Bob Harlow: Relationship-building is Future-building

AAAE Newsroom

Relationship-building is Future-building
by Bob Harlow

Bob Harlow recently served as a judge for AAAE's content competition. Here he provides a reflection and response to the winning entry. 

We all know that if there’s one thing that’s constant, it’s change. I work with organizations in a variety of sectors, and nothing seems to worry them more than responding to demographic shifts. That seems especially true and pressing for arts organizations, who depend so heavily on engaged publics not just financially, but for artistic vitality; How can they live out their missions and visions when the context is changing so rapidly?

These are challenging questions, because resisting change seems like a natural instinct and it’s just hard to know how to tackle it. It is for that reason that I enjoyed reading Yuha Jung’s Diversity Matters: Theoretical Understanding of and Suggestions for the Current Fundraising Practices of Nonprofit Art Museums. I was struck because on the surface, it seems to be a theoretical article about fundraising, and indeed it is. But it’s also a practical article about building and broadening our circle of relationships, which will serve arts institutions well and will only grow in importance. All too often I’ve seen that a focus solely on “butts in seats,” “eyes on the wall,” or “dollars in the coffers” can lead to a short-term vision and short-term gains (if that). Relationships last and they help our organizations evolve and develop.

The term “relationships” is probably overused, and as a result means different things to different people, so it’s critical to specify what that means, including what actions are necessary to make them happen. In my team’s research with 10 arts organizations described in Road to Results, we found two critical ingredients to building relationships: first, learning about audience needs, wants, and lifestyles (often through research and program evaluation), and second, helping new groups of individuals get to know an organization and its work. Successful organizations created pathways into the organization where none existed before, and did so in a way that was true to who they were and aligned with how those audiences wanted to (and could) take part in the organization.

Efforts to make arts organizations easier to get to know are hampered by the perceptions of exclusivity and the practices that reinforce them that Jung so poignantly describes. Newcomers can find it hard get to know arts organizations or even approach them because of perceptual walls of intimidation—justified or not. Breaking through those barriers takes a sustained organization-wide effort because perceptions are difficult to change (just ask any political candidate who’s struggled with perceptions of incompetence or “not being relatable”). It’s easy to agree that institutions need to do things differently, but what exactly? Jung’s prescriptions for organizational measures were refreshing to see, an action plan for building, as she calls it, a “two-way relational communication model that enables dialogue between an organization and its publics.” The steps she prescribes have a particular urgency. Arts educators are in a unique position to expose students to these and other models to prepare arts managers for demographic challenges today and tomorrow. Time and again I hear from arts managers that they recognize that it’s important to build relationships, but they lack the “how to.” Jung’s contribution takes steps toward filling an important void.

Jung’s focus is squarely on the long-term, which brings to mind an organization I had the privilege and pleasure of working with, Fleisher Art Memorial in Southeast Philadelphia. As a traditional point of entry for many newly arrived groups to the United States, Southeast Philadelphia is a microcosm and harbinger of the demographic shifts taking place in the U.S. The European immigrants that lived in the neighborhood filled classes at Fleisher throughout most of the 20th century. But by the end of that century, they were rapidly being replaced by newcomers from Latin America, China, and Southeast Asia. Faced with hard evidence that those groups were not attending classes at the school, Fleisher began a relationship-based initiative by first learning about their lives through research and participation in community organizations, and then introducing itself in different community settings and creating an inclusive environment at its facility. Research demonstrates that the organization has successfully chipped away at perceptions of exclusivity that were keeping people away. What’s more, the number of neighborhood children enrolled in its on-site classes grew 50 percent in four years.

I recall a conversation with Fleisher’s Director of Programs Magda Martinez who spearheaded much of the work. I remember asking her (somewhat uncomfortably) if it made financial sense to target groups that probably were not in a position to support Fleisher financially (median family income in the neighborhood was $29,000). She diplomatically pointed out my short-termism, and informed me that many of the descendants of immigrants from the turn of the 20th century currently provide that support to the organization today. In fact, she believes today’s Southeast Philadelphia residents are critical to ensuring Fleisher’s financial stability in the future. As she put it “The long-term health of this institution actually rests on engaging those new populations that are emerging. That’s why our community engagement is not just a good thing to do, it is essential to our survival as the kind of organization we were created to be.”

 

Of course, building relationships has greater benefits than economic livelihood. Fleisher has a renewed vitality at the school that demonstrates how new relationships can make our institutions more exciting and more relevant. It seems to me that the converse is true. By not including those groups that will increasingly make up more members of the U.S. population, our organizations will reflect the past, not the dynamic present. They run the risk of being excluded themselves in the not-to-distant future. Jung’s contribution can be a critical part of a classroom discussion that gets students thinking about new and fruitful ways of engaging with a changing world.

A full description of Fleisher’s initiative can be found here: http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/Staying-Relevant-in-a-Changing-Neighborhood-How-Fleisher-Art-Memorial-is-Adapting-to-Shifting-Community-Demographics.pdf