John Eger is a favorite read of mine–and a visionary in seeing the big pictures of society, education, creativity and the economy. Great Article.
An insightful article by Emily Badger of the NYT.
Ian is a serial entrepreneur with a strong track record for envisioning and implementing creative solutions to longstanding problems. In addition to Createquity, his successful ventures include the Cultural Research Network, an open resource-sharing forum for self-identified researchers in the arts that serves hundreds of members worldwide; and C4: The Composer/Conductor Collective in 2005, the first organization of its kind and the largest chorus exclusively singing music from the past 25 years. Ian has been named one of the top leaders in the nonprofit arts sector six times in an annual nationwide poll of arts administrators, and is in demand as a writer, editor, speaker, grant panelist, consultant, and guest lecturer. He holds BA and MBA degrees from Yale University and is based in Washington, DC.
Barry: You started Createquity as an arts blog. Because of the depth and scope of the issues you covered in its earliest iteration, and because you quickly gained the reputation of someone who went the extra mile in intelligent preparation and execution of your positions on the important issues, it rapidly gained the attention and respect of the field. Over the years, it has grown from being a blog to something much, much larger. And now you’ve announced that you intend to shut it down. Walk me through the most critical milestones in its transformation, and why you’ve decided to close the shop?
Ian: I had very modest ambitions for Createquity when I started it a decade ago as a first-year student in business school. The most frequent commenters in the early days were my girlfriend (now my wife) and my dad. It’s pretty funny now to take a look back at some of those early posts; they don’t fit the tone of the site today at all!
Createquity’s growth began in earnest in the spring of 2009. I was finishing up my MBA degree, and I’d arranged to do an independent study on arts policy for which I assigned myself blog posts to write and publish on the site. Around the same time, some of my posts began getting picked up by You’ve Cott Mail, ArtsJournal, and other syndicators, which brought Createquity a new audience of arts administrators who I didn’t know. That fall, I got invited to be the official blogger for the Grantmakers in the Arts conference, the first time they’d had such a role, and that’s when Createquity started to reach people in the grantmaking community.
This pattern of gradually increasing scope and ambition continued for several years. I wanted to publish content more frequently and get more voices into the mix, so in 2011, I set up the Createquity Writing Fellowship, which was the first formal opportunity for people other than me to contribute to the conversation. In 2013, I invited Talia Gibas, who was one of our star alums of the Writing Fellowship program, and Daniel Reid, a friend from grad school, to join me as part of an expanded editorial team. The biggest change, though, was in 2014 when we decided to relaunch Createquity as more of a research organization and a think tank. That summer, we redesigned the website, doubled the size of the editorial team (which subsequently doubled again), started raising money and paying our people for the first time, and began to take a much more strategic approach toward understanding the arts sector and considering what we could do to advance the conversation.
The past three years of running Createquity in this new incarnation have been both exhilarating and exhausting. When I started Createquity, it was very much a hobby, just a fun side project for me. It had long since ceased being that. I was more passionate about the work we were doing than ever before, but it was unquestionably work. Our editorial team had grown to encompass as many as 12 paid contributors (including four team leaders leading distinct function areas) and 25 volunteers. I was personally regularly spending upwards of 30 hours a week on the project, and some team members weren’t far behind me. In order to continue, we needed to resource Createquity at a different level, at least temporarily. We developed what I thought was a great plan to do that as part of a business planning process we completed with an external consultant in 2016. Unfortunately, despite a huge push on the part of many people, we weren’t able to secure the leadership support that was needed to get that initiative off the ground. That left us no choice but to shut down.
Barry: You positioned Createquity as a 21st Century Arts Think Tank. Was it your ambition to move Createquity into the role of traditional Think Tanks by increasingly being the public face of arts policy, or the go-to entity when the media want an authoritative perspective on issues that impact the arts and society? Now that Createquity is ending its run, what might fill that vacuum?
Ian: When Createquity relaunched in 2014, we called ourselves a think tank in all of our fundraising and organizational identity materials, and we were dead serious about doing so. I wasn’t necessarily looking to turn Createquity into a traditional, bricks-and-mortar think tank that would become my and others’ full-time job, but over time it became clear that we would need to build up at least some organizational infrastructure if we were going to accomplish our long-term objectives. Research syntheses are time-consuming – our initial projects each took hundreds of hours on the part of the team to pull off – and that’s just very hard to manage on a budget that’s less than what I got paid to stuff envelopes in my first post-college gig.
