Other GIA Blogs
Grantmakers in the Arts is pleased to have a fantastic pair of bloggers covering the 2015 Conference in Los Angeles. Blogging veteran Barry Hessenius of WESTAF, and Lara Davis, Arts Education Manager, Seattle Office of Arts & Culture will all be posting their comments and reactions beginning Sunday, October 18. We hope you enjoy their observations and that you join the conversation.
This year’s theme, Experience the Unexpected, situated the arts as a vehicle for transformation. From community development and cultural equity, to tools for public voice and advocacy, funders were called to center their work in supporting artists and organizations as key to these efforts.
As a first-timer, I was not quite sure what to expect. I attend and present at a fair share of conferences, but primarily within the youth development and arts education sector. Participating in this convening has been really beneficial and eye opening. More than anything, the personal connections and relationship building have had the deepest impact on me.
A couple highlights that continue to resonate include –
-Speaking with a fellow conference goer about Black and Native American communities (groups to which we respectively belong) coming together across lines of imposed difference. From Red and Black Power movements that overlapped in the 60s and 70s to Black Lives Matter, we are seeking opportunities thru arts and culture to re-connect across struggle, build solidarity, and name our differences as strength. Issues of sovereignty, education, violence, police brutality, environmental racism and economic disparity are real and present threats to the health and well being of our communities. These external societal forces, and the internal malaise from it, are what we consider in our roles as arts administrators and funders of color. We are working to shift the conditions of our communities thru arts and culture, while honoring the rich and varied elements already present in them.
-Women of color at different points in our careers discussing the need for joyful, resilient practices, relevant learning experiences, and affinity spaces. I spoke with a handful of women who are creating space for cultural practice and dialog to inform their work as gatekeepers, accountable to community. This is so critical, especially when you’re the only leader of color in the room.
In the future, I think the conference could benefit from having more featured perspectives from culturally specific communities, including immigrant communities, and more hybrid presentations with granters/grantees. Include more creative and experiential formats like the gaming session, which was very hands-on. As arts educators often say, use the form to teach the form. That would be really interesting – using/creating/experimenting with art as way to explore philanthropy.
And keep up the necessary work of centering racial and social justice. This is still the beginning. There’s so much deeper to go.
“And the beat goes on…………..”
Coming off last week’s GIA Conference I am left with several thoughts:
1. My respect for, and empathy with, the funding community continues to grow. These are smart, dedicated people who care deeply about the health of the fragile arts ecosystem, and are earnestly trying to figure out ways to address the big challenges the whole field faces. They come up with intelligent, reasoned pilot projects, strategies, and approaches they hope will yield results that can help guide us all in making the difference we want to make. They aren’t risk averse and when attempts to get a handle on a problem don’t work out, when well intended approaches fail, they simply go back to brainstorming and the drawing board and reaching out to stakeholders for more input. It’s easy to armchair quarterback every decision, but not particularly helpful. Still, being on the front lines they are subject to public scrutiny and that’s as it should be.
Their efforts are constrained by two realities beyond their control: 1) there simply aren’t enough funds in the collective coffers of all the funders to address all the issues for all the community; and 2) they are program directors, not Board members — and often times their advice and counsel is trumped by Board priorities with which they may not agree, but are powerless to avoid. That is the reality of foundation and government funding processes.
2. While strides have been made in ratcheting up the awareness and understanding of both the need for adequate capitalization of arts organizations, and the ways to go about moving in that direction, it is, and will likely remain slow going across the board. There are two big issues with capitalization: 1) to change organizational behavior, it’s necessary to first change organizational culture, and that isn’t easy in many cases; and 2) the big obstacle to achieving even half the gold standard of six months operating / reserve capital, is that it is simply a money issue. You need more money to build the reserves, and more money is axiomatically hard to come by. You can increase awareness and knowledge, and arm people with the tools to go forward, but you can’t wave a magic wand and increase their revenue streams so they can achieve capitalization. We will continue to make some progress, but unless and until there is significant improvement in our finances, this will be, in many cases, two steps forward, two steps back.
