An Open-Source Arts Field

(crossposted from the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Salon)

I want to express my appreciation to my fellow Salon bloggers last week and everyone who has commented—you’ve given me a lot to think about. Before I go, though, I want to make what seems to me like an essential point. We’ve spent a lot of time in this salon so far talking about problems, but solutions have been somewhat elusive. I think part of the reason is contained within a comment I wrote earlier last week on my Generation Y and the Problem of “Entitlement” post but didn’t realize the true significance of until later:

I think the generational shifts are a related, but separate phenomenon from the concentration of power in our field at the top and the frustration that many feel as a result of it, regardless of generation.

There are really two separate issues we’re talking about here, and that’s why our wires keep getting crossed. On the one hand, we have genuine ways in which Generation Y is different from all the generations that came before, particularly with regard to how technology has impacted our communications habits, our work ethic, our social norms, and most importantly, our expectations for ourselves and others. However, this is NOT the same thing as the second issue: the concentration of power in a few individuals that pushes out other voices, both at an organization level and in the wider field. THAT is not new at all, and in fact is probably in a better place now than it ever has been. However, the combination of the increased expectations of Generation Y, improved communication technology, and obvious examples of “crowdsourcing,” social media, and open architecture leading to superior performance or outcomes at drastically reduced cost, have conspired to bring this issue to the forefront in a way that has never been possible before. They are related only insofar as Generation Y (and to some extent X), which has the highest expectations and also the greatest familiarity with the possibilities of both technology and open-source architecture, is disproportionately excluded from the ranks of the powerful few. It’s an important relationship, but not, I think, the central one.

In order to move forward, I think we need to focus on the second issue, not the first. The message of Emerging Leaders in the arts or any other field should not be, “get out of the way, we are the future, it’s time for us to take over.” If that’s what it sounds like, then that’s a miscalculation on our part. Our collective mission should be to make our organizations and our field more open, more meritocratic, more adaptable, and more inclusive regardless of generation. To borrow a phraseology from Fractured Atlas’s Adam Forest Huttler, we need to make our field more open-source.

What will this look like in practice? There are many possible directions this could go, but here are a few practical suggestions to get us started in no particular order:

  • Include and solicit the voices of junior staffers in staff meetings, board meetings, and strategy discussions. Not only will they benefit from learning more about how their organization works, you’ll benefit from their “on-the-ground” perspective from their direct work with constituents, donors, and vendors.
  • Diversify boards in ways beyond race and gender. Obviously, those two are still important, but try to also have a healthy representation of different ages, occupations, social circles, and socioeconomic history. Look for smart, capable people who play well together, no matter who they are. Consider forming an advisory board of non-moneyed constituents if you want to reserve Board spots for people who can pull their weight financially, since they are likely to be older and overrepresent a particular perspective.
  • Invite more than the usual suspects to participate in panels, convenings, focus groups, and interviews. Does it always have to be the Executive Director who speaks at these things? Does the Executive Director always have to accept the invitation? Consider sending out junior staffers, especially the ones who you know have lots of great ideas from working with them but aren’t very visible to the broader world, as a professional development opportunity. Not only will they get valuable public speaking experience, but they’ll meet likeminded individuals as well and may make new connections for your organization. Similarly…
  • Send junior staffers to conferences. You don’t have to send everyone to everything, but you’ll be able to get better coverage if you send lower-cost employees to more events than if you send yourself to fewer. This is an especially good idea if there is a business development or advocacy aspect to what you do as an organization.
  • Share in the grunt work. One point that kept getting brought up in the Generation Y discussion was that someone has to do the menial tasks. Well, if I know I don’t want to do them, and you know I don’t want to do them, and I know you don’t want to do them, and yet you make me do all of them anyway, do you really expect me to enjoy my job? It makes a huge symbolic statement if the leader or senior staff or even the boss takes time out from their Very Important Day and joins an envelope stuffing party or helps get the tables set at the event, etc. Not all day—it’s understood that the primary responsibility remains with the entry-level people—but just for an hour, perhaps. A cameo appearance, if you will. While you’re there, take the opportunity to ask about their time at the organization, about their lives more generally, and whether they have any suggestions for improving how things get done around here. Consider it a very cheap investment in staff morale on your part—and hey, you might even get a very valuable idea or two out of it.
  • Consider what grunt work really needs to be performed by staff members. Is it necessary to have intimate knowledge of the contemporary dance world to manage your books or design your donor database? If not, consider contracting out some of that work to organizations that specialize in it, like, say, Easy Office or Annkissam. Alternatively, you could pursue shared-back-office arrangements with other nonprofits in your area. Every time you do this, you potentially avoid hiring some eager beaver who really wants to be involved on the program side but is just pretending to like spreadsheets to get in the front door.
  • Don’t overvalue seniority in the hiring process. Experience is great for a lot of things. But it’s not the only, or even the most important qualifier for many jobs. Rickey Henderson has more experience playing major league baseball than just about anyone. But is he qualified to play in the major leagues today? Absolutely not. Obviously things are a little different for desk captains than for athletes, but the reality is that it’s possible to have an impeccable resume and still be terrible at what you do—or terrible for a particular job. The litany of people who have accomplished extraordinary things without the benefit of experience is endless. I like to point out often than Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook as a college student at Harvard. How many employers would have turned him down because he didn’t have enough experience? How many wouldn’t have extended an interview to George Steel, who transformed Columbia University’s Miller Theater into a new music powerhouse as its executive director after just two years in arts administration? To continue the baseball analogy, how many wouldn’t have given a chance to Theo Epstein, who won Boston’s first World Series in 86 years shortly after becoming the youngest general manager of a baseball team ever hired at 28, and then won another one three years later? Stop looking so hard for a record of accomplishment and start giving great people a chance to accomplish things.
  • Design organizations around people instead of hiring people around the organization. If you really want to get talented employees and retain them for the long term, you have to have some flexibility around the organization itself and think hard about where the alignment makes sense for both parties. Maybe each department (marketing, development, programming, etc.) has only a leader and then a crew of associates who trade and divide up specific responsibilities according to their strengths and preferences. Maybe you have a rotational program where entry-level types can work in one area for six months, another for three months, etc. until they find where they really fit. Whatever you do, make sure you solicit feedback at all times and track what happens, so you can go back later and analyze what was most effective. Incorporate ongoing learning into your HR systems and you will be unstoppable.

