Town Hall Update: What’s Next?

As we shared in Part I and Part II of this blog series, the Arts Council Town Halls were a new effort for us in 2022. We realized that post-program surveys were not providing sufficient feedback on where our programs were hitting or missing the mark. In addition to providing a space for artists, cultural workers, and the general public to dialogue with each other, the Town Halls provided the Arts Council with rich, detailed, and actionable feedback that we’re now working to incorporate into programming and other facets of our work.

After examining the data (described in Part I) and identifying findings (described in Part II), the staff ideated changes that they would like to make immediately, in the mid-term, and in long-term planning.  

Immediate changes were defined as items we’d like to address within the next several months. Mid-term changes were defined as items we’d like to address within one fiscal year. Long-term changes were defined as items that should be addressed in more holistic, long-term planning systems, such as strategic planning, etc. 

Immediate Changes 

Let’s Focus: Clarifying Audiences and Program Offerings 

It was clear from our town hall feedback that we need to better define our programming offerings and goals. Knowing that this would take time, we kicked off this process by creating space for a series of all-staff planning and strategy meetings early this spring. The Arts Council staff gathered in-person this April for the first time since the pandemic began to evaluate our offerings and the methods by which we fulfill our mission. This preliminary meeting included in-depth conversations about our role as a service organization and how we may approach our mission with an eye toward organizing, member leadership, and base-building. Much of this work is to the credit of Ash Chan, our artist outreach coordinator, as well as programming recommendations by our former Manager of Programs André Solomon. 

Continuing to gather direct feedback from our community through data and surveys  

The Arts Council has conducted an annual or biennial survey of artists and organizations for over a decade. Data from these surveys is used to drive advocacy and benchmarking efforts, and guide Arts Council programming plans. In the town halls, we heard that artists and cultural workers were really feeling the lack of a proper social safety net and that all artists. Artists who were new to the field or the area expressed a unique struggle to access resources and opportunities needed to advance their careers. We also heard that easy and transparent access to data on these topics continues to be helpful for the arts community.  

As a result, we’ve added or updated questions that address quality of life and career outlooks in this year’s survey. We’re also committing to breaking down how experiences and perspectives vary across lines of difference such as discipline, time spent in Pittsburgh, race, gender, ability, and more. This data will be shared in fall 2022.  

Supporting the mental health of our arts community 

Perhaps the most important and consistent finding in our town halls was that “the people that make up the arts and culture community are not okay.” In the past several months, we’ve also struggled to appropriately address the depth, breadth, and intersectional nature of mental health needs with any specific idea.  

As a result, a small group of interested staff met in early April to center this finding on its own, discuss the Arts Council’s role and capacity, and identify next steps. The Arts Council commits to uplifting resources and work happening elsewhere in the sector, such as a new iteration of the Black Mental Health Initiative administered by Steel Smiling and others. We also recognized that our staff would benefit from training on how we can better care for ourselves and others in a trauma-informed way. We’ll be exploring ways to do that in the months to come.   

Mid Term Changes 

Small organizations seek operational support 

The Arts Council’s finding that “small organization seek operational support” is being addressed in two ways. First, the Allegheny Arts Revival Grants provides up to 30 Allegheny County arts organizations with grants of $10k for general operating expenses. The Arts Council is prioritizing small and BIPOC organizations for this grant because it knows that these organizations often lack equitable access to grant funds. This grant is made available through the NEA’s American Rescue Plan funds.

To address the operational needs in a more sustainable way, the Arts Council is currently pursuing support to investigate a comprehensive, needs-based shared services system to support small organizations. This work is in the early stages and will take some time to complete, but the Arts Council believes this is the logical next step to addressing this long-standing challenge in its community. 

Improving the user experience and strategy 

We launched in 2017 to help direct regional web traffic to arts and cultural events, ultimately driving ticket sales for our community. The website is part of the Artsopolis network and joins 50 other cities across the country to deliver arts-specific events content. Despite having the best of intentions, the maintenance and promotion of Artsburgh hasn’t always been effective for our community. As a result of our town hall conversations, we’re considering new ways to use the Artsburgh platform and will be pursuing funding to support these ideas.  

Incorporation of needs for resources and space into new Arts Council office search 

Our town hall conversations made it clear that it’s time for the Arts Council to move to a new location and be active and accessible participants in our arts community. As of April, we have consolidated our office in the Cultural District from two floors to a shared office space on the 7th floor of 810 Penn Avenue. Over the next year, we’re looking for a new home for the Arts Council that can provide resources to artists and arts administrators. Ideas include a media resource center where you can access laptops, printers, and other tools, spaces for community meetings, art displays, and more. 

It’s time to get out of our houses: Presence in our community 

The Arts Council acknowledges the feedback that we are at our best when staff are embedded in its community. “Embedding” requires physical presence, and that intentionality is key to ensuring that presence is genuinely felt. As it plans for its next fiscal year, the Arts Council is exploring structures and resources to ensure that Arts Council staff members can regularly attend arts community events. 

Long-term Changes  

As many of our participants raised, balancing capacity and passion is a sector-wide challenge, perhaps now more than ever. In our conversations as a staff, we challenged each other to remain self-aware as individuals and an organization. We’re still growing in this area and will continue to assess our effectiveness. 

As such, in the long term, the Arts Council continues to consider our town hall findings as it plans a new season of programming beginning this fall. We're also considering the role of these findings as we pursue our next strategic planning process, set to begin at the end of this year.