3. The big issue of equity – and the specific of fairer allocation of scarce resources – faces another kind of culture that doesn’t seem to be changing much at all – and that is the long, systemically established favoritism towards a small handful of large budget cultural institutions in cities across the country. That the lion’s share of arts funding goes to this small cohort of organizations is well born out by the research, and it is structurally part of the arts funding machine. I don’t see much, if any, real movement from that inequitable reality and I don’t expect it will soon change. Before there can be any wholesale change in that allocation system, we would have to change the culture of the Boards that run these organizations and which have sworn allegiance to the way its always been as the admission ticket to a Board seat. Funding the “haves” that have always been “haves” is not, in itself, totally wrong – as these are valuable assets to any community, and they need every funding dollar they can get. But on an equity basis it’s largely indefensible. I just don’t think the change many call for is coming soon. And frankly token efforts will not do us much good at all.
4. There are a number of areas where the news is nothing but positive, and where great strides are being made with results that promise to be of enormous benefit to us all – including in the arts and aging / healing field, in the research arena, in the policy area, in placemaking – particularly as the same relates to working with cities, governments and business, and finally (though in pockets – more all the time) in arts education.
Too often people only have complaints against funders. I would like to thank them. I admire their tenacity, their positive attitudes and their creativity.
And now that I have thanked them, I would like to encourage them to push the envelope more; to have a sense of urgency about changing the dynamic and move us quicker in the area of equity.
It’s frustrating not to move quicker where the need is great. There is so much that might get done if society had the right priorities and we had the necessary tools and resources. But things are getting a little bit better all the time.
Have a great week.
Tuesday morning’s Idea Lab of artists was on point, my people.
I was particularly struck by Rosten Woo, who in a nutshell, produces communication art. Putting “interpretation” at the center of his work, he creates things like aesthetically-designed and clearly legible pamphlets on zoning so that street vendors know their rights, and glossies that highlight art and cultural occurrences in neighborhoods that, “due to racism, or the mere fact it takes place in someone’s backyard,” are not recognized as cultural staple within a community. I’m a fan.
crystal am nelson’s visual and spoken artwork was stunning, and affirming. It invokes “historical trauma combined with pleasure as complicity”, naming society’s collective involvement in the violence and de-humanization of the Black body. This is a mirror we need right now.
Over lunch, the remarkable author and thinker Claudia Rankine shared her thoughts on the work of arts funders and decision-makers in an original poem. She posed myriad questions for everyone across all identities, privileges and oppressions to consider, to take to heart, including:
- Do you ever find yourself mistaking critical response, when it is really prohibition?
- Do your race politics shape and inform the things you do?
In a session aptly entitled, “Funder, Transform Thyself,” presenters stressed that the onus of this change is on both grantors and grantees. While a clear power differential exists between the two, the Heinz Endowments Transformative Arts Process (TAP) is investing in a field building strategy that convenes advisories of young people and adults to directly influence arts opportunities and direct resources to African American youth and artists living in distressed neighborhoods. Justin Laing, the foundation’s Arts & Culture Senior Program Officer, reflected on the notion that “to be a funder is to be a gatekeeper, but how can you become a more accountable gatekeeper?” Commit to learning and undoing with the help of critical resources like The People’s Institute for Survival and beyond – they provide solid undoing racism trainings. Also, co-design and power-share with those who will receive and use resources, contributing to a shift in the practice of program officers and foundations towards substantial change.
Furthermore, if “the arts are an essential, long-term building block of healthy, vibrant communities,” at stated by Rip Rapson, head of The Kresge Foundation, then they play a necessary role in advancing the well being of young people. Innovative arts programs such as these can inform local and national initiatives focused on supporting Black males by incorporating creativity and authentic youth partnership, while expanding the effort to include all Black youth across home language and gender.
