I’m going to let you in on a little secret (okay, maybe it’s not such a secret): for the better part of the past decade, I’ve been fascinated with arts philanthropy. Ever since I was a low-level staffer in the development department of the American Music Center, I wanted to know why grantmakers made the decisions they did. Did they know what it was like to be on the ground, trying to get people to come to your show, trying to make a fledgling venture work? Did they see even a tiny fraction of their applicants’ concerts, events, and exhibitions? Did they care that their decisions might make a genuine difference in the ability of my organization to do its work? That someone’s job might even hang in the balance? Or for that matter, an artist’s career?

The sense of mystery that I felt was only exacerbated by the shroud of secrecy that the world of arts philanthropy continues to draw over itself. Some of our nation’s largest arts funders are among its least transparent. I just got back from the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference, the only annual national gathering of arts philanthropists of all stripes, which is still largely closed to non-grantmakers and this year discontinued its recent practice of inviting bloggers to report on the proceedings from within.

So I thought it was notable when I was invited to participate on a grant panel that eschews this behind-closed-doors approach. Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the major government instrument for supporting the arts in Cleveland and its suburbs, was formed several years ago through a voter-passed tax levy on the sale of cigarettes. Like many grantmakers, especially government funders, CAC uses a panel of outside experts to help adjudicate applications, rather than handling those decisions at the staff level. A key feature of CAC’s panel process is that it is open to the public. Starting this morning at 10am Eastern time and continuing through 5pm tomorrow, I will be in a room at PlayhouseSquare’s Idea Center along with my six fellow panelists, CAC program staff – and an unknown number of members of the public, including the representatives from the very organizations we’re evaluating. The audience is not allowed to participate in the discussion itself, but they are invited to answer questions posed from the stage and correct “objective misinformation” presented by the panelists – so if any of us do a poor job reading an application, we’re not likely to get away with it.

While this public panel is not unique in the arts (the San Francisco Arts Commission has a similar process for its Cultural Equity Grants program), as far as I know, CAC’s is the only one that can be followed remotely, from anywhere in the world, via live stream. So I’m inviting you, dear Createquity reader, to join me in this rare, public glimpse into a real live grantmaking session. The 64 proposals I’m reviewing are part of the Project Support II group, which means they are all requests for $5,000 or less and come from a wide range of organizations, including some very small and grassroots entities. If that sounds like the kind of grant you often find yourself applying for, I think this could be an particularly educational experience. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, either here or – hell, let’s create a hashtag – #CuyArtsC. (This is chosen to match the official CAC Twitter account, which posts updates throughout the day regarding the progress of the panel.)

  • I recently attended a similar process hosted by the Colorado Creative Industries on behalf of one of my clients. It was very informative. Seeing what resonated with people unfamiliar with our organization, what we could strengthen and clarify, and what we had achieved that stood out as particularly noteworthy to the panel was highly valuable and will help us in future proposals. And we got the grant too- which was much appreciated!

    Thanks for letting people know that this is happening more and more often. It is can seem like an “ify” thing to take a day or half of a day out of your busy schedule to do- but it is worth it!

    • Thanks, Mari – I wasn’t aware that Colorado Creative Industries also had a public process. Appreciate the tip!