For more thoughts on dealing with entry-level employees on a one-on-one basis, please see Ten Strategies for Engaging Generation Y in the Nonprofit Workplace. (Apologies for the title, I wrote it before I had the particular “two-issue” insight I mentioned up top. However, the principles should hold true for entry-level employees of any generation.)

1 Comment

Blogiversary II

As of today, I have been blogging at Createquity for two years. It’s pretty amazing to think how far things have come in such a short time. Even one year ago, this blog was still pretty quiet — a subscriber base of perhaps 20, a comment maybe every month or so, and a pretty light posting schedule. I remember intentionally writing blogs on the 30th or the 31st so that my total for the month wouldn’t be too embarrassingly low.

Something happened to this blog starting around February or so of this year, however. It wasn’t any one event, but a few factors conspired to make Createquity less of a lark and more of a “thing.” First, I started picking up the NEA story during the debate over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the stimulus bill), which resulted in my first real exposure on the blogs of people I didn’t know and had never met before, a new and odd feeling. Second, I started posting more often and introducing regular features like Around the Horn on a schedule, which definitely seemed to help with traffic for some reason that I don’t totally understand. Third, for my final half-semester at business school, I decided to make one of my classes (my independent study on public policy and the arts) a glorified excuse for writing more blog posts. Instead of blogging for the class, I took the class for the blog. Several of the resulting essays became among the most-read Createquity posts of all time, and the experience led to the introduction of the Arts Policy Library series this summer.

Along the way, I got Createquity transferred to its own domain and a visual upgrade, attended, blogged, and met many new readers at the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention, welcomed Createquity’s first guest author, Guy Yedwab, guest-wrote for the six-week discussion on the NEA at Barry’s Blog and the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Salon, and was the first blogger to cover the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference — an organization whose website I remember wistfully exploring prior to business school, wondering when I would get a chance to join the party. This month, I’m on track to average a post a day for the first time. And through it all, the readership has kept growing. What was a steady subscriber base of 20-25 people through the beginning of 2009 reached a peak of 351 earlier this month (since then, the total got cut by 100+ because of a mysterious decision by Google to shut down my old blog due to “spam concerns”). Given that arts policy isn’t exactly a dinner-table topic in most households, that’s not too bad.