This session also stood out for being the only one I attended that featured program staff, a community grantee and a young person.
A most surprising, and uniquely facilitated experience was found in “Game Changers: Creative Community Planning.” Participants engaged in an arts-based game termed as “embodied learning,” wherein community members are invited to explore and unpack city planning. Complex terminology that often serves to disconnect and shut down community voices is the focus of this experience. We connect experientially with concepts like zoning and affordable housing thru hands-on play with Mega Bloks. In the face of gentrification and displacement, these tools can support local residents to better advocate for themselves. Its success had garnered interest from planners interested in real community public engagement for long-term planning and visioning in urban environments. Pretty cool, and empowering.
“And the beat goes on……………….”
GIA CONFERENCE — DAY 2
Two sessions today:
I. Cultural Policy and Local Arts Agencies: At the Nexus of Cultural, Economic and Community Development — featuring the work of the Tucson Pima Arts Council (Roberto Bedoya — Director of Civic Engagement) — shifting policy from grant making to serving the community directly; the City of San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs (Kerry Adams Hapner, Director of Cultural Affairs, Deputy Director of Economic Development) — moving on the challenge of cities to develop talented workforce pools; and and the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture (Randy Engstrom, Director) — emphasizing arts education as a “Creative Advantage” program. A lively audience discussion followed the presentations centering around the role of the LAA in policy formation, noting the difference between planning and policy, and exploring ways policy might be developed via programming and internal work within city hall.
- Randy suggested an out-of-the-box idea: fund a FTE in the city planning department paid for from the arts agency’s budget. The notion of having an arts perspective embedded full time in the city’s overall planning mechanism moves way beyond having the arts seated at a decision making table. This is perhaps a bold kind of move for our future.
- Laura Zucker suggested that what we need is to work for policies valuing the arts from a not an exclusively top down, nor bottom up effort in city government and which will survive the politics of city hall, so that we don’t have to continually fight the same fights over and over again when regimes change and new politicians are in office.
- Jonathan Glus noted that the Houston Cultural Plan includes policies valuing the arts with specific guidelines for other city departments (though the guidelines aren’t mandates) it does go beyond the traditional cultural plan “wish list” of inter-departmental collaboration.
- There was general consensus that while a national policy valuing the arts is problematic, the next step might be a concerted effort to begin to develop local valuation policies.
II. The major afternoon sessions were three hour offsite. I choose to attend the Digital Media for Arts Grantmakers focusing on the need for grantmakers to learn to deploy digital media to reach and engage audiences and to become fluent in digital capabilities and tools.
- Have an articulated game plan, informed by the organization’s overall vision strategy.
- Build capabilities, don’t just do projects. Technology is not a project but a process
- Shake up the organization chart with an integration of digital competency positions, including training
- Put audiences first and be prepared for constant change.
- This is, of course, a big, complex area where many arts leaders feel lost and / or incompetent and there are numerous obstacles to embracing full digital knowledge. But as the generational shifts become more urgent, so too is the necessity of overcoming reticence and fears to understand the basics of IT and appreciate the rapidity of change as a constant.
III. The day ended with a visit to the newly opened BROAD Museum, which is housed in a stunning new building situated across from LA’s iconic Disney Hall and the MOCA, along the Grand Avenue corridor which must rival, or exceed, any cultural district in the country.
The BROAD collection is eclectic and varied and the experience is a joy. I loved it. There are the expected names: the Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelley, Ruscha, Lichtenstein, Koons and Basquiat, and more (and while not always the premier pieces in each collection, all are extraordinary). And there is lots more including media installations that are provocative. As a lay person, I was thrilled.
Have a good day.
“And the beat goes on……………”
GIA CONFERENCE – DAY 1
The first day of any of our art conferences seem to always be the longest.
Janet Brown opened the conference with the reminder that the three operating principles of GIA continue to be: Inclusiveness, Collaboration, and Curiosity.
