Welcome to GIA’s 2011 Talk Back Series!

This blog is a dynamic forum for professionals and thought leaders working in, or making observations on, the arts. Throughout the year, GIA will invite guest writers to address current social, political, economic, and creative topics affecting arts funders and the national arts community. Each voice will be distinct (and uncensored) and each guest writer will bring unique experiences, perspectives, and knowledge.

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Art & Technology

Hello all,

My name is Brian Cavanaugh and I am the New Media & IT Coordinator at the Vilcek Foundation. As an artist and techie, I am always on the lookout for new uses of media and innovative techniques that stretch the capabilities of art and technology.

On a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art to see the exhibition Talk to Me – an exciting exhibition on the interaction between people and things – the underlying method of dialogue, using advances in technology, stood out as both the medium and the message in many of the artworks.

Artists have at their disposal an arsenal of tools for creating, promoting, and distributing work online. Technology gives the artist the power to extend geographical and linguistic boundaries that otherwise hinder a potential audience. Web platforms and services such as HTML5 and youTube are universal; it allows the individual artist to broadcast their work around the world, from anywhere in the world. The Foundation always has an eye – or ear – out for great uses of technology in artistic endeavors online – so much so that the Vilcek Foundation plans to highlight immigrant artists working in the realm of digital art through a new initiative – dARTboard, a premiere digital art space scheduled to launch on Vilcek.org in the winter of 2012.

As I continue to browse the web in search for great uses of technology in art, I’d like to share interesting sites and works from around the web I’ve found to be resourceful, and inspirational.

The Art Project – http://www.googleartproject.com
Where else can you see the classics from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam or stroll through the Central Hall in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, all from the comfort of your sofa?  Google’s Art Project uses mapping street-view technologies to bring virtual tours of museums around the world at your fingertips.

Art Project

 

Whitney ARTPORT- http://artport.whitney.org
In addition to an online gallery for commissioned net art, the Whitney ARTPORT serves as a portal to some of the best digital art projects online.

Whitney ARTPORT

 

The Wilderness Downtown – http://thewildernessdowntown.com
Labeled as an interactive film by Chris Milk, The Wilderness Downtown website uses video and Google mapping APIs to construct a narrative centered on the address of the home where you grew up (user provided).

The Wilderness Downtown

 

Dreamgrove – http://www.dreamgrove.org
Dreamgrove is a visually interesting site, divided into two parts: a page where you can read an archive of dreams and a garden where you can listen to dreams. Users are encouraged to write and submit their own dreams, adding to the collective archive.

Dreamgrove

 

Nawlz – Interactive Comic – http://www.nawlz.com
Nawlz is an example of interactive storytelling that is described as a “cyberpunk adventure series that combines animation, interactivity, music and text to create a never before seen digital panoramic comic format.”

Nawlz

 

We would love to know what resources and works of art you are interested in – please let us know in the comments!

-Brian

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The Art of (a Grant Making) Style

Hello everyone!

My name is Anne Schruth and I have the pleasure of working directly with individual foreign-born artists as they design and implement cultural events and exhibitions in the Vilcek Foundation’s gallery space. I am thrilled for this opportunity to share a few thoughts with you about this one-on-one approach and how it is just one example of that thing we are all on the look out for – the most effective grant making style.

And let’s face it – finding the best grant making style for your organization is, more often than not, a challenge. You need just the right fit.

Figuring out where your organization falls within the wide spectrum of approaches to grant making means an honest assessment of your resources and strengths, as well as your limitations, in order to best serve the needs of the grantee and meet your core mission goal.

Take the Telluride Council for the Arts and Humanities, for instance. Through their Small Grants and Fellowships program, the council awards grants of up to $2,000 to individual artists living in San Miguel County to develop, complete or present work, which must be presented and/or made public to the surrounding community. With this program, to achieve their mission goal, the council need not provide comprehensive grants to a few individual artists. Instead, the council harnesses a limited pool of funds to cast the net as widely as possible, providing modest support for a larger group of artists with the purpose of enriching the cultural landscape of San Miguel County.

On the other end of the gamut is the one-on-one approach to supporting artists. However, when working with an artist so closely – from that first flash of inspiration to the closing reception, and everything in between– it is key to balance the needs and expectations of the artist against one’s own resources. And in navigating this artist-organization collaboration, setting the terms of the project at the start is crucial. Whether you use a standardized grantee agreement or one custom-built around specific outcomes and deliverables, everyone needs to be on the same page. When will the artwork be completed? How much will the materials cost? And so on. In building this framework for a future collaboration, I have found an invaluable resource in the services of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA), a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to providing affordable legal services for the arts community.