It’s been a fun ride, and I want to take a moment to thank a few folks who have been instrumental in making it possible: my friend Darcy James Argue for providing much advice and wisdom at the very beginning; early fans like Adam Forest Huttler and Sean Stannard-Stockton for giving me a boost when I was still figuring things out; Thomas Cott and Ethan Iverson for sending hordes of curious readers my way and singlehandedly giving some posts a second (and third, and fourth) life; Tommer Peterson, Barry Hessenius, and Stephanie Evans for believing in me enough to let me blurt out my thoughts on their own turf; my independent study advisor, Jonathan Koppell, for being cool with letting my essays for class be in hyperlinked format; and last but not least, my student advisor at business school, Nancy Livingston, who really encouraged me to get this thing off the ground and is probably more responsible than anyone for it to have happened when it did. Thanks to all as well who have responded in the comments or on their own blogs, kept up a dialogue with me, and helped to raise awareness of new ideas and new frontiers in arts management and arts policy. I’m looking forward to year three.

Leave a comment

Live from GIA: Day IV – Brunch with Rocco

(crossposted at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference Blog)

Wednesday morning, a crush of arts funders, news media, and video crew crowded along with your friendly blogger host for the final GIA Conference event: a speech by Rocco Landesman, the recently appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Other than a talk at Symphony Space the previous night, this was to be Landesman’s first public appearance since starting his new job, and there was buzz that there was going to be an “announcement” this morning. Over omelets and fruit salad (incidentally, I must say that the catered meals were really quite decent for conference food this time around), we awaited with bated breath.

Continuing with the string of performances at plenary sessions throughout the conference, this keynote was preceded by two young men affiliated with New York’s own spoken-word champions Urban Word. They performed a harrowing piece dedicated to Matthew Shepard and Rashawn Brazell, two murdered teens targeted for their homosexuality, and received a standing ovation from the crowd.

GIA Board President Vickie Benson was up next to introduce Rocco. She mentioned that the man had read Janet Brown’s blog post in which she offered recommendations for the new NEA Chair, and joked that out of admiration she was considering changing her name to “Vicko.” (I can’t really convey just how huge of a laugh this got, coming as it was from prim and proper Minnesotan Benson.)

Finally, Rocco spoke. If today were still Wednesday, I would transcribe sections from the speech as best I could. But the wonders of the internet are such that not only has the speech been posted at the NEA’s new Art Works blog, but it has been reported on in multiple venues. So here it is, in its entirety, and I’ll meet you back below the fold. Read More »

Leave a comment

Live (sort of) from GIA: Day IV – Changing the Game

(crossposted at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference Blog)

My final day at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference began with a GREAT panel on “new models, new leaders, new ideas” for arts organizations and philanthropy, organized and moderated by Marc Vogl from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Disclosure: I worked closely with Marc last summer during my internship with Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program.) This session came as Americans for the Arts was hosting a weeklong online “salon” on emerging leaders in the arts on its blog, so the subject matter seemed distinctly in the air. This was not lost on conference attendees, who absolutely packed the room to hear this session—again and again, GIA staff and volunteers had to leave the room to get more chairs and still people were standing just outside the door or left to find other sessions because it was too crowded.

In a lively and stimulating exchange, the four panelists—Adam Forest Huttler from Fractured Atlas, Heather Cohn from Flux Theatre Ensemble, consultant Ebony McKinney (who recently received a grant to help set up San Francisco Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals), and, in a most interesting twist, Nicole Derse from Organizing for America and the Obama ’08 campaign—discussed the ways in which they or their organizations are exploring new boundaries. For example, Huttler talked about Fractured Atlas’s entrepreneurial philosophy and the L3C it has formed in Vermont to handle its liability insurance operations, while Cohn spoke about her organization’s reliance on fiscal sponsorship to raise donations, as well as its collective management structure.

The panel spent a good chunk of time talking about fiscal sponsorship, which is a model that Fractured Atlas has promoted extensively to arts organizations as an alternative to full tax-exempt corporation status. The reasoning is that corporations carry with them an assumption of permanence that may not be appropriate for many arts organizations that draw their lifeblood from the efforts and talents of specific people who will not be around or active artistically forever. Another factor is that for organizations under a certain budget size (estimated to be about $500,000 by Huttler), it may be more cost-effective to operate under a fiscal sponsorship arrangement and simply pay the sponsor a fee for the administrative tasks that go along with it than to handle all of the paperwork and regulatory requirements internally. Cohn indicated that Flux Theatre is interested in pursuing tax-exempt status eventually, but McKinney reported that SF Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals has no such intention.

