By Angela Watson
Over the last year I have visited over 25 art institutions in more than 15 states and I have seen many things — both good and bad. One of these, is the potential for mission drift and negative influence on the arts from institutions chasing funder dollars. Philanthropists and corporations donate billions of dollars to fund arts institutions across America and that is a wonderful thing. Don’t get me wrong. That money does good things like increase access for marginalized folks who might not otherwise go to our museums and theaters. Almost every museum I have visited has free events where folks who can’t afford the entry fee can come and enjoy all that these institutions have to offer. Similarly, theaters and symphonies have sponsors who help keep ticket prices affordable, allowing more equitable access. Many institutions have funders that help cover the costs associated with field trips, some even subsidizing the costs of buses, substitute teachers, and lunches.
The problem of mission drift, it appears to me, begins when the funder has a strong agenda for how they want their money spent. That in and of itself is not inherently a problem. It is their money. They are free to spend it how they want, and to fund projects and programs they support. But, if the money has strings attached to an agenda that doesn’t align to the mission of the arts institution, there is potential that the arts institution is coerced into changing its mission to meet the requirements of the funder, not because it is what they do well, but because it is what they have to do to get the cash.
Consider this true story of a large and powerful arts institution with a level of financial independence not enjoyed by many other institutions which was approached by a high-profile company with a specific agenda. The company offered them several million dollars to implement a program supporting a particular topic. However, the institution felt that the program used the art as more of a tool than as a central focus. They refused the program and the money because it didn’t fit their mission.
The problem is that smaller institutions, less independent and powerful, in desperate need of funds might take the money. They might cast aside what they know best, what they do well, for that in which they have little expertise and can’t do well but that keeps the lights on. It’s hard to judge them for that, but it is easy to see how this type of mission drift for cash could dilute the quality of arts programming. This is not simply a what-if scenario. It happens. I have seen it in person, more than once.
I recently observed a field trip that contained programming strongly influenced by forces outside the arts institution. The field trip was poorly done. I knew it, the teaching artist knew it, and the kids knew it. They were trying (and failing) to align their beloved art to subjects in which they had zero expertise. The connections were weak, forced, and most damning of all, boring. If busloads of kids come to the museum, or theater, or symphony, and receive poor programming, they may not give it another chance. One arts advocate who deals with funders everyday told me, that in her opinion, funders could be detrimental to the quality of arts programming (and to arts research, but that is a topic for another blogpost). This serves no one.
If we want people to participate in and consume the arts then we need to ensure that they are receiving the BEST programming possible. Funders need to be careful that they don’t too strongly influence arts institutions in ways that cause them to drift from what they know and do well. Arts institutions need to guard that they don’t cheapen their mission by selling themselves short. And the American people need to accept some responsibility for the desperation of these arts institutions and support the arts so these institutions don’t drift away.
Angela Watson is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow and Research Assistant in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.