Sunday, August 13, 2017

Death and Dying and Sad Goodbyes

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................."

There is a natural cycle to life.  Birth, life, death.  It applies to all living things in our universe, and to many things not technically living - including movements, organizations, and human structures.

There seem only a couple of things that may not necessarily be subject to this immutable law - ideas, which may not so easily die, and perhaps, art as well.

But human beings are not so exempt from the cycle.  Generally, we don't like even the idea of death, of things ending, of there being no future at some point.  Maybe that's part of the reason many of us, especially as we grow older, don't like change.  

Physical death can be quick, as in trauma like a heart attack, or an automobile accident, or a terrorist attack.  Often those who forfeit their lives in this manner are said to have died instantly, but that's a little off the mark.  Actual death for everyone is instant - happens in a nanosecond.  I know.  I've seen enough of it up close. For those people who end up dying from prolonged illness or even just old age, dying is a process.  Often a long process, and too often accompanied by considerable suffering, both physical and mental.

When someone dies young, it insults our sense of justice and the way things ought to work. It's a reminder of, and an affront to, both the fragility of humanity, and our powerlessness.  Deprived of what might have been, those people leave too early and those left are shocked, angry and defeated.  It just doesn't seem right, and never more true than with the death of someone we knew and cared about.  For those who have lived a life, and face the indignities and arrows of attacks on their aging body, the insult is no less, but it is more acceptable to us.  In either case, we mourn those we lose because we no longer enjoy their presence with us. And that hurts.

Though in truth, whenever death calls, those left will go on.  The immediate family and friends will feel the loss for a long time, and more acutely than those who might have otherwise known, or known of, the deceased, but even then, life goes on.  It has to.  And it always does.  Life is for the living.  It's a precious commodity, and except for a few defeated souls, we all cling to it dearly - perhaps because we aren't really sure what it will mean when its over -- though we may have an idea.  Perhaps that is why so many take solace in, and resolutely defend, religion.  Answers.  We want answers to questions we may not even be capable of forming.  And death is a mystery.

Dying young robs one of the chance to make plans, say goodbyes, indulge last wishes and make peace with the inevitable.  But in a sense it may be a preferred end, as it is quick, minimizes the suffering, and allows one the freedom not to be consumed with the process.  Then again, probably not preferred.  For those at the end of their years, while they may have the opportunity to make those plans and say those goodbyes, the process itself exacts a high price for that luxury.

As I grapple with threats to my own mortality, even though I have lived a life already, I am in no hurry to shuffle off Shakespeare's mortal coil.  Indeed, I, along with tens of millions of people every year, can bear testament to the fact that one can endure far more pain, far more anxiety, and far more uncertainty than you might imagine - the price, sometimes, of being alive still.

So it was with a keen sense of sadness and loss that I noted the week before last, that our little nonprofit arts family, lost two of its devotees.

Ebony McKinney passed away of pneumonia complications associated with lupus (an auto-immune condition where the body attacks itself.)  She was only 41.  Far too young to have been taken, but death knows no restrictions, and callously cares not in any case.  I don't know how much she had to cope with, what she might have had to endure, but it seemed from what I have read that it came out of nowhere.

I first met Ebony when we recruited her for a focus group for a study of Millennial and Gen X arts leaders for the Hewlett Foundation.  Though a little shy back then, she had a gifted mind, was utterly passionate about the arts, cared deeply, and keenly interested in all the aspects of our profession.  She had an infectious smile and a sparkling personality, and an inquisitive nature.  One of the outcomes of that study was that Hewlett, joined by the Irvine and Haas foundations, funded and supported the creation of emerging leader organizations in areas around the state.  Ebony was a co-founder, and played a dynamic role in the Bay Area  group - Emerging Arts Professionals; an important organization in the matrix of the future of the arts in the area.  She played a similar role in the creation of ABBA - Arts for a Better Bay Area.

I kept in touch with her, and she was invited to join our second Dinnervention conversation in Denver, where her voice had gained even more maturity and nuance and depth.

She went on from there to multiple involvements in our field, including her ongoing relationship with the San Francisco Arts Commission - impressing people and winning her legions of admirers.  She had a great future.  Cut short.

And now she isn't here anymore.  And that cycle of life can seem very cruel and selfish.

Harold Williams was the founding President of the J. Paul Getty Trust and served as its chief for nearly twenty years.  He guided the launch, planning, building and operation of the Getty Center and Museum - one of the iconic building complexes in the world.  Harold had a storybook resume and a long, vaulted life.  He was Chair of the Board of Norton Simon, President of Hunt Foods, Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Management, Chair of the Securities Exchange Commission under Carter, member of the President's Committee on Arts and Humanities, Director of the California Endowment, and then intimately involved in the Los Angeles arts ecosystem.

