Final thoughts on the GIA Conference

It’s been a pleasure covering the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference for you all, and I hope you’ve enjoyed getting a glimpse into sessions you may have missed or the conference as a whole (if you didn’t have the chance to be among the 351 attendees). Before I go, I thought I would leave you with some final reflections on my experience in Brooklyn last week:

  • I didn’t get a chance to mention my Monday night dine-around in Bushwick. Bushwick is a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Northeast Brooklyn that has slowly been invaded by artists and young hipsters as the Manhattanesque housing prices in nearby Williamsburg push them further East on the L subway line. We ate at a trendy restaurant called Northeast Kingdom, during which we met with representatives from local nonprofit organizations (both arts-oriented and not). Afterwards, we crowded into art gallery opening taking place in someone’s dining room(!) and visited a black-box theater (the only one in the neighborhood) where we apparently interrupted a rehearsal in order to get a welcome and tour from the proprietors. It was a strikingly different experience from the comfort of the Brooklyn Marriott and brought me back to my days as a bandleader earlier in the decade. I was familiar with some of the people who were leading us around from other events I’ve attended, and know that they’re concerned about issues of gentrification and cliquishness as a result of artists moving into an area. It seemed like no one really has good answers. I will say, though, that I’m impressed that this excursion was a part of the conference and that as many funders joined in as they did. These underground, emergent, barely-organized scenes should be part of the arts conversation too.
  • Speaking of emergent arts communities, we spent a lot of time in the off-site session talking about the economic impacts of artist concentrations, particularly in terms of real estate values. Though the discussion rightly focused much attention on how this connection could be used for advocacy purposes to encourage governments and businesses to invest in the arts, what was missing, it seemed to me, was any kind of proposal to help artists actually share in the neighborhood wealth they create. The reason this does not currently take place in a hot real estate market like New York is because most artists are too poor to be able to buy their own space in the first place, and therefore are also too poor to buy property to rent out to others. Here’s a thought that occurred to me during the session: why not create a REIT or other kind of pooled fund in which artists could make small investments, smaller than a monthly rent check? The fund could then purchase buildings and properties in the vicinity of artist concentrations, profit directly from higher real estate values created from the artists’ activity, and return those profits to the artists. If anyone knows of a program like this already in place, either in this country or elsewhere, I’d love to hear about it.
  • I was actually pleasantly surprised by the degree of racial and gender diversity in evidence at conference—especially the number of women of color. It seems that the field has really put its money where its mouth is in terms of opening up the gates beyond the old boys’ club, at least at the program staff level. It’s not only the right move, but a smart move in light of the country’s changing demographics.
  • Which brings us to Ben Cameron’s final speech, which I did not do justice to when I wrote it up earlier (his fast and fluid elocution made comprehensive note-taking a challenge). Luckily, Tommer from GIA forwarded me his complete notes, from which I will quote extensively below. As mentioned earlier, demographic change and the drive to greater social equity was, in fact, cited as one of the central issues for the next 10 years in arts philanthropy, along with technology, globalization, and the blurring of the line between professional artists and amateurs. The full list of anticipated interventions is as follows:
    • Data gathering, tracking and evaluation
    • Leadership development and mentoring
    • Advocacy
    • Arts education
    • Innovation/ experimentation
    • Networks and collaborations
    • Convenings
    • Efforts to articulate and substantiate the value of the arts in and for their communities

    And here’s the full list of key collaborators in this work:

    • Artists
    • Other funders
    • The media, including TV, radio and the press
    • Youth groups
    • Social service agencies
    • Non-arts government agencies (transportation, education, economic development)
    • And many “outliers” in different groups, including casinos, libraries and energy corporations
    • Non arts sectors, citing especially the value of other sectors to nurture and stimulate true innovation

    I found this paragraph from Cameron’s notes particularly interesting:

    Funders were self-critical as well, citing frequent isolation, the need for renewal.  Moreover, there were recurring conversations about the philanthropic exchange—conversations about inadvertent burdens funders place on grantees, the degree to which funders are proscriptive vs. responsive, and the need for increased candor and transparency in these times.

    I’m really glad that these conversations are happening at the funder level—it shows that people are really thinking about the issues described in a serious way. It was my sense throughout the conference that attendees are very much aware of the need to institute new ways of operating in order to more fairly and accurately reflect the times, but that putting words into action will be the real challenge. As Cameron stated in his speech, “the hunger to “shatter the box” was palpable in many rooms, even while we are clearly at an early point in figuring out what that will mean and how we can achieve that.” Funders are often seen as a cautious group, but dealing successfully with some of these societal shifts may well require taking more risks than might initially feel comfortable. If funders can overcome the fear of what the bosses will think, or what the board will think, or what the lawyers will think if we decide to do things differently, those risks can be evaluated with their upside in mind in addition to the downside.