Once the logistics of the project are squared away, the rewards of working side by side with individual artists come into focus. Being an operating foundation that does not accept unsolicited project proposals for our gallery space, we have the opportunity to shape our exhibitions and cultural events from within, focusing our time and resources on one or two artists per year for fully developed and publicized artistic projects, start to finish. In our efforts to spotlight the contributions of immigrant artists and scientists to U.S. society, we have also found that the work produced by the artists is only a piece of the story. It is, in part, the personal experiences of the featured foreign-born individuals that leave a lasting impression on the audience. For this reason, our one-on-one approach to supporting artists suits our goals – engaging the personal experiences of one artist at a time over the course of a long-term collaboration in order to tell a wider story about the benefits of cultural diversity. This insight also prompts us to keep a close eye on diversity. In coordinating the events and exhibitions for the Vilcek Foundation Gallery, I am ever watchful of the diversity of our programs, both in the medium of work and also the ethnic heritage of the artist, ensuring that our resources, over time, provide a platform for as broad a community of individuals as possible.

So, stepping back and scanning this array of possibilities, the big question for your organization is – whether you are seasoned or start-up – focusing on immigration or environmentalism – what lessons have you learned from shaping and/or managing your own nuanced grant making style?

I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!

Anne Schruth
Events and Programs Assistant

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The Vilcek Foundation invites you to Talk Back!

Hello and welcome back to GIA 2011 Talk Back series!

As the Executive Director of The Vilcek Foundation and guest blogger for Talk Back, I invite you to join my colleagues and me at The Vilcek Foundation, in a conversation about immigrant artists, about the Foundation’s unique model of supporting individual artists, and our thoughts on the role of technology in arts.

The mission of the Vilcek Foundation is to spotlight and support immigrant artists and scientists. We carry out this mission in three main ways: Prizes, Programs and Grants.

  • Prizes: awarding annual prizes to foreign-born biomedical scientists and artists;
  • Programs: hosting cultural events and exhibitions;
  • Grants: awarding grants to nonprofit organizations for projects related to our mission.

Our grantees, across all prizes and programs, originally hail from 44 different countries and six continents.

We at the Vilcek Foundation value diversity and recognize it as a major contributing factor to the cultural vibrancy of the United States. We work to honor life long achievements of distinguished immigrant artists and scientists, to highlight young foreign-born talents, and overall, to raise awareness of the important contributions of immigrants to the sciences and arts.

In this first blog entry, I would like to clear a common misconception of immigrant art.  It is important to bring to the surface the difference between successful foreign artists displaying work in the United States and foreign-born artists who have chosen to be part of the American art community. These individuals make up a group of very accomplished artists whose careers, but not always their origins, are recognized by the public, including Christo and Jeanne-Claude – Bulgarian and French-born visual artists, Denise Scott Brown – South African-born architect, Carlton Cuse – Mexican-born film producer, Jose Andres – Spanish-born chef, etc.

For some foreign-born artists, even though their homelands may inspire their artwork, art is simply a form of self-expression and not an outlet for political or social messages. In an essay written about her own experiences immigrating to the United States, Marica Vilcek, co-founder of the Vilcek Foundation, expressed that art was her way of integrating into a new life in New York City. Without the opportunity to continue her passion for art history, she would never have been able to begin her own process of assimilation as an immigrant.

For others, art is a vehicle to present their beliefs and fight for social justice. For instance, the Queens Museum of Art and Creative Time collaborated to sponsor Tania Bruguera’s initiative Immigrant Movement International (IMI). Ms. Bruguera is a Cuban-born performing artist who is using IMI to organize participatory performance art pieces that reflect the immigrants’ stories in the neighborhood of Corona, Queens. She is working on revealing a very human side of a community “densely populated with immigrants who largely live in cramped, potentially unsafe conditions.”

Despite the differences in ethnicities or artist statements, foreign-born individuals bring to our culture artwork that possesses great artistic merit and values that certainly enrich American culture.

Lastly, I would like to invite you to visit the Foundation’s website for inspiration from amazing foreign-born artists whom we’ve worked with in the past and an exclusive collection of essays by exceptional writers such as Yvonne Abraham – Immigration Reporter of the Boston Globe, Ken Chen – Executive Director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, novelist Francine Prose, etc.

Do you have a favorite immigrant artist? What do you think about the role of immigrants in American art? I hope to hear from you as our staff put together an exciting collection of blog entries!

Rick Kinsel

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The Quest for General Operating Support: How Much Progress Have We Made?

In 2004, I worked with Independent Sector to draft a statement, unanimously endorsed by its Board of Directors, that called on funders (1) to opt for general operating support when the goals of the two organizations are “substantially aligned,” and (2) to pay their fair share of administrative and fundraising costs for projects.