I first me Harold at the opening of the Getty, and invited him, and he agreed, to co-chair a Forum on Creativity with then first lady, Sharon Davis.    This was one of the first summit meetings gathering arts leaders, artists, private sector leaders, elected officials and civic leaders to consider the arts in the wider context of the concept of creativity, and Harold lent the whole affair an air of legitimacy and credibility.  He went on to play an instrumental role in the efforts of so many in Los Angeles as they mobilized their resolve to move forward arts education across the southland.

I had at least a dozen in depth and utterly fascinating and amazing conversations with Harold over the next few years, and he was a genuinely kind, thoughtful, engaging and brilliant friend to me.  He was 89 when he died -- the same week as Ebony.

Both of these good people are gone now, and while they will be missed, and while they made lasting contributions to our field in large and small ways, and while life will go on, their passage struck home for me at this particular point in my life as I ponder my own longevity.

None of us really know how much longer we have - though, of course, most of us have some idea that our day may be close or far, far off.

I would like to admonish people to put away the petty things that too often monopolize their waking (and sleeping) hours and get on with the things that matter - families, friends, children, decency; to move past the defeats and set backs.  Life is unfair and unjust for everyone.  You soldier on.  So much time in life is wasted dealing with stuff that matters not -- while we all have more important things to do.  But it would be disingenuous for me to suggest I still have great things to accomplish before I'm done - the proverbial Robert Frost's miles to go before I sleep. The truth is my purpose now is really no more ambitious than just to wake up tomorrow and the next day, and maybe for even years to come if I'm lucky - and it's not that I have great plans for those days, however many there are; it's just that like everyone else really, I would like to be there to quietly enjoy them.  

The loss of Ebony and Harold reminds me of what an irreplaceable and wonderful feeling being there tomorrow truly is.  The great relief of waking up each morning - for however long.

I was lucky to have known Ebony and Harold, if even only a little and only briefly.

May the long light shine on them both.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Robert Booker Exit Interview

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on..................."

Bob Booker is retiring from the nonprofit arts field after over forty years of active service.  I asked him to sit for an interview last month, and he graciously agreed.

Bob Booker Bio:  
Bob Booker was the Executive Director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts from 2006 to 2017.  Prior to the Arizona posting, he was the Executive Director of the Minnesota State Arts Board from 1997 to 2005, and he was the Assistant Director of that agency from 1990 to 1996.  He was a Board member of Grantmakers in he Arts from 2010 to 2017, and GIA's Chair of the Board for 2016-2017.  He was also a Board member of the  National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (1999 - 2006) and President from 2003 to 2005. He served as a Trustee on the WESTAF Board from 2007 to 2013, as a Board member of Arts Midwest from 1997 to 2004, and on the Minnesota Aids Project Board (1996 - 2001).  Bob has served on numerous commissions and advisory councils, including the Arts and Culture Committee of the Arizona Mexico Commission, the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission, and the First National Advisory Committee of the Goucher College, M.A. Program in Arts Administration.  He served on Grants Panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and for Michigan, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansa, and Iowa.

In 2006 he received NASAA's Gary Young Award.

Here is the Interview:

Barry:  You’ve had a long and distinguished career in the field, and the opportunity to have seen the field change from numerous perspectives - including running the state agencies in Minnesota and Arizona and as Chair of NASAA and GIA.  What are the biggest changes in arts administration in the past decade or two?

Bob:  The establishment of Masters programs in Arts Administration and the influx of those graduates.
The changes in corporate giving to the arts—businesses abandoning arts support programs while transitioning their giving responsibilities to their marketing divisions. The entry of young arts administrators into the field who lack a solid knowledge of philanthropy and community development or a working knowledge of the history of arts funding in America.

Most pleasing is the growth of small and mid-size arts organizations in rural communities and communities of color.  These young organizations spring up from the grassroots of their communities, reflecting local voices and perspectives, and provide new and increased opportunity for active participation by residents and visitors alike.

Barry:  If you were starting as an Arts Administrator today, knowing what you know, what is the one skill you would absolutely want to have?

Bob: Young arts administrators need to have a solid knowledge of nonprofit finance. They need to possess a clear understanding of balance sheets, audits and fiscal reports. In addition, a solid knowledge of at least one art form is paramount. A solid grounding in artmaking within the visual, literary, performing or media art forms gives the individual the basic skills to relate to other working artists.

Barry:  What’s wrong with arts advocacy today, and how do we fix it?

Bob:  We continue to preach to and create messages that are understood only by other arts advocates.  Though I find some of the national arts advocacy ads charming, they often include arts references that many Americans may not understand or relate to. Of course, this defeats the purpose of the campaign in the first place.  Why do we continue to focus on individuals already participating in the arts, apart from engaging them in direct advocacy calls and efforts?

