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What We Learned: Creating Connection 

In an art gallery, a person crouches behind a child who is using a white color pencil to write on a black piece of paper.
Photo Credit: Photo by Noriko Slusser
Generations connect at the San Jose Museum of Art, a Creating Connection participant organization.

A reflection on our decade-long collaboration Creating Connection, highlighting the successes, challenges, and lessons learned in our efforts to build public support for arts and culture.

In 2013, Arts Midwest partnered with social change agency Metropolitan Group to design and launch Creating Connection, a national movement focused on building public will for arts, culture, and creativity. The goal of this effort was to make creative expression a more recognized, valued, and expected part of everyday life.  

The project was rooted in a national research effort that studied how personal values relate to beliefs about and participation in arts and cultural activities. It drew on Metropolitan Groups’ building public will theory of social change, and worked with thousands of arts organizations and leaders across the United States to catalyze shifts around the way people support, advocate for, and expect creativity in their lives. 

A crowd seated in a theater applaud as two people stand.
Photo Credit: John Robson
Community members at the “Love Letters for New Bedford” private film screening, a project made possible through Creating Connection. Filmmaker Ethan de Aguiar recorded over 50 events, exhibits, and programs throughout the city. He and Beatriz Oliveira interviewed dozens of artists, which culminated in an award-winning 15-minute documentary that is currently on the film festival circuit. Photo by John Robson.

What We Did 

Over the project’s nearly 10-year span, our team shared research findings at national conferences, workshops, and trainings; provided grants, tools, and technical assistance to organizations looking to test the recommendations in their communications and programming; and encouraged those organizations to help their audiences to connect with each other through creative experiences.  

Our work on Creating Connection culminated in December 2022 after a year-long, place-based engagement with arts and cultural organizations and artists in New Bedford, Massachusetts. You can read more about that community’s work in our story, “Strengthening Community, One Love Letter at a Time.”   

Lessons Learned and Unlearned: 

As we wrap up this project, we reflect on some lessons learned and unlearned along the way. 

1. Building public will is a long game. A good game, but a long game. 

Building public will can be an effective way to create social change. Rooting your strategies in existing values, connecting with communities around the issues they care about, and creating shared buy-in are critical components of making progress around an issue area.  

But that work can take an incredible amount of time and effort.   

Shifting public opinion can (sometimes) happen quickly, as can rallying a base of supporters around a particular cause. However, the long work of shifting narratives and motivating the public to take sustained action around your issue can and does, take decades. 

2. It can be difficult to measure progress. 

One of our greatest challenges in this program was to identify the specific change we expected to see as a result of our work.  

In some public will building campaigns those results are more tangible – e.g., building toward clean water or energy. But in a field as broad as “the arts” or, even broader, “the creative sector,” it becomes difficult to identify a shared vision of success.  

How do you measure if you’ve been successful in building public will for arts, culture, or creativity? Is it increased participation in creative activities? Greater investment in the arts? Better infrastructure to support a creative workforce? More arts education in our schools?  

For many of our project partners, the answer was an enthusiastic, “Yes! All of the above!”  

But in our experience, moving all that work forward, all at once, all the time, took an unsustainable level of buy-in and investment. It also became difficult to measure success at that scale. We learned that it was far easier to work on a smaller scale – measuring the results of a marketing campaign, supporting a place-based community effort, or tracking the outcome of a bill or public policy shift.  

3. Messages matter, so do the messengers and the audience. 

We learned early on in this project that the key to a successful building public will campaign is to root your messages in existing community values. That holds true – the key to a strong campaign is a resonant, motivating message that is rooted in what people care about. 

Messengers make a big difference too. We’re not advocating for celebrity spokespeople – rather those trusted voices that can act as champions for the cause.  

The audience, though, might be one of the biggest factors in messaging campaigns. Who are you speaking to? How will your message resonate (or not) with them?  

This became one of our biggest lessons learned. In these polarized times, is there one message that will resonate with everyone? We know that there are a number of tested messages about the arts – including the work we did on Creating Connection and NASAA’s work to shift political will.  

Maybe a combination of messages, based on audience, is most effective at making change? 

A group of people seated around a table, engaged in discussion.
Photo Credit: John Robson
Creative Ambassadors meeting at artist Rhonda M. Fazio’s Interwoven to plan their Love Letters for New Bedford campaign. Photo by John Robson.

Wrapping Up + Gratitude 

As we wrap up our work on bringing Creating Connection trainings and workshops to communities across the country, we wish to extend our gratitude to the people who helped make it happen.  

Thank you to the many national, regional, and local foundations, corporations, and state arts agencies who supported this work. We extend special appreciation to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for their leadership investment in this project and to the Barr Foundation, for their steady support in the project’s final years.  

We also extend our thanks to the countless local advisors who joined us in asking big, ambitious questions about advancing social change, creating welcoming spaces, and leaning in to community values. 

For questions about building public will or how Creating Connection may be continuing, please contact the Metropolitan Group.