A good conference generates its own excitement. People feel energized and connected; they spark each others’ imaginations and dream up new ways to collaborate. Even a few days in inspiring company can trigger a great leap forward in creativity and imagination—but only for the people who can attend!
Live-blogging offers a way to extend that impact to those who can’t be there in person. By following the conference blog, readers can share observations and experiences otherwise available only to direct participants. They can join in exploring the ideas and issues that bubble up between the cracks in the formal agenda. But that only happens if the blogger goes beyond plain vanilla descriptions of conference sessions, providing vivid accounts of what matters and how things feel, inviting readers to take part.
Click here to contact Arlene Goldbard by email about your upcoming conference.
The following live-blog posts were created for Grantmakers in The Arts’ 2010 conference.
Annals of Philanthropy: GIA 2010 Conference Blog
Two notes to you, dear readers:
First, from Sunday through Wednesday (17-20 October 2010), I’ll be one of three bloggers invited to attend and write about the annual conference of Grantmakers in the Arts. I’ll be posting at least once a day, perhaps more, both through my own site and at GIA’s site. If you’re concerned about information overload, don’t worry: I’ll be back to my usual pace and range of subjects in a few days!
Second, I’m delighted to share a video of my recent talk for The Field in New York City. “Why America Needs Artists (It’s Not What You Think)” offers a good representation of the ideas I’m developing in my new book, now in progress. I hope you enjoy it. (And if you really enjoy it and can help me find funding to finish it more quickly, that would be fabulous.) Email me if you want a PDF of the text.
Any enterprise can form a perfect setting for the human comedy. Generations of writers have drawn existential parables from offices, ocean liners, classrooms, farms, and operating theaters. But the philanthropic field seems especially rich—indeed, downright operatic. I think that’s because the noblest of human impulses, empathy and altruism, contend there so passionately with some of the basest, the desire to dominate, the wish to clothe one’s image in glory. When we have the capacity and privilege to grant others’ wishes, a bright light is cast on both the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable and our potential for brokenness and distortion.
Philanthropy presents individuals with an unusually large and intense set of challenges, so I have the greatest admiration for those who are able to stay in touch with a strong inner voice and a clear vision of their own roles in actualizing beauty, meaning, and justice tempered by love.
That’s why I’m really looking forward to the Grantmakers in the Arts 2010 Conference, “Navigating the Art of Change 2.0,” beginning this weekend in Chicago, where I have been given the opportunity to observe, consider, and comment on the proceedings.
As I prepare to depart for the conference, the image arises in my mind of rows of contestants playing tug-of-war. The important questions shaping the present-day philanthropic field all seem to turn on the tension of opposing forces. Here are some of the contending themes:
Peer pressure versus autonomy. It makes sense to maintain a collegial relationship with peers, conferring about common issues and challenges on the sensible grounds that more heads and hearts will yield better responses. The philanthropic field is huge on both self-examination and collective reflection, spending vigorously on retreats, research, and convening. But when does peer consultation elide into herd behavior? In a well-networked, collegial field, it’s a challenge to avoid falling into safety in numbers, following the many fads to which the field is prey rather than crafting one’s own response to circumstances. Evaluation models, grantmaking models, rubrics (such as “best practices”) seize attention for a time before being replaced by something new, and applicants need to keep up if they are to compete successfully.
All of these pressures are exacerbated in arts philanthropy, which is perpetually under attack from beyond the field. Although art’s public purpose is far larger and more central than generally acknowledged (a topic on which I’ve written and spoken often), when you are subject to continual demands to quantify and justify your work—if the justifications never satisfy your critics—it’s hard not to surrender to a sinking despair. As Lily Tomlin expressed it so beautifully, “No matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.”
I’ll be looking for independence of thought, those funders who—if they jump on a bandwagon—have sound, well-considered reasons for doing so; and especially, those who think more than twice before they jump, pursuing depth rather than following the crowd.