I. Recent GIA Conferences have featured Idea Lab — short TED-like presentations by a trio of different working artists. The first three were all excellent. The one that caught my attention was Yuval Sharon, founder and artistic director of The Industry, an L.A. based experimental opera company that produces performances that can only be categorized as way outside the box.
He touted three:
- A warehouse based production where the audience was invited to walk all around the actual production and view it from anywhere they choose — in front as an audience, backstage, from the wings.
- A production of a full opera at L.A’s downtown Union Station – a working railroad station with arrivals and departures and teeming with travelers.
- And most ambitious of all — an opera performed in 24 moving vehicles on L.A.’s freeway system called “Hopscotch“. Really, the opera is performed in chapters and people get in these cars / vans for ten minutes at a time. And then can opt for another chapter. Each moving vehicle travels to different parts of the city. Moreover, the “chapters” are live streamed. L.A. has long had a car culture, and this project fits perfectly into the identity of the city.
This is clearly not your father’s opera company.
II. Capitalization sessions:
I wanted to focus the day on the sessions dealing with capitalization of arts organizations, so I went to two. The first one (entitled Along the Capitalization Spectrum) was advertised as: “an examination of the spectrum of capitalization activities that can be undertaken in order to more fully and equitably support organizational financial health — lessons learned from recent years of capitalization-focused grant making and new directions based on that learning” — featuring presentations from Kresge and Mellon foundations.”
The two Mellon programs caught my attention:
1. The Zero Loan Fund is a program is designed for organizations principally with temporary cash flow issues, delays in receivables etc. and the program is a form of bridge support, and isn’t really aimed at organizations with high risk financial problems. Loans are to be paid back in one year, and they have had a 96% pay back rate. This type of program seems to have positive results, though the goals of temporary transitional support are limited. They have plans for expansion of the program with larger loans available, and consideration of higher risk organizations as grantees (though they haven’t yet determined the exact criteria for the degree of risk.)
2. The more ambitious program is a pilot initiative that deals with the comprehensive financial health of 70 grantees and is still in the operational stage only halfway through its process, and thus there are yet any firm conclusions about either the approach or efficacy. They’ve done extensive diagnostics, and the educational component workshops are still in progress.
These two projects, plus the Kresge work with placemaking as incorporating support for capitalization, point out how slow the whole process of moving deliberately forward with programs that can both succeed in helping organizations become adequately capitalized for financial health, and which might also be replicated — in whole or in part for the benefit of the field.
What I came away with, was that the realization that there are multiple layers of issues involved in even the attempt to craft programs that might help arts organizations achieve real capitalization, and change structural organizational forms so as to facilitate that achievement — including everything from organizational transparency and truth telling to both funders and to the organization itself, to the possible stigma of asking for even a bridge loan, to the timeline it takes to develop approaches in this area.
The reality that some organizations living hand to mouth and literally on the precipice of survival might be of great value to the communities in which they operate further complicates the decision process of where to put dollars to help address the challenge of widespread inadequate capitalization among arts organizations. Even the contingent in the field that supports the notion that some organizations are so far gone as to not be savable, and that some organizations should, frankly, be left to expire without prolonged and likely futile attempts to change their circumstances faces the challenge of how to determine which ones fall into that classification.
II. The next session was entitled Building Cash Reserves in Arts Organizations — featuring a California Community Foundation 18 month pilot project which sought to help arts organizations build cash reserves (as opposed to basic operating reserves designed to cover base expenses), and involving five small to mid-sized Los Angeles based arts organizations.
Alas this project pointed up that even in this area of capitalization, there are so many variables and likely unanticipated complications that can undermine the effort that it impossible to consider each individual situation as anything other that completely unique and a standalone situation. Lessons learned included:
- An 18 month timeline is too short. A three year timeline is suggested as it takes longer to cultivate existing or new donors (who would give to a reserve fund) and to build the culture of capitalization (and fundraising) within the organization.