As a field, we continue to misunderstand how Americans participate as creative individuals in their daily life. Our messages ignore what is important and has meaning to them, and how creativity plays a role in their families’ day to day activities.

In regards to arts advocacy in general, we need to take a new approach that places the arts as a vital, engaging activity of tremendous value to Americans.  Too often we approach advocacy and communication with our heads bowed and our hands out: “Please sir, can you save the arts? Can you save my organization that has been in the red for years and would you maybe consider following your state’s policy that requires arts programming in schools?”  We are too timid, too afraid of offending and are perceived as impotent, ineffectual and incompetent.

Barry:   Is it time to reimagine the NEA and what might NEA 2.0 look like?

Bob:  I might imagine a federal agency that is transparent in all their operations. The first step would be to open the entire panel process to anyone who wants to observe. Another step would be to reorganize the staff from discipline-based silos to programmatic teams working on specific goals in service to the arts in America and, more importantly, in service to the country’s citizens.  Some of these newly created programs might be funding-related or initiative or service-based.

Over the past 50 years, the NEA, alongside their partners, the State Arts Agencies, have built a great infrastructure for the arts in virtually every district in the country.  Now is the time to refine that work, examine who the participants are (and are not) and retool the agency to serve for another 50 great years.

In some ways rallying the various disparate elements of the arts is like herding cats.  How do we forge a “big tent? mentality and get those various parts of the arts to operate on the same page?

Barry:  What is the single biggest thing the arts can do to address the equity challenge and systemic, structural racism?

Bob:  During my tenure as president of Grantmakers in the Arts, the organization produced what I believe to be the most significant and powerful statement on racial equity among national arts organizations.  As members of the board we participated together in training programs that provided us with a collective grounding. With that basic knowledge and the full participation of board members in honest discussions of race, equity and respect, we moved forward.

Many organizations—often, unfortunately, very large institutions--continue to reject any substantial participation in this arena. Their actions or lack thereof shows the privilege, ignorance and racism that exists in our field.  As funders, board members and participants we need to address this issue across America.  I often say, “Look out the window and see what Arizona looks like; is this what your board, staff, and audiences look like?”  Our mission statement at the Commission is a simple one.  We imagine an Arizona where everyone can participate in and experience the arts. I often add, whoever you are, wherever you live and wherever you are from.

Barry:  State funding to SAAs is a political football.  What can finally be done to establish a reliable, sustainable and meaningful revenue stream for SAAs across the country?

Bob:  As an industry, we have tried many approaches to increase our resources to the field.  The National Association of State Arts Agencies prepared a briefing paper on this topic. .  Many of the ideas, like the establishment of an arts endowment, automobile license plates, fees and tax initiatives, have found varying degrees of success, depending on the state where they are implemented.  After watching Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment deliver millions of new dollars to issues and causes of importance to residents of the state, including the arts, I am inclined to say that this may be the only way to secure a steady long-term funding stream. Of course, the establishment of endowments is another way to go. However, in Arizona we saw our $20 million-dollar endowment swept in its entirety by the Governor and the Legislature during challenging economic times.

Barry:  As NASAA moves forward as the service organization for the nation’s SAAs, what would you like to see it focus on for the future?

Bob:  Historically, the organization has succeeded in providing premier services to State Arts Agencies.  The materials they produce for the field are first class, their conferences solid and well attended, and their strong voice in advocating for arts councils and the National Endowment for the Arts presents a clear, powerful and unified vision.  I applaud CEO Pam Breaux for her active leadership in these most challenging times.

Barry:  We have dramatically increased the amount of research being done by the sector.  What areas of research do you feel are the most valuable now, and what areas have we yet to explore that we need to prioritize?

Bob:  Research is important to any field or business.  Truly, the arts industry has benefited from solid exploration of issues we face every day and ones that we should be prepared for.  However, it is somewhat like those posts we see on Facebook where a friend asks for your calls to your Senator or Representative. If we don’t follow through and call the individual the effort is lost.  Research is similar.  How long have we seen the statistics about how some large institutions have been receiving the bulk of funding from both private and public sources? How many reports do we have to read about staffing inequities in the field or the needs of working artists?  The efforts of the researchers are null and void if we, as members in the industry, refuse to act on their discoveries.

Barry:  What is your best advice to new arts leaders?

Bob:  Your team is what makes the magic happen. Hire a staff that is creative, entrepreneurial, dedicated and kind.  Always support the element of risk in their work, thank them often, give them authority to act and allow them to fail and learn.  Don’t dwell on the negatives, but focus on the positives of their daily work. Throw out the time clock; flexibility is the sister of creativity.  Never be afraid to make staffing changes. Those individuals who don’t understand the importance of organizational loyalty and the importance of supporting their fellow staff members and director have no place in the organization.  Finally, enjoy the work, laugh a lot, listen and help everyone climb up the ladder to success.

