Studio to School

Sustainability Narrative (Reflection #8 part 3/3)

RiverStars Performing Arts Sustainability Narrative        10/31/16

By Lindsey Gillette and Gina Angelique

The sustainability of arts programs has long been the greatest challenge artists face on their journeys of keeping art present and relevant in people’s lives.  The founding artists of RiverStars Performing Arts came from a history of seeing great arts programming come and go in the city of San Diego, based largely on the ability of an organization to beef up their development team in much greater proportion to their artistic teams, essentially betraying the term ‘not-for-profit’ and focusing in great part on acquiring funds for ongoing operations.  The problem may be even more substantial for isolated rural communities, like ours, where a large percentage of people live in poverty and where no corporations exist to fill up the ‘corporate giving’ category.  With around 40 nonprofits, several school based programs and sports, there is a saturation of “asks” to businesses and individuals in our valley.  Indeed, almost none of the income streams available to arts organizations in or near major cities are available to the arts programs in poor, rural communities, where they may be most needed.

When it come to contributed income, local individual contributions are virtually obsolete as people struggle to meet their basic needs.  In our community, Evergreen Elementary school reports over 9% of students qualify as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act and over 12% of our high school students are not adequately sheltered.  The unemployment rate in the valley was near 9.7% in 2014 but it is likely higher now due to few available living wage jobs and Rough and Ready Mill, the largest local employer shutting down most of its production in early 2016.

Other income streams like grant giving are tricky.  Using an umbrella organization with a community development mission like IVCDO is sustainable for the program’s administrative needs, but it limits the grants for which we can apply.  Setting up our own nonprofit is not in our best interest because of the amount of work/extra funding needed to maintain it.  As far as grants go, the timing of the award does not always fit, the specifications do not always match, grant awards can be small and short term, and it is challenging to find funds to pay for grant writing.

Unfortunately, rather than adapting to the changing tides of reality, most foundations stick like glue to their rigid rule of law….that support for even the best and most effective programs will never be ongoing, but every other year at best and often project based.  It is our belief that there is a natural, reciprocal relationship being betrayed by traditional and out of date practices.  It makes sense that if arts educators are the ‘boots on the ground’ doing effective work in rural communities, that foundations whose very expertise is in acquisition and dispersal of funds would be more than willing to carry on their partnerships.  In this way, progress toward sustainability would be made.  Artists could focus on the strength, depth and quality of their programs while funders hold them accountable to donors and kept their resources flowing when excellent work abounds.  But in the absence of this much needed industry wide epiphany, artists continue to search for ways their programs can be continued, especially when their impact seems to be substantial on the very lives of the constituents they serve.

In the face of these challenges, we do what artists do best and create innovative solutions.  Despite the high poverty rate and low income, there is a demographic in our community that has not been tapped.  While the industry is not new, the recreational cannabis business is booming in our valley.  Many growers have expressed interest in tithing themselves to support local nonprofits.  We are now on their radar and are accepting anonymous cash donations.  We are also pitching our program, just as we would to funders, to growers looking to give back.  In this way, we are actively encouraging a new tradition of giving in our community.

We are also working with our partner, IVCDO to set up passive fundraisers.  Among them, Drive for 5 (a subscription program that draws $5 per month from donors accounts) and Change up for Kids (local businesses ask if the customer would like to round up to the next dollar amount for cultural youth programming).

Earned income opportunities present their challenges too.  Often programs can quickly go down the rabbit hole when dreaming up ways of selling their work.  Often the challenge with these strategies comes down to remaining in alignment with the mission of the program, other times it comes down to comparing the cost of input vs output.

From the beginning of this project, we knew that the creation of quality, professional teaching artists was essential to our program.  This year we are combining this idea with our firm grasp on Arts Integration tactics and monetizing it.  We are developing workshops for certified teachers and professional teaching artists to share skills that they can use right away.  Further, we aim to create publications available for purchase on this subject.

The Enrichment portion of our program has always been a decent earned income stream, so we are leveraging this opportunity incrementally more.  Selling $20 front row seats, DVDs and T-Shirts are in the works. These are low cost/low energy ways of making the most of temporary art.

Regarding overall sustainability, we recognize that there are two main areas of focus for our sustainability efforts.  The first is in regards to program and staff sustainability.  RiverStars Performing Arts seeks to crack the rock solid nut of how sustainability might be achieved for an effective program in an isolated rural community.  In so doing, we have held two important tenets on our quest.  First, we believe that sustainability is not only about financial resources, but both the education of new arts educators as well as processes by which a program operates must first be sustainable.  The harder effort of stabilizing a flow of financial resources can only follow when a program and its teachers are truly sustainable.  To that end we hold a second major tenet, that traditional fundraisers zap staff energy from programming and rarely raise the funds needed.  So, we are committed to avoiding the trap of turning our program into an event making machine that will never keep up with the financial needs of our programming.

As far as teacher sustainability, RiverStars operates with a weekly pedagogy class which is integral to ongoing sustainability.  Through this class, an arts education specialist, or Lead Educator, galvanizes and focuses the artists team energy and efforts into a cohesive and effective, well rounded program.  It is here where quality and content are constantly moderated.  The budget allocation for ‘assistants’ doubles as a teacher training program, working on developing new arts teachers for rural communities.  The staff of our program is committed to sharing leadership in a circular fashion.  This division of labor helps prevent the oh-so-common “Leader Burnout.”  We regularly check in with each other and truthful self-evaluations are encouraged.  We have created a culture of respecting others limits and stepping up when we can.

Student participation is sustainable by holding programs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, ensuring a regular flow and progression of students for the program.  Content remains new and fresh because the students are an integral part of creating the material for shows.  And, the presence of both enrichment and sequential programming engages participants at different levels of commitment and talent, ensuring long term sustainability for participation. We feel we have hit all these mechanisms for true sustainability with regard to programming and staffing.

With the staff and programming sustainability in place we are ready to focus on our sustainability efforts with regard to financial resources is where ore greatest challenges lie.  This is where we seek to turn challenges into opportunities and leverage our partners for success.

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