Sustain Arts: Democratizing Arts Funding Data

Claire Rice is the deputy director and field director-Southeast Michigan of Sustain Arts. We interviewed her about Sustain Arts--a newly-launched fundraising tool that provides open access to arts and cultural philanthropy data. 

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1. What does your organization do? Tell us about your mission and your work. 

I’m Claire Rice, and I currently am the national director of the Sustain Arts project. Sustain Arts equips communities with meaningful data on arts and cultural activity, addressing the critical questions: Who creates art and culture? Who participates in art and culture? How are cultural programs funded? Sustain Arts is an intuitive online data platform (including analysis of long-term trends) that helps a wide variety of cultural stakeholders (funders, artists, administrators, creative entrepreneurs) make better decisions, create strategic collaborations, and engage more effectively with their communities. 

2. What role does data play in your work?

Data is crucial to us. It is the basis of our work in the arts: we aggregate data; make it more transparent; and help cultural leaders understand it better. We also use it internally, as a tool for our own learning. Our analysis helps us understand trends and themes in the arts in each Sustain Arts region (including SE Michigan/Detroit, the Bay Area/San Francisco, and soon Chicago). These trends not only help to inform regional cultural planning and policy, but also our own understanding of where Sustain Arts may want to focus new features or data acquisition in future years.  Specific to fundraising, we use historical funding data to understand the types of funders most likely to support capacity building project. We also use the data to find those that may be broadly interested in arts and culture in different regions, who may not yet know of the possibilities inherent in data and transparency in the arts. 

3. Has developing the Sustain Arts tool influenced your approach to finding your own funding? Have you learned anything surprising from the data you’ve collected?

It’s been great fun to use our own tool for prospect research, making sure we’ve approached relevant funders and discovering new possibilities for support. I’m always surprised when I uncover a local funder who supports the arts, but flies somewhat “under the radar” in terms of their grantmaking; it’s worthwhile to engage them in conversations about their values and priorities. It’s quite rewarding to learn so much from our own tool! 

4. Outside of funding data, what other aspect of the Sustain Arts data do you anticipate will be most useful to users, from both nonprofit organizations and foundations?

We’ve heard various propositions about how Sustain Arts can be useful from a wide variety of sources. Our beta testers have used Sustain Arts to: 

  • Find potential partner organizations (either larger or smaller than your own)
  • Create a landscape assessment for a strategic planning process
  • Identify pockets of cultural activity and "arts deserts”  
  • Identify zip codes with high (or low) arts participation for targeted marketing efforts
  • Understand potential audiences and settings for programming
  • Create community engagement strategies for specific demographic communities 

5. How can data sharing and sector-wide transparency benefit arts funding?

Equity of access to data, and overall data transparency, are core values of Sustain Arts. In fact, one of our most recent grants was not from a funder’s arts grantmaking program, but rather their transparency in philanthropy portfolio.  For too long, understanding the arts funding landscape has been the purview of large organizations who can afford access to expensive data resources and/or have the staff to do extensive research on funding opportunities. Open access to funding data, in an easy to use, free platform can not only increase funding opportunities for smaller and mid-size organizations, but can also hold the funding community increasingly accountable for the types of investments they have been making, both historically, and into the future. 

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Claire Rice is the Deputy Director of Harvard University’s Sustain Arts project. Previously, she served as Interim Director of Education and Community Engagement at UMS, a 135 year-old performing arts presenter bringing internationally renowned artists in dance, music, and theater to Ann Arbor, Michigan.