Barry:  Under Janet Brown, GIA is a vastly different organization than it was when she assumed the helm.  What do you want to see in here successor, and where do you see GIA in 2020?

Bob:  I am so proud of the work that Ms. Brown and the board and members of GIA have accomplished.  During my tenure as Chairman, I saw the organization publish what I believe to be the most important and rational statement of Racial Equity created by any national arts organization.  The work that GIA continues to do regarding capitalization is so important to organizations large and small.  Cash flow and the ability to hold reserves for future challenges is paramount in the success of any nonprofit organization today. The advocacy work done in Washington on education in the arts is incredibly successful.

It would be my hope that the new President and CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts would continue the good work in capitalization, education and racial equity and build new resources and programs that address the needs of professional working artists and community arts development in the future.

Barry:  Where do you see SAAs ten years from now?  What will be different about their priorities and how they function?

Bob:   I hope that SAA’s refocus their agenda away from traditional formula-based grantmaking toward more inclusive and responsive actions focused on expanding the number of and access to arts resources and participation in the arts in communities across their state. Through strategic grantmaking investments and long term engagement of community, political, and arts folks, I believe we will see a renaissance in creative participation, while we build-up local arts infrastructure grounded on the interests and needs of the communities.

As agencies, we need to listen to community members across our states.  We must realize that our constituents are not the nonprofit arts organizations we fund, but the residents of our state. As we engage a broader audience of individuals in our communities, we will learn what is important to them and better support them in their homegrown efforts to leverage local creative assets to create positive change and address community needs and challenges.

Barry:  We have talked forever about increasing the public value of the arts in America. Assess that effort to date and for the future?

Bob:  Yes, I am remembering the work we did together with 13 other state arts agencies through the Wallace Foundation’s state initiative.  The discussions on building public value, barriers to participation and creative messaging still resonates with me.  I am quite excited about the work that David Fraher, the President and CEO of Arts Midwest, is doing through the Creating Connection initiative. The concept of building public will is not new, but the approach, data collection, and conversation coming out of the program is surely innovative and I believe will be helpful to all of us in the field.

Barry:  What are you most optimistic about for the future of the nonprofit arts, and what areas cause you the most concern?

Bob:  Our data in Arizona shows a dramatic increase in small and mid-size arts organizations working with artists to create new literary, visual, and performing art.  It also shows increased participation in the activities of these small and mid-size arts organizations, something not seen in our largest institutions. Support artists in the creation and exhibition of new work is paramount to the future of the arts in America.  These organizations, often young, small, and connected to communities of color are indeed building understanding and participation among audience members.

Barry:  What’s next for you?

Bob:  In late July, right before I retire, I will be attending my first artist residency program, The Sedona Summer Colony. It will be, I hope, a way to focus on my practice as a visual artist.

Recently I have joined the steering committee for the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, a program of the School of Business at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Working with issues on HIV and Human rights is a personal goal of mine. I look forward to traveling, working in my studio and sleeping late.  Who knows what’s next, I’ve never done this before.

I do know that I will cherish the memories of my work in this amazing field and the many people who I count as colleagues and friends.  It has been a great run and I’ve loved every minute.

Thank you Bob.  On behalf of the field, wishing you all the best.  We remain in your debt.

Have a great week everybody.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Laura Zucker Exit Interview:

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on............."

Note:  I will taking off for the next few weeks as I have two upcoming surgeries.  I have prepared several blogs to post during the period, including an upcoming Exit Interview with Bob Booker.  I hope to be back soon.

Laura Zucker is the consummate arts administrator having led the field for two plus decades of major accomplishments in the local arts agency sector.  I asked her to sit for an Exit Interview last month, and she graciously accepted.

Laura Zucker Bio:
Laura recently stepped down after 25 years as executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.  The Arts Commission funds more than 400 arts organizations, implements the regional initiative dedicated to restoring arts education to 81 public school districts, funds the largest paid arts internship program for undergraduates in the country, and manages the county's civic art policy. For more than two decades she led the revitalization of the Ford Theatres and was executive producer of the Emmy® Award winning Holiday Celebration.

She recently completed a strategic plan for Cultural Equity and Inclusion that resulted in actionable recommendations, five of which are being implemented now:  In 2013, Ms. Zucker spearheaded the addition of Los Angeles County to the global initiative, the World Cities Culture Report and Forum, a report that features 23 major world urban centers and contains a wealth of information and data on arts and culture never collected in one place before. In 2017 she was part of the first World Culture Summit, which brought together cultural leaders from 80 countries held in Abu Dhabi in 2017.