As much as I enjoyed the contributions of the other panelists, for me, the opportunity to hear from and interact with Derse is what really made the panel special. The Obama campaign has fascinated me from a management standpoint ever since I began learning more about it last year. Derse reported that in the early days (she was the 41st person hired by the campaign, in February 2007), there was a fairly decentralized approach, as offices in different early states experimented with different management styles. Whereas in New Hampshire the campaign adopted a fairly traditional approach, for example, in South Carolina there was a strong emphasis on teams and bringing people in from the community. By and large, the campaign found that the more it was willing to take risks and try new models, the more success it realized. One of the most interesting insights that Derse provided was that the metrics used by campaigns sometimes determine the management structure. Realizing this, the Obama campaign threw out some of the standard metrics that didn’t seem so important and instead began measuring things that related to volunteer leadership, such as the number people trained, the number of one-on-one meetings held, etc. In addition, the campaign took risks by ceding no ground, setting up shop in places that had voted for Bush by 40-point margins in the previous election.

The theme of risk, in fact, kept coming up over and over again as the panelists explored this overarching idea of “new”ness. As Huttler pointed out midway through, the Obama campaign took these risks with an unimaginable amount at stake—the Presidency of the United States, the future political career of the candidate, hundreds of millions of dollars in donated funds. And yet some foundations are afraid to give money to tiny organizations like Flux Theatre Ensemble—which has an annual budget of $45,000—because it uses a fiscal sponsor rather than its own tax-exempt status. As Huttler elaborated, some funders are more like angel investors, willing to take such risks, but others are really like pension funds—sitting on a ton of capital, but wanting to be extremely careful to make sure it doesn’t get squandered.

The panel was opened up to audience questions less than halfway through the session, so the remainder became something of a discussion session. One of the more interesting questions was, “what metaphors do you live by?” Remarkably, all three panelists who gave answers touched upon ideas and intellectual property in some way. Cohn reported that Flux has a philosophy that great ideas should be put out into the world–they are not yours to own. Similarly, McKinney referred to a “commonwealth of knowledge” and Huttler drew upon his experiences with open-source software development. Taking Derse’s efforts to cultivate volunteer leadership into the fold as well, it’s clear that one of the big “new” ideas has to do with activating the commons by broadening the discussion outside of one’s traditional circle in ways that have not been possible or customary in the past, often by leveraging new communications technologies. It’s important to note that this trend toward openness is not completely new — in response to a question about grantmakers embracing transparency, for example, McKinney noted that her former employer, the San Francisco Arts Commission, operates under a “sunshine law” that requires all grant panels to be open to the public, which has sometimes led to interesting conversations and confrontations. And one representative from a big foundation who asked about moving the discussion forward was reminded by a colleague who used to work at the organization years ago that its culture was once far more progressive. Nevertheless, communications technology has changed the parameters of what’s possible, with the result that more collaborative organizational and leadership models that once seemed too unwieldy may now be coming back into fashion.

1 Comment

Live from GIA: Day III – Building Arts Participation in Rural America

Tuesday closed out with a panel featuring the Montana Arts Council‘s experience with a Wallace Foundation-led initiative to cultivate new audiences for the arts. With folksy aplomb, Cinda Holt took us into the heart of the Montana frontier and described the initiative’s successes and failures with Wallace’s Ann Stone looking on.

Stone began with an explanation of Wallace’s theoretical framework for building arts participation, which comes from a 2001 study by the RAND Corporation that was commissioned by Wallace’s Research and Evaluation department. The study defines three dimensions of participation change: Broaden, Deepen, and Diversify. Broadening audiences happens when you get more of the same type of people to participate in your programming. Deepening happens when you work with the same people you already have, but increase the level of their engagement, for example by having them learn more about the works they see or getting involved in another capacity. Diversifying is when you get folks who are fundamentally different from your current audience and probably wouldn’t have otherwise participated to come to a show or interact with you in some way. Diversification is harder than broadening because, whereas people who are similar to the current audience may not participate only due to practical barriers such as schedule conflicts or a lack of money, the people who are fundamentally outside of that circle may have perceptual barriers to accessing the art as well–they may not think it is relevant to them or be willing to give it a chance.

The Wallace Foundation funded audience development efforts in collaboration with 13 state arts councils earlier in the decade, one of which was Montana’s. There were several dozen projects across the state, but the presentation discussed seven of them in particular that took place in rural communities. Holt began by presenting the results of a survey of Montanans regarding their perception of the arts. The study found that Montanans have a strong interest in family-oriented programming and in seeing friends and neighbors at an event. It also revealed that the arts have a bit of an image problem: even though two-thirds of respondents identified themselves as arts and culture participants, almost half believed that the arts are not relevant to their lives. (Wallace senior communications officer Mary Trudel would say later that the word “creativity” polled much better than “arts” in Montana, though some people associated creativity specifically with engineering.)

