The New York City Cultural Innovation Fund: Evaluation Synthesis
Working on behalf of the Foundation Center in New York and in partnership with Gabi Fitz, I conducted an evaluation synthesis of the US cultural innovation landscape with a specific focus on identifying ways cultural strategies have been used to increase equity and the resilience of underserved populations. The primary purpose of this knowledge synthesis was to provide the Rockefeller Foundation staff and peers in the cultural innovation space with a broader context for considering the findings of an independent evaluation of the New York City Cultural Innovation Fund. The synthesis was designed to help key audiences understand the state of play, common concepts, challenges, questions, and key lessons from creative organizations who are already engaging innovative strategies and practices. Key findings were synthesized from a range of reports, evaluations, and program documents that described a range of approaches taken toward integrating the arts, culture, and creativity with equity focused community development and resilience-planning efforts. This included a synthesis of the attitudes, values, processes, language, resources, skills, leadership styles, relationships, and organizational structures that support shifts in practice and enhanced innovation. A secondary objective of this synthesis approach was to test whether it might be possible to automate deep learning processes like this in the future.
Key findings from this evaluation synthesis included the observation that while innovative cultural practices are often motivated by the needs of surrounding communities, they are just as often inspired by the need for organizations to adapt to an increasingly dynamic operating environment. As a result, organizations are as often the beneficiaries of cultural innovation as the communities they serve. This underscores the importance of organizational intention and orientation when it comes to adopting new creative practices. This focus on designing for organizational adaptability dominates the lessons gleaned from this review. However, the review also surfaced new insights relating to funding trends and capital needs in the area of cultural innovation, and the absence of a common language to describe creative activity in this field (‘creative placemaking,’ ‘community arts,’ ‘arts and social practice,’ and ‘arts and community development,’ amongst other terms, are often used synonymously). This work resulted in the publication Key Lessons from the Field of Cultural Innovation, which preceded a more comprehensive evaluation of the Fund’s investments to date conducted by Holly Sidford and Nick Rabkin.