- There needs to be a consistency of leadership participation by the grantee and the Board president should be involved from the outset.
- Consider the challenges of whole organizational change and be prepared for different outcomes across the spectrum.
- Assure understanding of all roles and responsibilities of the various participating resources and consultants for the benefit of the cohort and the building cash reserves team.
When I asked about the reality that some arts organization’s situations might suggest that scarce resources ought to be deployed where they might have a chance of succeeding, there was the suggestion that the value to a community might trump that consideration. In subsequent conversations with other attendees, there seems an equally vocal group that rejects the idea that we can save everyone or that — with finite resources — it is smart to try. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle — we need to both consider all kinds of criteria in determining where to invest scarce resources while at the same time accept the realities that things can and do go wrong, and that we cannot always control when that happens nor fix it after the fact. Every decision funders make, results in a choice to invest here instead of investing somewhere else. That reality will not change.
The challenges of trying to promote adequate capitalization for arts organizations is daunting and mired with the fact that each organizational situational circumstances are unique, and that each organization’s level of financial sophistication varies widely.
III. The day’s last session for me was entitled People of Color and Arts Giving: A 360 Degree View. While “people of color maintain a deep interest in the arts, lead active cultural lives, and want to participate — particularly in art-making and art-learning” there is evidence that they don’t yet give in support of arts organizations nearly to the level of their White counterparts.
39% of California’s population is Latino/a, but they account for only 6% of arts giving
The why is varied:
- They do give philanthropically, but to other areas such as churches.
- There are fewer high income members in the cohort.
- The culture of giving to nonprofits is still developing.
- They have other investment priorities.
- The question is how can arts funders promote the message that the arts strengthen communities of color and the answer to that questions will be tempered by: 1) a likely long (generational) timeline; 2) increased involvement of the community in perceived valuable arts activity; 3) arts education. No answers — just challenges as this stage.
But this is an important challenge for funders. As communities of color gain local political clout — and exercise that clout in the voting booth — more local government funding can/will likely go to arts organizations serving those communities. That may help.
Have a good day.
More to follow.
Day 1 of the main conference has been pretty spectacular. The opening plenary inspired with three local artist presentations centering cultural organizing, innovation, and love.
The sessions themselves were brilliant – a confluence of ideas and grappling with critical issues that the philanthropic community must consider, unpack and engage through action and accountability.
In particular, the session on Cultural Equity and Public Funding framed the evolving work of funding agencies amidst changing demographics in the US. These changes reflect impacts on housing, law enforcement, education, and even electoral politics – all compounded by economic gaps impacting communities of color. This is an environment, which calls the field to task, to position arts and culture as a space of creativity and possibility through problem-solving, collaboration, and community leadership.
So, what is the complex picture that goes beyond notions of multiculturalism or diversity? As stated by Roberta Una (Director, Arts in a Changing America), “Diversity is inclusiveness in a dominant structure,” which is not the reform we are seeking. We are seeking authentic change, led by communities, followed by a funding field responsive to the need for dismantling oppressive systemic barriers.
New to the foundation world, community activist Anyka Berber commented on the role of the philanthropic field to address civic engagement for real change, “…so that the public can also be one of the levers – to do their job and play a really important role in moving these conversations forward.”
Youth voice was a key tenet of a conversation on collective impact models for arts education. CREATE CA (Core Reforms Engaging Arts To Educate in California), a statewide coalition towards this effort, revealed their plans for engaging young people to share perspectives on the arts in schools to further inform the initiative’s growing work. Tangible opportunities to partner with young people and families in shifting the landscape of public education is essential, and funders must support these efforts.