The Montana Arts Council used both the Wallace Foundation framework and the study to inform their guidelines for the new program, called Building Arts Participation. I won’t get into the details of every project – suffice to say that there was a wide variety both in terms of the types of projects and the degree of success that they experienced. They ranged from a historic motorcycle exhibition at an arts center in Custer County that brought in attendees from a local biker convention and contributed to a 39% rise in gallery attendance for the year, to an organization that as a result of its new programming suffered from internal fracturing on the Board that ultimately led to its suspension. Overall, many of the projects shared common themes of changing the operational model from a top-down, “bringing the arts to the masses” model to a more community-oriented, listening posture. These changes often led to better relationships with residents, increased attendance and donations, and a healthier sense of public value in the community. The experience even led MAC to introduce a new program called Public Value Partnerships (not funded by Wallace) that focuses on making the connection between the arts, audiences, and elected officials.

I asked Stone about whether Wallace has undertaken an evaluation of its own efforts in the audience development arena to test whether the theories articulated by RAND have borne fruit. While this has not taken place yet, the evaluati staff team is about to embark on internal “retrospectives” to assess what might have been done differently. One issue that has been identified is an overly optimistic idea that arts organization officials would invest the time in reading the RAND publications, which has not taken place as much as imagined. (Perhaps this might be a good time to mention the Arts Policy Library project, which seeks to process such publications for a lay audience.)

It’s fair to say that building arts participation in rural America is still a work in progress, but Montana Arts Council and its partners have at least shown that it can be done.

1 Comment

Live from GIA: Day III – The Art of Change

Tuesday afternoon featured a session on advocacy for arts organizations and foundations, organized by Janet Brown of Grantmakers in the Arts and Bob Lynch of Americans for the Arts. Lynch could not attend as scheduled, but sent Chief Counsel of Government and Public Affairs Nina Ozlu Tunceli in his stead. Brown and Tunceli were joined by Olive Mosier of the William Penn Foundation, Marian Godfrey of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Jennifer Goodale of the Asian Cultural Council/Trust for Mutual Understanding (and formerly director of corporate contributions at Altria).

Brown introduced the session with a story about her time as an arts advocate in South Dakota. The governor of her state at the time had a friendly, joking relationship with her, which she could tell was a good thing because it defused the somewhat stark political differences between them. Every year, she would send him a fax playfully asking him to mention the word “art” one time during his State of the State address. For the first three years, she listened for it in the State of the State to no avail, but in the fourth year, he mentioned that educational standards had remained high in several areas, “including in music, dance, theater, and visual art.” Shortly afterward, a member of Brown’s organization’s Board happened to be in attendance at a gathering of professionals in the concrete industry, and the subject of the Governor’s State of the State speech came up and one of them brought up the inclusion of music. With that, this group of burly industry men launched into a half-hour conversation about how one of them had played trombone in high school, one of them used to sing in the choir, and how wonderful making music could be–the clear inference being that this conversation would never have happened without the Governor’s prompt (which itself wouldn’t have happened without Brown’s lighthearted advocacy efforts).

Storytime over, Tunceli gave an informative presentation on the legal issues surrounding advocacy and lobbying for foundations. It turns out that despite several restrictions intended to prevent foundations from lobbying elected officials directly, there is no reason for foundations to fear getting involved in advocacy efforts more generally. Tunceli explained that private foundations and most government grantmakers can perform all of the functions of advocacy with the exception of the narrow limits of “lobbying.” What is lobbying? Well, there are two kinds, direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying is only such if it is:

  1. An attempt to influence specific legislation (proposed or identified)
  2. By stating your position (for or against)
  3. To a federal, state, local, or foreign public official (or his/her staff)

Unless an action meets all three of these tests, it is not direct lobbying and is thus allowed under lobbying restrictions. (There is also grassroots lobbying, which Tunceli didn’t explore explicitly during her presentation, involving mobilizing constituents or the public to speak to legislators in the manner described above. This is also prohibited for private foundations.)

