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The Challenge for Arts Organizations

Two people looking at painting in museum

Rosa Raarup and Lauren White

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a substantial blow to the creative and performing arts industries. With theaters, galleries, and museums sitting empty for months, artists and arts leaders grappled with the loss of income, funding, and layoffs. Some smaller organizations were already in trouble; the pandemic simply magnified their problems.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, when beautiful murals began appearing on store fronts and walls across south Minneapolis, the role of the arts and nonprofits began to pop up in the conversation about social justice. Whose art matters? Who profits? While incremental progress is being made, there is still much work to be done.

So, is there cause to be optimistic about the arts and nonprofit arena? In many respects, yes. We talked to two recent Arts and Cultural Leadership graduates about their timely capstone research project: How do small community-based arts nonprofits in the Twin Cities struggle or flourish?

Rosa Raarup, Visitor Services Specialist for Performing Arts, Walker Art Center
Rosa studied theater arts as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, with a focus on applied drama and social change. Her Arts and Cultural Leadership degree had a museum studies focus.

Lauren White, Assistant Director of Leadership Gifts, Augsburg University
Lauren has a bachelor of arts in Individualized Studies at the University of Minnesota, with a concentration in journalism, art, and global studies.

What can smaller nonprofit arts organizations do to thrive and stay alive in today’s climate?

Rosa Raarup
Rosa Raarup

Rosa: I believe the three main pillars of success that we highlighted in our capstone would stay the same today (staying true to your mission, having effective leadership, and optimizing external resources). What smaller arts nonprofits have going for them is that they are very nimble and can react. They should make sure they also have strong leadership and that they can react quickly, but it’s still important that whatever the organization is doing, they need to stay true to their mission. 

Lauren: Focusing on core external resources is key. Look at who your core constituents and supporters are that you can count on at this time to make sure you can stay around, even if that means adjustments. Working in philanthropy right now, I see that people are still being generous: there are people still giving money. If you have those strong relationships you can make the argument and make an ask (for time, money, support etc.).

Rosa: People are also more willing to volunteer right now. They have the time and the desire. I’ve also been seeing projects, smaller grants, and different programs pop up that organizations have put together in response to racial justice and current COVID issues.

What are your thoughts on arts organizations’ role in the healing process and social justice? Even if that’s not part of their mission?

Lauren: Every organization, no matter their mission, should care about racial justice. It doesn’t have to be an explicit part of your mission. Every nonprofit (particularly white-led) should look closely at their internal and external policies, practices, and culture, and work toward justice and equity. 

Rosa: A lot of vision or value statements touch on ideas of valuing the community, or of seeing the importance of community. In the Heart of the Beast Theatre created a food donation site. This tied into our mission because it was about the neighborhood and the people we care about. It addressed a need that was already present and could potentially be ongoing. (Ed. note: Rosa is on the board of In the Heart of the Beast Theater.) 

"Every organization, no matter their mission, should care about racial justice."
— Lauren White, ACL Graduate

Lauren: Organizations can say, this is our position in our community: we have a connection to these groups of people. What do we want to do about that right now, how do we leverage that?

Rosa: I also saw that Ten Thousand Things Theater is interviewing people in correctional and long-term care facilities about isolation. The stories will be read later in the summer. It’s not what they normally do, but it’s what they can do now. It’s relevant.

What other organizations are coming up with creative ways to express the times right now?

Rosa: In the Heart of the Beast is doing a small grant program called the Possibility Project inspired by a poem by Roy McBride. It explores the possibility of now.

Lauren White
Lauren White

Lauren: Stuff is happening all over—we could never keep track of it all or name them all here! Since (the death of) George Floyd, a lot of people rushed to participate, but I think some harm was done when non-Black artists took up space. That can be problematic. Pillsbury House and Theatre artists have been working on cloth murals and signs that they’ve put in their windows and made available around the city at actions and protests. Seward Coop hired teams of BIPOC artists to paint their murals on both stores. Seitu Jones made the blue George Floyd stencil free to download. That healing and art connection is still going on to this day. These are just a few examples. 

A lot of people have been talking about archiving the murals.

