In the mid-1960's the Ford Foundation introduced the concept of organizational “stabilization” to the arts field, investing over $60 million to strengthen America’s symphony orchestras. The focus on developing arts organizations into institutions with large endowments provided the Foundation with a vehicle that might insure the organizations’ long-term survival. Thirty years later Ford was curious to learn how well the idea had worked, how widely it had taken root, and how it had evolved in the intervening years. In 1992, the Foundation turned to consultants from WolfBrown to conduct comprehensive field research that would consider the history and effectiveness of arts stabilization grant making.
The consultants undertook what ultimately became a four-phase project to determine what had become of the Ford model, what the term stabilization had come to mean in the contemporary world of philanthropy, and what refinements were being introduced to serve the field more effectively. The first phase involved analysis of over 30 stabilization programs across the country, historical research with other foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts, and interviews with more than 200 people. The resulting three-volume report, Arts Stabilization: An Emerging Field, contained findings of such interest Ford felt the field should have an opportunity to respond. The consultants offered funders, consultants, and policymakers an opportunity to review the draft of a condensed version of the report entitled, Rethinking Stabilization: Strengthening Arts Organizations.
In the next phase of work, the consultants and Ford sought direct field input in a series of 10 meetings. More than 200 people gathered in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. They discussed the initial concept's fascinating evolution. Stabilization had begun as a fairly straightforward drive in the late 60's to build endowments. By the 1980's, it had evolved into an effort to build better control over balance sheets and financial planning. By century’s end, stabilization had come to mean programs that could build capacity for long-term sustainability in an environment of ongoing change. Participants elaborated on the findings that “marketplace,” “community,” and earned income had become more important factors, with the need for management to be keenly sensitive to constituencies and audiences. The field response helped the consultants refine their series of critical learnings – among them that sustainability no longer means growth, and that artistic health is central to any stabilization effort.
Ultimately the research and response process suggested the need to improve evaluation of grantmaking programs and indicated the value of sharing what is learned. With the consultants' presentation of the research findings to 300 public funders at the 1995 meeting of the National Association of Local Arts Agencies and the 1996 publication of Rethinking Stabilization, the word was spread further. Shortly after, The New York Times and other major publications carried stories on stabilization, bringing the issues and information derived from the consultants’ work to the public at large.
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