How can an arts service organization best support the arts? What we learned from a recent discussion between our members and local elected officials

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council was honored to host a discussion last week between elected officials and arts organizations from across the region. The event, held at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, focused on how our government can better understand and support the Greater Pittsburgh arts sector, but ended up teaching our staff important lessons on how we can personally work on better serving the community.

A white woman with brown hair pulled back behind her ears and wearing a white collared short sleeved dress sits holding a clipboard beside a white man with short brown hair, glasses, and wearing a white collared shirt, blue jacket, and tan pants
Morgan Kasprowicz, director of research and special projects at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, speaks with Patrick Joyal, southwest region director for Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro, at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild // Photo by Patrick Fisher

The discussion was initiated from a request from Patrick Joyal, the Southwestern Regional Director for Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, and included leaders of current and past organizational members of the Arts Council, along with other elected representatives from Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh. We were also grateful for the presence of the First Lady of Pittsburgh Michelle Gainey who is doing important work amplifying local artists with her Greater Pittsburgh Arts Project.

We encourage all attendees to share feedback on what the event meant to them, but we wanted to be transparent about how the discussion will continue to shape our work at the Arts Council.

A Black woman with bangs and a ponytail, wearing a black dress and silver earrings, bracelet, and necklace, stands speaking into a microphone in a crowded room
Michelle Gainey, first lady of Pittsburgh, speaks before the crowd gathered at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on July 14, 2023 // Photo by Patrick Fisher

We can’t rely on our current membership model to accurately and inclusively represent the region’s demographics

About 50 organizations convened in the room, and there was a noticeable lack of representation from members of the global majority. Several courageous leaders communicated that they’re exhausted by the same conversations transpiring among the same groups of people inside rooms in which Black and Brown folks are underrepresented. Meanwhile, arts workers and artists who look like them are consistently under-resourced, making life in Pittsburgh strenuous. Several noted that many important Black creatives have recently moved to other cities, and reminded us to take notice that Black and Brown individuals and cultural institutions are still actively being displaced as a result of gentrification.

Our staff recognizes:

  • We need to implement evolved strategies so we can make certain that a broader range of identities and experiences are present in the groups we convene. This begins with strengthening our relationships with the individuals and organizations that comprise our sector. 
  • Relying on a guest list composed exclusively of organizations who belong to our current membership model leaves out important voices who should be included in any conversation we’re having about the local arts sector. 
  • Organizations who are not currently members of the Arts Council still deserve to benefit from our service, and we’re currently reevaluating the value and structure of our membership program, along with determining improved means of future outreach. 
  • It is our responsibility to address when perspectives and voices are absent from a conversation, and we commit to keeping this a priority from conception to completion.
A white woman with pulled-back brown hair, wearing a black sleeveless collared shirt, and a black and pink patterned skirt, speaks into a microphone while a seated crowd looks on
Anneliese Martinez, senior director of The Andy Warhol Museum's Pop District, speaks before the crowd on July 14, 2023 // Photo by Patrick Fisher

Research and advocacy reporting always needs to follow up with action

The Arts Council has a history of advocacy and it is abundantly clear that our work framing and guiding cultural investment and action is just as important now as it ever was. We are in a position of power and privilege, and we can leverage it to our community’s advantage by utilizing comprehensive testimonials and quantitative data to advocate and lead action in an authentic effort to acknowledge and then collectively remedy systemic disparities and inequities.

As we listened to what organizations shared with the elected officials in attendance, we also took note of how we can better use the important research and data we’re gathering to continue to enact change. Previous research has led to successful advocation for distribution of American Rescue Plan funds to artists and small to mid-sized organizations in the past year, as well as the creation of our organization’s increased accessibility efforts, networking groups, and our ability to influence funders to consider and update funding structures. 

How do we elevate our work to ensure that every report published includes actionable next steps? While the creative sector of Pennsylvania has a gross domestic product and employment that ranks in the top 10 states, we’re 39th per capita in arts funding. During the discussion, it was also noted that Pennsylvania was one of the first states to implement film tax incentives, and we now rank as one of the least competitive states. We are committed to exploring new ways we can use our research department to not just report on how data like this impacts our community, but to evolve our work into new means of direct action.

Two posters sit side-by-side covered in handwritten text and clusters of stickers
Boards highlighting what arts organizations in attendance indicated as the sector's current opportunities and challenges // Photos by Ran Peng

Arts organizations still need help

Prior to our meeting, arts organizations were asked to comment on various topics of discussion including the current status of the local arts environment, opportunities that the creative sector provides, challenges faced, and how government can partner in alleviating potential pinch points. Their comments were then displayed in the pre-meeting gathering, and participants were asked to highlight items which resonated with them the most.

Arts organizations overwhelmingly noted that while there have been some wins, many are still struggling to recover from the pandemic, highlighting a need for not just more support for the performing arts community from external audiences but a need for more partnerships.

Attendees stressed the lack of general operating support and sustainable sources of income, with funding sometimes unobtainable by many organizations. Some also noted the added burden of grant fees, along with a concern for overworked and underpaid staff at the service level, including some organizations who are maintaining with only one or two full-time employees.

A Black woman with pulled-back black hair and wearing a black-and-white striped short sleeved shirt, a watch, and earrings, points at handwritten words placed on a poster
Ayisha Morgan-Lee, founder, CEO, and artistic director of the Hill Dance Academy Theatre, looks over the pre-meeting posters noting guests' opinions on the state of the local arts economy // Photo by Patrick Fisher

These concerns echo others we’ve recently heard from the artists and arts organizations we’ve been meeting with individually. Nothing we heard during the discussion was a monolith, and that’s a problem. At the Arts Council, we will be soon going through a new strategic plan and see this as an important ongoing discussion that is long overdue for results.

We will be researching new opportunities for service and support as it relates to our core programmatic pillars, which include:

  • Developing and strengthening the arts ecosystem
  • Framing and guiding cultural investment and action
  • Grantmaking
  • Facilitating community connections

We invite the Greater Pittsburgh arts community to speak loudly and publicly about their needs, and to keep us accountable as we work on improvements during our current period of transition. Our doors also remain open for anyone interested in a conversation.