National Thinking, Local Impact

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National Thinking, Local Impact

Lauren Shelton, Executive Director, Indianapolis Center for Arts Education and Innovation


The author.

When I became the founding Executive Director at The Indianapolis Center for Arts Education and Innovation (the Center) at Butler University, my first priority was to meet with local stakeholders. Though still in its pilot year, the Center has been five years in the making, thanks to a strategic plan relying on input from a Steering Committee composed of representatives of over 20 Indianapolis organizations. During my individual meetings with each committee member, one concern kept coming up: a fear that the Center would be going after the same local funding sources they rely on for operations and programming. It became clear to me that arts organizations in Indianapolis were jockeying to drink from the same pool.

It’s a familiar problem. In so many cities, small arts nonprofits struggle to access the same funding and resources. This only drives a competitiveness that, while understandable, is often detrimental to the field.

In Indianapolis, the solution has been the formation of a separate entity that can access greater resources to serve all arts nonprofits, across genres. At the Center, we’re lucky to be supported by a great university that offers a pool of donors and a support system of professors and students dedicated to arts education. Our role is to leverage all the resources at our disposal to seek funding opportunities for all arts nonprofits in the city—pursuing large grants that require significant legwork, building relationships with funders, and then collecting the data required by certain grants and funders.

In thinking through our Steering Committee members’ concerns, I began to view the Center as a convergence of local and national partners that advances access to equitable arts education. For instance, Steering Committee members asked for professional development (PD) support for their teaching artists and administrators. I realized that I could provide such support by offering free registration for the city’s teaching artists and administrators to attend PD sessions at this year’s El Sistema USA Symposium, which the Center is hosting on Butler’s campus this year. Leveraging this national partnership thus gives our local arts community access to high-quality training in music and nonprofit management, with a focus on equity and excellence.

The Center can also offer our local partners support in the area of research. We have identified a need among programs for quantifiable data regarding their community impact, so we’ve set out to build a research arm that will provide research opportunities for arts nonprofits. Our university connection means that this research, rather than falling to a program’s two or three full-time employees, can be conducted by a team of arts administration students who conduct, analyze, and disseminate projects on behalf of the arts nonprofits. (This team is led by our research partner, Dr. Ivonne Chand O’Neal, principal of MUSE Research.) Such data can be used as a tool to share with stakeholders and funders, and also to make informed internal decisions. We work smarter when we share the same vision for providing equitable, high-quality arts experiences to communities throughout the city.

In general, partnerships—among local programs, between local and national programs, or between arts nonprofits and academic centers—have the potential to make a significant impact. By pooling resources and expertise, they can create a more comprehensive approach to arts education that brings together schools, arts organizations, community groups, academic institutions, and national funders in service of a common goal: providing equitable access to arts education for all students.

Certainly, other organizations are working toward this end with success. For example, organizations such as Big Thought, in Dallas, and Ingenuity, in Chicago, have built consortiums that serve programs all over their respective cities.

By working together, organizations can achieve greater impact, reach wider audiences, and create a more resilient sector that is better equipped to promote and preserve the arts. This approach can be especially effective in addressing issues of social justice in arts education, where access has been limited for certain groups. But it’s not just about maximizing impact. By prioritizing collaboration and coordination, organizations can also send a powerful message: the arts are a collective endeavor, not a collection of individual organizations vying for funding and attention.


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