Risk versus vulnerability. Hippocrates was talking about the art of medicine when he composed the following aphorism, but I think it applies: “Life is short, [the] art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment fallible, judgment difficult.” None of us can truly know the effects of our actions, especially when it comes to art, which acts on us in mysterious ways over time. All action entails risk: it sometimes seems the only law that applies to all of human endeavor is the law of unintended consequences. But the spirit of our own times is particularly suffused with the superstition that it is possible to insulate ourselves from risk, predicting or even guaranteeing outcomes, thus maximizing the likelihood of success. One reason we love that idea so much is that if it were true, it would reduce our vulnerability to looking foolish, to being held responsible for a bad bet, even to becoming the object of ridicule.
Although not everyone has capitulated, much of the philanthropic field is in the grip of this superstition, with funders seizing on tools and frameworks that are supposed to increase the likelihood that each grant will return measurable, demonstrable success. Half a year ago, I wrote about a couple of recent philanthropic fads along these lines (“logic models” and “theories of change”), which have had more impact in winnowing down the pool of applicants than in ensuring the results of their work.
From what I have seen, it takes tremendous courage and wisdom to accept the true level of risk involved in making arts grants, which are more accurately seen as investing in people and process than as purchasing an outcome. I was talking about this with a knowledgeable friend earlier this week. He pointed out that many grantmakers justify their attachment to quantification by citing the need to be accountable to board members drawn from the business sector and other supposedly results-oriented fields. Of course, both of us had heard many stories of such intraorganizational negotiations on the frontiers of risk. But after a few seconds, we both laughed: the business landscape is just as subject as philanthropy to the desire for guarantees, but that’s a desire that can never be satisfied in any sector, as our economy shows us every day. So as I visit the many GIA sessions designed to take a fresh look at risks and results, I will be hoping to see the courage and wisdom to accept risk and invest in process.
Purpose versus self-perpetuation. By law, foundations are required to distribute only a small percentage of their endowments each year, and most of them don’t exceed that. When the return on investments drops, the value of endowments drop too. Even if grantmaking remains stable as a percentage of funds, the total number of dollars declines, with more consequences for grantees’ longevity than for that of funders. The rationale behind this approach is sustainability, preserving a foundation’s giving power for the long haul. The Quixote Foundation is an interesting exception, spending it all by 2017; their Website lists other foundations that have done the same, and links to reports and other resources supporting this approach.
There’s a middle ground between prioritizing the perpetuation of one’s power and influence and spending down, of course; and good arguments for every position on that continuum, depending on one’s values and goals. I will be interested to learn what position different GIA participants occupy on that spectrum, and why.
Dominance versus empowerment. In Maimonides’ eight levels of charity, the highest is to help someone without taking credit, even without making the help visible. Every profession that carries power and authority is susceptible to the type of abuse that entails the opposite approach, making someone feel less than, beholden to, or at the mercy of oneself. A friend who is ill with an imperfectly diagnosed ailment regaled me the other night with stories of the doctor who dismissed her condescendingly merely for suggesting a second opinion, versus the doctor who welcomed her questions and demonstrated an appropriate humility about the answers.
Philanthropy is a challenging profession in this way, because people who want something from you naturally tend to flatter and cosset you, inflating the human tendency to believe our own propaganda. One type of susceptibility preys on the donor, who may have a lifetime of experience that suggests caution about being loved for oneself, rather than one’s money. Another type preys on the staff member, who may find that being the donor’s surrogate suggests new and tempting worlds of personal power over others. This is a very hard thing to handle, demanding vigilance, self-awareness, the willingness to regularly question one’s own assumptions. Despite the difficulties, some funders hold themselves to this high standard, collaborating with grantees as equals. I admire their integrity and fortitude, and hope to meet more of them at GIA.
Meetings like this cost time and money (and often, sleep: every artist asks why everything seems to start at 8 a.m.). There’s a networking aspect to attendance, but no doubt, most of the people who participate truly want to learn something, as do I. When I look at the agenda, I see a consistent thread of acknowledgment that the old certainties are not serving, and a consistent pursuit of creativity, the only capacity that will enable people to perceive, improvise, and respond freshly to an incredibly fluid environment. I admire GIA’s leadership for offering participants so many opportunities to face the future. Whatever I discover, I’m looking forward to sharing it with you over the next few days.
