Arts and Strategy: Reflections on Cultural Planning in the Modern University

By András Szántó

Strategy focusing on arts organizations has to contend with an unusual obstacle: romantic feelings about culture as a field of high-minded aesthetic activity. As charming as those attitudes may be, they are holdovers from the past, a way of viewing culture as unique, exempt from everyday rules, detached from the customary way of managing things. Not coincidentally, a studied distaste for business and administration remains the norm across the arts professions—as it does across much of academia. This attitude was echoed in the words of a senior museum executive who once cautioned me, “We don’t use the word brand around here.” 

Some of this anxiety is understandable. As participants in the arts, we can be forgiven for being put off by demands to make them more “efficient” or place them in the service of non-arts goals. “Key performance indicators” are anathema to an endeavor that, for many, is a bulwark against the relentless corporatization of American life.

For these reasons, strategic planning in arts and cultural organizations frequently arouses skepticism, even more than it does in commercial ones. Front-line staff who greet planning as an opportunity to better serve their constituency also worry that the good ideas that bubble up through the process will never be implemented. For many organizations, planning is a chore, mandated by state or foundation donor guidelines. Worse, planning can be greeted with alarm, as a harbinger of administrative actions that threaten to corrupt the presumed purity of the cultural enterprise. 

Nonetheless, it is inescapable that most of us immerse ourselves in culture nowadays through the agency of complex organizations (e.g., museums, concert halls, galleries) that mobilize significant resources and are accountable to all manner of public and private oversight. Institutional leaders—from board members of arts organizations to university provosts—are called upon to approach culture dispassionately, with a clear-headed planning mindset: as a finite asset that must be organized and managed like any other. Decision makers with fiduciary responsibilities are expected to provide compelling reasons for how they spend their institution’s money and deploy its human resources. They must forge a consensus amongst divergent and often competing groups around shared objectives. They are charged with building functional, transparent, and sustainable structures to advance mission and vision and demonstrate impact. 

Strategic planning in arts and culture is thus a bit of a tightrope act. It demands a deft balancing of continuity and change, inclusiveness and decisiveness, passion and reason. Those helping an organization in this undertaking have to be prepared to manage a tricky conversation between groups that don’t always speak the same language. Bridging the divide between respect for culture and commitment to organizational achievement and sustainability requires the tact of a diplomat, the analytical aptitude of a sociologist, and the listening skills of a psychotherapist all rolled into one. 

Welcome to the Campus 

Universities are an especially challenging terrain for designing cultural strategy—and a uniquely satisfying one. Culture is found in abundance in them, yet, almost as a rule, in a state of sustained and impenetrable fragmentation—dispersed across departments, galleries, curricula, performances, campus events, student groups, amateur circles, and the like. The promise of strategic planning is that, by bringing arts and cultural assets together and giving them greater visibility, the university can leverage what it already has and, with additional prudent investments, can amplify its cultural offerings to students, faculty, and the community. 

Based on my own experience, I offer here four observations on the satisfactions and challenges of applying a strategic mindset to a university’s engagements with arts and culture. 

Listening to the Community 

Cultural and educational organizations are rarely very good at listening to their staffs or to those on the receiving end of their services. In fact, commercial entities tend to be more actively focused than cultural organizations on canvassing public or consumer opinion—or, for that matter, on engaging their own teams in joint thinking exercises. (Just think of those online surveys you receive after buying almost any product or service these days.) On a university campus, when the opportunity does arise to share ideas in a safe and open process, the proposals from faculty members and students—along with the long-repressed grievances—come gushing out. 

The truth of the matter is that conventional faculty governance is not designed to bring grassroots feedback to high-level decision makers. Layer upon bureaucratic layer separates the average student or junior faculty member from those who determine policy. Compound this with the fact that in most universities, provostial- and presidential-level appointments rarely come from the ranks of arts faculty with an affinity to cultural needs and opportunities, and what you get is the arts muddling along in a state of benign neglect: isolated pools of excellence surrounded by a more general lack of deep interest or understanding. 