The statement observed:

  • Reliable, predictable, and flexible support is the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. It provides the working capital that every organization needs to carry out its mission and respond to new challenges and opportunities.
  • A funder can often achieve its strategic goals by providing core support to nonprofit organizations.
  • A funder can evaluate an organization much as the organization evaluates its own success.
  • The focus on project grants encourages grantees to continually propose new ideas possibly might fit funders’ narrow grant guidelines rather than focusing on building institutional capacity.
  • Overhead costs, including the costs of fundraising, are as real to an organization as the costs of activities directly associated with a project, and must come from somewhere. Thus, project support that does not pay its full proportion of overhead takes a “free ride” on other funders’ support, and ultimately decreases the overall effectiveness of an organization.

Since then, Independent Sector’s statement has been echoed by other organizations, including Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy and, most recently, GIA’s research on capitalization. I have not come across anything opposing the presumption in favor of general operating support, or opposing the proposition that funders should pay the actual overhead incurred by project grants.

The trend is ambiguous. Data from the Foundation Center from 2004 to 2009 (the most recent year reported), shows only a slight increase in the percentage of GOS grants to arts organizations, but a nontrivial 8 percent increase in the percentage of grant dollars. Yet during this period the number and dollar percentage of program support grants also increased somewhat. Where have the funds come from? Perhaps from capital grants—from campaigns and buildings—which decreased about the same percentages that GOS increased If so, I wonder how great an improvement this is for arts organizations.

In any event, I would welcome your analysis of the data, and your views of the extent of the problem. If organizations remain starved for GOS, what are the barriers to funders’ making unrestricted grants or at least paying adequate overhead? How can we make the case and communicate it better?

I look forward to your thoughts.
Paul

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Black Male: Re-Imagined

1 out of 3 boys born to African American families today will likely to go to jail.

Black men are 8% of the population in the United States and comprise 3% of college undergraduates and 48% of prison inmates.

1 out of 2 young black men do not finish high school; 3 out of 4 of them will be unemployed and 60% of them will eventually be incarcerated.

That is the state of black men and boys in America. It is a state of urgency.

In the last 5 years, the landscape for black males has seen marked changes. Most notably, the presidency of Barack Obama, coupled with a growing number of philanthropic initiatives to improve the life outcomes of black men and boys, offers a new picture of opportunity and hope.

Yet the important work being done is often undercut by the barrage of negative associations and perceptions made about black men in the media. In essence, the continuous marginalization of black men is a direct function of how they are perceived by American society. To change reality, we must change perceptions.

I have already talked in this blog series about the power of our unconscious biases as developed by imagery – the challenges facing black men highlight our biases dramatically. When the average American, white or black, is hooked up to monitors to measure heart and respiratory rates and images of black men are flashed before them, those rates increase rapidly suggesting greater emotion and anxiety. Using brain scans and other neuro-imaging indicators, researchers have discovered that fear is registered in our amygdalas simply when we look at the faces of black men over white men. During ‘shooter bias’ tests which involve rapidly identifying and shooting a threat (online) – the unarmed black target is shot 70% times more than the armed white target. The consequences for our unconscious biases with regard to black men can mean life and death. Please view these studies at our website.

In December 2010, American Values Institute in partnership with the Open Society Foundations’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement and the Knight Foundation convened thought leaders, practitioners, activists, and media influencers to discuss campaign strategies to re-imagine black men in American media thereby challenging and transforming their perceptions in our public and policy discourse – indeed our hearts and minds. The goals of the convening, called Black Male: Re-Imagined, were to explore the power of shaping narratives, leveraging access to traditional and non-traditional media, and other forms of art and culture, and most importantly, linking our narratives to concrete actions and work on the ground.

This conversation brought artist and media executives from Andre Harrell, Spike Lee, Tom Burrell, and Warrington Hudlin, to Charles Blow, Maria Hinojosa, Q-Tip, Lupe Fiasco, Nick Cannon and Russell Simmons. And we connected to organizing luminaries and thought leaders such as Haki Madhubuti, Haile Gerima, Rashad Robinson, and Geoffrey Canada. The interdisciplinary nature of the conversation asked panellists and participants alike to push beyond their own theories about how black male perceptions have been created and can be changed to inform a larger communications strategy.

One of the most exciting panels for me was the last panel of the convening which featured visual artists in the black community who are considering, visualizing and, indeed, envisioning the state of black men as they are and how they should be seen. This panel featured work by Hank Willis Thomas, Lauren Kelly, and Adam Pendleton, Jamal Cyrus. Rashida Bumbray, a curator at The Kitchen, moderated. The power of their art to inspire and create provocative emotion and thought about the humanity of black men really set the tone for how we can truly re-imagine and transform the perceptions of black men in America.

As we embark on a new phase of developing a set of campaigns around Black Male: Re-Imagined — I’d love to hear your thoughts on things to consider.

