ArtsWave Cincinnati is the oldest and largest united arts fund in the country

Funding sources for many arts organizations tends to be a hodgepodge of foundation, government, corporate, and patron support, which makes ArtsWave Cincinnati remarkably unique – it is the Greater Cincinnati region’s local arts agency and the first and largest community campaign for the arts in the country.

ArtsWave, in its earliest incarnation, was founded in 1927 with the nation’s first challenge grant. Mr. and Mrs. Charles P. and Anna Sinton Taft offered a $1 million endowment for the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts if the community could match it by raising $2.5 million. The community rallied and the endowment was created; the signatures that were collected are on now display at the Taft Museum of Art.

“There is a legacy of the whole community pitching in that started the organization,” says ArtsWave President and CEO Alecia Kintner.

In 1949, the organization, then known as the Fine Arts Fund, decided to try a model of fundraising similar to that of the successful United Way: as a united arts campaign, with fundraising efforts driven by the business and private sectors. (Fund for the Arts in Louisville had the same idea the same year, so there is a little bit of argument over where it started.)

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Art Museum, Taft Museum of Art, and Cincinnati Opera all benefit from ArtsWave’s support. So does Elementz, an arts organization that works with inner-city youth through hip hop music and dance, spoken word, and visual arts; Bi-Okoto, a professional performing company with a repertoire of over ninety traditional Nigerian dances, dance dramas, and operas; Pones Inc., a guerilla dance company that uses site-specific “pedestrian-inspired” movement to connect and collaborate; and PAR Projects, an arts education/community engagement/placemaking initiative in the city’s Northside community.

“It’s a really wide variety, from art museums, the symphony, and the opera to very small startup arts organizations, educational arts groups, groups that serve very specific constituencies, and cultural and ethnic groups,” says Rebecca Bromels, Senior Director of Communications and Engagement.

Over the years the dollar amounts have grown, with tens of thousands of donors supporting over 100 arts and community organizations large and small each year. Last year alone, $12,250,000 was raised from 42,000 donors.

“There are united arts fund across the country, but we are the first and largest,” says Kintner. “There are similar funds in Louisville, Charlotte, and Milwaukee, but because of the length of time this organization has existed and the efforts to provide collaborative services, I think we are able to do more simply because we have such long relationships with these institutions. We have [raised] a sector that is collaborative.”

As progressive as this model is, Cincinnati is a city that does not have any local government funding for the arts, making ArtsWave not just exceptional, but also necessary. “In other cities often the city or county government [provides funding to the arts] in some fashion, but in Cincinnati the ArtsWave campaign is the major funder in the area,” Kintner says.

Part of the reason for this is because the Greater Cincinnati region is a politically complicated one, including not just the city of Cincinnati, Ohio itself but also portions of southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. “We’re talking about a complicated political landscape for everything for transit to safety to schools,” she says. “This region is complex for the three states and multi-county shape to it. We try to have those conversations a lot because we’d like this to be a shared responsibility.”

In 2010 the Fine Arts Fund was re-christened as ArtsWave when the organization adopted the community impact grant-making initiative.

“The old model was that an organization would raise the money and divide it up,” Kintner explains. “The new model is asking for demonstration and evidence of impact in community.”

To figure out how to provide measurement and talk about it, ArtsWave created an Impact Measurement Director, Dr. Tara Townsend, and that position has evolved under her impact as Chief Impact Services Officer. Her role in the organization is a unique position in the country.

Last month, ArtsWave officially announced its latest endeavor: the Blueprint for Collective Action for the Arts.

“The Blueprint really represents for us a shift from just demonstrating to actually driving impact in the arts,” Townsend says. “The impact the arts has on a community and society at large has been demonstrated. What is new to the sector is this concept of actually intentionally driving impact and creating programs to produce an outcome at the community level and not necessarily at the organizational or sector level.”

As a united arts fund, ArtsWave functions on an institutional level while still retaining its grassroots motivations with a focus on driving strategic planning, sector capacity-building, and community impact.

Townsend continues, “What this shift ultimately did was give us a framework by which to look at the work of organizations and how that work impacted the broader community. Our community at large thought that the impact the arts had on the region created a more vibrant regional community and affected the community. We framed our grant-making around having organizations look at broader outcomes – what organizations are doing and what was most impactful.”

The Blueprint supports work that resonates with the community and what the community finds impactful. “That led us to create more of a focus on areas that were important to the region as a whole, where we could move the needle and make an impact.”

No single organization alone is going to be able to move that needle, so they look at what a single organization can do to contribute to that collective action. They then look at whether organizations are achieving those goals. “It’s about the collective action of the sector; ours in combination with other sectors as well.”

Kintner  says, “It gives us a way to put the arts into bigger community conversations and ensure that leaders in the community understand the value and the impact arts can have in understanding bigger community challenges. So often arts are not at the table or siloed. We’re really trying to integrate the actions of the community.”

This includes neighborhood revitalization and beautification efforts in high need areas identified by the Local Initiative Support Corporation, working with community organizations to ensure the arts are a component in their revitalization plans and with neighborhood corporations to use the arts to achieve broader community goals. For example, ArtsWave helped facilitate workshops on conflict resolution led by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in the Avondale neighborhood, where one major community objective was to reduce violence.

Along with the Blueprint, ArtsWave is debuting two new digital tools: the CincyArtsGuide, a regional arts calendar to help residents find more of what’s going on in the region; and the National Endowment for the Arts-supported Arts Atlas Cincinnati, a soon-to-launch online interactive mapping tool that contains data about all of the arts assets in the region, including public art, arts organizations, and community gardens.

“We have a very broad definition of ‘arts assets and resources,'” says Townsend. “The purpose of the two is really to encourage strategic investment in arts programing within the region. [The goal of the Arts Atlas is to] use it to identify gaps and needs in programming, and encourage organizations to use it to identify areas for outreach and identify communities where there’s a need for arts programming and activity.”