Anchor Arts Institutions: What Are They and How Can They Enrich Communities?

Former Mellon Fellow-in-Residence Karen Brooks Hopkins writes about her research on anchor institutions and their transformative potential for culture and their communities.

MASS MoCA John Cage Atlas Eclipticalis Picture.jpgNick Photinos conducts Bang on a Can fellows for a rendition of John Cage's Ryoanji. Photo courtesy of MASS MoCA/Kaelan Burkett.

Anchor cultural institutions are enduring organizations that remain in their geographic locations and play a vital role in their local communities and economies.  Ideally, the anchor mission is to align its institutional objective with place-based, economic, human, and intellectual resources to better the welfare of the community in which the anchor resides.

Critics contend that over time anchor organizations can become physically and psychologically distant from the communities they serve. As neighborhoods become revitalized, new concerns arise related to gentrification and displacement. These challenges must be grappled with at the deepest level.  In an article reporting on recent research from Nokia Bell Labs and the University of Cambridge, CityLab co-founder Richard Florida writes, “Culture is not a mere afterthought or an add-on, but a key contributor to urban economic growth.  But in fueling neighborhood growth and development, it has also played a role in rising housing prices, contributing to gentrification.”

“The solution is not less culture or less development,” Florida continues, “but ensuring that the cultural revitalization and redevelopment of our cities and neighborhoods can be channeled in more inclusive ways that benefit all urbanites.”  When a performing arts center or museum engages as a truly proactive, dynamic presence in its community, the results can build bridges, boost morale, and create opportunity.  

"Institutions are most impactful when they strive for deep and multifaceted connections with their communities."

Anchor institutions come in many dimensions, from sprawling performing arts campuses to nimble storefront arts incubators.  The institutions are most impactful when they strive for deep and multifaceted connections with their communities.  Our team sought to reveal new strategies for how anchor cultural institutions in transitioning communities can make maximum social, economic, and artistic impact.  It was, at heart, a concept aimed at gaining more respect for both institutions and communities.

Here are some key lessons learned after this three-year process:

  1. Community impact supersedes economic impact.  As we consider all kinds of data, the special facts pertaining to both history and the daily obstacles citizens contend with in their own communities must be considered as we create a business model and program strategy.  We examined data on segregation patterns and urban history, social and cultural characteristics, as well as demographic and socio-economic data.
  2. Our field has evolved from stand-alone individual organizations to multi-disciplinary arts centers and cultural districts.  The next phase might entail the formation of organically connected partner networks.  A successful future is one where we join forces with our partners of all kinds, including neighborhood and cross-sector partners, to make a cultural statement that is deep and speaks in one loud, powerful voice.
  3. The key to success in partnerships is human resources, ranging from bandwidth (hours of availability and raw skills), to potential board member exchanges, to existing social capital flowing from organizational affiliations.  If this learning is embraced by the sector, the value of a partnership or coalition may no longer be described through purely financial metrics, but with time spent and individuals impacted.

Our team consisted of Steven Wolff, the founding principal of AMS Planning & Research Corp, Bruno Carvalho, then an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Urban Studies at Princeton University, and myself.  To conduct our research, we investigated three sites:  (1) New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC, in Newark, NJ), (2) AS220 (a smaller visual and performing arts incubation organization in Providence, RI), and MASS MoCA (a large contemporary art museum in North Adams, MA).  Each of our sites has a different set of historical and community challenges, and our work concentrated on how these “anchors” could fully embrace that role and make the greatest impact on local residents and visitors.

AMS initially gathered organizational data (financial, ticketing, and program) to provide insight regarding the context within which our sites operate.  Combined with data from Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research, summary observations include:

  • Each anchor is located in a culturally rich area characterized by a higher presence of, and a greater demand for, arts and cultural programming along with a more robust supply of personnel, organizations, and support.  But each is also located in an area with lower levels of employment, income, and educational attainment.
  • All three anchors operate in close proximity to, and often in partnership with, at least one major institution of higher education.
  • A majority of ticket-buyers and audiences for all three organizations live within 50 miles of their respective anchor.  While a majority of donors and other funders are located within 50 miles of each anchor, the majority of contributions are not consistently drawn from within that area.
  • Staff view each anchor as an impactful contributor to their respective city identity.
  • Based on staff perceptions, each anchor’s facilities and its economic impacts take a back seat to the artistic content and less measurable, intangible concepts about how they engage the community.
"A symbiotic relationship between arts programming and marketing in an institution is crucial to the creation of bold, innovative programs."

We identified key attributes that we believe exemplify the “anchor role.”  First and foremost, program leads the way.  A symbiotic relationship between arts programming and marketing in an institution is crucial to the creation of bold, innovative programs.  The creation of partnerships that are mutually respectful, financially fair, and inclusive are other intrinsic components of the anchor role, and there must be various entry points for community involvement.  The anchor institution must also have a unifying visual that exemplifies its mission and brand, promoting a vision for its 21st century cultural district and status as a destination spot. 

