Book Review: Building for the Arts

The following is published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory

Should We Build It? Will They Come?building for the arts

Review of: Peter Frumkin & Ana Kolendo, 2014. Building for the Arts: The Strategic Design of Cultural Facilities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 276 pages.

In Field of Dreams, the sound of James Earl Jones’s supernatural basso profundo declaration to Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella, “People will come, Ray” is etched in our cultural consciousness. Less well-remembered is Timothy Busfield’s warning, “You’ll lose everything Ray.” Arts and culture leaders considering a capital building project would do better to have Peter Frumkin and Ana Kolendo on their shoulders whispering, “Seek strategic alignment,” rather than believing in either binary outcome of a fantasy. Successful cultural infrastructure projects are not fields of dreams but rather, as Frumkin and Kolendo assert, the result of the strategic alignment of mission, capacity, community, and funding.

The Cultural Policy Center at University of Chicago launched a study in 2007 of cultural building projects. The research found that there was a building boom during the period under study, 1994-2008, and especially 1998-2001, but that the increase in cultural infrastructure did not have discernible spillover effects in surrounding communities nor was there significant changes in the number of arts organizations as a result (Woronkowicz et al, 2012). When the Center’s report Set in Stone: Building America’s New Generation of Arts Facilities 1998-2008 was released, it hit the nonprofit arts funding community like a load of bricks. I immediately added its case studies, which are authored by Frumkin and Kolendo, to my arts management syllabus. Janet Brown, President and CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts wrote at the time of the report’s release, “I cannot stress enough how important this study is for our field right now… It points out how vulnerable organizations are when moving into a major capital commitment and stresses the need for realistic financial planning beyond the scope of the building project” (Brown, 2012). Many in the arts community knew anecdotally or intuitively that a new building will not solve an organization’s problems and could instead cause years of operational deficits, community acrimony, mission drift, or even dissolution. The Set in Stone report confirmed this intuition. It also promised further research, including two books, “one about the strategic management of these projects, and the other about the broader impacts these projects have on the nation’s cultural ecology” (p. 34). Frumkin and Kolendo’s Building for the Arts: The Strategic Design of Cultural Facilities is the first of these.

Understandably, Frumkin and Kolendo advocate for a strategic, rather than “field of dreams,” approach to capital building projects. They define strategic design as “the moment when an arts organization brings into alignment, fit, and coherence its mission, capacity, funding, and community to realize a capital project” (p. 10). Design, however, is a process, not a moment. Despite this semantic misstep, the authors describe that process in the more than a dozen case studies they draw upon to illustrate their proposition. More than once, we are reminded that the alignment that supports capital building success is “a continuum, not a binary” (p. 225). With one exception, the case studies included in the book do not replicate the material already published in the Set in Stone report, even when focused on institutions previously studied.

Frumkin and Kolendo use the case studies to illustrate the constituent parts of the build-or-don’t-build decision (Chapter 2) and each of the four elements of strategic design (fundraising, capacity, community, and mission, each elucidated in Chapters 3 through 6). They smartly use at least two different building types in each chapter, usually a museum or collection venue and a performing arts center or theatre. One of the more interesting pairings is in the penultimate chapter 7, which focuses on the overall process of seeking strategic alignment. Here the authors delve deep into two organizations in Austin, Texas, the Austin Museum of Art and the Long Center for the Performing Arts. By using two case studies with divergent outcomes from the same city, the reader is able to glean a richer context for the case studies, especially with regard to the local fundraising climate and potential for community engagement.

