Some thoughts on CADA’s accountability report

CADA’s report to the community came out today. So (as you’ve probably guessed if you know me) I’ve played around with the numbers a bit, and there’s some interesting stuff to be gleaned. Fair warning, I was mostly interested in comparing the inputs and outcomes between the cornerstone orgs and the non-cornerstones, since this is a big part of the report. To be clear, I don’t believe that cornerstones and non-cornerstones are in opposition, as both groups are totally necessary for a healthy arts ecosystem. But, because of the way the stats are presented — often emphasizing the importance of the cornerstones in terms of attracting audience and paying artists — I thought it was worth breaking down what those numbers are saying.

Operating grant investment (all graphs are from the CADA report)

If you look at a combination of operating grants, emergency resiliency funds, and project grants, the Cornerstones get about 46% of total investment, and non-cornerstones get 54%. That’s about the same as the operating funding percentages that CADA gives (47/53), but changes quite a bit if you add in the $2 million in bridge funding, to 61% of total funding for cornerstones and 39% for non-Cornerstones (NCs). Still, that $2 million grant is a pretty massive outlier, and was (from my understanding) not a CADA initiative, so it probably shouldn’t make its way into the comparison. 46/54 seems like a more fair split to use.

With that 46%, Cornerstones generate about 61% of overall expenditures and 61% of artistic expenditures (odd coincidence that 61% is their share of overall funding including the bridge funding). That means they’re generating more economic activity with their funding than the NCs, which makes sense — it tends to be easier to leverage large amounts of money, so you’d hope their funding would go further. They also have 57% of full-time equivalent staff, so again, batting above their weight in terms of stability/employment with that funding. I’d guess that’s because once your basic operating costs are covered, a higher percentage of your budget can go to other staff, but I’m really not basing that on anything but a hunch. From the stats here, there’s no question that, in terms of dollars moving around the economy, investment in cornerstones goes further than investment in NCs.

Here’s where things start getting interesting. With 46% of the funds, Cornerstones produce just 17% of the total arts activities. This isn’t exactly shocking, since productions from companies like the CPO, Calgary Opera or Theatre Calgary are much more elaborate than smaller orgs can manage, with higher production values in general and more staff, artistic and otherwise, involved in each production. But the difference is pretty illustrative when you think of it in terms of inputs and outputs for CADA. To get one cornerstone activity, CADA has to spend about $943. To get one non-Cornerstone activity, they only have to spend $233, or about a quarter as much. And again, that’s ignoring the $2 million in bridge funding, which would bring the cost up to $1,733 per activity, or more than 7x more than an NC activity.

But the number of activities doesn’t really matter if people don’t show up. Cornerstones do really well here. With just 17% of activities, they generate 34% of attendance, so about double what you’d expect. On a per-activity basis, they can’t be beat. Compare that to NC festivals, who hold more total activities than cornerstones (21%), and roughly the same number of events per organization as cornerstones (242 for fests, 253 for cornerstones), but only bring in 16% of the audience. Or professional presenting organizations, at 38% of activities and 20% of audience. The only category that holds a candle to cornerstones is community organizations, with 21% of activities and 30% of audiences, or about 50% higher attendance than you’d expect. And they do that with only 9% of the total operating funding, making them by far the best return on investment, if attendance is what you’re after.

In fact, when you look at the cost per audience member, the NCs seem to be a much better value overall. CADA has to invest $2.10 to get one cornerstone audience member, versus $1.25 with NCs. If you break that down into the three NC categories of Community, Professional and Festival, you get costs of and $0.35, $1.68 and $0.97 per audience member, respectively. Not all organizations’ mandates focus on generating attendance or holding public activities, so the portion of their funding that’d be dedicated to public-facing activities will vary, but that’s still a pretty significant difference. (If you’re curious, the bridge funding brings the cost per audience member up to $3.86 for cornerstones.)¹

I’d be curious to know how much of the NC attendance comes from partnering on events or activities with larger organizations. Those sorts of collaborations are pretty common in my experience, and allow the smaller company to benefit from a much larger marketing reach without spending their own resources. I doubt it’s enough to account for the whole gap, but that sort of piggybacking almost definitely plays some role here.