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When Art Comes to Life

This weekend in LA, I went to see Art in the Streets — the exhibit on graffiti and street art at the Museum of Contemporary Art — a brilliant meditation and documentation of graffiti as an art form from the 1960s to the present in the US and around the world and whether or not, as the LA Times , “this erstwhile outlaw culture can or should be folded into the grand narrative of art history.”

I will leave the resolution of that debate to the thinkers and critics in art history and to those on this blog and beyond who consider and define admission into the cannon. I will only offer that the power and dynamism of this exhibit revealed an expression of marginalized and yet empowered voices that is not to be missed. As an organizer and cultural strategist, it brought home to me the importance of visual street art in contemporary conversations about politics. If organizing politics in urban communities is most effective in a barbershop, then graffiti and street art is the visual manifestation of meeting people and talking to them where they are.

An interesting sidebar for me – Fab 5 Freddy, the legendary graffiti artist was one of the curators and consultants on this exhibition and is a very dear friend of mine. It was at his house in the late ’90s that I first began to think seriously about organizing the Hip Hop community around politics and social issues. He was the first person to debate with me whether the Hip Hop Generation could be the next NRA.

One element of controversy surrounded the opening of the show. Famed Italian graffiti artist Blu was commissioned to paint the outside of MOCA for the Art in the Streets exhibit. He chose to do a mural featuring coffins draped in dollar bills – a damning critique of US involvement in war. The director of MOCA, Jeffrey Dietch elected to whitewash the controversial mural prior to opening. A bit ironic given street art is at the same time both exalted and censored in this exhibit.

This video by Blu entitled Big Bang Big Boom came to me from my husband, Rob Johnson, who fell in love with it and set it to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” He showed it to 400 financiers and economists at an Institute for New Economic Thinking conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in April. It was received with vigorous applause and cheers. That’s proof that even the most dismal scientists among us can be inspired by such dynamic art.

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This is Your Brain on Race: Culture, Bias, and Anxiety

My current work considers the role that culture – namely visual imagery – has on reinforcing and perpetuating racial stereotypes and biases in our minds.  Our think tank, American Values Institute (AVI) is a consortium of researchers and social change advocates trying to understand the role of bias and how it develops in our minds.  We study unconscious preferences and judgments that underpin our social and political behavior – what social and mind-scientists term implicit or unconscious bias.  Unconscious bias can distort everything from our informal interactions with each other to our policy preferences.  At AVI, we are devising and developing effective ‘de-biasing’ mechanisms to allow us to negotiate life without being influenced by racial, ethnic, or gender related anxiety.

Anxiety is instructive.  It’s our mind’s way of alerting us not only that it senses potential threat but also that it doubts our capacity to cope with whatever danger — imagined or real — it perceives.  Racial anxiety is a human reaction to the risk that our race will cause us to be misunderstood or targeted for scorn.  Anxiety, of course, differs depending upon the receiver.  Racial anxiety among whites may be grounded in a fear of being perceived as racist.  Blacks or other people of color may become anxious about having to defend against racial bias.  Racial anxiety is also reinforced by our doubts about how best to address those fears particularly when the boundaries of what classifies as bias are hard to navigate.  The general trend has become that the mere mention of race can turn a discussion incendiary – like hitting the 3rd rail.

The way racial conversations are framed around recent ‘racialized’ moments in our fast moving popular culture tends to increase rather than defuse racial anxiety.  Think the Birther movement, Donald Trump, or last year’s Shirley Sherrod controversy and consider how quickly those of us concerned about racial injustice reacted.  We called out and condemned racism with the goal of shaming the perpetrator and reaffirming the value of racial equality.  In many instances, however, our reaction led to an: “is he or isn’t he a racist?” argument – an unwinnable and often racially polarizing debate about the contents of a person’s heart.   Moreover, the individualized focus of this debate reaffirmed the idea that our opinions about race are grounded in our conscious views.

Our conscious views, however, are only a small part of our thought process – perhaps only 2 percent according to researchers.  That means our unconscious associations and preferences shape 98 percent of our views.  Imagery – particularly when it’s negative – plays an outsized role on the way we think about race.

Using Implicit Association Tests (IAT’s) (take one here http://implicit.harvard.edu) and neuro-imaging and physical indicators, researchers have mapped physiological responses to racial cues and found that emotions and fears among those who believe in equality increase simply when participants look at the faces of black men over white men.   So even if we believe ourselves to be fair-minded, negative associations can manifest as unintentional discrimination and, as a result, undermine our collective reach for equality and fairness.   Of course all racial groups, not just white Americans, experience unconscious racial bias to some degree.  As one might imagine, prejudices reflect an array of negative images and assumptions that inundate us from birth.