Although private foundations and government grantmakers can’t engage in lobbying directly (unless it’s their own survival they’re lobbying for), public charities (which include most nonprofits) and community foundations may — as long as they don’t spend more than a limited portion, usually 5-10%, of their funds on it. (Note that regardless of lobbying restrictions, neither private foundations nor public charities can do anything to try to influence an election in an election year. So they can’t endorse a candidate, donate to a campaign, educate voters about candidates’ positions on the issues, etc. But they can educate voters about the issues as long as they don’t mention the candidate).

And foundations can, in fact, support organizations that do direct or grassroots lobbying — as long as they can plausibly show that none of their funds were used for such purposes. That means the grant has to be unrestricted in nature, and it can’t be more than or reasonably close to an organization’s or project’s budget.

So, to sum up, if you’re a foundation, you can:

  • Have an opinion about an issue
  • Share that opinion with the public
  • Let that opinion drive your grantmaking
  • Commission research on the issue
  • Conduct surveys on the issue
  • Create educational advertising around the issue
  • File lawsuits related to the issue
  • Try to get the media to cover your issue
  • Draft policy papers related to the issue
  • Conduct nonpartisan voter registration and turnout operations

And all of it can be perfectly legal as long as it doesn’t involve specific legislation or specific candidates. (Please note: this blog is not the same thing as professional legal advice, so don’t go changing your whole program strategy without consulting counsel first on the specifics of your situation. OK, now the lawyers are happy.)

Tunceli suggested that grantmakers’ fear of getting involved in advocacy has a chilling effect on the activities of their (less-regulated) grantees, particularly when language such as “lobbying activities are expressly forbidden” is used. (Tunceli received some pushback from her fellow panelists on this last point; they claimed that both counsel and auditors had urged the inclusion of that language. Godfrey explained that part of the reason for this is because of a perceived business risk that may be separate from any legal risk.)

Though Tunceli’s presentation was the star of the show, several interesting issues came up during the question-and-answer period. One audience member speculated that the reason that foundations (especially corporate foundations) don’t get more involved in advocacy is because advocacy takes time, and foundations may be looking for more of a quick fix. Since two of the panelists were from Philadelphia, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance received mention several times as one of the more sophisticated arts advocacy operations in the country — their Engage 2020 initiative includes some advocacy components, and they were extremely active in the recent drama involving the state arts budget. Mosier mentioned media strategy as a particular “hole in our toolkit” that hasn’t been exploited to the extent it could be, while Godfrey underscored that advocacy needs to seen as a standard part of doing business in order to become effective over the long term.

Leave a comment

Around the horn: late edition

The orgy of blogging going on at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference Blog and the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Salon prevented me this week from getting out Around the Horn on its usual Monday schedule (or Tuesday, or Wednesday). Late is better than never, however, and so here is the latest round-up of interesting items from the web:

  • Arts community consultant Arlene Goldbard has launched a new website that synthesizes the conversations that came out of the May 12 meeting between arts activists and the White House. The site provides an opportunity to get involved if you like.
  • Our good friend Adam Forest Huttler of Fractured Atlas is interviewed by CultureBot’s Andy Horwitz.
  • Our other good friend, Alex Ross of The Rest is Noise fame, has packed up shop and re-opened at the New Yorker‘s website. The blog is called Unquiet Thoughts and is better than ever.
  • Friend of the arts Rocco Landesman, better known as Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, is everywhere this week after laying low for his first couple of months on the job. First, he gave the closing keynote at the aforementioned GIA Conference, the full text of which you can read at his blog. Oh, and second, he (or rather, the NEA) has a blog! Third, he’s going on a six-month tour across the USA looking at how “Art Works” (the NEA’s new slogan) works in downtown communities, kicking off, of course, in Peoria, IL. And he has interviews in the LA Times and Variety. Unstoppable!
  • The Great Recession continues to take a toll, even at the top. The Wallace Foundation announced, while GIA was in mid-conference a borough away, that it would be laying off 15 members of its 51-person staff, including two in the arts program.
  • Hells yeah! The Chronicle of Philanthropy linked to me!
  • New models R us! Chris Ashworth opens up the discussion with a proposal to increase access to the artist and the artist’s process for $$$. Scott Walters comes out with his own paradigm that brilliantly blurs the lines between producer, presenter and community center, and adds some inspiration from a Danish health club to boot. Great stuff.
  • Isaac asks theaters, “Do you actually want younger audiences, or do you just want their money?” Great question. Also in the social media outreach vein, check out Beth Kanter on the subject.
  • Turns out a Carnegie Hall propmaster made more than a half-million dollars last year, with several of his cohorts close behind. The general phenomenon is not new, but the size of the paycheck is. Leonard Jacobs asks so what? Well, this is why I continue to be unconvinced that unions and nonprofits make for a good mix. Carnegie makes a good chunk of its money from charitable sources, and the thought that taxpayer, foundation, and individual funds are essentially lining the pockets of the already-well-to-do, whoever they are, doesn’t exactly sit well. I would imagine that there are quite a few stagehands in NYC who would be perfectly willing and capable of doing a fine job for Carnegie Hall for less than $530,444, don’t you?
  • Two new publications of note: first, two grad students on all-ages music spaces and their role in the community (haven’t read the whole thing yet, but what I’ve seen looks very promising); second, Animating Democracy takes it to the next level with a mapping initiative.
  • Did you know that Andrew Taylor’s MBA in arts management at the University of Wisconsin is free? I didn’t until this week, when I met a 2007 graduate from the program at GIA who is now Director of Research for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. Check it out, emerging leaders! In other MBA news, apparently social entrepreneurship is ascendant because of an “underlying sense of guilt about what happened during the crisis.” You don’t say.
  • Are we ready for lifelogging?
  • We’ll know we’ve made it when the arts are part of visions of the future like this one.