While you ponder all this, listen to this hit from when I lived in Washington, DC, during the regime change from the Carters to the Reagans, multiplying the presence of luxury cars and fur coats. “Money Changes Everything,” the original version by The Brains.
Annals of Philanthropy: GIA 2010 Conference Blog 2: Shine on Me: Scenes from the Support for Individual Artists Preconference
Shine on me
Let the light shine on me
The Black Monks of Mississippi
I spent the day at Grantmakers in The Arts’ Support for Individual Artists preconference (entitled Artists and Grantmakers: A Shared Enterprise). Dozens of artists and funders took part in the program, performing, offering panel presentations, Web pages, video clips, and PowerPoints.
While the subjects varied from the psychodynamics of funder-artist relationships to program evaluation to small-scale experiments with alternative funding models, two underlying themes emerged again and again.
People don’t work hard to devise alternatives if they’re happy with the way things are. I’d say dissatisfaction mingled with the desire for improvement is the dominant mood, albeit generously leavened by gratitude (those who’ve received grants), pleasure (those who enjoy their work as artists and/or grant-givers), and an ever-renewing spirit of social entrepreneurship (widely shared).
The meta-unhappiness, of course, has to do with the scale of available resources. Even more of it would have been expressed if the artist-panelists had been consistent losers in the grants game, instead of fairly regular winners. But it also has to do with the challenges of being a grants-giver in a field in which one reliably says “No” ten or twenty (or thirty) times more often than “Yes.” Even the smallest, most experimental programs are inundated with applications: Lorelei Stewart of the brand-new Propeller Fund (one of several experiments in direct support to nontraditional groups and artists seeded by the Warhol Foundation) reported 143 applications for the first round of 15 grants (five at $6,000, ten at $2,000).
There is a vast desire to create beauty and meaning that impels countless individuals to try to make livings as artists despite the daunting challenges that entails. But the pool of available funds is anything but vast.
If I had a magic wand, I would sprinkle fairy-dust over the assembled grantmakers, such that each and every one of them would decide to give a small but significant slice of their energy to new efforts to enlarge that pool in significant ways. Especially at a time of epidemic and persistent unemployment in this country, it’s a scandal that we have no public service employment for artists. (A new WPA is one of my hobby-horses; here’s a talk I gave on it at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York last spring.)
When I said this to an old friend I met here, she said that people have just plain given up on government, and she may be right. Bad idea—since it leaves the public sector even more susceptible to those who want to use for something other than the public good—albeit somewhat understandable. But that still leaves room for passionate advocacy on behalf of prioritizing the work of artists in the private sector. Among funders, as in other professions, it is easy to be consumed with one’s very real and pressing responsibilities, letting the larger conversation slip away.
The most experimental programs presented in this preconference were minuscule in scale, scope, and grant amounts. The Fire This Time Fund, an independent giving circle, distributes about $10,000 a year to “creative cultural as well as creative, community organizing and education projects that provoke critical thought by raising awareness or dialogue around justice issues,” prioritizing informal, non-institutional groups. Eleven recipients were funded in 2009, so grant amounts are obviously small. But not as small as the $100-500 grants given by Chances Dances under the banner of “The Critical Fierceness Grant,” supporting “personal exploration, community development and radical change through art” for those “who identify themselves or their work as queer.”
There’s no getting around it: it’s all about relationship. Consistently, the representatives of these smaller, less formal programs report a trade-off they feel may be worth making under current conditions: yes, we don’t give much money, but the DIY-style with which we operate makes us free to work with people in a way that feels good. When Isis Ferguson from The Fire This Time Fund listed the four questions that comprise TFTT’s grant application, delighted laughter rippled through the room. I imagine many artists would be thrilled with this as the universal grant application template:
1. What is your project and why do you love it?
2. Why should we be excited about your project and how is it compatible with our guidelines?
3. Do you really think you have what it takes to pull this thing off? What resources do you have that you can draw upon to help make this project a success? If you get less money than you ask for, how will it affect your project?