A rich dialog on workforce development lead by the LA County Arts Commission and Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events looked at young adults, and their access to creative occupations. Work in this area is burgeoning across many cities, while just a handful of organizations are in the midst of program development/design and early implementation. Given the disproportionality of youth of color with criminal records in a society that targets based on race and class, this opportunity for creative skill building to foster economic self-sufficiency is as much the work of arts and culture, as it is social justice. In Chicago, young people ages 18 – 25 are being given the opportunity to apprentice with industry professionals in film and music – supporting local talent and nurturing, as Tracie Hall (Chicago’s Deputy Commissioner of Arts and Creative Industries) puts it, community cultural production. Anecdotal evidence is already boasting job placements in locally produced television shows – tangible, creative work for young people in their cities of origin. That’s dope.
“And the beat goes on…………….”
Once again I am covering the GIA Annual convening of the nation’s arts funding community as they gather in Los Angeles. Completely SOLD OUT, this conference is apparently the largest conference in the umbrella organization’s history. Congratulations!
There is a long list of issues that challenge those funding the arts. Two years ago I listed a Top Twenty of those issues, and having reread that post, I think all those issues are still on the table for public and private funders alike.
Today, there are two overarching areas that I believe are at the top of the collective agenda of arts funders — and that really dominate the national funder stage; two encompassing challenges that are inter-related.
1. Survivability / Sustainability: The issue here is what can funders do to help keep arts organizations not only alive and functioning, but move them to some point of sustainability over a longer period of time. The GIA’s own vaulted program of Capitalization (working towards helping arts organizations to achieve enough capital reserves to facilitate and make possible longer term viability and financial health) seeks to address this challenge. As an issue it’s not nearly as exciting as the role of arts in social justice, nor as poignant for the future as arts and aging, and arts in healing, nor as full of promising potential as placemaking and community engagement. But it is the most critical issue we face. Survival, and maybe even sustainability. It’s about money.
The guts issue is where to put limited arts funder money where it will do the most good (there isn’t enough funding available to solve the problem, so the question is how to maximize the positive impact of the funds that are available). The challenge to funders is how to move financially fragile arts organizations (and a wider fragile ecosystem) to one on more solid ground. The subtext is who will survive under the approach and who will not, because there isn’t enough money to save every organization, and because funders have different approaches and strategies.
Consider that since the early part of this century (say ten years ago – back to 2005) — because of the dot.com boom crash, the reprioritization of funding due to the terrorism concern, and the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting budget cuts due to decreased revenue — the arts have lost somewhere over a billion dollars in funding. While not an exact figure, it is likely in the range of the loss. That’s including the cuts to public funding (factoring in static federal funding, overall state decreases and cuts in some city and county programs, and increases in others), the cuts from private philanthropic foundations due to diminution in foundation stock portfolios and redirection of funds from the arts to other programs, and finally, decreases in overall individual donor giving due, in part, to increased competition from other worthy causes. And it’s assuming the economy had remained stable, and that arts funding would have continued at the level it had been for both public funding and private philanthropic giving and funding. A lot of assumptions, I know — some even questionable — but the point is that the arts took a big hit in funding over the decade, and more critical, took a bigger hit in what it ought to have had. And that loss has had profound impact on everything we do or wanted to do.
In California alone, for those ten years the CAC budget went from $32 million to $1 million. A $31 million per year loss x 10 years is a $300 million shortfall in state funding alone — in one state. While some California cities and counties may have picked up the slack early on, others were not in the same financial shape. Foundations stock portfolios suffered hits as well and major foundation budgets for arts funding decreased; perhaps in the aggregate $25 to $75 million over the period. And losses in donor support might have arguably reached another $25 to $50 million. That’s $400+ million in California alone.
So, let’s say the difference in what we might have had and what we had (across the country) is in the neighborhood of one billion dollars over ten years. That’s a lot of money. And that money would have made the difference in sustainability on so many levels.
And that lack of money is the fundamental issue we still face today.
Imagine what we could have done in terms of sustaining our field, and addressing inequities with that billion dollars, and think about what we have lost. While the economy is improving, and so are our fortunes, moving forward to try to capitalize our organizations and insure the survivability of as many of them as possible and the ecosystem as a whole is currently a daunting challenge and we simply do not yet have the wherewithal to make it right again.