With Createquity ending its run, as you noted, the vacuum persists. Indeed, there is a long and formidable history of failed think tanks in the arts. From the Center for Arts and Culture at Georgetown in the 1990s to the policy institute that Pew tried to get off the ground in the early 2000s, to more recent efforts like CPANDA at Princeton and the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago until recently. There have also been efforts to integrate arts into existing cross-issue think tanks, like the Urban Institute, Brookings, and RAND. All of these efforts put out some valuable work, but ultimately couldn’t be sustained.
I’d say some reflection on the arts field’s chronic inability to support high-quality knowledge-building is warranted. Think tanks themselves are not inherently unsustainable. If you look beyond the arts, there are some think tanks out there that rake in contributions or have tremendous endowments. But in our field we have not been able to make these efforts stick.
Why is that? It’s an important question to ask. It’s not that we don’t have the resources. As a sector, we regularly raise hundreds of millions of dollars to enable a single arts institution to build a single fancy building. But it’s basically impossible to scrape together even 1% of that total to study whether building fancy buildings is among the best uses of philanthropic dollars.
It’s a real problem, and one that makes me concerned for the sector. And unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to get solved until we make some changes to how and what research gets funded. Any arts think tank’s product is going to be too niche to be supported by small donations, ads, or subscriber fees. So it really is up to the funders to step up and take a leadership role. And the combination of geographic restrictions and aversion to long-term general operating support among that base make these sorts of field-building initiatives very difficult to capitalize.
Barry: Two of our long standing, and deeply entrenched sacrosanct funding categories have been capital campaigns for anchor buildings, and support for big budget major city cultural organizations (primarily what we have been calling white Euro-centric discipline organizations). How does the field get foundations (and their decision making boards) and deep pocket patrons, to transition from that legacy to fund other kinds of projects, including those of benefit to the entire field?
Ian: You’re absolutely right to focus on the board members and donors – that’s where the buck stops (or starts, to be more accurate) in all of these conversations. One thing I’d like to see is more engagement of foundation board members and individual donors in spaces where field needs are discussed, like the Grantmakers in the Arts annual conference. A couple of years ago I attended a session at GIA that was specially designed for those audiences, and it was great. A number of the folks who attended have continued to stay involved with GIA in subsequent years. Another effort that could make a difference is bringing these conversations to the rare spaces where individual donors and family foundation board members congregate, like the Exponent Philanthropy conference. A third strategy could be to encourage arts institutions with strong donor bases to hold donor salons about the health of the arts field, with the goal of getting more individual major donors engaged in national conversations. That would actually be an interesting fieldbuilding strategy for a foundation to subsidize.
Barry: One of the tasks Createquity has taken on is to identify and research the major issues facing the nonprofit arts sector. Can you outline, in your thinking, what those major issues are today? And what growing issues of concern are likely to dominate our efforts in the future?
Ian: The issue that’s dominant right now is racial and cultural equity in the arts. It’s been a focus topic at field gatherings and such for a long time, but in the past 5-6 years the level of interest and concern has just exploded. Now, diversity, inclusion, and equity issues are almost guaranteed to be on the table in every national convening, every strategic plan, every executive search, and increasingly in professional development workshops offered to arts organizations. What’s been really striking to me is that whereas equity, race, and social justice conversations used to sort of have their own silo that existed alongside other silos like creative placemaking, research, specific disciplines, etc., now equity is more likely to be a global lens applied across all of those silos. So, for example, if you talk about creative placemaking now you’re expected to consider gentrification and displacement, and that is a huge change from when the placemaking conversation was getting started back in 2011 or so. In addition, a number of the major discipline-specific national conferences (League of American Orchestras, American Alliance of Museums, etc.) had equity as the organizing theme in 2016, 2017, or both.