4. Will your project give us more hope? For real? Tell us 2-3 of your project goals.
The event was described as being about “ways artists and funders inform each other, develop meaningful and productive relationships, and work together to create and refine programs that support kindred visions and consequential collaborations.” There’s a little bit of wishful thinking in that, of course. As one funder pointed out in the session on grantor-artist dynamics, grant-getting is a test. “The grantmaker sets up the test,” said Ute Zimmerman, program manager of Artadia, which supports individual visual artists, “establishes the criteria, and decides who fails or passes.”
When a funder asked members of the grantor-artist dynamics panel how they feel about foundations’ current emphasis on “return on investment,” and the many metrics intended to measure it, the mood descended. Chicago Dancemakers Forum director Ginger Farley said this orientation “Turns our eye away from thing that’s most central to what we are trying to do.” Visual and performing artist Theaster Gates used the moment for the day’s most passionate performance, saying that this orientation “Turned me into a whore that consistently aims to please all of you. You will lust for the activity of my projects and the projects of people like me, and will end up creating a cultural beast.” “This is the kind of personality it breeds,” said dancer and choreographer Julia Antonick, “existential depression.”
Ute Zimmerman stressed that the grantor-artist relationship needs respect. “I’m a person that you’re dealing with,” she said to a hypothetical applicant, “I need to be dealt with with respect.”
In a later panel, Roell Schmidt of Links Hall asked rhetorically whether artists dream of money, and answered this way: “Artists dream of validation,” which often comes in this society in the form of money, but may come in other ways.
Indeed, money is nothing to sneeze at, but whether or not they have it, everyone wants to be seen truly, fully, clearly. Everyone wants what the performance group The Black Monks of Mississipi (Jason Adasiewicz, Yaw Agyeman, LeRoy Bach, Theaster Gates, Khari Lemuel, Charisma Sweat) sang in the words I quoted to open this blog: Let the light shine on me. How possible that may be in a relationship so profoundly shaped by scarcity and rejection, I just don’t know.
While you think about this, listen to the Shirelles ask that eternal question of artist to patron, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
Annals of Philanthropy: GIA 2010 Conference Blog 3: Capitalization
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.
Premised on 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.
But in this actual existing funding climate, reading between the report’s lines makes me nervous, for several reasons. First, like almost all such studies, there’s no real differentiation between the needs and realities of major, well-funded institutions and the types of organizations I care most about, those rooted in communities under pressure, or responsive to the desire for social justice, or living at the frontiers of creative risk—often, all three. They tend to be limited in both earning capacity and the ability to attract major donors, who may not share their values.
Those differences are not just in scale and kind, but in access. Among the ideas put forward is joint funding, with several foundations working in concert to improve the capital position of a particular organization. To gain entree to that highest rung of funding, an organization needs years of support, cultivation, and comfort with multiple foundations. With a finite pool of funding, larger, collective support for one group means less for others—and as the world turns, chiefly for others who lack that entree to funders’ comfort zones.
Although the National Capitalization Project reports don’t use the word “triage,” they may as well have. That discussion turns on “oversupply,” summed up in this hypothesis:
[T]hat there is an oversupply of product in some marketplaces, and that current funding practices do not address this issue;
“Oversupply” is a concept easier to entertain in the abstract. There was no Q&A during this session, so I didn’t raise my hand to ask for an example of an organization that is part of the oversupply and needs to shrink or disappear. But I’m a hundred percent sure that if I did, no one would have been willing to name names. So the conversation about who needs to accept that they are outpacing funding and demand, as opposed to who needs another grant to improve their marketing, outreach, and other capacities—that conversation is going to take place behind closed doors, and the answers are not going to be subject to democratic debate.