If we are going to successfully advocate for racial equity, we must take into consideration that race in this country is as much an experience of emotions as it is an understanding of our nation’s history and a lack of structural opportunities.  As such, we must add a deeper analysis of how our emotions and fears about race shape our behaviors and preferences and are primed through the visual imagery we take in every day in the world of popular culture. We need to develop better narratives, images, and cultural strategies that portray race in the way we are literally experiencing it in our brain.

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Living at an Intersection

Hello GIA and thanks for welcoming me into your community!

The Talk Back Series marks an important milestone for me — my very first blog post!  This happens to be mildly ironic to me since I am neither an artist nor a grant-maker.  I have spent the last decade, however, thinking about the power of art and culture when it intersects with the best ideas in academia, civic and political engagement, and issue-based advocacy.

A little bit about me:  I began my career some 20 years ago in academia – political science to be exact – in the field of Black Politics.  In the course of teaching about the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, I began to reflect on the ways in which ‘indigenous institutions’ like the church and college campuses served as mobilizing hubs for community engagement.  Feeling nostalgia for a ‘Movement’ like the ones in which my parents came of age, I began to ask — where are the indigenous institutions of today?  What organizing bodies could potentially mobilize hundreds and thousands of young people and marginalized communities to collective action and issues of social justice?

Sorting out those questions led me to consider culture — namely, Hip Hop culture — as a modern-day indigenous institution capable of moving, mobilizing, and possibly inspiring the next generation into action.  What interested me about Hip Hop at the time was that it was not only a place where authentic representations of a community’s lived condition were being communicated, it was also a place where those representations and ideas were being connected at the speed of light to a wider audience and, quite possibly, transforming (some might argue reinforcing) perceptions about who those communities were.

While I am sure many will challenge the notion of Hip Hop as an art form, as relevant or even authentic given the influence of corporate commodification today (and I am long since out of the demo(graphic), as they say, and cannot even begin to comment with any real authority about the current state of Hip Hop), I do believe that then and now — one of the most amazing parts about Hip Hop culture is that it maintains a very organic infrastructure that supports the delivery of ideas and messages.  This infrastructure was (and still is) as important as the very ideas that were and are being communicated.  It is no accident that Hip Hop is nearly 30 years old and its artists are still driving American and global popular culture.  I believe that is because it has innovated, and continually improves upon, a very nimble infrastructure that keeps its ears to the ground and adapts to maintain relevance.

Thinking about how to organize that infrastructure, how to harness its power for communication and message delivery, and how to invest in supporting that infrastructure around social and political messages is what drives me intellectually and practically every day.

Sometimes that means working with artists; sometimes that means engaging executives or the branding and marketing community, but most often that means engaging the everyday folk that make that infrastructure viable and meaningful in our daily routines—the barbers, the beauty salon owners, the DJs, the program directors, the blogosphere, and the youth pastors.  I have worked in this space in a variety of ways – as an academic, as a Political Director to Russell Simmons, as Executive Director of Citizen Change – the organization that ran the ‘Vote or Die!’ campaign under the leadership of Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, and for many years as both formal and informal advisors to other artists and organizations who believe in the power and the intersection of arts and culture.

I hope over the coming two weeks to share with this blog community many of the exciting possibilities I see on the horizon that can emerge when we, as a broad social justice community, are intentional about connecting our direct service work with cultural practices — a strategy that will allow us to have more expansive conversations within our own communities and among those with whom we wish to build support.

As I sat this weekend to craft my initial thoughts, I took a look around the GIA website and came across GIA ED Janet Brown’s Saturday blogpost on business models vs. good business.

‘The issue of new business models is a topic with which I am losing patience. To me it’s a “red herring” actually, when we should be discussing new product delivery models that engage more audiences, both young and old, utilize technologies and update the organizational structures and attitudes that may have worked forty years ago but are not working today. These are huge issues of leadership, boards of directors, management, community relevance and understanding audience trends.’

I couldn’t agree more.  For me, intersecting art, culture, and social change means finding those new product delivery models — or the indigenous institutions of today.  Hip Hop and more broadly popular culture may not have been in the back of Brown’s mind as a product delivery model when she wrote this — but it sure was when I left academia and started practicing in this world.

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Art, Money, Ethics

Cue BATMAN Announcer Voice: Meanwhile in the visual arts!

In 1996, following the michegas with the NEA-4 and Robert Mapplethorpe, art critic Eleanor Heartney penned the essay Out of the Ivory Tower about the social responsibility of art critics. Its a provocative piece that can be found here.