Some of our findings were surprising.  For example, we learned that all three of our sites scored high numbers related to city identity (residents/visitors are aware that these centers exist – see chart below), but the results were much lower in the areas of “civic leadership and economic development.” 

Anchor Blog Graph.pngAreas of perceived impact.

NJPAC engages with diversity through innovative cultural and educational arts programming. It partners extensively with the Newark Museum, Newark Public Libraries, NAACP, and other local organizations to host and produce content. NJPAC’s audience diversity has grown exponentially in the past five years, illustrating its commitment to inclusion. From 2013 to 2016, NJPAC’s Latinx audience increased from 3 percent to 13 percent, African American audience from 16 percent to 22 percent, and Asian audience from 3 percent to 9 percent.  Its staff believes that diverse programming is an area in which the institution makes the most impact. 

Our research found thatAS220has a significant community base, with eight times as many volunteers as employees.  It collaborates extensively with local educational institutions and has seven network partnerships.  It provides a home for resident companies and offers space, experience, and personnel to local arts organizations.  Its support for local arts and artists is one of its greatest perceived impacts.

MASS MoCA drives regional tourism through its world-class art programs, leading to $22 million in local economic development each year.  Mass MoCA personnel are connected through a network of primarily educational and arts cultural organizations.  Its staff believes that promotion of regional tourism is an area in which the institution makes the most impact. 

Anchor Blog Dance.pngA performance featuring Ballet Hispanico’s BHdos at NJPAC—staff believe that diverse programming is an area in which the institution makes the most impact. Photo courtesy of NJPAC.

We observed that while these sites engaged in many partnerships, they struggled to enumerate the impact of these collaborations.  We noted that the way our sites most consistently partnered with others was by offering free or low-cost space.  In order to move communities forward, more robust and in-depth ways of working together might be considered beyond providing space.

Cultural organizations of all types and sizes are struggling with issues of money, audience, and diversity as they try to find the best and most efficient way to make an impact.  The lack of resources and, in many cases, over-cautionary leadership has allowed many organizations to rely on longstanding programs with supposedly predictable outcomes.  It is our contention that taking on the anchor role by embracing bold, visionary programs that expand destination status and connect with local residents will bring more money, more audiences, and more impact for each of our sites.  We considered ideas such as board exchanges, themed city-wide festivals, and long-term, socially-oriented program initiatives as examples of program ideas that reflect the anchor mission.

Large organizations will continue to have powerful boards, financial strength, visibility, and massive expenses and commitments.  Small organizations will be spontaneous and often more original and diverse, but have less capacity.  We need to foster and encourage true, meaningful, and mutually respectful partnerships between small and large organizations for the benefit of all.  Cross- sector partnerships between cultural and traditional anchors, such as Eds and Meds, will move both culture and community forward.

AS220 Mercantile Block Picture.jpgAS220 says support for local arts and artists is one of its greatest perceived impacts. Photo courtesy of AS220/Chris Anderson.

In the year since my fellowship concluded, the Mellon Foundation has helped me take the research to a number of conferences.  During this time, I had the opportunity to travel to Strasbourg (Council for Europe); Salzburg (Salzburg Global Seminar) with Steve Wolff; Detroit (Grantmakers in the Arts) with Steve Wolff; New York (APAP) with Steve Wolff and Shey Rivera from AS220; New York (special session for the leaders of all national arts service organizations) with Steve Wolff; London (Exhibition Row, City of London, and Barbican); Dubai (The Global Cultural Districts Network Conference); Seattle (a roundtable of performing arts center leaders) with Steve Wolff and John Schreiber of NJPAC; Los Angeles (constituents of the LA Music Center, City of Los Angeles, and other cultural leaders), and Denver (Americans for the Arts National Conference).  Finally, Steven Wolff and I presented a NCAR webinar, which you can view here.

It has been a remarkable journey.   

Along the way and with a range of colleagues, we discussed critical topics such as the long-term effects of chronic underfunding, the substantial lack of respect and marginalization of the field, and the struggle to make partnership and cross-sector engagement work between large and small organizations.  Issues of gentrification and equity were raised, along with powerful concerns related to diversity and inclusion.

"Organizations must be open to change if they are going to remain relevant, successful, and expansive in their service to audiences, artists, and communities."

Arts organizations have many problems and challengers, yet the field continually shows amazing resilience and the ability to carry on despite the obstacles.  But, to be truly effective, organizations must be open to change if they are going to remain relevant, successful, and expansive in their service to audiences, artists, and communities.  The goal is to encourage anchor institutions to expand their horizons programmatically and offer in-depth services to citizens and visitors.

So let’s vision out this future.  What happens when we go full on creative?  What happens when we partner at the deepest level?  What happens when we truly live the anchor role and embrace what is specifically unique and special in each of our communities? 

If we embrace these questions and seek answers for them, we will be much more successful in attracting human and financial resources.  Our communities will benefit and may just get the respect they deserve.

Karen Brooks Hopkins was a senior fellow at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2015- 2017 and served as president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1999-2015.  She currently serves as a Nasher Haemisegger Fellow at The National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University.  For a bibliography of additional research and writings on anchor cultural institutions, visit NCAR’s website.

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