The likely result is a certain numbness to issues that are essential to the cultural vibrancy of a university campus, such as the texture of public space, or the presence of diverse voices in the programming of university arts facilities. I am a firm believer that, here as elsewhere, strategic planning— especially the deep listening involved in interviews, focus groups, town halls, surveys, and the like—is not only informative, but intrinsically beneficial. The process in itself is ameliorative. 

Summing Up the Arts Footprint 

Most colleges and universities do not have a comprehensive plan for how to approach arts and culture. The arts are usually concentrated in specialized units that, while individually vital and sometimes exceptional, are somewhat detached from the regular flow of campus life. These units are managed in ways that almost inevitably set up a competition among them. Being distinct entities with their own educational agendas and discourses, arts departments and schools vie for scarce budgets, faculty lines, donors, and space. 

The divisions are exacerbated by the hyper-specialization of arts disciplines. Professionalization, to be sure, has elevated the standing of the arts in the modern university, but it has also overvalued academic measures of success and under-incentivized cross-faculty collaboration. Despite all the talk about trans- and interdisciplinarity, cultural silos persist. The intellectual distance from the social and hard sciences grows ever wider. Truly cross-disciplinary initiatives, like MIT’s Vera List Center, remain the exception to the rule. 

This fragmentation of arts activities and their lack of unified representation on campus can hide a surprising fact: Taken together, the arts represent a significant amount of assets and commitments in the modern university—and this goes well beyond such heralded jewels as UCLA’s Hammer Museum or Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The inventory of arts-related resources spans the entire university, from a multitude of faculty appointments and curricular offerings to presenting spaces large and small. Auditing these assets as part of a strategic planning process can be eye-opening. One gains much insight by examining the full spectrum of arts and cultural activity on campus at one time and exploring how their coordination could make them collectively greater than the sum of their parts—increasing visibility, stimulating cross-disciplinary dialogues, and catalyzing new creative approaches. 

Place-Making in the University 

A deeply ingrained reflex in university life is to accord merit to disciplines and activities in terms of their contribution to the educational and research mission. The whole machinery of the modern university— budgets, staffs, departmental structures, fundraising, evaluation methods, internal and external communications—is devised, first and foremost, to deliver knowledge to students and advance new understanding for the benefit of society. These priorities are expressed in the physical plant and global reputation management of academic institutions. 

All of this is understandable. However, when it comes to a university’s cultural vibrancy, the curricular and research contributions, crucial as they are, do not speak fully to the needs and ambitions at play among members of a campus community. And while university-based arts institutions— museums, galleries, performing arts centers, music halls—can be the top arts providers in their immediate surroundings, often commanding national and international reputations, they typically cater only to a minority of the campus population. Barriers of entry range from the cultural and lifestyle habits students bring to campus life to almost comical obstacles, such as the dearth of free parking, or that scarcest of all commodities, free time. 

Something more is needed to bring out the full potential of the arts. A modern university is, among other things, a multi-layered social organism, and one increasingly conscious of its embeddedness in the larger communities and the world around it. No cultural strategy can be blind to this reality. In the field of cultural policy, place-making has become a widely used term to express the importance of creating culturally rich, welcoming, inclusive, affirming environments. 

Universities, too, are now challenged to create situations where people can feel they have agency: where the cultural richness around them is not rooted in hierarchical notions of culture, but in more reciprocal, engaged, participatory conceptions of expressive life. 

Such attachment yields its own benefits, not just in the rewards of cultural immersion and well-being on campus, but also in the appeal of the university to prospective students and faculty and particularly in the emotional connection of alumni to the institution once they leave it—a wellspring of generosity. As for the surrounding community, and the public officials representing it, the richness of experience offered by the campus for those who visit can help defuse the almost inevitable tensions that strain the relationship of a university and its neighboring constituency. 