Recently, she returned to that piece and wrote a follow-up titled Art & Money: Umbilical Cord of Gold in which she finds that very little has changed, and maybe the socially responsible thing to do is to embrace a new kind of modesty.  Here’s a long excerpt:

the class divide within the art world referred to in “Out of the Ivory Tower” (to say nothing of the even greater class divide in society at large) is bigger than ever. I have always been struck by Clement Greenberg’s famous assertion in his 1939 essay Avant Garde and Kitsch that the avant-garde remains attached to the ruling class by “an umbilical cord of gold.” Today, as private patrons who have benefited from America’s trickle up (or should we say gush up) economic policies call the shots at museums, preside over a burgeoning art market and style themselves as the New Medicis, Greenberg’s dictum seems truer than ever, and sadly, no one dares to yank the chain.

Isn’t there something basically unhealthy about a society where social programs that serve the poor and middle class are cut to the bone while a Picasso can go for over $100 million? Oh yes, I know, this is “private money,” but how did these art collectors manage to amass such huge fortunes in the first place? Is a CEO, especially one who runs the company into the ground and then floats off with a golden parachute, really worth more than 300 times his lowest paid employee? Why are the bankers who nearly toppled our financial system free to retire to their mansions while we demonize teachers who want to have a tiny bit of retirement security? Why have virtually none of the productivity gains of the last 30 years gone to workers? Whose money is it, really?

And where does this leave us? I can’t help feeling that the art world’s responses to funding crises reveal a glaring myopia. The problem isn’t how we argue for a share of the increasingly tiny budget pie devoted to funding for social services and culture. The problem is the whole concept of the pie. I keep wondering, as state and local governments careen ever closer to bankruptcy and the federal government flirts with a trillion dollar deficit, why isn’t anyone connecting the dots to the extension of the Bush tax cuts? Why is the question of increasing taxes on the very wealthy so completely off the table?

I recently brought this up at an art party, only to be told that measures like a more progressive tax system or a reduction of write-offs like the charitable deduction would diminish art patrons’ ability to fund residencies or support museums. But again, what are we really talking about? Are we saying that art supporters are only motivated by tax incentives? And isn’t part of the bind that museums now find themselves due at least in part to their own grandiosity? Is it possible that they now find themselves over-extended precisely because they expanded beyond their means in good times? Are these really good reasons to argue that the wealthy and privileged shouldn’t be expected to contribute to a more equitable society?

It’s interesting coming from a money-starved field like theatre to gaze into the visual arts world and find that there is “all the money sloshing around.” For one thing, you would never hear a theatre person say at a party that the Bush tax cuts shouldn’t be repealed. If this weren’t a first hand conversation she was recounting, I’d assume it was a straw man.

Perhaps increased funding isn’t the panacea we make it out to be. Seriously, though, part of what she’s arguing here is that the art world move away from the Blockbuster Show and the Huge Building Campaign, and that we move towards a less unseemly, less decadent art world.

And part of what she brings up– and gets talked about quite rarely in arts policy circles, I might add– is the question of who makes up your board and what that says about your organization.  When the board of an arts organization has no artists on it, what does that say about the stewardship of that organization? That that’s par for the course as start-ups institutionalize, what does that say about the way our institutions function?

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Scarcity or Abundance?

I had this provocative post all planned out today, one in which I said (insincerely, I should add) that you Grantmakers should just stop giving money to large institutions. The plan was to use a bit of a rhetorical post to goad all you silent grantmakers out there into the comments and also get a bit of an understanding of why so much money goes to the giant battleships of the arts community when small organizations can do a lot more with it.

But then I read this post by my good friend Matt Freeman in which he talks about “Scarcity Models” of funding vs. “Abundance Models” of funding:

In my day job (which is for a religious institution) we talk a lot about scarcity models versus abundance models. When we talk about taking money from one thing (urban, cultural institutions) to give that money to rural communities, we’re acting as if there is one small pot of money, scare resources, and we have to refocus those dollars one way or another.

But, instead, we see that when Americans prioritize something (say…war) money strangely materializes in sums that dwarf the entire budget of the NEA tenfold. There is money out there, and we should expect it and ask for it. I believe that both the urban theater communities and small rural communities should expect funding. The problem isn’t that one group is hogging all the money.

The problem is that the funding is too low, not that funding is misdirected.

It seems to me that there’s a lot of truth in that. At the same time… will we ever get to a point in the arts where we can think abundantly? Or is money always going to be scarce? In theatre, it’s always been scarce.  There are historical reasons for this.  The Federal Government never made good on its promise to water the seeds the Ford Foundation planted and, essentially, the regional theater movement has been plate-spinning on a precipice ever since. Is this going to change?