  • With that in mind, it’s immensely encouraging to see that GIA itself is not afraid of taking a few risks, like (oh, just to take an example) asking an unknown blogger to bring the conference’s discussions to the public for the first time in its history! If you’ll permit me a moment of introspection for a moment, it’s sort of amazing that this experience happened at all. Two years ago, I was just another student in his first year at business school, and nobody in the world of arts philanthropy (save a couple of people I had spoken to or worked with here and there) knew who I was. The blog I’ve been writing since this time is the sole factor that made my attendance at this conference possible. It’s not just about the content—it’s about the fact that, prior to this decade, someone like me would not have had any means of sharing ideas about arts policy and arts philanthropy with people who actually work in the field on any kind of systematic basis. In the past, the platform to do so has only come with joining the field oneself. When people talk about how “technology” changes/will change the way we work, that’s what they mean. It’s not just about being able to do the things we already do more efficiently—it’s about changing whole organizational practices, behaviors, and cultures to take advantage of new opportunities that simply didn’t exist before. With that in mind, then, I want to express my deepest thanks to Tommer Peterson and Janet Brown for understanding this and for inviting me to play a small role in inaugurating this exciting new era for arts philanthropy.

 

Posted in Economic Development, Great Recession, New Ideas | 2 Comments

Day IV: Brunch with Rocco

Wednesday morning, a crush of arts funders, news media, and video crew crowded along with your friendly blogger host for the final GIA Conference event: a speech by Rocco Landesman, the recently appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Other than a talk at Symphony Space the previous night, this was to be Landesman’s first public appearance since starting his new job, and there was buzz that there was going to be an “announcement” this morning. Over omelets and fruit salad (incidentally, I must say that the catered meals were really quite decent for conference food this time around), we awaited with bated breath.

Continuing with the string of performances at plenary sessions throughout the conference, this keynote was preceded by two young men  affiliated with New York’s own spoken-word champions Urban Word. They performed a harrowing piece dedicated to Matthew Shepard and Rashawn Brazell, two murdered teens targeted for their homosexuality, and received a standing ovation from the crowd.

GIA Board President Vickie Benson was up next to introduce Rocco. She mentioned that the man had read Janet Brown’s blog post in which she offered recommendations for the new NEA Chair, and joked that out of admiration she was considering changing her name to “Vicko.” (I can’t really convey just how huge of a laugh this got, coming as it was from prim and proper Minnesotan Benson.)

Finally, Rocco spoke. If today were still Wednesday, I would transcribe sections from the speech as best I could. But the wonders of the internet are such that not only has the speech been posted at the NEA’s new Art Works blog, but it has been reported on in multiple venues. So here it is, in its entirety, and I’ll meet you back below the fold.

Continue reading

Posted in Advocacy, Economic Development, Plenary Session | 4 Comments

Day IV: Changing the Game

My final day at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference began with a GREAT panel on “new models, new leaders, new ideas” for arts organizations and philanthropy, organized and moderated by Marc Vogl from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Disclosure: I worked closely with Marc last summer during my internship with Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program.) This session came as Americans for the Arts was hosting a weeklong online “salon” on emerging leaders in the arts on its blog, so the subject matter seemed distinctly in the air. This was not lost on conference attendees, who absolutely packed the room to hear this session—again and again, GIA staff and volunteers had to leave the room to get more chairs and still people were standing just outside the door or left to find other sessions because it was too crowded.

In a lively and stimulating exchange, the four panelists—Adam Forest Huttler from Fractured Atlas, Heather Cohn from Flux Theatre Ensemble, consultant Ebony McKinney (who recently received a grant to help set up San Francisco Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals), and, in a most interesting twist, Nicole Derse from Organizing for America and the Obama ’08 campaign—discussed the ways in which they or their organizations are exploring new boundaries. For example, Huttler talked about Fractured Atlas’s entrepreneurial philosophy and the L3C it has formed in Vermont to handle its liability insurance operations, while Cohn spoke about her organization’s reliance on fiscal sponsorship to raise donations, as well as its collective management structure.