So what do funders do? Where ought their priorities lie?
There is no one simple answer to that question. There are all different kinds of funders in our field, with a full range of priorities and constraints and different circumstances. Yet year by year funders are agreeing on some points and some approaches. I think that is encouraging. For example, for a long time arts funders focused on “projects” but did not include nor factor in the overhead costs of those projects. Now, increasingly, funders have embraced the notion that unrestricted operating costs are not only a valid funding approach, but that the strategy ought to be the defacto norm. Some may argue that it took too long to get to that realization, and that may well be true, but we’re essentially there now.
2. Equity / Racism: The second big issue is equity in funding and resource allocation in the face of demographic shifts and growth in the arts field including communities of color, and the legacy of funding large (or larger) white Euro-Centric cultural organizations, arguably now at the expense of all the rest of the arts community. Racism — or more specifically, the specter of structural racism and bias in favor of those that have for so long gotten the lion’s share of the pie, (and not prejudice per se) is the challenge. While there has been a measurable increase in programs trying to at least begin to address the disparity and inequality of funding and resource allocation, studies continue to confirm that the most money goes to the same small slice of established organizations that it has gone to for a long time. This is not an easy issue to deal with, and a lot of funders are struggling to protect and sustain what has been of value, and to simultaneously nurture and support that which has value but has for far too long been neglected and gotten the short end of the stick.
Funders are trying all kinds of approaches, and it’s too early yet to pass judgment on what might work and what won’t. But time is part of the problem, for delay in equity is denial of equity and the field must make some giant leaps to address the inequity issue. That extra billion dollars might have made this issue at least party academic.
It will be interesting — to me — to try to get a handle on where the funding people’s thinking is at this juncture on the financial picture and the equity equation. Most of the other issues we face are arguably offshoots of these two elephants in the room.
Every funder has different priorities and ranks differently the challenges out there. There are geographic territories where the equity issue isn’t as front burner as it is elsewhere; there are communities where survivability is still manageable, relatively speaking, and communities where the available resources are increasingly obviously inadequate to do much of anything about those organizations that are living still on borrowed time. No one segment of any field agrees on everything, including the nonprofit arts sector. But over the last five years, there has been remarkable consensus on what is critical, and even on some of the nuts and bolts of how to approach these issues.
More over the next three days.
Have a good week.
Los Angeles, CA. Paramount Pictures Studios. Palm trees and documentary filmmaking.
For me, this was not the usual hotel-based or convention center constructed opening to an annual arts conference. While the remainder of the week’s events will be held at the historic downtown Millennium Biltmore Hotel, the pre-conferences were held off-site in more relevant-to-topic local venues.
The preconference session Investing in Filmmakers: Arts and Media drew primarily funders from across the nation to discuss, as framed by Janet Brown in her opening statement: how can we move forward in a way that advances filmmakers as individual artists?
Participants from organizations and foundations where opportunities for filmmakers are minimal to embedded in general artist-funding programs were eager to discuss and find ways to more intentionally invest in these artists. This included ideas for cross-sector work, such as film and community development, and supporting current grantees to engage storytelling thru filmmaking. Those with more established artist funding and development programs in media spoke to the benefits of filmmaking beyond an advocacy and communications focus to one of tangible social impact, followed by comments on artist access to power and decision-making in these processes.
A handful of funders posed critical questions on industry access for filmmakers of color and young people to share their stories. What partners are foundations and other funding agencies working with to authentically engage artists of color? What is the pipeline to fertile ground for young people to develop these skills, and to tell their own stories thru film?
A major highlight of the day was screening segments from two very different, but no less powerful documentary films, and hearing from the artists on the challenges they face and their suggestions for the philanthropic field.
Notions of social impact versus artful documentary — a false, yet persistent dichotomy that can force artists into binaries, came up throughout the discourse. This can have deep implications for an artist’s access to resources when funder priorities miss the potential impact of artful documentaries, or pigeon hole social impact films as somewhat outside of the artistic realm.