My quibble with Building for the Arts is around this issue of community engagement. Chapter 4, “Connecting to Community,” focuses on effectively managing negative reaction to proposed capital projects rather than on positively engaging communities in the strategic design process. To be truly useful to proactive arts leaders, the chapter could have, instead of focusing on managing problems, showcased a case in which the community was engaged for the good. There is such a case in the book, but it is used to illustrate the element of operational capacity, and is positioned as a negative example. However, buried in the story of Lorton Workhouse Art Center, an adaptive reuse of a prison complex, are several examples of proactive community engagement that lead to strategically successful decisions. “She [Irma Clifton] took people on tours of the facilities…She spoke to everyone she could—fellow committee members, each of the county supervisors, Rotary Club, Lion’s Club, business associations…One day, Clifton and McBride walked around the neighborhood and knocked on the door of every home in the Workhouse’s neighborhood…Their goal was to handle any and all opposition pre-emptively. ‘We didn’t want anything popping up at the last minute.’” (p. 153.). With regard to proactively engaging community, as Clifton does, arts and culture leaders–and the public managers who engage with them on cultural building projects—would do well to follow the lead of two seemingly unrelated but compatible practitioners: artists who do community engagement work and entrepreneurship guru, Steve Blank. Artists such as Liz Lerman and Michael Rohd advocate for partnerships between arts organizations and communities that develop by request, by being “invited in” to a community (see, for example, Rohd 2012) while in complementary fashion, Blank and others who advocate the “lean startup” approach, advise entrepreneurs (and by their own use of the word, Frumkin and Kolendo consider cultural builders to be “entrepreneurs”) to “get out of the building” to test hypotheses about a venture’s value proposition by actually engaging with stakeholders (see, for example, Blank and Dorf, 2012). The Workhouse Arts Center case provides an example of both of these approaches, but is not positioned as such. Rather, the management strategy advocated by Frumkin and Kolendo is reactive. They offer sound guidance for prioritizing stakeholder feedback using Mitchell, Agle, and Wood’s (1997) framework categorizing stakeholders as definitive, expectant, or latent with definitive stakeholders having varying degrees of power, legitimacy, and urgency. But, this is guidance to be applied after the fact, when community input is already being received. I wish that Frumkin and Kolendo had offered proactive guidance, readily available from both the arts and entrepreneurship communities of practice.

Although the term “arts entrepreneur” is not much used after the first chapter, its use there and, more importantly, the entrepreneurial themes engaged by the book’s case studies, position it as a contribution to the regrettably thin collection of research-based scholarship on arts entrepreneurship. Managing a high level of uncertainty, coping with unpredictable risk, and bundling resources to bring an arts enterprise to fruition are pervading themes throughout Building for the Arts. Frumkin and Kolendo emphasize the importance of the arts entrepreneur (sometimes an individual, but sometimes a small group) in driving a project home, “Absent such initiative and drive, the organizations can struggle and wallow in mediocrity for long periods of time” (p. 16). The well-wrought portraits of some of these actors in the case studies will make several of the cases useful for the growing number of professors teaching arts entrepreneurship coursework.

Despite my concern about the framing of community engagement, Building for the Arts makes a significant and much needed contribution to the broader arts management literature, too little of which is based on such in-depth primary research. The case studies can be read both in and out of the academy for lessons not only about capital building and fundraising, but also about managerial decision-making, especially in the nonprofit sector. The richly detailed case studies can be mined further for important lessons on board governance, board relations, and board recruitment. In addition, these case studies offer insight for local policymakers interfacing with arts and culture leaders and the philanthropic community. The strategic alignment of funding, community, organizational capacity, and mission advocated by Frumkin and Kolendo are transferable across the nonprofit and public sectors. The fifteen “rules” they promote in conclusion are applicable to any infrastructure project. These rules include “fund operations and endowment as you go” (p. 230), “wait to announce the building budget until you are certain you have a solid number” (p. 235), and “bringing in a star architect will increase building costs (p. 238).” These seem like common sense, but what Frumkin and Kolendo offer is qualitative evidence of their veracity, supported by quantitative evidence in the earlier research. Two of the “rules” specifically refute the epidemic of “If you build it, they will come” thinking that pervaded the arts and culture sector during the building boom: “supply does not create its own demand” (p. 240) and “a great building will not lead to artistic excellence, but a powerful and compelling artistic vision can lead to a new building” (p. 241). Ultimately, this is the alignment that needs to exist: the powerful and compelling artistic vision with….everything else.


Blank, S. and Dorf, B. (2012). The startup owner’s manual: The step-by-step guide for buildinga great company. Palo Alto, CA: K&S Ranch.

Brown, J.t (2012). Set in stone. Retrieved from

Mitchell, R.K., Bradley, R.A., &Wood, D.J. (1997). Toward a theory of stakeholder identification and salience: Defining the principle of who and what really counts. Academy of Management Review, 22(4), pp. 853-886.