A culture is vibrant and generative to the extent that there are multiple types of arts activity by individuals, small groups, organizations, and institutions of many scales—and if I can permitted a generalization that unquestionably has exceptions, those that might score lowest on the capitalization scale often add the most new energy to the creativity scale. I found one sentence in the literature review that alluded to this: “For some smaller arts organizations, it may be acceptable to live at the edges of sustainability given their artistic goals.”
I also feel the pinch of cognitive dissonance when reports like this talk about “financial sustainability.” Our current economic situation is singularly fluid and unstable: so much so, that one of the chief findings of IBM’s 2010 CEO study, Capitalizing on Complexity, was that “Most CEOs seriously doubt their ability to cope with rapidly escalating complexity.” Scanning the business sector, every day shows us failures in sustaining organizations that are focused on capitalization and financial stability at a scale and with an intensity few nonprofits can match. Stuff happens. We plan, and God laughs.
For instance, both reports are peppered with references to endowment funding as an important component of sustainability (they also acknowledge that feeding an endowment can sink an organization that is otherwise under stress). But given recent interest rates, there is no guarantee that endowments will return income. The future is impossible to predict, but consider the recent past. Check out what the Chronicle on Philanthropy has to say about FY 2009 arts and culture endowment performances: you’ll see a forest of losses, not gains.
I’m not sure why parking money where it is just as likely to earn next to nothing (or lose value) feels like a better use of foundation funds right now than supporting some of the amazing groups that are financially marginal for reasons not of their own making. I see groups that are forced to cut programs, lay off essential staff. Shouldn’t the discussion of capitalization at least acknowledge this?
No question about it: organizations that have more money in the bank will get through lean times and crises better than those that don’t. I can see how this approach works wonderfully for the group that gets capitalized. But is triage funding the most important thing to be doing right now for the sector as a whole? I guess it depends on your primary values, whether strengthening a well-funded segment of the field is more important than investing in what has been marginalized by other market and political forces. If your truth lives behind door number one, how do you feel about the vision of triage that lies beyond door number two?
A literature review is always going to skew toward older material, as it’s necessary to take a long view. But what I really missed was an up-to-the-minute discussion of current economic realities and the particular pressures they place on artists and organizations that weren’t able to amass building funds or endowments before the storm hit, and a discussion of how large a grain of salt we should provide to accompany any sort of certainty that we actually know how to create financial sustainability in these times.
Most of all, the thing I wish would emerge from this conversation is a commitment to enlarging the pool of funds so it is adequate for everyone doing important work. To engage that conversation, we’d have to talk about things that don’t usually get on the agendas of arts conferences, such as the distorted national priorities that have had us spending, for the last decade, more than two annual National Endowment for the Arts’ budgets each day, seven days a week, on war. The collective voice of a group like this one telling that truth would resound, I think. And if it was sustained until the balance shifted, the capitalization conversation would be a whole different story.
For your edification, Lena Horne, “Stormy Weather,” from the 1943 film of the same name.
Annals of Philanthropy: GIA 2010 Conference Blog 4: Third Space
Joi Ito, 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.”
He used that point to draw a large circle, lassoing an entire mindset, how in old-style institutional cultures, exclusivity is the basis for value. It used to be expensive to create and share content, he explained, which entailed convening people and creating and distributing information in hard copy. He cited two examples: pre-internet development of large, collaborative projects, and the old model of the university. Within such frameworks, large-scale accomplishment needs many experts, huge amounts of time and money, and massive infrastructure. Having invested so much, you maintain quality by restricting and protecting your creations: control access, make people pay to get at them, use that scarcity to raise their value.
In contrast, with the internet, people can connect easily, creating flat, collaborative structures, making it possible for people without a lot of resources to participate as equals, so long as there are common-denominator protocols to facilitate that. In this new environment, there are far fewer gatekeepers; people can participate without seeking permission. Old-style formal education and arts thinking contrast with new-style informal education and arts participation in precisely the same way.