These are important and necessary conversations, and finding solutions to these challenges is long overdue. That said, in focusing on one issue you inevitably push others to the side, and there are some other topics that I’d argue deserve attention as well. For example, Createquity’s research has uncovered strong reasons to believe that age and health should be a focus for the field. Some of the strongest evidence we have shows that the benefits of arts participation are particularly relevant to older adults.Participatory activities like singing, in particular, help to reduce anxiety and depression, improve subjective wellbeing, and even fend off the onset of dementia. And when it comes to attendance, according to the NEA’s research, nearly a quarter of adults aged 55 and older in persistent poor health were interested in going to an exhibit or performance in the past year but could not, which is a greater percentage than any other demographic examined in the report. And if you narrow the dataset to retirees in poor health who live alone, the proportion goes up to 36%! So there’s actually a very clear research-based case to make for programs to benefit older adults through the arts, but I know of very few programs and funding initiatives with that focus.
Looking forward, I believe a major issue on the horizon will be how artificial intelligence changes the game for the arts. I believe that AI has the potential to wreak societal havoc in the coming decades on a scale we’ve rarely if ever seen. The implications for the arts sector go far beyond whether computers will be able to write commercial jingles or poetry, or whether we can tell Siri to book our theater tickets for us. If automation ends up decimating the pool of jobs available to humans, as many analysts predict, what will people do with their time? Already, there’s a trend of unemployed young men not bothering to look for work because they’d rather stay home and play video games. Art has the potential to be a huge force for inspiration, malaise, or both in that environment. And that’s not even to mention the doomsday scenarios where AI becomes an existential threat to humanity’s existence. While keeping a laser focus on the political situation right now is tempting and totally understandable, there’s a risk that in doing so we are ignoring the proverbial White Walkers coming in from the North.
Barry: You are probably most identified with arts research, data collection, evaluation processes and the application of logic models to our issues, and that was your long time role with Fractured Atlas. Make the case for that research as critical to the nonprofit arts solving the various challenges it faces.
Ian: My thesis is simple: knowledge is power. Why not put that power to work for all of us? There are many components to a good decision, but arguably the most critical is information. We make decisions all the time with limited, incomplete, biased information. Some of those decisions carry millions of dollars at stake. Some of those decisions affect thousands of people. Research can never give us perfect information, but it can help us avoid wasting precious resources and spot under-the-radar opportunities to make a difference. The methods, the tools, the ideas, the research are all there – why not use them?
Barry: While there is a far more robust and active research contingent in our field now than even a decade or so ago, still the average arts administrator at our organizations has precious little time to review, assimilate and even consider the increasing research that is out there. You’re on record as arguing for the role of research in intelligent decision making. What would you advise our legions of administrators adapt in their approach to understanding, appreciating and utilizing the expanding knowledge base of research and data in doing their daily jobs? How can we make research and data knowledge work better for our people and go beyond the concern of wonks?
Ian: I believe that the system for knowledge production and consumption in the arts is fundamentally broken. A growing body of evidence, including the study you did last year, suggests that arts leaders are finding it impossible to keep up with the enormous flow of information cascading over them and need strong, trusted filters to help make sense of it all. The irony of funders directly or indirectly commissioning hundreds of new research studies about the arts every year, yet declining to support interventions that would help ensure that research actually gets read and used, is pretty strange to see.
I think it’s too much to expect rank-and-file administrators to keep on top of all the relevant research coming out. That’s, frankly, more than a full-time job on its own, and arts administrators are already overworked and underpaid as it is. That’s why it’s so important to have a functioning infrastructure for curating, interpreting, and translating research into actionable advice for practitioners. Knowledge is a public good; we don’t need to ask everyone to duplicate this work in their own silos a thousand times over. But the infrastructure to centralize the process basically doesn’t exist at all right now.
The good news is that this is an easy problem to solve if we can just muster the will to act. If nothing else, our experiences with Createquity demonstrated that there is an enormous pool of talent out there eager to participate in the process of building knowledge, and it’s possible to organize that talent in an extremely cost-efficient manner, relatively speaking. Furthermore, formal methodologies for research synthesis have been advancing rapidly in other areas of the social sector, so there is no need for us to reinvent the wheel. Again, we have everything we need – what’s stopping us?