Side note: Just for clarity, those numbers aren’t the organization’s total cost per audience member or activity, which is probably much higher when you factor in all the different funding sources. I’m strictly going off the CADA investment, as from a funder’s perspective, it makes sense to judge activity relative to your own investment, as that’s what you’re in control of.

I already talked about paying staff, but CADA also tracks the hiring of artists (I believe salaried artists are included in staff, but I’m not positive). On that front, cornerstones are more likely to pay their artists set fees, as opposed to an honorarium, paying 100% of their artists, versus 88% for non-cornerstones. But, with 46% of funds, cornerstones only hire about 20% of artist-fee artists, ignoring those who only get honoraria. Again, it looks like non-cornerstones are paying more people, but based on the overall artistic spending (remember, cornerstones pay about 61% of the total artistic expenses) they’re probably paying them less individually. Which would make sense, given that fee schedules for artists are usually based on the size of the organization, and vary dramatically by discipline: a film festival paying $60 for a short film and a visual artist getting thousands to set up an installation both likely count as one artist hired.

So who provides the best return on investment for CADA’s (and by extension, Calgary’s) dollars? Well, it depends how you look at it. If you’re talking purely from a cold, hard, rational economics perspective, it means that CADA gets more events and more attendance for every dollar it puts into non-cornerstones, but more employment in the arts sector for every dollar in cornerstones. Investing in non-cornerstones leads to more artists getting paid, but investing in cornerstones leads to artists getting paid more.

For NCs, this is actually something that could easily make its way into a case for sponsorship. Calgary’s smaller organizations give more bang for your buck, with a much lower cost per audience member or per event. If a major sponsor decided to spread its funding across a half-dozen smaller companies instead of one large one, its logo would reach more people in total, spread around more (smaller) events.

Above all, though, it really means that the arts ecosystem is complex, and probably shouldn’t be reduced to cornerstones as the anchor and NCs as filling in the gaps. The non-cornerstones absolutely benefit from the cornerstones’ ability to provide (relatively) stable employment in the arts, which helps keep a regular pool of artists in the city. Cornerstones benefit from the NCs’ ability to try new and different events much more easily, to serve more people and find new ways to bring them into the arts, and to supplement the salaries of artists with commissions and exhibitions. Both have essential roles to play in a thriving community.

I also want to say, I think a purely economic lens is the wrong way to talk about the arts. Cost per audience member or cost per activity tells you something about your investment, but nothing about the quality of the art, or the impact it has on that audience member, or anything beyond a narrow return on investment. It’s a small part of a larger picture and far from the most important part. But the numbers in CADA’s report tell a pretty powerful story about the important role of non-cornerstone organizations play in Calgary’s arts ecosystem. Far from just filling in the gaps left by the bigger orgs, they’re doing more with less, in ways that fall outside the lens of economic activity.


¹ A few follow-up thoughts on this metric: One part of my analysis has been bugging me since I put it out, which is that the idea of “cost to CADA per activity/audience member” would reward CADA under-investing in organizations. If there were two otherwise equal groups with, say, 100 events a year, and CADA invested a dollar in one, and $1000 in the other, that would mean they’re getting a much better “value” from the first group at only $.01 per event, versus $10/event for the other. This is the trouble with not knowing the true cost per event and how CADA’s funds specifically are being used.

Another way of looking at the same numbers is to look from the organizations’ view, rather than CADA’s. In that case, you would say that CADA is only investing $1.25 per audience member into the non-cornerstones, versus $2.10 per audience member in the cornerstones. Or CADA is putting $943 into each cornerstone event, versus $233 for each NC event. From that perspective, it’s less about the value CADA gets from its investment, and more about how CADA values the work the organizations are doing and the extent to which it supports each audience member and activity.

Neither view is a complete picture. The first sort of treats the funding as the cause and the events/audience as the effect; the second does the opposite; the reality is in between. But just including one without the other hasn’t been sitting right for me, so there it is.