Report examines region’s Arts Service Organizations

August 15, 2005

Boston –The Boston Foundation today released a report entitled Arts Service Organizations: A Study of Impact and Capacity, third in a series of Understanding Boston reports designed to outline the economic importance of the region’s cultural sector; explore the funding challenges that it faces; and offer recommendations to enhance the sector’s resources. The focus of the new report is on organizations that play a critical but often unrecognized role in the region’s cultural life. All three reports are available at the Boston Foundation’s website.

“The health and strength of the region’s Arts Service Organizations is vital to the cultural life of Greater Boston and to the quality of life we all enjoy,” said Ann McQueen, a Senior Program Officer at the Boston Foundation. “This is a chance for organizations that serve as silent partners to the arts to get some much needed attention and support.”

Service organizations play a critical role for many nonprofits, including arts and cultural groups. They provide technical support and professional services, create savings by making it possible for small organizations to team up and purchase supplies collaboratively. They often enable small groups to accomplish collaboratively goals they do not have the staff or the expertise to achieve individually.

Examples of service organizations for the arts include ArtsBoston, which provides marketing and ticketing services to expand audiences and increase revenue for performers, serving many small performing groups, and StageSource, a member-organization that provides actors and producers with a wide variety of professional services.

Because of the significance of cultural organizations in the economic life of Massachusetts, the Cultural Task Force, a representative group of 64 leaders from nonprofit, philanthropic and corporate sectors was convened by the Boston Foundation in 2003 to explore nonprofit cultural organizations in the Commonwealth and propose strategies to strengthen their revenues and resources. The Task Force studied best practices nationwide, conducted surveys and current economic environment for cultural nonprofits and spoke with members of the cultural community.

These efforts resulted in three strategies that were determined to offer the most significant help to cultural organizations: sustained state investment in cultural facilities, the continued development of cultural tourism, and the development of better and stronger service organizations to support cultural groups directly.

In the current report, the focus is on Arts Service Organizations, and the recommendation is that the region has a real need for “fewer, stronger” organizations, to be achieved by strategic alliance or mergers among existing organizations.

“Organizations in the nonprofit sector in general need to become more strategic in their thinking,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “When groups can join together with a shared purpose and vision, everyone wins. This is certainly true among arts service organizations, many of which are simply too small to gain the traction their clients need.”

The current research follows an earlier initiative. In 2003, the Boston Foundation launched a two year initiative with support from an anonymous foundation to strengthen arts service organizations with $360,000 in new funding. The goal then was to strengthen this key group of non-profits and while creating an opportunity to find out more about them.

The research revealed that arts service organizations vary widely in shape, size and mission. They do not produce or present art or artists, but serve and enhance organizations that do. They can be geographical in scope, or serve a specific discipline—dance, for example, or sculpture—or be defined by the specific service they provide. In some cases ethnicity or language can define an arts service organization’s mission or focus.

Services typically provided can include access to shared health insurance, professional services related to grant making or advocacy, marketing and promotional support. These services can be critical to the survival of arts organizations, but research undertaken by the Task Force made it clear that in many cases, the arts service organizations do not have the scale or funding they need to serve local arts and culture in an effective way. This is not a reflection on the service provided, which are typically expert, but on the scale of the typical art service organization. Of 14 organizations examined closely, ten had two or fewer staff, all but three had budgets below $500,000 and many operated at an annual deficit.

The arts service organizations in the Boston metropolitan region clearly have great potential to play a more robust role in the cultural sector, but this potential can best be realized by combining a select few of the existing organizations to increase capacity, impact and visibility, according to the regional leaders gathered by the Boston Foundation into the Cultural Taskforce. Merger and alliance will not be the best way forward for all of these organizations, but the report urges each arts service organization to consider if this is the way forward to further its particular mission.

Funding provided to support report findings

To support the findings of the report, the Boston Foundation has also issued a Request For Proposals to area arts service organizations which represents a funding opportunity to encourage strategic alliances, mergers and a sharing of back-shop operations. A total of $500,000 will be provided over the next two years in the form of grants to qualified organizations to be used to achieve these goals. The money has been provided by an anonymous foundation. Grants made in response to the RFP (which is also available on the Boston Foundation website at ) are expected to be relatively large and few. The goal is to better serve the cultural community by helping ASOs to achieve greater strength, capacity and clout.

The process of applying for a grant should begin with a letter of inquiry on behalf of a lead organization, or a partnership between two or more organizations. A bidders conference will be held at the Boston Foundation Thursday, September 8, from 4 to 5 p.m. to discuss the process.


The Boston Foundation, one of the nation's oldest and largest community foundations, has an endowment of almost $675 million. In 2004, the Foundation made $51 million in grants to nonprofit organizations, and received gifts of $41 million. The Boston Foundation is made up of 750 separate charitable funds, which have been established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a civic leader, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to build community. For more information about the Boston Foundation and its grant making, visit , or call 617-338-1700.