Her leadership helped shape the regional cultural calendar on, which is now part of managed by the Los Angeles Convention and Tourism Board. Ms. Zucker headed the California Cultural Tourism Initiative, which marketed the arts of California’s three urban regions domestically and internationally. She is the author of a regional study of individual artists as part of the California Arts Council’s economic impact study on the arts.

Prior to the Arts Commission, she was executive director of the Ventura Arts Council and producing director of the Back Alley Theatre for ten years.

She serves on the boards of Grantmakers in the Arts, and the Trusteeship, the Southern California Chapter of the International Women's Forum. She is also a member of the LA Coalition for Jobs and the Economy. She is a past board member of the Association of Arts Administration Educators and was a founding member of the board of Arts for LA. She received a B.A. from Barnard College and attended the Yale School of Drama.

Here is the Interview:

Barry:  After 25 years leading one of the premier local arts agencies in the country, what is your biggest takeaway as an arts administrator?

Laura:  The arts community’s resiliency, inventiveness and resourcefulness are limitless.

Barry:  What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you started?  If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Laura:  I was going to say that I would have tried harder to stay on the right side of some politically connected people, but then I thought of this quote from Winston Churchill: “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.” I stood up for the equitable distribution of public dollars. It might have been good to know at the outset what that would cost in the long run, but I don’t think it would have changed anything I did.

Barry:Your agency uses applied research, evaluation and data mining to support your work.  Explain how you do that and how important is it to your success?

Laura:  How can you know how to strategically address a challenge if you’re not clear about the root cause? If you start off by trying to determine what problem you’re trying to solve, it actually makes things easier. It’s always going to require some research to figure this out. This was certainly true when we started to tackle arts education in LA County. We sent a team out to interview someone in every one of the 81 school districts and found out that although everyone thought arts education was important, there were real impediments to implementation. So our arts education initiative didn’t have to focus on changing hearts and minds; it needed to find ways to help school districts actually implement programs. And, of course, evaluation is the key to determining if what you’re doing is actually moving the needle. Research tied to evaluation has been our template for everything we’ve done since, including our recent Cultural Equity and Inclusion initiative. First we did a literature review, and then we surveyed the field to learn the state of things. As in arts education, we found a lot of belief in change, but not much strategy, so we focused on actionable recommendations that we could implement. I think we’re the only local arts agency in the country that has hired a full time director of research and evaluation, and we subsequently assembled a research/evaluation team to support all of our initiatives. It’s impossible now to imagine being effective without this team.

Barry:  You and others were instrumental in creating Arts For LA - one of the country’s best run and most successful local arts advocacy organizations.  How was that put together, and why has it been so successful?  What’s your best advice for other metropolitan areas which want to replicate Arts For LA’s success?

Laura:  Like most successful ventures, Arts For LA started with passion and a vision. Senior arts administrators in LA met for years informally and began to realize that there was just so much that could be accomplished on a volunteer basis. At the end of the day if you want to really move the needle you need paid staff. Jonathan Glus and I put together a viable business plan, which included arts organizations committing to paying dues, to support the first paid position. We incorporated and with the financial help of Americans for the Arts and the Arts Commission were able to cobble together an initial revenue package to hire an ED for a year. Of course it helped that we hired the right person, Danielle Brazell, and the rest, as they say, is history. The critical underpinning was that LA has a super collaborative arts community, and many of us were there over years to ensure that Arts For LA succeeded. That was and is the essential ingredient. We’re still there for Sofia Klatzer, who has succeeded Danielle, and is leading the organization in new great initiatives.

Barry:   Why is the NEA attacked every year and how can we change that history?  Or can we?

Laura:  Not sure that it is true that the NEA is attacked every year; in fact it has usually fared well under Republican administrations. This year, of course, is different, as so many agencies are under attack. The fact that even with this extreme rhetoric the agency is still being funding speaks to its ability to withstand almost anything.

Barry:  Los Angeles County has scores of separate school districts, making it a disparate quilt of different approaches and outcomes for arts education, yet somehow arts education is doing better in your territory than in a lot of others.  Why and how?

Laura:  We’re an arts education laboratory! Because we have 81 school districts from large urban ones to small rural ones, and everything in between, we’re able to see how strategies play out in many different settings. Our vision has remained constant: that every child in public school should have quality arts education, but we’ve learned to pivot based on new education imperatives and opportunities. The LA County Arts Education Collaborative, recently renamed from Arts for All in honor of the initiative’s 15th anniversary, helps all school districts adopt policies and plans for arts education. The Arts Commission then provides a robust suite of services to help districts implement these plans, but it’s not one size fits all.  Each plan is distinct so each school district fully owns it.