The panel spent a good chunk of time talking about fiscal sponsorship, which is a model that Fractured Atlas has promoted extensively to arts organizations as an alternative to full tax-exempt corporation status. The reasoning is that corporations carry with them an assumption of permanence that may not be appropriate for many arts organizations that draw their lifeblood from the efforts and talents of specific people who will not be around or active artistically forever. Another factor is that for organizations under a certain budget size (estimated to be about $500,000 by Huttler), it may be more cost-effective to operate under a fiscal sponsorship arrangement and simply pay the sponsor a fee for the administrative tasks that go along with it than to handle all of the paperwork and regulatory requirements internally. Cohn indicated that Flux Theatre is interested in pursuing tax-exempt status eventually, but McKinney reported that SF Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals has no such intention.

As much as I enjoyed the contributions of the other panelists, for me, the opportunity to hear from and interact with Derse is what really made the panel special. The Obama campaign has fascinated me from a management standpoint ever since I began learning more about it last year. Derse reported that in the early days (she was the 41st person hired by the campaign, in February 2007), there was a fairly decentralized approach, as offices in different early states experimented with different management styles. Whereas in New Hampshire the campaign adopted a fairly traditional approach, for example, in South Carolina there was a strong emphasis on teams and bringing people in from the community. By and large, the campaign found that the more it was willing to take risks and try new models, the more success it realized. One of the most interesting insights that Derse provided was that the metrics used by campaigns sometimes determine the management structure. Realizing this, the Obama campaign threw out some of the standard metrics that didn’t seem so important and instead began measuring things that related to volunteer leadership, such as the number people trained, the number of one-on-one meetings held, etc. In addition, the campaign took risks by ceding no ground, setting up shop in places that had voted for Bush by 40-point margins in the previous election.

The theme of risk, in fact, kept coming up over and over again as the panelists explored this overarching idea of “new”ness. As Huttler pointed out midway through, the Obama campaign took these risks with an unimaginable amount at stake—the Presidency of the United States, the future political career of the candidate, hundreds of millions of dollars in donated funds. And yet some foundations are afraid to give money to tiny organizations like Flux Theatre Ensemble—which has an annual budget of $45,000—because it uses a fiscal sponsor rather than its own tax-exempt status. As Huttler elaborated, some funders are more like angel investors, willing to take such risks, but others are really like pension funds—sitting on a ton of capital, but wanting to be extremely careful to make sure it doesn’t get squandered.

The panel was opened up to audience questions less than halfway through the session, so the remainder became something of a discussion session. One of the more interesting questions was, “what metaphors do you live by?” Remarkably, all three panelists who gave answers touched upon ideas and intellectual property in some way. Cohn reported that Flux has a philosophy that great ideas should be put out into the world–they are not yours to own. Similarly, McKinney referred to a “commonwealth of knowledge” and Huttler drew upon his experiences with open-source software development. Taking Derse’s efforts to cultivate volunteer leadership into the fold as well, it’s clear that one of the big “new” ideas has to do with activating the commons by broadening the discussion outside of one’s traditional circle in ways that have not been possible or customary in the past, often by leveraging new communications technologies. It’s important to note that this trend toward openness is not completely new — in response to a question about grantmakers embracing transparency, for example, McKinney noted that her former employer, the San Francisco Arts Commission, operates under a “sunshine law” that requires all grant panels to be open to the public, which has sometimes led to interesting conversations and confrontations. And one representative from a big foundation who asked about moving the discussion forward was reminded by a colleague who used to work at the organization years ago that its culture was once far more progressive. Nevertheless, communications technology has changed the parameters of what’s possible, with the result that more collaborative organizational and leadership models that once seemed too unwieldy may now be coming back into fashion.

Posted in New Ideas | 1 Comment

Day III: Building Arts Participation in Rural America

Tuesday closed out with a panel featuring the Montana Arts Council‘s experience with a Wallace Foundation-led initiative to cultivate new audiences for the arts. With folksy aplomb, Cinda Holt took us into the heart of the Montana frontier and described the initiative’s successes and failures with Wallace’s Ann Stone looking on.

Stone began with an explanation of Wallace’s theoretical framework for building arts participation, which comes from a 2001 study by the RAND Corporation that was commissioned by Wallace’s Research and Evaluation department. The study defines three dimensions of participation change: Broaden, Deepen, and Diversify. Broadening audiences happens when you get more of the same type of people to participate in your programming. Deepening happens when you work with the same people you already have, but increase the level of their engagement, for example by having them learn more about the works they see or getting involved in another capacity. Diversifying is when you get folks who are fundamentally different from your current audience and probably wouldn’t have otherwise participated to come to a show or interact with you in some way. Diversification is harder than broadening because, whereas people who are similar to the current audience may not participate only due to practical barriers such as schedule conflicts or a lack of money, the people who are fundamentally outside of that circle may have perceptual barriers to accessing the art as well–they may not think it is relevant to them or be willing to give it a chance.