Or do we need to go through some kind of radical transformation so that the current amount of money is abundant? And what would such a transformation look like?  Diane Ragsdale over at Jumper blog has some thoughts about this, and they ain’t pretty:

In the arts and culture sector we seem to want to reap the benefits of transformation without the process of creative destruction. We say we want transformation but we refuse to let underperforming organizations die, or shy away from de-funding what has always been funded in order to fund that which has never been funded, or desperately try to maintain an overbuilt infrastructure. Such reactionary impulses to preserve the status quo will not result in a kinder and gentler transformation. To the contrary, they may result in stagnation of the arts and culture sector. As Light says, we can let the future take its course. I fear, however, that if we do so we may regret what we have become in years to come….

…Is arbitrary winnowing the future we want? With more being given to those who already have the most? Survival of (only) the oldest, largest, and best connected, and not necessarily the best performing?

If not, if we are sincere about wanting transformation, then the gain of progress is unlikely to be accomplished without the pain of losing or challenging some longstanding industry structures, beliefs, practices, jobs, conventions, and hierarchies.

In theater at least, we seem to be in a place right now where larger/older theaters like The Magic and Intiman can reboot themselves with an emergency infusion of cash from around the country no matter how mismanaged they were. Or, like Pasadena Playhouse, they can turn themselves into a tax shelter for commercial producers and no one bats an eye. My anger at the above clearly reflects a scarcity model of thinking, but things seem pretty scarce right now. In order to get to abundance, we might need some of the creative destruction referenced above.

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Let’s Talk About Demand, Baby

It seems fairly obvious as you survey the field that we create + display/perform more art than people actually want to go see.  Or, to put it more nicely, as a sector, funders, artists and arts organizations have done an amazing job of building capacity.  In the 1950s, there was no regional theater system, just a few new theaters being built in Minneapolis, DC and elsewhere. Now there’s theaters all over the country in all kinds of communities doing all sorts of work.  Prior to the NEA being founded there were very few symphony orchestras. Now there’s too many.

This is remarkable! We should give ourselves a brief pat on the back before we go back to freaking out.

In the face of this wondrous success, many in the funding sector (including the current chair of the NEA and the RAND corporation) have indicated that the time may have come for us to focus not on increasing supply and capacity but increasing demand. And if the end result of this is that supply decreases a little, that might not be that big of a deal. Certainly when I talk to my musician friends they find the steroidal growth of symphony and chamber orchestras over the past few decades to be unhealthy and unsustainable. And it seems that the oversupply of artists (and the art they create) is self-perpetuating. The more artists there are, the more people want to be artists, the more educational training programs there are for artists employing the last decades crop of graduates from the same program and so on and so forth.

I’m on board with the idea that we need to focus on boosting demand (although I’m definitely curious what you all in the funding community think of this).  My question is how?

I ask this because it seems to me the only idea that people come regularly come up with is get ’em young! Focus on arts education to convince kids that art is important and they’ll grow up into the robust audiences of the future.  Don’t get me wrong, as someone getting an MFA in creative writing in teaching-heavy program, I’m all for more money for arts education.

At the same time I wonder… is that the best we can come up with?  And isn’t education for spectators and artists different? And what are we supposed to do in the meantime? The idea seems to me like a kind of triage; let’s abandon the potential audiences of today and work on building an audience for the future and kind of ignore whether or not there’ll be that much art for them to participate in once they get there.

In other words, what do we do to boost demand amongst today’s current crop of adults? I don’t think we should be quite so hasty to give up on them. Given that arts education programs are actually facing widespread cuts right now, people in their twenties and thirties are actually better educated vis-a-vis the arts that people the same age ten years from now will be. Shouldn’t we be trying to retain and boost them as audiences? And how can funders help make that happen?

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Three New Studies From The NEA

I’m betting most of you are on the NEA’s e-mail list, but just in case you aren’t, I just received word of three new studies going live. They’ve actually been on the site since February, but I guess the word is only getting out now.

For your reading/studying pleasure (click on the titles to download a PDF of the study):

Beyond Attendance: A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation
Report authors Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Alan Brown of WolfBrown explore patterns of arts engagement across three modes:  arts creation or performance, arts engagement through media, and attendance at arts activities. The report highlights the overlap in participation across modes, and examines factors that drive participation within and between modes. February 2011. 104 pp.

Age and Arts Participation: A Case against Demographic Destiny
Mark Stern, University of Pennsylvania, analyzes the relationship between age and arts participation in the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts data for 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2008. The report concludes that age and year of birth are poor predictors of arts participation and that the age distribution of art-goers now generally mirrors that of the U.S. adult population. February 2011. 88 pp.

Arts Education in America : What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation
This report, commissioned from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, investigates the relationship between arts education and arts participation, based on data from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts for 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2008. The report also examines long-term declines in Americans’ reported rates of arts learning—in creative writing, music, and the visual arts, among other disciplines. Authors Nick Rabkin and E.C. Hedberg find that the declines are not distributed evenly across all racial and ethnic groups.  February 2011. 56 pp.