Barry:  Two part question:  1) How did you go about building a strong staff team?  To what extent was it accidental and sheer luck, and to what extent can a leader consciously go about recruiting and retaining and motivating the best and brightest?  2) How does one build a solid, workable relationship with their Board ? Commission?

Laura:  No luck involved! We search for mission driven people for whom working at the Arts Commission is their dream job come true (this is not a day job!). We set the bar high, but give staff the latitude to get the job done the way they want. We find out what’s important to staff and try to make sure they get the rewards that matter to them, including lots of freedom to fly on their own and be recognized for their achievements. That’s why we have the A team.

Boards, which are self-selecting, and commissions are two very different animals. Commissions are harder because you have no control over the appointments, which range from smart people with a knowledge of the field to those who are only there as political pay back. You just hope that the adults in the room outweigh those with self-interests. It takes a big investment of time and energy on an executive director’s part to keep politically appointed commissioners or council members on track, but if they become effective advocates the pay off can be significant.

Barry:  What makes an effective arts administrator?

Laura:  Most arts administrators start as artists, so they have much more in their tool box than they often realize, particularly when it comes to understanding process and getting a diverse group of people to work toward the same goal. If arts administrators would approach their challenges as artists do they’ll often find they know just what to do. That includes taking risks; artists aren’t afraid of taking leaps and neither should arts administrators be.

Barry:  What are the biggest challenges facing arts philanthropy - both public and private?

Laura:  I assume this question is about the challenges of growing arts philanthropy, and that’s where I see only opportunities. Unlike foundation funding, which only grows based on the foundations corpus, public funding is never a zero sum game. There’s almost always a way to grow the pie. The same is true for private individual philanthropy: the sky’s the limit.

Barry:  Placemaking is now a decade old approach.  What is your assessment of its impact?  Does it still have legs?  What changes will it make in the next decade to move further along the continuum?

Laura:  This is probably a better question for ArtPlace. They’re doing some interesting thinking about the sustainability of creative placemaking as they prepare to phase out in 2020.

Barry:  Besides a meaningful and consistent revenue stream, what three factors are the most important for a local arts agency to produce tangible results for its community?

Laura:  Find out what’s keeping your arts community up at night and make those issues your priorities; never forget you work for them. 

Ask what you can do as a local arts agency that no individual organization or artist can. Focus on the macro issues.

Bring people together at every opportunity. Integrate ways for different size organizations and disciplines, as well as arts organizations and those from other fields, to interact with each other in everything you do. Local arts agencies are the connective tissue of a creative community.

Barry:  More and more Boomer arts leaders are retiring.  How are things in arts administration likely to change as the baton is passed to the next generations, and what challenges are they likely to face short and long term?  Are they prepared?  How might the sector better prepare them?

Laura:  Arts administrators do face more challenges today. They need to operate in an increasingly global environment while being effective locally. That means being able to operate with hyper-specificity and great statesmanship simultaneously. But I think this next generation of leaders is up to the task. I’ve been really encouraged by my interactions with up and coming arts administrators in the Masters in Arts Management program at Claremont Graduate University. They’re smart, prepared and really care about how the arts can make the world a better place. I go to sleep peacefully at night knowing they’re going to be in charge.

Barry:  Executive Directors of discipline based arts organizations have, over the past two decades, increasingly spent their time as fundraisers, leaving them ever scarcer time to lead their organizations in other visionary areas?  Is that a problem and how can the sector address it?

Laura:  It’s not just EDs of discipline based arts organizations, it’s leaders of all nonprofits that spend a third or more of their time sourcing revenue. I include myself in this mix since my job for 25 years has been to convince LA County to expand its support for the arts, and LA County was already the largest supporter of the arts of any county in the United States. In that sense I was working with one big primary donor. But I don’t think this is necessarily bad. It means you have to stay tuned in to what your authorizers and customers think is important. You need to stay relevant to ensure people want to invest in what you’re doing.

Barry:  But for the chance to see people one hasn’t had the opportunity to see for awhile, have conferences become a waste of time?  Are they more valuable for established leaders or for the newbies?  How might they be reinvented?

Laura:  Conferences are critical to the field, particularly for those entering.  I know how important they were for me when I was trying to figure just what a local arts agency could be. Remembering that pushed me to continue attending as I became more senior in the field so that I could provide that same context for others. And it is always great to catch up with people. A network is really a net of people you can fall back on when needed.

Barry:  What would you like to see GIA focus on in the next five years?

Laura:  Continuing work on current priorities: racial equity, capitalization, arts education and individual artists, all of which are interconnected, will be important. And with new dynamic leadership coming to GIA in the fall, there’s going to be a wonderful opportunity to assess new opportunities. I’ll be ending my second term as a GIA board member in 2017 and have great confidence that this board and the new executive director are going to do a superlative job steering GIA over the next decade.