The Wallace Foundation funded audience development efforts in collaboration with 13 state arts councils earlier in the decade, one of which was Montana’s. There were several dozen projects across the state, but the presentation discussed seven of them in particular that took place in rural communities. Holt began by presenting the results of a survey of Montanans regarding their perception of the arts. The study found that Montanans have a strong interest in family-oriented programming and in seeing friends and neighbors at an event. It also revealed that the arts have a bit of an image problem: even though two-thirds of respondents identified themselves as arts and culture participants, almost half believed that the arts are not relevant to their lives. (Wallace senior communications officer Mary Trudel would say later that the word “creativity” polled much better than “arts” in Montana, though some people associated creativity specifically with engineering.)

The Montana Arts Council used both the Wallace Foundation framework and the study to inform their guidelines for the new program, called Building Arts Participation. I won’t get into the details of every project – suffice to say that there was a wide variety both in terms of the types of projects and the degree of success that they experienced. They ranged from a historic motorcycle exhibition at an arts center in Custer County that brought in attendees from a local biker convention and contributed to a 39% rise in gallery attendance for the year, to an organization that as a result of its new programming suffered from internal fracturing on the Board that ultimately led to its suspension. Overall, many of the projects shared common themes of changing the operational model from a top-down, “bringing the arts to the masses” model to a more community-oriented, listening posture. These changes often led to better relationships with residents, increased attendance and donations, and a healthier sense of public value in the community. The experience even led MAC to introduce a new program called Public Value Partnerships (not funded by Wallace) that focuses on making the connection between the arts, audiences, and elected officials.

I asked Stone about whether Wallace has undertaken an evaluation of its own efforts in the audience development arena to test whether the theories articulated by RAND have borne fruit. While this has not taken place yet, the evaluati staff team is about to embark on internal “retrospectives” to assess what might have been done differently. One issue that has been identified is an overly optimistic idea that arts organization officials would invest the time in reading the RAND publications, which has not taken place as much as imagined. (Perhaps this might be a good time to mention the Arts Policy Library project, which seeks to process such publications for a lay audience.)

It’s fair to say that building arts participation in rural America is still a work in progress, but Montana Arts Council and its partners have at least shown that it can be done.

Posted in Audience Development, Community Arts | Leave a comment

Day III: The Art of Change

Tuesday afternoon featured a session on advocacy for arts organizations and foundations, organized by Janet Brown of Grantmakers in the Arts and Bob Lynch of Americans for the Arts. Lynch could not attend as scheduled, but sent Chief Counsel of Government and Public Affairs Nina Ozlu Tunceli in his stead. Brown and Tunceli were joined by Olive Mosier of the William Penn Foundation, Marian Godfrey of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Jennifer Goodale of the Asian Cultural Council/Trust for Mutual Understanding (and formerly director of corporate contributions at Altria).

Brown introduced the session with a story about her time as an arts advocate in South Dakota. The governor of her state at the time had a friendly, joking relationship with her, which she could tell was a good thing because it defused the somewhat stark political differences between them. Every year, she would send him a fax playfully asking him to mention the word “art” one time during his State of the State address. For the first three years, she listened for it in the State of the State to no avail, but in the fourth year, he mentioned that educational standards had remained high in several areas, “including in music, dance, theater, and visual art.” Shortly afterward, a member of Brown’s organization’s Board happened to be in attendance at a gathering of professionals in the concrete industry, and the subject of the Governor’s State of the State speech came up and one of them brought up the inclusion of music. With that, this group of burly  industry men launched into a half-hour conversation about how one of them had played trombone in high school, one of them used to sing in the choir, and how wonderful making music could be–the clear inference being that this conversation would never have happened without the Governor’s prompt (which itself wouldn’t have happened without Brown’s lighthearted advocacy efforts).