Opportunities for meaningful engagement with culture writ large tend to emerge in the interstitial spaces of the university, not just in dedicated arts venues: in dining halls, green spaces, lobbies, thoroughfares, and, increasingly, digital and virtual platforms. Such moments help define the campus experience and remain embedded in the memories of former students—think of the Cantor Art Center’s outdoor collection of Rodin bronzes at Stanford, Brooklyn College’s lily pond and surrounding manicured gardens, Henry Moore’s Bridge Prop (usually draped with reclining students) on Brown’s main green, and any number of summer festivals at campuses across the U.S. 

Nonetheless, cultural place-making is difficult to prioritize in the university, because resources traditionally are allocated to specific units or faculty. Being underdeveloped in most educational institutions, a culturally saturated sense of shared place represents a significant opportunity. However, it also requires that a university establish resources and administrative structures that are geared to improving the whole on-campus experience, not just its individual parts. 

The Cultural Battleground 

Perhaps the most vexing difficulty when it comes to thinking strategically about a university’s posture in the arts is that the arts themselves have become a moving and contested target. The arts stand in the crosshairs of some of the most bracing debates in American life today—over economic inequality, racial strife, ideological malaise, and the assault on facts and common decency. 

Artworks are uniquely capable of giving expression to such intractable issues. At the same time, they are also manifestations of them. Arts organizations have been among the first to grapple with the consequences of race and gender discrimination and the painful legacies of colonial history. Ethical dilemmas surrounding funders and donors are now front-page news. “Museums,” Ford Foundation president Darren Walker wrote recently in The New York Times (July 26, 2019), “have become contested spaces in a rapidly changing country,” and the same is true of cultural organizations of all stripes. Almost any intervention in the arts at a university, then, will involve confronting charged social, political, and moral dilemmas. No decision about allocating assets is going to be innocent: It is likely to be interpreted symbolically, as a statement and a signal about the institution’s ideological disposition. And all this at a time when, fairly or unfairly, campuses are under greater scrutiny than ever with respect to their inferred ideologies and politics. 

As if that didn’t make planning challenging enough, the arts are also subject to the same transformative and disruptive forces that make preparing for the future a mind-bending puzzle in any domain. Technology is changing the essence of what it means to create art and conduct academic research about it. The purview of the campus is now the entire world; the modern university must speak to students and engage issues that connect to nations and cultures on the other side of the globe. 

Social norms that challenge the standing of once unassailable institutions are taking hold on campus as everywhere else. Words and language once used uncritically are now subject to scrutiny, as American society as a whole, and particularly our universities, engage in a thorough reconsideration of how we conceive of personal identity and communicate about race and gender. Economic inequality and ideological polarization are making it ever more difficult to nurture an inclusive community spirit and conduct reasoned, constructive debate. The arts mirror this roiling landscape—and draw urgency and vitality from it. 

Strategy cannot unfold at a clinical remove from these shifting realities. It has to take account of all these tensions and disruptions, harnessing the most constructive forces within them. It must adapt to changing definitions of the arts and help deliver a more stimulating and humane environment for the campus community, while also seeking to redress chronic social imbalances and injustices. 

Welcome to the Future 

The arts of tomorrow are destined to simultaneously cope with a decline in appreciation for what used to be called the fine arts while seeking to thrive in a world where cultural industries, founded on creativity and arts skills, command an ever-larger share of GDP—where the MFA is the new MBA, as the saying goes. The good news is that it is now a growing assumption in higher-education circles that the arts will be indispensable to a 21st-century education. The arts, it is increasingly understood, arm students with foundational dispositions—empathy, imagination, originality, curiosity—that will be fundamental to the jobs of the future, whatever and wherever they are. 

In the years to come, creative fields will, in any case, absorb a larger share of the workforce. And there are reassuring signs that creativity-based jobs may be among the last to be automated away. Meanwhile, if the arts can forge meaningful links to technology and science—and there is no better place to pursue such dialogues than in a modern university—then they will build up new reserves of energy and relevance. Strategic cultural planning creates a vibrant forum for such encounters, paving the way not only for the arts, but for the entire university enterprise. 

András Szántó, Ph.D., is Founder and President of András Szántó LLC, a New York advisory firm developing arts and cultural strategy for museums, foundations, and educational institutions worldwide.



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