Barry:  Are politicians too much, or too little, involved in the affairs and the health of public local arts agencies?

Laura:  Hmmm…this is a tricky one. Like board or commission members, you want political authorizers to be interested and involved in policy issues, but leave the operational management to the professionals. That’s what they pay us for. Folks who have wrapped a sprained ankle know they’re not qualified to perform brain surgery! Yet it’s amazing how many people who’ve had a little experience in the arts think they’re producers.

Barry:  If you had never worked at the LA County Arts Commission, where in the sector would you have preferred to have landed?

Laura:  We never can see the story of our lives when it lies ahead of us, but the thread becomes so clear looking back. I couldn’t see it when I began, but I was destined to be in a job that utilized my inner policy wonk along with my producing skills. This job fulfilled a deep desire in me to enable artists to do what they do best. The Arts Commission job was meant to be for me.

Barry:  What will be the biggest three issues for arts administrators in 2020?


  • Ensuring all students everywhere receive a quality arts education. It’s a social justice issue.
  • Valuing diverse cultural traditions equally, really equally, in terms of opportunity and resources. 
  • The democratization of culture: creating opportunities for the arts to be accessed by everyone, like breathing. 

Thank you Laura - not just for the interview, but for all you have contributed to a healthy arts ecosystem for the past 25 years. Things just won't seem quite the same to me with your absence. Wishing you all the very best.

Have a great week everybody.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Helicon Follow Up Study Shows Equity in Funding Has Actually Gotten Worse in the Last Five Years

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on............................"

In 2010, Holly Sidford published a study Funding Arts, Culture and Social Change that rocked the nonprofit arts world with the confirmation of what many in the field intuitively knew, and many more suspected: that the vast majority of funding from philanthropic sources, including foundations, individual donors and public agencies went to the largest (overwhelmingly euro-centric, white) urban cultural organizations with the biggest budgets, and that such disproportionate funding to those organizations that already had the most was at odds with, and unreflective of, the diverse demographic make-up of the country and the arts sector.  

The firestorm set off by this landmark report, sent the nonprofit arts into deep reflection, and out of that inward look came a robust and more honest than before discussion of structural racism, equity in general, the root causes of this inequity, and what might be done about it.  Over the past five years, the sector has moved to better understand inequity, structural racism, and institutional bias with trainings and widespread consideration of the issues.  Individual organizations and sub-sectors of the field have issued policy changes designed to identify inequity, root out the causes and make fundamental changes.  Those same groups have sought to promote increased diversity and to move towards a new equity paradigm that would begin to rectify the sad state of affairs the report brought home.  GIA and many of the national service organizations have led the charge with serious and substantial efforts to address the issue of inequity on all its fronts.

And now, Helicon Collaborative's update to their initial report:  Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy has concluded that:

"despite important efforts by many leading foundations, funding overall has gotten less equitable, not more. This means that cultural philanthropy is not effectively — or equitably — supporting our evolving cultural landscape."

So apparently, despite all our best intentions and our good will efforts, not only have we failed to make even a slight dent in the inequity of funding disproportionately going to the big, white, rich urban cultural organizations - at the expense of the smaller and rural organizations, especially those serving people of color, people with disabilities and the LGBT community.  MORE of the total funding is now going to the largest cultural organizations, not less.  So far anyway, all the efforts to the contrary have not yielded any substantial or measurable change from the situation five years ago.  Indeed, from an equity standpoint, things are worse, not better.

Is it reasonable that after five years, we are not yet beyond the phase where we pay more attention to the issue, educate and talk among ourselves to move in the direction of a solution?  Or is that seemingly slow plodding about right?  Or is that delay unacceptable?  What is the next phase then, and on what timeline?

The report also noted that this reality appears systemic and is embedded at the local level as well as a national situation.  And thus even in diverse cities with a large culturally diverse population, and a substantial portion of the arts sector serving that group - still those populations and organizations get nowhere near an equitable portion of the total funding.

Of the ten cities the new report studied, only San Francisco achieved funding equity:

"The notable exception to the general patterns is San Francisco, where two decades of intentional and collaborative work to boost mid-sized and smaller cultural organizations and increase cultural equity — by both public sector funders and private foundations such as the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, James Irvine Foundation and Hewlett Foundation — has produced funding distribution patterns that more closely reflect the city’s demographic profile and the diversity of the local cultural sector. As a result of these intentional strategies, not only does San Francisco have more diverse nonprofit cultural groups per capita than other cities, those groups also receive a significantly larger share of arts foundation funding than their counterparts in the other urban areas we studied.
In San Francisco, approximately 32 percent of cultural groups have primary missions to serve communities of color, low-income communities, LGBTQ populations and disabled communities, and approximately 32 percent of arts foundation funding is allocated to such groups. (DataArts)"

But San Francisco is the exception. In consideration of the why and how of the national disappointing reality, the report notes that:

1.  The decision making process of foundation funding allocation is principally in the hands of those older, white, upper class individuals who have always held that power.  Even at the program level, there has been very little growth in diversity.