Storytime over, Tunceli gave an informative presentation on the legal issues surrounding advocacy and lobbying for foundations. It turns out that despite several restrictions intended to prevent foundations from lobbying elected officials directly, there is no reason for foundations to fear getting involved in advocacy efforts more generally. Tunceli explained that private foundations and most government grantmakers can perform all of the functions of advocacy with the exception of the narrow limits of “lobbying.” What is lobbying? Well, there are two kinds, direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying is only such if it is:

  1. An attempt to influence specific legislation (proposed or identified)
  2. By stating your position (for or against)
  3. To a federal, state, local, or foreign public official (or his/her staff)

Unless an action meets all three of these tests, it is not direct lobbying and is thus allowed under lobbying restrictions. (There is also grassroots lobbying, which Tunceli didn’t explore explicitly during her presentation, involving mobilizing constituents or the public to speak to legislators in the manner described above. This is also prohibited for private foundations.)

Although private foundations and government grantmakers can’t engage in lobbying directly (unless it’s their own survival they’re lobbying for), public charities (which include most nonprofits) and community foundations may — as long as they don’t spend more than a limited portion, usually 5-10%, of their funds on it. (Note that regardless of lobbying restrictions, neither private foundations nor public charities can do anything to try to influence an election in an election year. So they can’t endorse a candidate, donate to a campaign, educate voters about candidates’ positions on the issues, etc. But they can educate voters about the issues as long as they don’t mention the candidate).

And foundations can, in fact, support organizations that do direct or grassroots lobbying — as long as they can plausibly show that none of their funds were used for such purposes. That means the grant has to be unrestricted in nature, and it can’t be more than or reasonably close to an organization’s or project’s budget.

So, to sum up, if you’re a foundation, you can:

  • Have an opinion about an issue
  • Share that opinion with the public
  • Let that opinion drive your grantmaking
  • Commission research on the issue
  • Conduct surveys on the issue
  • Create educational advertising around the issue
  • File lawsuits related to the issue
  • Try to get the media to cover your issue
  • Draft policy papers related to the issue
  • Conduct nonpartisan voter registration and turnout operations

And all of it can be perfectly legal as long as it doesn’t involve specific legislation or specific candidates. (Please note: this blog is not the same thing as professional legal advice, so don’t go changing your whole program strategy without consulting counsel first on the specifics of your situation. OK, now the lawyers are happy.)

Tunceli suggested that grantmakers’ fear of getting involved in advocacy has a chilling effect on the activities of their (less-regulated) grantees, particularly when language such as “lobbying activities are expressly forbidden” is used. (Tunceli received some pushback from her fellow panelists on this last point; they claimed that both counsel and auditors had urged the inclusion of that language. Godfrey explained that part of the reason for this is because of a perceived business risk that may be separate from any legal risk.)

Though Tunceli’s presentation was the star of the show, several interesting issues came up during the question-and-answer period. One audience member speculated that the reason that foundations (especially corporate foundations) don’t get more involved in advocacy is because advocacy takes time, and foundations may be looking for more of a quick fix. Since two of the panelists were from Philadelphia, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance received mention several times as one of the more sophisticated arts advocacy operations in the country — their Engage 2020 initiative includes some advocacy components, and they were extremely active in the recent drama involving the state arts budget. Mosier mentioned media strategy as a particular “hole in our toolkit” that hasn’t been exploited to the extent it could be, while Godfrey underscored that advocacy needs to seen as a standard part of doing business in order to become effective over the long term.

Posted in Advocacy | Leave a comment

Day III: Lunchtime Keynote with Kakuna Kerina

Following the conclusion of the Sewing Sails in a Perfect Storm panel, we headed to the ballroom for a lunchtime plenary session with Kakuna Kerina, former executive director of Harlem School of the Arts. Grantmakers in the Arts executive director Janet Brown opened the session with a brief annual meeting, at which she announced that GIA’s new website will debut in December. The website, which will be built on the content management system Drupal, will feature a community blog with 12 contributors, a news service  (formerly Economic Turmoil and Change), and new ways for grantmakers to find and communicate with each other based on shared interests. Brown, who has been at the top spot at GIA for about eight months, declared that the theme for GIA this year is “louder and bolder,” which fits well with her personality and 30-year history as an advocate and lobbyist for the arts. Her blog will continue with the new site as well.

Before Kakuna Kerina began her speech, Brooklyn Conference Chair Janet Rodriguez introduced a young pianist, Clifford Jones, who is enrolled at Lehman College. He began his studies at age 14 after taking a music appreciation class and taught himself to play piano using an electric keyboard at home, subsequently enrolling at the Harlem School of the Arts. He played a Gershwin-inflected original composition that, despite a few nerves-induced hiccups, showed tremendous progress in the few years since his first encounter with the instrument.

