See here for the original.

Hi Erinn,
Thanks for the interesting discussion. I’m especially pleased that you picked up on the tension between the way that philanthropists generally talk about other causes and the way that art and culture demands to be talked about. I’m a believer that the arts are not (primarily) out to solve problems, other than perhaps the “lack of art,” but rather to create a virtuous cycle that honors human achievement, enhances quality of life in local communities, and builds social capital both among and between diverse populations. This is not merely an academic question. While helping the Hewlett Foundation to define the strategic objectives of its Performing Arts Program two years ago, I noted that the continually self-renewing nature of strong arts communities was in tension with the linear, goal-oriented structure of the rest of the foundation’s programs. For example, the Foundation has made a strong commitment to ending climate change. If an organization whose sole mission is ending climate change should succeed in that mission, the only responsible thing for that organization to do at that point would be to close up shop and dissolve. Similarly for organizations devoted to other “problems” such as curing a disease, ending poverty, bringing parity to educational opportunities in the US, etc. – their missions lead themselves quite naturally toward a linear logic model. In contrast, for an arts organization engaged in generating new work or bringing it to audiences, the success of its activities is merely an invitation to undertake more of those activities. If you put on a show that thrills audiences and breaks new artistic ground, that doesn’t mean you’re done – it only means you’ve set the benchmark for next year!

In recognition of this fundamental difference, I suggested that the Performing Arts logic model be paired with a diagram showing the performing arts landscape as an interdependent ecosystem, and shaping the “goals” of the program around strengthening this ecosystem. The outcome of those discussions is this document now posted on the Hewlett website.

Since my philosophy regarding funding the arts is ecosystem-focused, I am very much in favor of focusing energies on what I call the infrastructure of the arts. This involves taking a step away from trying to judge the artistic merit of individual organizations and artists, an inherently subjective process fraught with cultural and political minefields, and instead empower the system itself to make decisions about what to put out there in the world based on authentic creative inspiration rather than more mundane factors such as what will make money. Because to me, the most important factor that distinguishes the nonprofit arts from other endeavors is that they provide a space in society for sheer possibility, in which imagination is limitless, not to be held prisoner by unrelated considerations. Note that this does NOT mean that the arts don’t have ancillary social, economic, and educational impacts on society, or that those impacts aren’t important. But I believe that those impacts are a reflection of the inherent value contained in that space that the arts provide for experimentation, risk-taking, and sheer whimsy that is not always easy to find in the rest of our lives.

What does this mean in practical terms? I believe in creating and facilitating an artistic marketplace to parallel the commercial marketplace, in which the currency of success is the respect of one’s peers rather than butts in seats or the market share of wealthy donors one can capture. I’ve written about this at length here, but suffice to say for now that I would favor directing funding to support the mechanisms by which artists receive payment for their services, essentially endowing a wide swath of people who evaluate artistic merit on a regular basis as part of their jobs with their own grant portfolios that they can distribute how they wish. This has the effect of decentralizing power and reducing unhelpful pressures on nonprofits that all too often enable a small but disproportionately powerful coterie of donors and subscribers from imposing their preferences on what everybody else gets to see. Importantly, such efforts need to look beyond the “usual suspects” in order to facilitate a truly healthy ecosystem; orchestra conductors and regional theater artistic directors would qualify as part of the infrastructure, for example, but so would dive bars in the Tenderloin and for-profit record labels. A thorough examination of strategic funding opportunities in the Bay Area would examine which elements of the overall arts environment are overserved and underserved by current funding streams and practices, and move to correct those imbalances through targeted infusions of capital.

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