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Between Desire and Demand

Of all the foundations that have changed the discourse about the arts over the past quarter century, The Wallace Foundation may rank at or near the top. Most impressive to us is that at a time when many major foundations were focused on increasing the supply of arts organizations and arts programs in the 1970s and 1980s, Wallace was more interested in the question of demand. What is the point of making more and more of the arts available if fewer and fewer people are interested in participating in them? Today, that point of view is shared by most funders, but it was fairly radical thirty years ago when Wallace led the way. As Jane Culbert wrote about in the last issue of On Our Minds, Wallace has extended a large block of its funding to promoting arts learning as part of this focus on demand, and much of its work is summarized in its “Increasing Arts Demand Through Better Arts” learning brief on its website.

Over the years, WolfBrown consultants have played a role in evaluating several of the early Wallace audience building programs. Currently our work with Big Thought, a public-private arts education initiative, is an example of what building demand looks like. This work has led to new findings on the desire for arts and cultural opportunities among families with low to moderate incomes, typically not thought of as arts consumers. Families desire and seek these opportunities actively, especially for their children, bartering their time, re-structuring work schedules, volunteering, saving, and using public transportation. But translating this desire into active demand requires three additional ingredients:
1.) A Range of Venues: Families use a wide variety of venues to enroll their children in creative learning, including schools, libraries, park and rec sites, and faith-based organizations. Each setting offers a distinctive point of entry and community of values around the arts (e.g., achievement, literacy, physical activity, or reverence).
2.) A Human Network: Building and sustaining demand also requires a human infrastructure (what Big Thought calls “a creative workforce”) populated with a wide variety of individuals who support, value, and teach the arts. This network is not only comprised of instructors, but also families who mentor other families, community members who work in after school programs, pastors who support choirs, praise dancing and theater, and older peers who act as models and mentors.
3.) Community Infrastructure: Finally, small but powerful, factors shape demand. Is a neighborhood safe enough for children to walk to classes? Is there a place where family members go to share and learn about opportunities? Do the new mixed-income apartments have rooms for rehearsals or showing work?

While Big Thought is clearly not responsible for public safety or facilities, its programs have been a kind of canary in the mine, detecting the daily facts of life that lie between fierce desire and realized demand. For initial findings go to Big Thought, click on the Research tab and Building a System of Opportunities for Creative Learning, a summary report, or one of the other reports.



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