Live from GIA: Day III – Lunchtime Keynote with Kakuna Kerina

(crossposted from the GIA Conference Blog)

Following the conclusion of the Sewing Sails in a Perfect Storm panel, we headed to the ballroom for a lunchtime plenary session with Kakuna Kerina, former executive director of Harlem School of the Arts. Grantmakers in the Arts executive director Janet Brown opened the session with a brief annual meeting, at which she announced that GIA’s new website will debut in December. The website, which will be built on the content management system Drupal, will feature a community blog with 12 contributors, a news service (formerly Economic Turmoil and Change), and new ways for grantmakers to find and communicate with each other based on shared interests. Brown, who has been at the top spot at GIA for about eight months, declared that the theme for GIA this year is “louder and bolder,” which fits well with her personality and 30-year history as an advocate and lobbyist for the arts. Her blog will continue with the new site as well.

Before Kakuna Kerina began her speech, Brooklyn Conference Chair Janet Rodriguez introduced a young pianist, Clifford Jones, who is enrolled at Lehman College. He began his studies at age 14 after taking a music appreciation class and taught himself to play piano using an electric keyboard at home, subsequently enrolling at the Harlem School of the Arts. He played a Gershwin-inflected original composition that, despite a few nerves-induced hiccups, showed tremendous progress in the few years since his first encounter with the instrument.

Kerina’s speech focused on the importance of supporting community arts and included many stories from her time leading the Soros Foundation serving West and Northwest Africa. Struggling to contain her emotions for much of the speech, she recounted speaking with individuals whose parents had been executed by the government, learning that births and deaths were the dominant themes of public celebration (enough so that it proved to be a sustainable advertising revenue model for 30 community radio stations), and a harrowing site visit involving a boat ride, sharks, disappearing Danish tourists, and ultimately a successful outreach.

Kerina used the examples to draw parallels between Africa and the United States, pointing out that there is little difference between a child in the developing world who has no access to the arts and a poor child in New York surrounded by cultural activity but with no access to it. She explained that community arts leaders often come from a socioeconomic background that makes them uncomfortable approaching donors. Furthermore, many of those leaders are not natural-born organization managers, but rather program people who started an organization because they saw a need for its services in their community. Unfortunately, most of these organizations are so under-resourced that they have trouble either attracting experienced arts managers or keeping up with funders’ expectations for scale and capacity development. Training board members to fundraise more effectively, for these organizations, often must come at the expense of programming.

Despite these challenges, grantmaking organizations often deal with communities whose cultural history requires preservation, and Kerina urged funders not to be afraid of being a part of that dialogue.


Live from GIA: Day III – Sewing Sails in a Perfect Storm

(crossposted from the GIA Conference Blog)

Moderated by Bill Cleveland of the Center for the Study of Art and Community, this session focused on two foundations that have made sweeping changes to their program strategy in the past year. The Boston Foundation, represented by Ann McQueen, recently announced a foundation-wide move toward a venture philanthropy model characterized by larger grants to fewer organizations, longer-term funding commitments, an emphasis on general operating support, and a focus on dealing with the roots of problems rather than the symptoms. The changes were in part motivated by a Center for Effective Philanthropy Grantee Perception Report, which came back with low scores for the foundation (the forced cessation of funding after three years and the project support were singled out in particular). In addition, there was a desire on the part of the Boston Foundation’s President, Paul Grogan, to transcend both sector silos and department silos. After focus groups, interviews, and an environmental scan, foundation staff came up with a new model around which to design programming.