Rohd, M. (2012). The new work of building civic practice. Retrieved from

Woronkowicz, J., Joynes, D.C., Frumkin, P., Kolendo, A., Seaman, B., Gernter, R., & Bradburn, N. (2012). Set in stone: Building America’s new generation of arts facilities, 1994-2008. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

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Arts Incubator Evaluation Variables

[In this post, I share an excerpt from the conclusion of my study on value creation in and evaluation of arts incubators.]

When I began my research on arts incubators as the financial crisis was waning in 2012, it appeared as though arts incubators were on the verge of becoming a national phenomenon that could meet both artistic and economic development goals simultaneously. Policymakers expressed strong interest in the phenomenon. However, the post-recession surge in incubator activity appears to have plateaued as new programs face the same challenges of revenue generation faced by their clients and, perhaps, because arts incubator impacts, especially indirect community development impacts, are as yet unproven.

My research opens the black box of incubator operations to find that they create value for client artists and arts organizations both through direct service provision and indirect echo effects but that the provision of value to communities or systems is attenuated and largely undocumented.

The primary recommendation that arises from the cross-case analysis is for arts incubators to adopt an ongoing program of formative and summative assessment that can be used to foster organizational learning and lead to evidence-based decision-making. Adapting the families of variables advocated by Mian (2011) for the evaluation of university technology incubators, I suggest that arts incubators evaluate their processes, their output performance, and the impact of the value created in the context of their strategic priorities and organizational goals. The table below suggests some variables that could be evaluated at the process level, output level, and value-added level across the strategic priorities articulated by the incubator stakeholders I have interviewed over the last year.

evaluation table

[Please note that this material has not yet been vetted for publication by the peer-review process. Thus, your feedback on this research-in-progress is most welcome]

Related posts:

What is an Arts Incubator?

A Brief Update on my Incubator Research

Arts Incubators and Theories of the Firm

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Begin with the Middle in Mind

grant bookI was recently turned on to David Grant’s “Social Profit Handbook” by the arts program director at the Tremaine Foundation, which supports some of the research we’re doing in field-based arts business training. The premise is deceptively simple, an organization should ask itself, “what does success look like?” and then step back, or as Grant says “take mission time” to ask: Hey, how are we doing? in a process of formative evaluation guided by a self-generated rubric. Too often, we evaluate success (whatever that means) after the fact: after the workshop, after the program, after the grant activities are completed. Stephen Covey tells us to “begin with the end in mind,” but David Grant suggests instead that we begin with the middle in mind: what does it look like to be on the road to success rather than what does it look like in the rear-view mirror.

rear view mirror

Grant advocates for “assessment practices whose primary focus is to improve outcomes rather than judge them” (p. 4). In the formative assessment practices he describes, “information arrives in time to help improve or adjust performance, as needed” (p. 37). In other words, the practice of assessment happens in the middle, where it can actual do some good to improve performance and, by extension, outcomes.

As a bonus, Grant also explains why the term “nonprofit” is killing the sector and should be replaced by “social profit.”

I really liked this book. Can you tell?

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A Brief Update on my Incubator Research

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that I have been researching arts incubators and how they create value. The research is continuing, but a few thematic commonalities have surfaced through my cross-case analysis of four typical arts incubators. Briefly, these are:

  • Arts incubators lower barriers to market entry for artists or arts organizations
  • Arts incubators offer client artists and organizations a “stamp of approval” that conveys legitimacy to their local arts community and to funders
  • Arts incubators cushion financial risk, empowering artists or arts organizations to take artistic risk

Stay tuned for periodic updates….

Chaunte Howard Lowe clears the bar. Photo by Grzegorz Jereczek, CC-SA license

Chaunte Howard Lowe clears the bar. Photo by Grzegorz Jereczek, CC-SA license

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Supportive Grids, or, “There’s No Ego in a Leko”

RYT logoAt a recent participant parent event at Rising Youth Theatre, a terrific young company for which I serve as board secretary, one of the parents, who happens to also be a work colleague, noted that our discussion of the company’s work to build the social assets of the youth participants reminded her of the grid I had shown her in my office a couple of weeks prior. “Which grid do you mean? I have a lot of grids,” I replied. (She was referring to an inventory of means template that I use with student arts entrepreneurs to help them assess who they are, what they know, and who they know — but I didn’t recall that at the time.) A short time later, the board’s incoming president whispered to me, “I have a lot of grids” was the most characteristic self-description he could think of for me.


