Kelli Strickland is the Executive Director of The Hypocrites. She completed the Devos Arts Management Fellowship at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 2013 and returned to Raven Theatre as Executive Director where she had previously served as Director of Education. Kelli has twenty years experience as an arts educator and consultant in program development, program evaluation, and arts learning assessment. Kelli is an instructor at Loyola University in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts.
Hypocrites executive director and PerformInk contributor Kelli Strickland’s musings on performing arts management.
Howlround shared a keynote address delivered by Todd London earlier this month. He was speaking at a convening of arts service organizations and as an aside to another point he said, “For a few years now, arts advocates have been trying to find a way out of the economic arguments we got tangled in, trying to justify arts funding..” In my head I thought, “I know that the work of arts service organizations and advocacy groups is hard and often thankless, but untangle faster please.” One of the more notable contributions to this untangling was the publication of Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art from Theatre Bay Area. That was 2012. Inside our field, we celebrated and talked about this important resource and getting beyond the question of economic impact (although, oh how I wish Chicago had been included).
But the message has not gotten out to sectors besides our own, and too often well-intentioned partners will ask us to demonstrate impact, and quite often they mean economic impact. We can try to prepare ourselves with succinct versions of what intrinsic impact is when we are moving in the worlds outside of the arts, and perhaps we have some bits and bobs of data that we are tracking about our organization’s impact on our neighborhoods. It is not reasonable to expect our partners in government and business to be as hip to these conversations as we are. But neither is it reasonable to expect storefront organizations to have the time, resources or expertise to demonstrate this kind of impact.
‘I’m about 99% sure you don’t have time to do this. Stop stressing yourself out about it.’
I received an email from a fellow administrator asking if she could pick my brain about ways in which she could demonstrate the impact of her company. My initial reaction to small companies asking this question is ‘I’m about 99% sure you don’t have time to do this. Stop stressing yourself out about it.’ Instead, I asked what she hoped to achieve by describing this impact, thinking maybe she meant a word related to ‘impact’ but not actually impact. No, she meant impact.
She had asked the alderman of the ward in which she most frequently produced for some support (non-monetary support, by the way). The alderman’s office came back with the request, ‘It would be useful to know what kind of impact your company has on our ward, for instance economically.’ Let’s get to the heart of this request. The request is to justify the value of this particular company’s art to this particular community by this particular measure – money. It is nutty to think that a one-woman shop running a company with a $150,000 budget is going to have time to develop the surveying methodology to collect this information in any way that is meaningful. More importantly, even if she dropped everything and focused her energies on nothing but this, is that really the best use of her time, as opposed to, you know, making the best art possible?
There are resources available to us about art’s impact and value, some even dedicated to theater specifically (like Counting New Beans). The National Endowment for the Arts and The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis teamed up to produce the findings in “The Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (ACPSA)“. Americans for the Arts published the report Arts & Economic Prosperity and with support from the Illinois Arts Alliance there is at least Illinois-specific data. From a big-picture perspective, the excellent blog Jumper is a place to stay current on this conversation as it evolves and to contemplate how it relates to us.
Storefront is the difference in Chicago being a city with some great theaters, to a Theater City.
But…when you think about the resources that go into this kind of advocacy work and conducting the necessary research to support it, it becomes clear that defending our value in this way can’t be our jobs. Off and on I have heard rumblings that something might be done to study Chicago theater specifically. And wouldn’t it be great if storefront was broken out as a category and we had some cold hard facts about what our companies do for our neighbors and neighborhoods, both business and residential? Too often when outside eyes look at this data for the nation or even state, they think it really refers to our LORT or top CAT contract houses. They don’t recognize the storefront movement as having a collective impact. There is not an imprimatur, third-party endorsement saying ‘Storefront is the difference in Chicago being a city with some great theaters, to a Theater City.’
The question of impact is complicated and requires ongoing data collection and analysis. It’s not as simple as adding a question to your follow-up email of attendees from this past weekend if they had dinner before or after your play and where they ate. Of course, you can do that. But to what end? There is abundant evidence to support the fact that arts organizations are good for communities. And if someone is genuinely curious about how the arts fit into the ecosystem of healthy, thriving communities I bet they would enjoy reading about how important our sector is from any of these resources. Yes, we need to advocate for ourselves. But our advocacy would be most compelling if it represented the collective impact of storefront on our city.