The Boston Foundation arts program logic model and program theory are notable for several reasons. First, rather than being taken as a given, the foundation’s support for arts and culture is justified in the context of one of its two new overarching goals: that “Greater Boston communities are vibrant, safe, and affordable.” One of three objectives in this category is “Enhance civic and cultural vibrancy in Greater Boston,” and the sole strategy associated with the objective is “Strengthen and celebrate the region’s diverse audiences, artists, and nonprofit cultural organizations. Second, the benchmarks and long-term indicators associated with the strategy are defined with remarkable quantitative specificity. For example, a “big hairy audacious goal” of increasing attendance 50% by FY15 has been indentified, and the foundation seeks to increase the number of K-8 public school students receiving arts education from the current baseline of 23,000 students to 32,500 in 2012. Much of the data underpinning the effort to ensure healthy organizations will be provided by the new Massachusetts Cultural Data Project, which launched this past summer.

The McKnight Foundation arts program, represented by Vickie Benson, underwent a similarly drastic change, though the change was limited to the arts program itself and resulted in a rather different approach. McKnight has a long history of arts funding in Minnesota, where it distributes approximately $12 million every year. Over time, it had built up the arts ecosystem to a point where its money was no longer sufficient to cover everything, necessitating more judicious funding decisions. The process was initiated several years ago by a new president who confessed to Benson that she “doesn’t get the arts.” She asked Benson to undertake an evaluation of the program immediately to justify its existence, and Bill Cleveland was retained to carry it out. The result of the evaluation was new guidelines designed to support “an environment in which artists are valued leaders in our community, with access to the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.” This singular artist-centric focus will now permeate McKnight’s program decisions as it redirects the general operating support it had provided to large institutions toward smaller organizations, service organizations, individual artist fellowships, and project support for artist-oriented programming. (As for McKnight’s president, as a result of this process she has now become a strong and visible advocate for the arts.)

I find it interesting to contrast the Boston and McKnight Foundations’ approaches. Whereas Boston’s strategies focus largely on infrastructure and institutions, setting up measurable goals and backing them with robust data, McKnight’s changes reflect a “keep it simple, stupid” essentialism in placing artists at the center of the conversation. It would be interesting to have a reprise of this panel in a few years to see where the winds have blown these two organizations’ boats in the meantime.

Leave a comment

Live from GIA: Day III – Not Asking Nonprofits to Do More with Less

(crossposted from the GIA Conference Blog)

The third day of the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference opened with another set of breakfast roundtables. I attended “Not Asking Nonprofits to Do More with Less, Or the Uneasy Art of Communicating with Our Grantees During a Downturn,” facilitated by my former colleague Julie Fry of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and her fellow SF Bay Area funder Frances Phillips of the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation. The recession is very much on everyone’s minds, of course, and with it comes difficult decisions that may be necessitated more by circumstances than by fault or mismanagement on the part of arts organizations. This session was about how to navigate such conversations.

The central issue seemed to be one of communication. Several roundtable participants reported on negative experiences they had with grantees as a result of the grantees lying to them about their organization’s financial health or repurposing grants for operating support without permission. The lies and lack of communication were apparently motivated by a fear that funders would react badly to learning the truth of the matter. In fact, as one state arts council head pointed out, such a move backfired when distributing the NEA stimulus money earlier this year, since it undercut the case for need.

No matter how you slice it, these conversations are difficult. But some grantees are having success by opening up the process a little more. A roundtable participant reported that her foundation, for the first time, sent rejected grantees detailed letters offering specific feedback on their applications and justifying the decision. To her surprise, she received many fewer angry calls this year as a result. It seems that a better process could help to build healthier relations between funders and grantees, and demonstrating to them that you’ve taken their applications seriously in this way would be an important first step. (For further thoughts on this subject, you might check out this article I wrote in June.)

Even so, some conversations are just tough no matter what—for example, when the reason for the decision not to award a grant is because of a lack of confidence in the executive director. One participant now insists that a board member be present when she meets with directors in order to get around this difficulty.

Despite the generally downbeat tone of the conversation, the session ended on a decidedly positive note as several funders expressed their sincere amazement at and admiration for the determination shown by arts organizations and artists in navigating the recession. Participants encouraged each other to try to deliver a positive takeaway with rejections, and to tell grantees how much they appreciate their work.

Leave a comment