Barry: Speaking of arts research in general, what are the major areas in which the sector needs to continue to expand its efforts, and which areas have we yet to be as fully involved as you think we need to be? Backup question: is there any area which has been overdone and hasn’t been all that productive?
Ian: My basic take on arts research is that we’re doing a good job with the research that’s inherently easy, and crapping the bed when it comes to the research that’s inherently hard. There’s a lot of really good work that’s been done on the benefits of the arts, for example, and the best-quality research has concentrated in environments where isolated variables are relatively easier to control, such as medical settings.
I think the biggest area of growth for the sector is to invest in more research that is designed to influence decision-making rather than research to support advocacy. The reason we have so much research on the benefits of the arts is because arts practitioners believe that their work matters, and so whenever they have the chance they commission research that they hope will make their case to the folks who control the purse-strings. There’s certainly a role for that kind of knowledge, but if it’s the only thing we invest in, it leaves almost completely open the question of what we should do with the resources once we have them. I’m much more interested in the latter question, personally. But the research that exists doesn’t give us that much in the way of guidance.
That’s partly because, as a field, we haven’t invested deeply enough in articulating what exactly we’re trying to accomplish by supporting the arts and how each organization fits in to the bigger picture. That’s something we tried to address at Createquity by developing a definition of a healthy arts ecosystem. Our healthy arts ecosystem definition isn’t just a bunch of platitudes; it gets specific about what kinds of opportunities should be available to whom and under what circumstances, and is realistic about the tradeoffs that become necessary in a resource-constrained environment (i.e., every environment that has existed ever). I’ve also argued for integrating support for the arts into a foundation’s broader strategic priorities rather than leaving it in its own silo.
Overall, my sense is that the vast majority of arts research is not very valuable, but the most valuable research is often very expensive to conduct. I’d like to see the sector be willing to invest in bigger, more ambitious projects, even if it means doing less research overall.
Barry: Equity, and the attendant issues of social justice in the face of structural racism and white privilege, have dominated the discussion of the arts as well as elsewhere over the past couple of years. Assess our progress in dealing with the issues within our insular world, in light of Helicon’s recent update showing absolutely no change in funding allocation. What do we need to do in the short term to advance equity and break down and eliminate structural racism?
Ian: I think the first thing we need to do is get clear on what counts as success. I know that for many, it seems self-evident that the goal is to redistribute funding from white-led institutions to organizations led by people of color. But that agenda has unclear implications for the Misty Copelands, Yo-Yo Mas, and Gustavo Dudamels of the world who are artists of color working primarily with white-led institutions in art forms with European roots. If we try to use money as an incentive to push white-led institutions to diversify their boards, staff, and programming, which is one of the suggestions coming out of the New York City cultural plan for example, then that slows the push toward broader redistribution. And then, of course, there are some cultural practices rooted in communities of color that exist outside of the frame of capitalism and monetary exchange, so more funding—especially if it comes from white wealth with forms to fill out and strings attached—isn’t necessarily what anyone wants. Createquity wrote a long piece last year about these different paradigms for cultural equity. There are very real tensions between these visions that almost always go unacknowledged in public debates. I would love to see the sector start to get more sophisticated about articulating exactly what the priorities are and what an arts world without structural racism looks like in practice.
Barry: In addition to the creation of Createquity, you also launched the Cultural Research Network (CRN), a now global aggregation of a large portion of the nonprofit arts research sector. This is another major accomplishment, as this network is now an authoritative, active intersection of a veritable who’s who of people doing research in the nonprofit arts field – and, as a group, they use CRN as a major communications tool. Walk me through the milestone developments of its launch to its current status.
Ian: CRN started out as part of a cultural asset mapping initiative I led with support from the Hewlett Foundation right after I graduated from business school. I knew there were other people out there who had developed cultural asset maps, and I thought it would be fun and useful to convene them virtually as part of a knowledge-sharing network. I was able to get a bunch of great people to sign on to join, but usage was very light for the first couple of years. After a while I realized this was because, even though the network didn’t have my or Hewlett’s name attached to it, people still saw it as my project and would only participate when I prompted them to. To get around this challenge, I broadened the scope of the network to include all self-identified cultural researchers and started recruiting other folks to take ownership of the community with me. Kiley Arroyo was my chief co-conspirator for this phase and contributed a lot of time and energy to the cause. We were eventually joined by Andrew Taylor, Jean Cook, and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, who together with Kiley and me became the original steering committee for the network.
