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.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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