a 180; I thought we were just fine, thank you very much, and that our organizations were our priority. . . . It was sort of a trickle down: if these arts organizations are strong, then that’s a community benefit de facto. I came to learn that the community needs other things and how do we respond to that? That was a big eye-opener for me. . . . As someone said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

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About Community Wealth Partners

At Community Wealth Partners we dream of a world in which all people thrive. To realize this dream, we help change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. As a Share Our Strength organization, we bring the successful practices of one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger, anti-poverty organizations to hundreds of change agents nationwide.

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