GIA is pleased to have three influential bloggers covering the 2010 conference; Andrew Taylor, Director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, an MBA degree program and research center in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business and author of The Artful Manager blog; Barry Hessenius, writer and consultant and author of Barry’s Blog, News, Advice and Opinion for the Arts Administrator; and Arlene Goldbard, social activits, writer, and author of the blog, Arlene Goldbard: Culture, Politics, and Spirituality.
“And the beat goes on…………………”
3 to 4 day conferences are strange little experiences. None any more so than gatherings of arts leaders. Thrown together in one space, there is a usual breakdown in these things that roughly approximates this:
A third of the people are relatively new to the field, or at least to this sub-section of the field. First timers have a small network of people they know (though they may know more “of” and “about” some people.) They are excited to be part of something new; their engergy is boundless; they want to quickly forge some bonds and assimiliate into the group. They are eager, curious and inquisitive and want to take in every session. For many others this may be their second or even third conference. They aren’t quite as unfamiliar with the turf; they’ve been – if not around the block – at least across the street as it were – and they know a little about what is going on, who is who and where they want to spend their time. We were all in this category at one time. I am delighted to see these people at these events and love talking with them.
Another third are the middle level management people who have been around a while and are familiar with the field, the issues and most of the players. Some of these people are on the way up; others wonder why they seem stuck where they are. While most are still engaged and avid about figuring out how to deal with the challenges, some have gotten to the point where they are still here in name only and really want to move on. They’re no longer naive, but they’re not jaded either.
The last third are the old hands – the people who have been around awhile, have seen most of this before, and who are the acknowledged senior leadership. They run their organizations and wield, for a variety of reasons, considerable power and clout within whatever the niche universe is. While these people care deeply about the challenges and forging new ways to really deal with those challenges, they, more than the other two groups, know that somehow progress won’t likely happen if we can’t break the gridlock of old ideas and old ways of doing things.
This is my sixth and final post about the Grantmakers in the Arts 2010 conference, where I was invited to take part as a live blogger. It was tremendous fun: I got to write morning, noon, and night, which is my preferred type of ecstatic meditation. It was also a perfect antidote to the anxiety I sometimes feel when thrown into a sea of contacts and expected to network. Usually, the first time someone I’m talking to scans the room for a conversation-partner with more status, my heart sinks. This time, it was all just material. I’ve gotten lots of great response from readers already, a writer’s dream. Now I want to do it more, so if you’re planning a conference that needs up-to-the-minute blog commentary, let’s talk.
Some will tell you Some will tell you
Tell you what you really want ain’t on the menu
Don’t believe them Don’t believe them
Cook it up yourself and then prepare to Serve them
”Jeremiah,” Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie opened the final plenary of the 2010 GIA conference with a recitation of these lyrics, then proceeded to practice what she preached. She alternately thanked the assembled funders for their support for artists, urged them to do more, and told edgy home truths:
- The music business is about music, not business; artists are there to pull the cart, to be milked for money.
- They say nobody wants war, but that’s not true: war is about money-laundering, not that this religion doesn’t like that religion.
- I’ve got more degrees and honorary degrees than you’ve had hot dinners. Colleges today are corporate vocational schools where corporations and the military go to recruit kids.
- When one has a billion and a billion have none, something is wrong.
- In North America, we have five major heavily funded colleges of war where a guy can go and spend his life getting advanced degrees in how to make war better. We don’t have one such college of that caliber and funding dedicated to alternative conflict resolution. How can a young person learn from Martin Luther King and Gandhi?
Everyone I talked to (not a scientific sample, of course) wished she’d spoken at the beginning of the conference rather than the end. It wasn’t that they disliked the earlier speakers; people enjoyed all the plenaries. It was that Buffy Sainte-Marie’s words, weaving a world that contained both hard realities and real hope, highlighted the intense contradictions of funding arts and culture in confusing, super-stressed times.
The opening plenary of the Grantmakers in the Arts conference featured a fabulous performance by spoken word artist Marc Kelly Smith and the Speak’Easy Ensemble (Robbie Q. Telfer, Joel Chmara, Tim Stafford, Molly Meacham, and Dan Sullivan). Their task was to share and reflect on the long, long, long list of comments gathered after the 2009 GIA conference, and put them in some context that would inform the 2010 conversations yet to come.
