This week, I spent three-plus days in Chicago to catch the annual Grantmakers in the Arts Conference. Some of you might remember that I blogged last year’s conference in Brooklyn for GIA; it was an incredible (and exhausting) experience during which I churned out more words in a shorter period of time than I probably will ever again. This time around was no less exhausting, though not because I retained official blogging duties; that honor, instead, was shared by Arlene Goldbard, Barry Hessenius, and Andrew Taylor, whose excellent contributions to the discussion can be read all in one place here. (Taylor also outdid himself on Twitter during the proceedings.)
I wasn’t about to stay silent about the conference, since I blog therefore I am; but instead of the mammoth undertaking of writing up every single session I attended, this post will instead pick and choose the speakers and sessions I found most interesting and attempt to tie it all up into a bow of meaningful themes.
To the extent that any topic dominated conversation at the conference this year, it was the National Capitalization Project report commissioned by GIA, guided by a steering committee consisting of program personnel at some of the nation’s largest arts funders, and written by staff at TDC, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Boston. The report proposed a “common set of practices” for grantmakers designed to improve the financial condition of arts nonprofits, including:
- Encourage surpluses and operating reserves
- Take the long view and embed capitalization principles in conversations
- Encourage organizations to right-size
- Offer general operating support
- Project funding should be tied to core mission and fully funded
- Be clear about the structure and timeline of grants
One would think that these recommendations, and the force of the consensus and voices behind them, would be music to arts nonprofits’ ears. Several, like the focus on general operating support and operating reserves, have been embraced by more progressive funders for years. Others, like the recommendation to encourage operating surpluses as opposed to just balanced budgets, are fairly new ideas in the field (even though that one was called out by Adam Huttler years ago). What nearly all of the proposals have in common, though, is that they lend themselves toward treating grantees well. (What a concept, right?) That is, aligning investments with organizations’ core mission and programs, trusting them to do great work, and taking responsibility for the gravitational pull that an infusion of money can have on an organization’s operations.
The report has managed to draw some controversy, but not for the reasons you might expect. There was no cry of support for starving nonprofits of administrative costs or directing donations exclusively to specific programs. Instead, it was language like this that set off alarm bells for me and many others at the conference:
But, the economy is not the only factor that urges us to act. Another important factor is the changing behaviors of arts patrons, particularly their level of demand. At a time of flattening demand there is increasing supply, as noted above, in terms of both the sheer number of organizations and the supply of product. Neither the audience nor the public or philanthropic sector can support this level of oversupply.
The problem with this description is not that it is untrue (the existence of hypercompetition in the arts and many other industries involving content creation is indisputable), but rather that its overly simplistic dichotomy of supply and demand ignores the increasingly blurry distinction between the two. I think words like “oversupply” are very dangerous terms for arts managers to be using when, in the same breath, we like to talk about how important “audience engagement” is and how today’s patrons (and especially youth) want to “curate their experiences.” The path from curation to creation is a short one, after all – and once a creator, the urge to share one’s creations with the world is rarely far behind. We might as well get used to it: oversupply is our future, and a few targeted investments toward working capital or operating reserves here and there is going to do absolutely nothing to change that.
Seen in that context, the report’s recommendations begin to appear more problematic, mainly in that they seem to require either a noticeable increase in the pool of subsidy funds available to the arts or (far more likely at this point in time) the funneling of more resources to fewer organizations. Rightly or wrongly, this implication, as well as the choice to focus on “capitalization” in the first place, was read by many at the conference as a signal of support for the largest, best established institutions rather than the myriad of community-based and artist-led organizations that tend to struggle with smaller budgets. I am not sure that this is what either the steering committee or the report authors themselves intended (I heard several admonishments that “different organizations require different capital structures” and the like), but nevertheless that is how it came across.
Meanwhile, my colleague Anna Campbell made an excellent point in one of the sessions: all of this talk of capitalization means little if we are not thinking about where artists themselves fit in and how they benefit. In a field where already so little of the money subsidizing the arts actually ends up in artists’ pockets, such concerns are of no less relevance to them. One of the most important lessons I learned in business school was that our tendency to focus on income in conversations about socioeconomic disparities is misguided. Assets are far more important. If you have a million dollars, the decision to lose $50,000 a year while pursuing a full-time graduate degree in the performing or visual arts in a quixotic, risky quest for hipster glory doesn’t seem nearly so stupid as it would if you were broke. Effective capitalization, when applied to individuals, in a very real way enables risks and adventures that would either be impossible or impossibly misguided without it. Yet most artists never receive this opportunity unless they are born into it, and there is real question in my mind at least about whether better capitalization of institutions would make much of a difference for the rest.
Another noticeable theme, albeit driven in part by which sessions I chose to attend, was innovation and a search for what’s next. Last year’s conference really only had one panel that was explicitly devoted to new ideas: Marc Vogl’s memorable session on the final day that included Adam Huttler, Ebony McKinney, Heather Cohn, and Nicole Derse from the Obama campaign. This one, by contrast, had several: a panel on innovative models of support for artists and arts organizations that featured one of the founders of Kickstarter; a breakfast roundtable on innovation in the field; an afternoon-long session on artistic entrepreneurship with Dennis Scholl, the VP of Arts for the Knight Foundation; even a semi-“closed” session on intergenerational dialogue in grantmaking that was primarily aimed at the under-35 set. And of course, there was a keynote from venture capitalist and CEO of Creative Commons Joi Ito, during which Ito sang the praises of agile software development, risk-taking, interoperability, failing cheaply, and serendipity, to a generally receptive audience. As he said, “the more you plan, the less lucky you are.”
So innovation, next-generation thinking, and entrepreneurship seem to be trending topics, so to speak, in the grantmaking field. Yet there was still plenty of room for more familiar conversations on arts education, social justice, cultural exchange, evaluation/assessment, and various offshoots thereof. I recognized a number of both panelists and themes from Brooklyn. The danger with such things, I guess, is that one can easily imagine people and ideas becoming balkanized into their own little corners of the room – the silos waiting to matter. Last year’s conference ended with a forceful closing speech from Ben Cameron that did a great job of weaving together the big questions at the forefront of everyone’s minds as the dawn of a new decade approached: demographic change and social equity, technology and the generation gap, increasing globalization, and the blurring between amateur and professional arts participation. This year, no such unifying threads were in evidence; instead, I got the sense that now that the Great Recession has stabilized and the specter of imminent, drastic change is (for the time being) averted, grantmakers were feeling once again the lure of more comfortable territory. Indeed, this year’s closing keynote by folk singer and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie (who, I must confess, I had never heard of prior to this conference) was met with a veritable avalanche of nostalgia from the largely Baby Boomer crowd. With so many directions that the conversation could go, we will have to work ever harder to focus it in ways that both advance the field and include as many people as possible. We will need more “truckers” (just visit the link) to step up and connect the various communities of practice to each other and to the larger discourse, so that we can all benefit meaningfully from each other’s work.
Many thanks to everyone who made the conference possible, as well as all of those I met and met again in Chicago. See you next year!