“When you remove the need for permission and distribute the risk,” Ito said, “you get a lot of innovation.” The development process can require modest investment, limiting the impact of risk, enabling repeated pivoting, as an idea morphs from form to form until it finds its right application. “When the cost of innovation is so low,” he said, “the cost of failure is very low, so if you don’t succeed, you pivot. You hold a general trajectory of where you want to go, moving along and embracing serendipity…You look at it as signal, not noise.”
Conversely, the more risk-averse you are, the more you invest in elaborate planning, the more you introduce extra steps to insulate yourself rom risk, the more expensive failure becomes.
Creative Commons comes into the picture as the necessary new way to license and share content in this new environment. Ito listed a remarkable selection of projects, but rather then repeat them, I’ll just suggest you check out the case studies on the CC site.
I was thinking about this in Monday afternoon’s “Bridge Conversation on Philanthropy.” Ito’s thinking seemed intensely relevant, even though no one mentioned his talk, because the same underlying dynamic of scarcity and exclusivity versus participation without permission was much on people’s minds.
Many of the participants described the double or multiple consciousness that was part of the reality of an activist—often, someone whose culture and consciousness were shaped by a heritage and experience very different from their current institutional milieux—now working in or with foundations. People used different terms to describe it. “I’m a shape-shifter.” “I code-switch with language.” “It’s a double consciousness to be in a whole differently place internally than outside.” “It’s important to be in the room, but you have to know who you are before you get there.” “I’m a squatter: this is not the world I was meant to be in, but I chose it, and I’m coming in and I dare you to move me out.” “What does it take to be a shapeshifter? How do you move the in-between?” “Third space is where the sanity lives. I have to create a third space so my whole can have somewhere to live, because everyone wants me to be either/or. Until we create a larger space where both/and can exist, third space is where we hold ourselves.” “I live in complexity.”
This dynamic was described in many tongues, illuminating the desire for flat structures of participation without the permission of gatekeepers, while also describing the existing reality of bumping again and again into barred gates.
Much of the conversation touched on that morning’s National Capitalization Project discussion (NCP, which I wrote about in my previous post). In one of the breakout groups after the NCP presentation, a Bridge Conversation participant suggested that the bottom line wasn’t only about financial success and accumulation, but also social and cultural value. Another breakout group member responded dismissively: Get with the real world. That expressed the boundedness Ito described, that some people feel they possess the right to define the real world, and to confer access to it.
For instance, the process of dividing into breakout groups by budget size felt false to some Bridge Conversation participants, seeming to cement the equation of money and power. “What about our wealth of knowledge?” someone asked. “You have to pause and say, ‘Okay, I know my ancestors are with me and I know I’m here for the future, and how I move through the space in between with honor and respect.'” Another participant experienced the NCP conversation as “a microcosm of the philanthropic arena.” “As communities of color,” said a third, “I get so tired of the same conversation; I don’t want my daughter to be having the same conversations and feeling the same.”
One can see how the impression of two worlds takes shape. The hard work, knowledge, and focus behind NCP was undertaken out of caring for the future of arts organizations in a deeply unsettling time. But how the problem was framed and who took part in addressing it produced a certain type of result: It’s uncanny how closely the notion of consolidating funding to preserve the most worthy organizations—and accepting the triage view of “oversupply”—parallel Ito’s idea of the outmoded paradigm of “only giving value to a limited number of people, and being careful about who you give this scarce resource to.”
The Bridge Conversation participants who perceived the results as a world that would not welcome their knowledge, and experience are motivated equally by caring for what they most value, and not seeing those things reflected in NCP so far. How would arts funding and funder-grantee relationships change if Ito’s new-paradigm notions held sway: keeping front-end costs low, removing the need for permission and distributing the risk, holding a general trajectory of where you want to go, moving along and embracing serendipity? Surely the recipients and results would be more diverse. Surely multiple ideas of value would be able to contend more fully and fairly. What would it look like to create a third space big enough to hold everyone in equality? That I would like to see.
And These Memories,” by John Trudell, an artist I have followed for many years, and who has something deeply relevant to say here.
Annals of Philanthropy: GIA 2010 Conference Blog 5: Prove It
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.