I’ve launched several social ventures in my career, and this is the second one where I intentionally made myself superfluous almost from the get-go. Of everything about CRN, I’m proudest of the fact that after two and a half years on the steering committee, I was able to relinquish all leadership responsibility and watch the network go on to thrive without me. There’s an article of faith among many philanthropists that you need to invest in strong leaders. And I think it’s true that a strong leader can have a great impact over a short period of time. But I have to say that in my experience, the ventures that end up being most resilient are the ones where the center of gravity is a compelling idea, not a charismatic individual.
Barry: Arts philanthropy, if it wants to have the maximum impact and maximize the value of the arts, absolutely must_________________________________________ over the next five years. Fill in the blank.
Ian: Be more willing to think beyond narrow, local concerns.
You thought I was going to say something about research and data, right? I certainly think that’s an important piece of the solution, but just investing more in research without solving the problem above won’t get us anywhere. We need to coordinate (not just collaborate) more, act proactively to fill gaps, and free our organizations as much as possible from the ongoing constraints of decisions that were made decades ago and are no longer relevant to today’s world. Once we’ve conquered that issue, then more investment in research will really be able to make an impact.
Barry: In advocacy and lobbying, research and data have proven to be one effective tool as we make the case for our value. Yet many people in the field decry reliance on the economic or other practical arguments for our value, and instead believe that we ought to be emphasizing instead the intangible and intrinsic value of the arts to individuals and society. Still others argue for a balance. Where are you in this ongoing debate?
Ian: Createquity’s take is basically that the intrinsic vs. instrumental dichotomy is overblown. We instead use a framework of wellbeing (or quality of life) that is inclusive of both. The basic idea of wellbeing is that there are certain components to the kind of life that everyone deserves. Those include, depending on the specific definition, things like having a decent standard of living, access to education, and social connections, but also sources of pleasure and delight. What matters at the end of the day is how satisfied you are with your life – whether the arts contribute to that directly or indirectly is beside the point. More important is to have a realistic understanding of what the benefits of the arts actually are, as demonstrated by the evidence.
Barry: But isn’t the danger that the arts – as one source of wellbeing – are regarded by some as less important than other sources of wellbeing (economic security for example), and that as such the arts (as they have long been regarded) are seen as a luxury that is a non-essential. How do we deal with the overarching bias and prejudice against the value of the arts being equal to other values?
Ian: Is that really a danger? If the arts are not as critical a component to happiness and life satisfaction as economic security, then I think it’s justified to focus more on economic security. Especially if having more economic security will help people make choices about how they want to spend their time, like, say, buying tickets to arts events.
I’m confident that no matter what happens to public funding sources and the professional nonprofit arts field, the arts will live on. They always have. But too often in our field’s research, we’ve asked the question “what is the value that the arts provide to society?” when the more useful question is “what is the value provided to society by subsidizing nonprofit arts organizations?” Because the reality is that we couldn’t get rid of the arts even if we wanted to.
Barry: What is next for you?
Ian: Thanks for asking. Earlier this year, I left my job at Fractured Atlas and set up a consultancy working with funders and related organizations at the intersection of knowledge and strategy. I offer services including theory of change, evaluation planning, research synthesis, strategic decision-making workshops, and a new Decision Doctor service. I’m also exploring a few full-time opportunities with the same audience.
I’ve been interested in how resources get allocated in the social sector for a long time. One thing I’ve begun to notice is that there are all these interesting schools of thought about strategy and effective decision-making from different fields, but there’s very little overlap or communication among the practitioners in those fields. So I’m in the process of devising a unified framework for leveraging knowledge for impact that can work regardless of whether you’re in a foundation, government or investing environment. It’s an interdisciplinary approach that takes inspiration and insights from the corporate world, the international development community, Washington policy wonks, cognitive psychology, and the rationalist community (yes, that is a thing), among others. That’s one of the major things I’m planning to write about over the next year and beyond.
Thank you Ian.
Have a great week.