It was fantastic stuff, and among the best efforts I’ve seen to bring the voices and insights of a past conference into a current conference. The performance closed with an extraordinary piece on silos, value, and the people who connect them. I asked ensemble member Robbie Q. Telfer if the group would be willing to share that text, and he graciously sent it along.
“And the beat goes on……………”
The CapitalizationProject will have to confront the thorny issue lying underneath the surface: the assumption that to get where the project seeks to go there will have to be, at least some wholesale restructuring of the built (or overbuilt) infrastructure – whether or not that happens consciously or as an indirect consequence. In short, any number of precariously financed organizations with shaky revenue streams will simply have to be left to die off on their own. That isn’t necessarily, however, even a new thread in the discussion of the financial healthof the sector. We’ve been talking for a long time about the extent to which the sector is overbuilt, how supply exceeds demand and how we, during seemingly endless good times when funders were flush, just kept funding the long march of new incarnations of art. To be sure, much, even most, of what came just this century was indeed worth funding, and some of it was brilliant, But sustainable? No. Probably not even if the crash had not come. Arts funding in the second decade of the century will have to be much more strategic and smarter; happen more in concert and leverage identifiable results IF we want to do more than survive.
Unquestionably, the decisions as to funding in the current economic climate are already hard and painful, for funder and grantee alike. Such decisions will be made in consideration of local and indivdual circumstances and criteria; no one size will fit all, and there will be champions for both those that get the help they need to survive or grow and champions too for those that do not. But one thing will remain unalterable: there are insufficient funds to support every organization irrespective of its value, artistic merit, community impact, legacy or favorite son status. IF there is to be any serious attempt to try to address stabilization in the area of capitalization, some very hard choices will have to be made. That’s really nothing new though.
On Tuesday, I attended a Grantmakers in the Arts conference presentation on “Participatory Arts and Community Health: Challenges and Opportunities,” organized by Amy Kitchener of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. It began with presentations on exemplary projects braiding art with individual and community well-being, offered by Maria Rosario Jackson of the Urban Institute, Beatriz Solis of The California Endowment; Josephine Ramirez of The James Irvine Foundation; Alaka Wali of The Field Museum; and Christine Dunford of Lookingglass Theatre and The Field Museum. They were so fiercely articulate that when I heard the Catalyst Quartet play Mu Kkubo Ery’Omusaalaba so beautifully at lunchtime, my mind skipped back to that group of women asserting art’s bond with well-being: different instruments, same story.
The discussion that followed their presentations turned to metrics, a word I can now barely stand to hear. The underlying question is important, though, as Maria Rosario Jackson phrased it: “What would it take to bring attention to this approach to arts and health, to validate it within and across sectors?”
People had a lot to say, clustering around two views.
Some are seeking ways to substantiate art’s role in well-being (or community development or any other area of public intervention) that slide easily into the existing systems of documentation and assessment used by other agencies. The underlying idea is that Health and Human Services (to pick a single example among many) can’t validate art as an integral part of its work unless art can be measured and described with instruments and language already familiar, comfortable, and compatible with HHS’ internal culture and vocabulary, its metrics. The hope is that if this translation can be accomplished, if HHS’ comfort zone can thus be breached and infiltrated, arts-based projects will eventually be accepted and supported.
Others doubt this will work (or suspect that blowback will distort the arts work rather than open up the agency), seeking instead to transform the standards of proof, so that stories, testimonies, interactions, and small-scale observations will coexist with what can validly be quantified. If what truly has most value can’t be conveyed by numbers, they argue, the systems of measurement have to adjust.
Joi Ito’s luncheon keynote yesterday keeps spinning in my head. The CEO of Creative Commons has been involved in many technology startups as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and part of his talk explored how innovation and invention is changing in the digital age.
Particularly interesting were two approaches to innovation: agile development, and pivoting.
Agile development is an evolving practice for rapidly developing software with self-organizing groups, close interaction between developers and end users, and fast and frequent versions of the product. In contrast to the previous standard for software development that required stacks of specifications and isolated developers, agile development encourages responsiveness to the needs of the customer, low costs, and high speed. As a result, failures cost tens of thousands of dollars instead of millions, and developers and investors can try lots and lots of things to see what works.