It’s kind of a timeless argument, no? Adapt to things as they are and try to play that game well; or focus on changing what doesn’t fit what matters most. On the one hand, as one questioner said, “They have their methodologies, and if you don’t adapt, you’re walking into a brick wall.” Yet, in the words of another participant, “You can’t just do quantitative research anymore to get at the hard questions of transforming health in this country….Evaluation metrics just get in the way, everybody is trying to figure out how to measure some damn outcome.”
So far, there are anecdotes and minor inroads, but neither strategy is proven, if proof means systemic change.
Alaka Wali told an interesting story about the physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who regularly drove two hours from Wisconsin to Chicago to teach only two students. Everyone asked if the trip was worth it, especially on icy winter roads. The question was answered definitively when the two students, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Franklin Yang, received the Nobel prize in 1957. “It takes time to understand impact,” she said. “Why is a thousand people for two minutes worth more than two people over a lifetime? We have to complicate the metrics to really get at the quality of impact….Where are the metrics that say failure is a good thing? If there’s no space to fail, where can we take a risk?”
I keep thinking of the talk by Joi Ito I wrote about yesterday. One of his key points was that when the initial investment in developing an idea is relatively low, that minimizes risk—it doesn’t hurt so much to fail—which creates the opportunity to pivot, to come at a general goal in a different way. How can arts philanthropy learn from this, supporting a framework that maximizes invention and creativity in this way?
The biggest current obstacles in the existing philanthropic field are connected to the relatively high cost of testing an idea via grant funding. I’m measuring that cost in several currencies: most funding programs require a tremendous amount of planning entailing a big investment of time and energy. An exciting idea can lose a lot of its shine by the time you’ve filled out the budget, timeline, logic model, theory of change, evaluation plan, and narrative description, assembled the attachments, and waited months to see if you get on the docket. If you happen to be lucky enough to be funded, the remaining gleam is likely to be dulled by the need to invest significantly more time and energy in creating the metrics, documenting the effort, and applying them in a way that doesn’t jeopardize future funding by calling a failure a failure. Or even more discouragingly, tweaking like mad in process to avoid anything that looks like failure, thereby draining every last drop of innovation out of that original bright, shiny idea.
In the technology sphere Ito described, a much more nimble system prevails. Small amounts of venture capital may be deemed worth risking without many guarantees, given the random nature of success and the possibility that a failure in one frame can be repurposed as a startling success in another. In this framework, things can move quickly.
Ito said that the best internet ideas came from artists. Tuesday afternoon, I started wondering aloud whether there would be one or two venture capitalists willing to set up a fund for arts projects that worked on these same principles: investing modestly in a good idea, no guarantees, no time wasted on promises, everyone understanding the level of risk and welcoming failure with the intention to pivot, as Ito said yesterday, embracing serendipity as signal, not noise.
Everyone I mentioned the idea to got very excited at the prospect of even a small-scale alternative to the nearly terminal congestion and risk-aversion of the present system. How could it work? You tell me: I’d love to hear your ideas.
I can’t quite explain how the Kronos Quartet’s beautiful “Wa Habibi” came to be the music that rhymes with today’s post. In his introduction to their playing following Aaron Dworkin’s talk, Catalyst’s spokesman mentioned that Kronos had played the same music. It wasn’t on YouTube, but when I searched through the collection of Kronos videos, I found this deeply soothing piece. Perhaps you will find this piece of art healing too, whether or not the result can be quantified.
Annals of Philanthropy: GIA 2010 Conference Blog 6: Cook It Up
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.
These days, the challenge is to hold those contradictions, all of them at the same time. Sainte-Marie’s own story showed how: her hard childhood, and the way it led her to the life of an artist. “I never played sports,” she said, “I played art…. That is what has motivated and sustained me, what I reach out to in my life today.” She was told that “music comes from notes and lines and staphs, and that there aren’t Indians anymore, so you probably can’t really be one.” “That kind of dichotomy,” she said, “has beaded the edges of my life.”