Kerina’s speech focused on the importance of supporting community arts and included many stories from her time leading the Soros Foundation serving West and Northwest Africa. Struggling to contain her emotions for much of the speech, she recounted speaking with individuals whose parents had been executed by the government, learning that births and deaths were the dominant themes of public celebration (enough so that it proved to be a sustainable advertising revenue model for 30 community radio stations), and a harrowing site visit involving a boat ride, sharks, disappearing Danish tourists, and ultimately a successful outreach.

Kerina used the examples to draw parallels between Africa and the United States, pointing out that there is little difference between a child in the developing world who has no access to the arts and a poor child in New York surrounded by cultural activity but with no access to it. She explained that community arts leaders often come from a socioeconomic background that makes them uncomfortable approaching donors. Furthermore, many of those leaders are not natural-born organization managers, but rather program people who started an organization because they saw a need for its services in their community. Unfortunately, most of these organizations are so under-resourced that they have trouble either attracting experienced arts managers or keeping up with funders’ expectations for scale and capacity development. Training board members to fundraise more effectively, for these organizations, often must come at the expense of programming.

Despite these challenges, grantmaking organizations often deal with communities whose cultural history requires preservation, and Kerina urged funders not to be afraid of being a part of that dialogue.

Posted in Community Arts, Plenary Session, Social Justice | 1 Comment

Day III: Sewing Sails in a Perfect Storm

Moderated by Bill Cleveland of the Center for the Study of Art and Community, this session focused on two foundations that have made sweeping changes to their program strategy in the past year. The Boston Foundation, represented by Ann McQueen, recently announced a foundation-wide move toward a venture philanthropy model characterized by larger grants to fewer organizations, longer-term funding commitments, an emphasis on general operating support, and a focus on dealing with the roots of problems rather than the symptoms. The changes were in part motivated by a Center for Effective Philanthropy Grantee Perception Report, which came back with low scores for the foundation (the forced cessation of funding after three years and the project support were singled out in particular). In addition, there was a desire on the part of the Boston Foundation’s President, Paul Grogan, to transcend both sector silos and department silos. After focus groups, interviews, and an environmental scan, foundation staff came up with a new model around which to design programming.

The Boston Foundation arts program logic model and program theory are notable for several reasons. First, rather than being taken as a given, the foundation’s support for arts and culture is justified in the context of one of its two new overarching goals: that “Greater Boston communities are vibrant, safe, and affordable.” One of three objectives in this category is “Enhance civic and cultural vibrancy in Greater Boston,” and the sole strategy associated with the objective is “Strengthen and celebrate the region’s diverse audiences, artists, and nonprofit cultural organizations. Second, the benchmarks and long-term indicators associated with the strategy are defined with remarkable quantitative specificity. For example, a “big hairy audacious goal” of increasing attendance 50% by FY15 has been indentified, and the foundation seeks to increase the number of K-8 public school students receiving arts education from the current baseline of 23,000 students to 32,500 in 2012. Much of the data underpinning the effort to ensure healthy organizations will be provided by the new Massachusetts Cultural Data Project, which launched this past summer.

The McKnight Foundation arts program, represented by Vickie Benson, underwent a similarly drastic change, though the change was limited to the arts program itself and resulted in a rather different approach. McKnight has a long history of arts funding in Minnesota, where it distributes approximately $12 million every year. Over time, it had built up the arts ecosystem to a point where its money was no longer sufficient to cover everything, necessitating more judicious funding decisions. The process was initiated several years ago by a new president who confessed to Benson that she “doesn’t get the arts.” She asked Benson to undertake an evaluation of the program immediately to justify its existence, and Bill Cleveland was retained to carry it out. The result of the evaluation was new guidelines designed to support “an environment in which artists are valued leaders in our community, with access to the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.” This singular artist-centric focus will now permeate McKnight’s program decisions as it redirects the general operating support it had provided to large institutions toward smaller organizations, service organizations, individual artist fellowships, and project support for artist-oriented programming. (As for McKnight’s president, as a result of this process she has now become a strong and visible advocate for the arts.)

I find it interesting to contrast the Boston and McKnight Foundations’ approaches. Whereas Boston’s strategies focus largely on infrastructure and institutions, setting up measurable goals and backing them with robust data, McKnight’s changes reflect a “keep it simple, stupid” essentialism in placing artists at the center of the conversation. It would be interesting to have a reprise of this panel in a few years to see where the winds have blown these two organizations’ boats in the meantime.