It was mentioned that this latter notion also shows up in how filmmakers perceive themselves, in part due to institutional barriers in grant making. Some may feel either disconnected from other artists or a lack of identity as an artist, perhaps even more so for those who produce more mainstream or commercial projects. How is the philanthropic sector perpetuating or contributing to this narrative? And, what are the implications for supporting artists working in commercial media?
Documentary filmmakers pursue diverse support, pulling together resources from many supporters, as the level of funding needed to bring projects to fruition is greater than any one grant they may be able to garner (notwithstanding the already limited funding for film from the philanthropic field). Additionally, budgeting and timing for projects vary. Cori Shepherd Stern, producer of Bend the Arc – which centers on global health equity and was eleven years in the making (five just to secure the rights) – puts it this way, “Some stories can happen quickly. Some are about a deep personal relationship over time, which takes more time to develop and bring to fruition.” Cara Mertes (Ford Foundation, JustFilms) posed this response to the funders in the room, “What are the places where you can leverage effectiveness at various points across an endeavor vis a vis this process of storytelling, when it can take years to complete a project?”
The conversation with leading film funders that followed the film screening revealed a focus on the role of “transformative narrative, creative intervention, and independent storytelling” and thoughts on how funders can move the needle towards real systemic impact.
There were suggestions for structural changes, including the creation of common applications and reporting practices to simplify processes to save artists valuable time, and encouragement for composite impact, as a practice of foundations and organizations working in tandem to increase artist opportunities.
One idea in particular, expanded on the role of teaching artists in education or youth spaces to the role of artists and filmmakers in communities. “How do we go beyond film as project – think of artists as community leaders, bringing in skills and resources, and supporting communities to draw that up?” Tabitha Jackson (Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program) framed it within notions of power, “…film as bearing witness, and filmmakers as catalysts for hard conversations. What is the particular possibility of film to shed light?”
There were so many elements covered during the session, which really feels like a jumping off point for deeper possibilities. From challenges of film distribution and emerging media, such as virtual reality, to re-engineering a transformative practice of funders, there is every opportunity for grant making to set its focus on expanding support for filmmakers as individual artists. This can only happen in authentic partnership with artists, creativity and equity at the center.
I’m looking forward to GIA’s continued support in evolving the conversation.
Lara Davis has been active in youth development and community arts education for more than a decade. She has served as a Seattle arts commissioner and as program director for Arts Corps, a youth arts organization. At the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, Lara manages Creative Advantage, a public/private partnership to ensure equitable access to high quality arts learning for all Seattle students. Lara serves on the National Advisory Committee for the Teaching Artists Guild and facilitates equity and racial justice trainings. As a person of color, Lara understands the value of cross-cultural, multi-sector efforts to dismantle racism and other oppressions, and to promote justice. As an artist and arts administrator, she knows firsthand the power of creativity necessary to build access, foster engagement, transform communities, and inspire systemic change.
Former Director California Arts Council, President California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, and Executive Director of LINES Ballet. Author, consultant, blogger and public speaker. Barry published his work Hardball Lobbying for Nonprofits in 2007 (Macmillan & Company, New York). He conducted a two phase study with reports released in 2007 and 2009 for the Hewlett Foundation on the issue of generational management & succession in the arts. He authored several other studies including the California Arts Advocacy Handbook, the Local Arts Agency Funding Study for the Aspen Institute and the City Arts Agency Tool Kit. He is author of the most widely read blog in the nonprofit arts field – Barry’s Blog.
A founding member and Vice-Chair of California Arts Advocates and the United Statewide Community Arts Association, he was also been a board member of the National Association of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), the California Alliance for Arts Educators (CAAE), California CultureNet, the California State Summer School for the Arts, the California Travel Industry Association (CalTIA), and a member of the State Superintendent’s Task Force on Arts Education. Barry is currently on the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Architectural Foundation.