USITT Lighting Museum: 1968 Century Leko (6×9) model# 2321. Photo by Josh Williamson

I did not take it as a compliment at the time, but in retrospect, “grids” of one kind or another have been a critical component of my professional life since I first started out as a lighting designer and, especially, an assistant lighting designer. As an ALD, I was responsible for keeping track of hundreds of lights, their positions, colors, focus points, and so on across hundreds of cues as they changed intensity and, later, position and focus too. To do that (especially in the pre-laptop early years) required a lot of grids. Every one of those charts and forms — the hookup, the tracking sheets, the instrument schedules — were 100% in the service of the art on the stage; the grids themselves or the lights they tracked had no value except insofar as the kept the performance looking the way it was meant to. A long time ago, I said to one of my early graduate students in the lighting design program at UW-Madison, “There’s no ego in a leko,” meaning that the work on the stage is what’s important; if you have to move a light, change a cue, re-format a spreadsheet (aka “grid”), it is to make better art. The phrase must have stuck, because when the student graduated, he presented me with a wooden plaque with the saying on it, which I still have to this day.

As an academic administrator in the arts, grids were also an important part of my work, especially insofar as they communicated production schedules or personnel budgets. Again, the grids were deployed in the service of the art. Now that most of what I do is research and teach arts management and arts entrepreneurship, I find that students often have a hard time with grids – especially budget spreadsheets. The gridlines are not worth the paper they are printed on, but the art that they support is priceless. If the grid isn’t working, throw it out and start over. After all, “There’s no ego in a leko.”

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Art, Change, and Small Steps

There is an interesting Op-ed in the New York Times today written by Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia. (Between Mockus’s two terms, Bogotá was led by another visionary, Enrique Peñalosa.) In his article, Mockus describes an art intervention he implemented to address the problem of corrupt enforcement of traffic laws:

Another initiative in a small area of the city was to replace corrupt traffic police officers with mime artists. The idea was that instead of cops handing out tickets and pocketing fines, these performers would “police” drivers’ behavior by communicating with mime.

It’s not a huge idea, but it is a very creative one. Our own president was communicating a few creative ideas this weekend as well, via his twitter feed. In a series of tweets, President Obama suggested alternative uses for the $80 billion spent annually on incarceration in federal prisons. (Keep in mind that figure does not include state and local expenditures.)

Obama 80B tweets

These are big, creative ideas, but difficult ones. Change of this scale is really really hard — politically, socially, and logistically. Mockus closes his Op-ed with a dose of reality:

Changing a city is not the greatest political challenge; sustaining that change is. I used to have a Darwinian attitude toward politics: Just let ideas that are not sufficiently strong perish. Today, I realize that strong ideas can perish, too. As quickly as a city can progress, it can also fail. But never forget that huge changes can be achieved through surprisingly small steps.

What are some small art interventionist steps we can take today to make progressive change in our cities, our states, our country?

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Artist Alfons Alt at La Friche


The last day of the recent AIMAC Conference was held at La Friche in Marseille, an urban arts redevelopment project in a former tobacco factory. La Friche includes artists’ studios, performance and exhibition spaces, a skate park, rooftop event space, and support services for the Belle de Mai neighborhood, including a daycare/preschool. At La Friche, “culture” is an implement of both social and economic development. “’Economic’ in the sense that cultural products are produced, bought, and sold – but certainly not taking a solely economic approach. ‘Social’ because culture is a space where the essential questions of our society today arise in political terms.”[1]

Between conference sessions, small groups made visits to some of the artists’ studios. I visited the studio of Alfons Alt. Alt uses large format, historical photographic processes combined with earth-based pigments. He explained:

It’s interesting to bring painting and photography and engraving together to make new thing. This technique is not industrializable. I want to make photographs that in 200 years will still be here. I don’t believe in digital. The pigments I use are long lasting, permanent.

Alt doesn’t like to rely on public funding to make work:

When you have public money you have to do public things and that is not always aligned with art.

Alt makes the work he wants to make how he wants to make it. He finds the public for that work in museums, galleries, and private commissions in a way that has sustained his career for 30 years. He models the kinds of artist entrepreneur that is always keeping the art at the center. I note, however, that La Friche itself was developed with public funding in what in the US we would most probably call a “creative placemaking” effort.

[1] Roughly translated from the La Friche website.

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