Posted in Great Recession, New Ideas | Leave a comment

Day III: Not Asking Nonprofits to Do More with Less

The third day of the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference opened with another set of breakfast roundtables. I attended “Not Asking Nonprofits to Do More with Less, Or the Uneasy Art of Communicating with Our Grantees During a Downturn,” facilitated by my former colleague Julie Fry of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and her fellow SF Bay Area funder Frances Phillips of the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation. The recession is very much on everyone’s minds, of course, and with it comes difficult decisions that may be necessitated more by circumstances than by fault or mismanagement on the part of arts organizations. This session was about how to navigate such conversations.

The central issue seemed to be one of communication. Several roundtable participants reported on negative experiences they had with grantees as a result of the grantees lying to them about their organization’s financial health or repurposing grants for operating support without permission. The lies and lack of communication were apparently motivated by a fear that funders would react badly to learning the truth of the matter. In fact, as one state arts council head pointed out, such a move backfired when distributing the NEA stimulus money earlier this year, since it undercut the case for need.

No matter how you slice it, these conversations are difficult. But some grantees are having success by opening up the process a little more. A roundtable participant reported that her foundation, for the first time, sent rejected grantees detailed letters offering specific feedback on their applications and justifying the decision. To her surprise, she received many fewer angry calls this year as a result. It seems that a better process could help to build healthier relations between funders and grantees, and demonstrating to them that you’ve taken their applications seriously in this way would be an important first step. (For further thoughts on this subject, you might check out this article I wrote in June.)

Even so, some conversations are just tough no matter what—for example, when the reason for the decision not to award a grant is because of a lack of confidence in the executive director. One participant now insists that a board member be present when she meets with directors in order to get around this difficulty.

Despite the generally downbeat tone of the conversation, the session ended on a decidedly positive note as several funders expressed their sincere amazement at and admiration for the determination shown by arts organizations and artists in navigating the recession. Participants encouraged each other to try to deliver a positive takeaway with rejections, and to tell grantees how much they appreciate their work.

Posted in Breakfast Roundtables, Great Recession | Leave a comment

Day II: Arts, Culture, and Community Economic Development

On Monday, I attended an off-site session at chashama’s 126th Street artist studios, which provides workspace for 38 artists in a rapidly gentrifying area of Harlem. The subject of the meeting, appropriately, was the arts and economic development. Organized by GIA board member Janet Rodriguez, the session featured remarks from Scott Metzner, the owner of the building that chashama currently occupies; Heather Hitchens, the executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA); Anita Durst, the founder and artistic director of chashama, and Mary Puryear, program officer for the Prudential Foundation in economic development.

Durst spoke first and told the story of chashama. The organization was founded in 1995 when Durst, a theater artist whose family owns a large portfolio of Manhattan real estate, found her friends asking her more and more frequently for access to her personal rehearsal space. Durst had the idea of using her family’s real estate connections to convince landlords to lend space that would otherwise be temporarily vacant to artists in the interim. The model has proven quite successful, and chashama now has a long list of both landlords and artists who want to be matched with each other. While  stays in a given space can be as short as a month, the average tenure for a chashama space is 2-3 years. The organization has served more than 6,000 artists in the past 15 years, including nearly 100 at the present time.

From a developer’s perspective, like Metzner’s, the value proposition of chashama is compelling not only for the promise of filling otherwise vacant space (Metzner estimated that the financial benefit to his firm will be negligible), but also for the promise of a reliable tenant who actually will take care of the space. The fact that chashama carries its own insurance was seen as notable by both Durst and Metzner. Metzner specifically cited Durst herself in her role as champion as the main motivating factor for him in deciding to go ahead with the deal.

Though Puryear works in the economic development realm for Prudential, she and the Foundation see the arts as a means toward her program’s goals. She took care to note that, from her perspective, it doesn’t matter at all that it’s the arts that cause these effects–the point is that it works. Prudential, which is typically the #1 or #2 funder in the state of New Jersey with an annual investment in the city of Newark of $7-8 million, played a particularly major role in helping the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to happen. Puryear reported that the neighborhood has seen such enormous changes since the opening of the facility that there is no comparison.

Hitchens spoke about community economic development from a state funding standpoint. When Hitchens arrived at NYSCA, the agency was pretty much an island unto itself – interactions with other state entities, even those that also funded arts organizations (such as economic empowerment agencies), were rare and not at all systematized. Worse, NYSCA was seen by lawmakers as the “fun” agency, implying that it was not taken seriously. Despite this, Hitchens reported that legislators from both parties are largely on board with the notion of the arts being helpful to economic development; a common refrain is that the priorities for economic development are crime, schools, and culture. For that reason, Hitchens feels that the challenge has to do (at least in New York) less with making the pitch than with connecting the dots: convening people doing similar work in different areas and breaking down internal and external silos.