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How Do We Know What To Reform?

Last year, I hosted a blogging roundtable about the recent new play sector study Outrageous Fortune (you can pick yourself up a copy here, if you haven’t already). Outrageous Fortune documents the problems and disconnects of the new play ecosystem in America via a series of interviews and surveys with Artistic Directors and playwrights on all levels of success.

One thing that becomes apparent as you read the book is that theaters are essentially responding to market incentives, that are often difficult to see. Why? Because the market is hidden and isn’t made up of ticket buyers. Instead, it’s made up of donors and funders. As a result, various well-intentioned but now harmful policies are affecting the new play landscape.

I’ll give one concrete example:  Outrageous Fortune spills quite a bit of ink covering the problem of the overwhelming emphasis on world premiere productions (called “premieritis.”  Premieritis causes numerous problems.  Plays can’t get done more than once unless they get the right review in the right paper.  Plays that have been done before get sold as premieres. The drive to get a play premiered on the largest, most prominent stage possible ends up driving playwrights directly into the arms of the very institutions they also list as ones ill equipped to realize their work. Smaller theaters that nurture playwrights through earlier stages of their careers don’t get to reap the benefits of their success. And so on and so forth.

Here’s the rub: the demand for premieres is not driven by audiences. There’s no evidence that audiences respond (positively or negatively) to premieres.  The emphasis on premieres  comes from funding guidelines and donor desires.  In an effort to get more theaters to do more new plays, funders have inadvertently created a world where those plays can’t get done a second time. It seems to me, then, that if we want to reform how theater is practiced in America, we have to reform funding, how it works, how it’s structured, and what the criteria are for giving it. I imagine the same is true for other fields in the non-profit arts.

So here’s my question for you all: How do you as organizations (and people within these organizations) reevaluate the funding programs you have?  How do you identify what the needs are of the art forms you’re supporting? How do you understand the role you play as a provider of economic incentives?

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Testing… Testing…(Is This Thing On?)

Hello all,

Just thought I would leave a quick post to make sure everything is up and running smoothly and also kill the proverbial second bird by telling you a little bit about myself beyond my bio.

I’ve worked in the arts since I was twelve. Back then, it was as a child stage actor in Washington, D.C. From the very beginning, my artistic practice intertwined itself with political concerns. The first show I was in was Bill Finn’s Falsettoland, about a family coming to terms with the AIDS Crisis back before the disease even had a name.  The second show I performed in was a musical about the AIDS Quilt. Both of these took place right before Clinton was elected, and I marched in his inaugural with the AIDS Quilt.

In other words, working in theatre took me even deeper into politics and political issues than a DC kid normally goes. It was probably inevitable, then, that I would end up getting into arts advocacy when I moved to New York to pursue a post-collegiate “career” as a theatre director.  I put career in quotes because there isn’t really a career in directing theatre.  A career implies some kind of codified structure for a life and work and money that doesn’t really exist for theatre directors.

I think it’s safe to say that my journey into the arts policy and advocacy world was born out of a series of questions my own difficulties in theatre provoked.  Questions like why theaters programmed the plays they did, or why the labor market is structured the way it is or why theater companies preferred building new buildings to adequately paying their personnel dogged my years in New York.  A short trip to Denmark on a research grant further cemented exactly how simultaneously miraculous and unhealthy the nonprofit arts sector in America is. Miraculous because it regularly creates wondrous works using amazing, brilliant people for less than the cost of the make-up budget in a mid-level indie movie. Unhealthy because I saw in Denmark how an adequately funded, properly managed arts sector could work, and how a national playwriting scene could be created from scratch with the right  incentives.

I hope to share with you some of what I’ve learned along the way this week, along with opening up some real dialogue. I feel one of the greatest challenges facing theatre right now from a funding perspective is that there is very little interaction between artists and funders that is not mediated by large institutions that have as their top priority perpetuating and growing themselves, so I’m happy to open some communication for what I hope will be a provocative, stimulating and honest back and forth.

We’ll get to real posting on Monday. In the meantime I just wanted to say it’s great to be here and I am very grateful to Tommer and everyone at GIA for setting this up.  If you feel so inclined, I’d love to learn a little bit more about you and your organization in the comments.

Thanks!

UPDATE: Marc Vogl has a great comment below where he asks:

“when you say “there is very little interaction between artists and funders that is not mediated by large institutions that have as their top priority perpetuating and growing themselves,” what suggestions do you have for funders to either get around this mediated-relationship, or to do a better job of contributing to a better alignment of individual artist, arts organization and arts-funder goals so that the interactions all the way around are better.”

I take a stab at answering him below. If you have ideas, I’d love to read them as well.

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