Rosa: The Walker has been getting calls about archiving the murals. But they are not taking any of the art. The Walker is here as a resource to work with community members about preservation, but they are not working to collect any of the murals. 

Lauren: It isn’t right for a large, white-led organization to take ownership and make money from them.

What is the role of the arts as an agent of change?

Lauren: That is one of my fundamental beliefs: that it does play an important role. Art, particularly art like the murals we've been talking about, can spark or be a catalyst for a conversation that people may not otherwise have.

What about ongoing? How can arts organizations maintain the momentum?

Rosa: It’s important to always be asking the big questions in art spaces, even if you don't have answers. Go out there and challenge the status quo. Theater is a super powerful art form: you can be immersed in a world in such a unique way. There is a real opportunity to highlight and teach through theater. Everything arts organizations are doing should be tying into racial justice issues, highlighting systemic issues.

"It’s important to always be asking the big questions in art spaces, even if you don't have answers."
— Rosa Raarup, ACL Graduate

Lauren: The serious cracks we've seen (in housing, health care, child care, etc.) exposed through COVID-19 are connected to racial and economic inequality. These things are not separate. I hope that people won’t just go back to business as usual. Keep fighting, keep asking questions. Artists and smaller community-based arts organizations tend to be more on the side of social justice. I hope that those are the types of organizations that people want to support with their dollars and time, especially Black-owned businesses.

Are larger organizations staying middle of the road?

Rosa: More organizations are taking a stand than usual. What is happening internally is more interesting, though. What is happening within the organization? You can say whatever you want externally, but I also think larger organizations have to do the internal work. In our findings, the idea of a council or advisory board with BIPOC could help an organization. A council can help guide an organization internally, help them examine the systemic issues. There should also be diversity in the leadership and staff. Having more people, more diverse people, at the table is always vital. Large organizations can afford to do that, especially around social justice issues or programming.

Three students on stage rehearsing a play

Lauren: More organizations are stepping up to say something. That’s awesome… and? What else? What about hiring, promotion, salary, benefits: real structural change? I think more so than ever before, Gen Z wants to know: who are you, who are you aligned with, where does your money come from/go? More people are asking these kinds of questions before they support something. It can be hard for small arts organizations because they struggle with having the time or resources to make significant changes, even though they want to. But people are losing patience with that excuse. I think you have to start somewhere and keep working.

Rosa: People want transparency. They want to feel comfortable supporting an organization, small or big. A lot of smaller organizations can act quickly, but it’s so important that people are listening and communicating with the leaders in the moment/movement. It’s also important to not act with too much urgency. We don’t have to do all of the work right way, but we do need to acknowledge it and start moving.

Lauren: A lot of the work is about relationship-building, which takes time. So those who haven’t been doing that, the spotlight is on them now. You don't need to hire a consultant: ask the people who already know your organization. Where can you make strides? Are there other under-represented communities—people with disabilities, LGBTQIA, age, geographic location—that you can start to build relationships with?

Rosa: In the Heart of the Beast is doing work to diversify their staff and board. They have also made sure to really listen to their key constituents and supporters and to understand their feelings. It’s important to work with the people that already support you.

What advice would you give prospective ACL students?

Woman speaking at a meeting with a colleague listening

Lauren: Just like my undergrad degree, just like HECUA (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs), this degree is what you make of it. I went into it wanting to grow my network in the Twin Cities arts community, and get more experience and skills in nonprofit management. I think I got both of those. I thought about it a lot before applying, and then I focused on those two aspects when I was picking courses. I also kept in touch with guest speakers and instructors. Understand why you're doing it, what you are hoping to get out of it, and talk to other students and Tom (Borrup, director of graduate studies) along the way

Rosa: It is what you put into it. I also went into it for the connections. I was just a little stuck and wanted a next step. It was a good place for connections and to learn more about the Minneapolis nonprofit art world. You have to take initiative and take charge of your education and understand that your hand isn’t going to be held the whole time. 

 

Rosa Raarup is a recipient of the Ceil T. Victor Scholarship. Lauren White is a recipient of the Remington Scholarship and the Ingrid Lenz Harrison Scholarship.