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Strengthening U.S. Cities with Management Training for Small and Midsized Cultural Organizations

Q&A with Ethan Joseph, Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts Team Member

Small and midsized cultural organizations are essential to the vibrancy of U.S. cities, but there are very few training programs specifically for the leaders of these institutions, which range from museums and community arts centers, to ensembles and interdisciplinary festivals. These institutions provide access to diverse and enriching cultural experiences, arts-related social services, and support for creatives to develop skills and innovate.  They also face unique management challenges – and opportunities.

The Arts Innovation and Management (AIM) program – which was piloted in New York City in 2011 before being launched nationally – is invitation-only and provides unrestricted grants and management seminars for leaders in a wide range of organizations.  To date, AIM has supported nearly 800 small and midsized cultural institutions in 14 cities across the country.

Leaders in the latest cohort of AIM cities – Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. – are participating in seminars and collaborative discussions with industry leading experts and peers on topics including artistic planning, board engagement, marketing and social media strategy, fundraising, and real estate and facilities planning.

We recently sat down with Ethan Joseph, a member of the Arts team at Bloomberg Philanthropies, to learn more about the management seminars and how AIM empowers cultural organizations.

How has your background shaped the way that you approach your work with AIM?

I’ve spent most of my professional life working for, or supporting, small and midsized arts organizations so I know how important they are to the cultural ecosystem.  I also deeply appreciate the challenges the leaders of these organizations face to operate sustainable businesses.  When I was a fundraiser at New Music USA, a midsized grant-making and media organization, I experienced the massive impact individual artists and small ensembles have in the music world.

Later, as head of client services at Spektrix, a ticketing and customer relationship management software company, I saw how small organizations could grow revenue and increase efficiency through smart approaches to staff structure, audience engagement, and technology.

These experiences have taught me that while there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach in any business, including nonprofit arts and culture, there are fundamental principles that can help executives and board members advance their organizations when employed with discipline.

Why does the AIM program specifically target small- and midsized organizations?

Our founder Mike Bloomberg is interested in small and midsized organizations because of the powerful work they do strengthening communities.  They are a platform for artists and audiences to explore new ideas and cultures, while also fostering connections within and between neighborhoods. Because of this, they are often significant local anchors.

Despite this impact, small and midsized organizations are often overlooked for individual and institutional support in comparison with their larger peers. Bloomberg Philanthropies developed AIM to invest in the arts and cultural sectors, bringing proven management expertise to support the sustainability and raise the profile of these organizations that are central to the vitality of the cities where they’re based.

What is some of the management advice provided for arts administrators during the AIM seminars?

Healthy arts and cultural organizations prioritize bold programming.  But smaller organizations don’t always give themselves a long enough timeframe to effectively plan and gather resources. Our partners at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management ask AIM participants to work on three-to-five-year programming plans, with time to build partnerships and secure funding.

We’ve already seen this succeed for the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh, which recently secured a $100,000 gift from the Warhol Foundation for their programs after extending their planning timeframe and thinking through where they wanted to be as an organization in the coming years.  Similarly, Opera Colorado brought their new 5-year artistic plan to a supporter who, upon seeing the vision, increased funding tenfold with a $1 million gift.

The AIM curriculum also helps participants think about effective institutional marketing.  Unlike marketing designed to sell tickets or memberships, the goal of institutional marketing is to elevate an organization amongst key stakeholders including prospective partners and donors, as well as the general public.

This can take many forms and is often completely free or low cost.  For example, during January’s federal government shutdown, the Washington Improv Theater (WIT), offered free daytime improv classes to furloughed government employees seeking a creative outlet.  The theater garnered its first-ever major media attention for showing how the cultural sector can bring people together.

In New Orleans, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music invited Apple CEO Tim Cook to stop by after his Tulane commencement speech, which resulted in Cook’s appreciative tweet, “Love seeing the gumbo of arts, learning and technology at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music where community becomes family.”

Similarly, this fall, Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company (Atlanta, GA) collaborated with artEquity to host the 5th Annual National Facilitator Training, which convenes arts and culture leaders from across the country.  The partnership brings attention to True Colors’ core work at “the intersection of artistic excellence and civic engagement,” as their artistic director Jamil Jude put it.  This kind of partnership and attention ultimately helps organizations excite current stakeholders and reach new ones.

What is the biggest piece of advice for nonprofits, particularly those who may not be in the AIM program?

Find ways to engage board members.  Board members bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to small and midsized cultural organizations but often need guidance and tools to be effective.  That’s why we highly encourage board members to attend AIM seminars.  In fact, in the current cohort, over 30 percent (400) of AIM seminar attendees this year are board members.  One simple way to engage board members is to start board meetings by sharing recent highlights or even invite an artist to present or perform. Putting the creative work front and center is exciting and also gives board members compelling stories they can share with other potential donors and partners.