The arts need radical collaboration to thrive in an uncertain and chaotic world. I learned this lesson when I started a grassroots non-profit arts organization just a few months after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020.
Throughout the past two years I’ve watched arts organizations respond to major sector changes in program delivery, funding and staffing. Like folks in other industries, I think the pandemic made us feel like we were swimming against the current, just trying to stay afloat.
Throughout the crisis I saw organizations use a variety of methods to continue operating, and noted that the most successful tool we can use going forward is our ability to collaborate and leverage our shared resources.
The organizations who came together during COVID seem to have made it out alive, yet strangely, this phenomenon of strategic collaboration isn’t well adopted in the arts and culture sector. Despite the fact that we’re underfunded and always expected to deliver more with less, collaboration between nonprofit arts organizations isn’t often used to its full advantage (COVID or not).
What’s weirder is that we’re not just not collaborating, but we’ve actually increased competition for resources. For example, “In the 1950s, the Canada Council for the Arts funded just 29 arts organizations (Canada Council for the Arts, 2001). Its 2017-2018 annual report noted that it funded 2,244 organizations and groups in those years.” SOURCE
In 70 years, we’ve increased the competition for Canada Council for the Arts grants by 77 times.
There are likely many very good reasons for the increase in arts organizations, such as serving a broader and more diverse range of needs; offering more grassroots and accessible services; delivering culture through new mediums and technology. Not to mention the positive increase in Indigenous-led arts organizations and groups that serve equity-deserving communities. Those certainly didn’t exist in 1950, but are a critical component of our arts sector.
Yet the reality is that with growing competition for the same pool of resources, we need to adapt and innovate as a sector. So what’s the solution? If we don’t want to lose the important diversity and range of arts organizations that have been developed in the past 70 years, where do we go from here?
"When you've reached the top, send the elevator back down for the others.” Edith Piaf
While total resources are limited within the arts sector, they’re also poorly distributed. The largest organizations receive the most amount of funding - which at the onset would seem to make a lot of sense, but when you consider that mid-sized organizations often receive anywhere from 15 to 20 times less funding than major institutions, we’re talking about serious inequality and inequity of funding allocation.
The current funding model perpetuates large institutions staying at the top of the funding ladder, while smaller and grassroots organizations can barely reach the first rung. The irony of this model is that often small organizations are the ones delivering the most impact within a community and can have the broadest reach within a local area.
Partnerships across organizations of all sizes help redistribute financial resources, share and transfer skills, and deepen relationships to the local community.
Beside basic collaboration, what could working together in the arts sector look like?
Shared infrastructure models
With sky-rocketing real estate prices in most Western Canadian cities, the arts need to get real, real fast about the dismal reality of physical space moving forward.
We need to reimagine what physical infrastructure for the arts looks like and transition towards a “hub” or “timeshare” model where multiple organizations occupy or have access to a space. This model is a great example.
Mapping existing infrastructure is the first step in creating a more interconnected and collaborative system.
Sharing grant opportunities / collaborating on grants
We need to make it easy to collaborate across organizations and one way to do this would be to create a centralized “job board” for collaborative opportunities within arts organizations.
For example, if I write a grant to deliver an art therapy program, but don’t have internal resources to carry this out, I should be able to post that opportunity on an Island-wide “job board” for other organizations to view and connect on.
Connecting with all the arts organizations on Vancouver Island will help us develop tools like shared job boards, event calendars and Island-wide opportunities.
Shared human resources and services
Instead of each arts organization working as a distinct nonprofit organization with its own bookkeeper, social media manager, and administrators, wouldn’t it be incredible if we could share talented employees and services across the Island?
This question is particularly important in light of the disparity of resources distributed amongst arts organizations. While some would argue that the granting process is “equal,” in that all organizations write the same grant application, it quickly becomes an inequitable process when you think of large organizations with dedicated grant writers on staff competing for the same grants as small organizations with a volunteer writing their application.
This model would look like having a centralized service provider or resource hubs spread throughout the Island that organizations could access for a reasonable fee. The resource hub(s) could support marketing, grant writing, annual report filing, bookkeeping and many other administrative functions that each and every nonprofit arts organization performs.
All of these ideas are directly taken from or inspired by the work of the Creative Coast arts ecosystem. I hope you’ll consider joining us on this adventure in radical collaboration as we build an inter-connective and supportive arts environment across Vancouver Island.