“And the beat goes on………………”
The Chair of the Endowment’s activism to involve the agency on a number of front s seems to be working.. This morning he recounted successes in getting other federal departments and agencies to include the arts in funding programs and policies including a recent $100 million NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability)from HUD that the arts might apply for part of, and ongoing dialogues and conversations about embedding the arts within programs as far ranging as aging and mental health to transportation, agriculture and commerece. I heard him make the promise of pursuit of making these federal intersections work, and he is delivering on that promise. Impressive.
He also talked about the Our Town program ($5 million earmarked for ‘placemaking’ efforts in 35 communities), and plans to move forward with pursuing joint initiatives with major foundations in the future to complement, extend and leverage private funder efforts and forge symbiotic relationships. Expansion of collaborative and cooperative projects between government and the private funding sector should have begun a long time ago.
National Capitalization Project:
Janet Brown announced and introduced this really bold effort from GIA to address the undercapitalization of arts organizations throughout the field. Some time in the planning stages and involving many funders in the process, the report makes specific recommendations to funders about improving the capitalization of arts organizations. Janet cautioned that release of the report is a beginning of what will likely be a long process that involves changing the way people think and our approaches on a number of fronts long held dear; that the recommendations are not edicts, but suggestions and that it recognizes the diversity of the field.
Joi Ito, founder and CEO of Creative Commons, was the luncheon speaker at Monday’s GIA meeting. His relaxed and likable presence comes across as realness personified. His low-key style gives me a sort of internal headshake. By the time Ito’s presentation ended, I was buzzing with a frequency of intellectual excitement I’d normally associate with verbal pyrotechnics. How did he do it? Brilliance, originality, groundedness…. You had to be there: I wish you had been.
I thought about it all day, especially in the last session I attended in the afternoon, as I listened to a circle of artists, organizers, and funders take part in “Breaking out of a Bifurcated World: A Bridge Conversation on Philanthropy.” More about that below.
Ito began with a few stories relevant to his audience of artists and funders, such as serving on the first internet art jury for Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, fifteen years ago. That experience helped to define the internet as an art space. It also revealed a growing convergence of art and entrepreneurship, giving awards to people who identified as engineers or scientists, rather than as artists. It helped to create “a kind of community of artists that worked together with business people,” generating notable Web-based successes that twinned some aspect of art and enterprise. The best internet enterprises, Ito said, come from an arts background. Among others, he mentioned Kickstarter, as well as last.fm (long since sold for multimillions), his most lucrative Web investment as a venture capitalist.
Ito described how that first experience with Ars Electronica introduced him to the boundedness of the artworld, because some people got upset at the idea that the internet projects receiving awards should be called “art.” “You don’t know what art is,” they told him, “that’s design, it’s craft, not art.”
There was some useful and difficult discussion today at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference, much of it surrounding the charge to reframe how arts funders think and talk about capital and capitalization.
Many funders will admit, in private, that their expertise and interest lie on the program side of their work, rather than on balance sheets and income analysis. Others will complain that an emphasis on financial health and performance distracts from the larger purpose of their work — enabling compelling and transformative arts and artists. Still others claim from experience that healthy financials and vibrant artistic work don’t always track together — that, in fact, organizations with the strongest balance sheets are the least innovative and risk-taking.
The first plenary session of this Grantmakers in The Arts’ conference focused on the National Capitalization Project, a GIA initiative launched this past January. It was premised on the plain truth that arts organizations are often under-capitalized. A task force of funders and experts studied the literature, agreed on terms, and has just now published a “National Capitalization Project 2010 Summary,” summing up its findings. They are foregrounded in an extensive “Literature Review on Capitalization” issued last spring, (Both documents can be downloaded from this page.)
Especially in the stormy economic weather that has come to be the new normal, I wish there were enough funding available to accomplish the overarching goal of this project, giving every arts organization a rainy day fund to draw against for emergencies and temporary shortfalls.
If there were an adequate and steady funding supply, many of the observations and recommendations are logical and sound: make larger grants and multi-year grants to enable organizations to build up operating surpluses that can be held in reserve for emergencies or special expenditures. Provide general operating support instead of project grants that tend to create “mission drift,” as groups seek to satisfy funders’ aims instead of their own. Rather than seeking break-even budgets, let the existence of a surplus count on the positive side when making grants; don’t conclude that groups that have built up a cushion don’t need funding. Don’t just make grants: consider loans, program-related investments, and other initiatives that add to organizational capital.