Though research has shown remarkable parallels between arts activity today and growth in real estate prices tomorrow, there seemed to be some disagreement and uncertainty among the attendees as to the exact nature of the arts’ impact on economic development and especially how one would measure that impact. Metzner remarked that the specific scale and mix of arts activity required to “move the needle” is unknown at this time.

Despite the extremely interesting content of the session, the highlight might have been the tour of the studios themselves. Many of the artists were present, working with a dizzying array of media and in some cases transforming their workspaces into elaborate creations in their own right. There is also a gallery of works in the main entrance.

Posted in Economic Development | Leave a comment

Day II: Resources for International Exchange and the Ballad of American Arts

The jam-packed days of the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference are now in full swing, and yesterday’s was especially full to the brim. Our morning started bright and early at 8:00 with a selection of “breakfast roundtables”: informal topical discussions over croissants, yogurts, and coffee. I attended the Resources for International Exchange session, which was organized by Jennifer Goodale of the Asian Cultural Council and Trust for Mutual Understanding and facilitated by Carrie Thompson of the Trust for Mutual Understanding and Margaret Cogswell of the Asian Cultural Council.

An observer indicated that he wanted to “take the temperature” of the state of cultural exchange programs in the United States, and the response he got was that it is “freezing.” The major theme of the talk was increasing the pool of funding for cultural exchange. Historically, the support of foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts helped create a number of opportunities, but as those foundations moved on to other priorities, new sources of funding failed to take their place.  Furthermore, Arts International’s folding several years ago (it now exists as a program of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, but only covers performing artists) contributed to a winnowing of opportunity in the area. There was a general sense that there may be some opportunity on the federal level with the advent of the new administration and its focus on openness with the international community. However, one participant noted that any changes to federal policy will likely take a while (as in a year or two, perhaps) to fully manifest. In the meantime, several participants were focused on rebuilding support for the international exchange grantmaking within the domestic funder community.

Two representatives from the country’s regional arts agencies participated in the conversation. The regionals already provide domestic touring support, and in some cases subsidize American artists to perform abroad. As a consortium, they recently published a report called Global Positioning Strategy for the Arts that urges leadership from the White House on the issue and points out the importance of experiencing other nations’ cultures in addition to sharing our own. Another report, from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, surveys trends in international exchange and cultural diplomacy programs in more depth.

A comparison between the United States’ and other countries approaches, facilitated by the presence of the Director of Performing Arts for the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is instructive. One participant reported encountering shock on the part of his counterparts in other countries that the US, with all of its money, had no funds to treat visiting artists with the same hospitality as countries with much smaller GDPs. Western European nations tend to have much more holistic and centralized cultural policies in which international exchange programs are coordinated with other artistic programming. For example, the Netherlands is actually becoming more interested in importing superb foreign artists to the country. This decision is the result of a government-commissioned publication, All that Dutch, that involved outreach to artistic professionals in other countries to get outsiders’ feedback on the Dutch arts scene. Word came back that the Dutch were getting complacent and needed an infusion of new ideas. Hence, the changes to cultural policy.

The session concluded with a resolve to get international exchange on the agendas of GIA and other funder affinity groups in a more formal way. The participants have already formed an email support group and plan to continue the conversation after the conference is over.

*

Following the no-bloggers-invited morning workshop, The Future and Our Role in Shaping It (whose synthesized results will be reported at Wednesday’s closing session), I sat in on Wynton Marsalis’s performance of The Ballad of American Arts over lunch. The performance is a reprise of Marsalis’s Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy for Arts Advocacy Day this year. That performance quickly achieved viral legend status when it first took place, and the Americans for the Arts’s Nina Ozlu Tunceli, introducing the piece, called it one of the “greatest honors of [her] career” to have been involved with it. I have little to say about the piece that hasn’t been said before; Marsalis blends poetry, music, and monologue into a compelling case for the essentialism of the arts. If you’re curious about it, I suggest you watch the video from the original performance here.  On top of the history lesson and the tight playing, Marsalis provided a lighter touch when his trombonist left the stage in the middle of the piece, apparently to catch another gig. Marsalis barked at him, “what, you don’t like what I’m saying?”, provoking many a confused giggle in the audience.

Back later with a report from the Arts, Culture & Community Economic Development off-site session!

Posted in Breakfast Roundtables, International, Plenary Session | 2 Comments