She described how her song “Universal Soldier” was suppressed by the president of the United States, explaining that Lyndon Johnson wrote to commend radio stations for blacklisting her music. Not understanding music publishing, she’d signed away the rights for one dollar. A decade later, she’d made enough money to buy them back for $25,000. She was able to have a career in Europe, Asia, and Australia that fueled her foundation and educational project, The Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, with its Cradleboard Teaching Project. “But,” she said, “my country has been denied my voice.”
The conference was extremely well-planned and well-executed, with caring and attention to detail. GIA leadership displayed grace and charm, exuding a genuine respect and affection for members. The program’s diversity of offerings held something for nearly everyone. Participants eagerly embraced the opportunity to talk with each other in the interstices of the formal meeting: everywhere you looked, people were huddled together, talking at double-speed.
Mostly, though, people were talking with those they already knew. There are natural affinities among those engaged in like enterprises or partnered on projects. The challenge that remains to be met in a gathering like this is to enter into deep dialogue that crosses boundaries and categories within the arts funding world, that airs and encompasses the contradictions as directly as Buffy Sainte-Marie did in her talk.
There are structural obstacles, to be sure. A philanthropic conference is a gathering of grant-givers and recipients (or those hopeful of receiving). To prevent it being a mad pitch-fest, participants are asked to avoid anything like solicitation:
To preserve the capacity for open discussion, all attendees must refrain from fundraising or solicitation or activities that may appear as fundraising or solicitation to others. Organizations that solicit funds are expected to be represented only by individuals whose roles involve programming and/or policy, and not by fundraising or development staff.
But agreeing not to behave in certain ways doesn’t alter the underlying relationships, which are unavoidably shaped by disparities of economic and social power. Based on this meeting (and countless others I’ve attended), I’d say that we haven’t found ways to get beyond mere acknowledgment to collective exploration of what those disparities mean, how they affect us, how we can face and renegotiate them.
Throughout the conference, almost everyone I spoke with continued to bring up the conundrum of the National Capitalization Project (I wrote about it on October 18th and touched on it a little more on October 19th too). People repeatedly asked why the report did not anticipate and address the concerns that circulated in the breaktime buzz: would its assertion of an “oversupply” of arts organizations create a triage mentality? When so many community-based groups are struggling to pay salaries, is it wise to focus on securing a cushion for those who have access to major resources?
At first, people hypothesized that the preponderance of major foundations on the NCP team had skewed the conversation toward well-funded organizations. But on the conference’s final day, several people approached me to say they’d learned that these concerns had indeed been aired in the NCP dialogues, but hadn’t been reflected in the report and recommendations.
I think this is a very hard challenge, demanding tremendous courage, vulnerability, and openness. Everyone has something to lose in facing a scary subject, given that the potential losses are very different, depending on one’s position: access, funding, privilege, pride. But surfacing and holding the contradictions that Buffy Sainte-Marie described is such a worthy challenge, and of all philanthropic sectors, arts funders are best-equipped to face it, precisely because they comprehend the total engagement of the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual possible through art.
On the plane to my next destination, I found myself imagining GIA commissioning a piece of theater for its next conference: Work with performing artists adept at collecting and weaving first-person stories into powerful art. Strive for a 360-degree view of the personal, communal, and spiritual challenges faced by members of the sector, so that everyone feels fairly represented. Allow whatever degree of anonymity enables the most truth to emerge. Make fearless theater about art and money.
This is a group whose members know, from personal experience, the insight and understanding that can be gained from sharing stories with respect, presence, and caring. No matter where you are located on the continuum of artists and funders, imagine how this could deepen self-knowledge and working relationship. Imagine how shared, intentional reflection could benefit the field.
“In between the medicine of the arts we carry and the people who need our visions, there are middlemen and gatekeepers who’ll sink the boat,” said Buffy Sainte-Marie. “Grantmakers can be the other side of that story.” I’d love to see that play. Wouldn’t you?
Here’s Buffy Sainte-Marie describing the origins of “Universal Soldier,” then singing the song.