2.  As to individual donors, which category now constitutes a greater share of total arts funding than foundations, the report observes:

"because people with incomes over $100,000 are more than twice as likely to be white and urban than Black or Latino or rural, we can surmise that most of the high-end arts donors are white and living in cities. (U.S. Census).  We also know that individual giving in the arts heavily favors larger institutions. In the ten cities Helicon studied, individual donations to larger cultural organizations — on average — were six times greater than contributions to organizations of color and those serving lower-income communities. (DataArts)."

3.  The leadership of our cultural organizations also plays a role in funding allocation:

"These organizations have longstanding relationships with both individual donors and foundations (and sometimes overlapping board memberships), which help them attract and sustain generous funding for their work, but also influence donors’ views of what the cultural sector is and what warrants support. For these reasons, diversity in the leadership of larger cultural institutions is centrally important to achieving greater equity in cultural funding." 

4.   Corporate, government and board / trustee contributions all likewise disproportionately favor the larger, urban, white euro-centric arts organizations - likely for the same reasons.

So what do we do in the face of this challenge?

The report suggests that:

1.  "The status quo tends to perpetuate itself. Without specific goals for change and timelines to achieve them, current patterns will remain the same or further deteriorate. People tend to resist change but at least in some instances, what might look like resistance to doing things differently may be due to a lack of clarity about how to move forward."

Resistance to the idea of funding going not to your organization, but to another - even if for the best of reasons - is not surprising.  Organizations, like people, usually don't rush to embrace remedies to problems that may be at their expense.  The principle of survival trumps altruism and even principle itself in many cases.  I understand that focus and zeroing in on specific, concrete objectives may help to make it easier to move forward, but this isn't rocket science.  If 50% of the arts organizations are smaller, serving nominally underserved communities, then equity demands somewhere near half the money goes to them.  An under ten percent allocation to them is not equitable -- period.  So the question is then:  what formula for funding allocation is equitable, and how long do we need to successfully initiate that formula as the norm?  (And I am not necessarily suggesting we reduce the funding challenges to a formula - I am just suggesting that if we are serious about getting to equity, then we absolutely must move from the current reality, and do so sooner rather than later).

2.  We somehow get the wealthy donors to include equity funding in their giving strategies and provide leadership to move individual donors in general to expand their funding priorities.  The report suggests foundation can help educate this class of donor.

While there is strong evidence to suggest that we still live in a society in which racism continues to exist and which negatively impacts a broad cross section of our society, the issue of equity in funding for the arts may be more of a class issue than one of race per se.  The culture that silently works to perpetuate funding going to the largest, well heeled, euro-centric, white dominated urban cultural organizations is largely based on the good old boy network of wealth.  The nouveau riche aspire to join the ranks of the elite who serve on cultural boards, support the organizations and donate their wealth, not necessarily because they favor those organizations over the smaller, multi-cultural underserved organizations that are denied an equitable share of funding, but because they wish to network with those that may provide them access to the world that helps them maintain their wealth and status, and be a part of the elite group that control and run things.  And the reality of that universe is long standing.  It's a club that people want in, and there is a legacy with major cultural institutions that this is one of the rarefied entry points.  In some ways, it has almost nothing to do with the art, and everything to do with the social circles attached to the arts organization.

And that world, that mind-set exists in San Francisco as much as anywhere, yet in this city foundation leadership, concerted and coordinated efforts and the political will to do something about inequity in funding has made a difference.  Can that same changed attitude and resolve be replicated elsewhere.  Certainly it can.  Will it?  That's a much tougher question.

3.  We commit more to collaboration and working together to address the issue.

Collaboration and cooperation are not only a good idea, they are likely essential to making much progress.  But more important, and a likely necessary pre-requisite to working more together, is the will to make the changes.  That will has to come from decision makers.  I am not sure we have that will, at least not from top to bottom of our organizational structures.  And without that will, I seriously doubt a report five years from now will report a much different reality.

All three of these strategies are valuable, but one has to question whether any of them are likely to change the reality.

I think the Helicon report is certainly right on one critical point: It will take courageous leadership by key foundations and civic / cultural leaders of wealth and power to initiate the change and make sure it happens.  Someday, those on the bottom of the pyramid may acquire the wealth and power to force the change, but that day - much like the day when the country unifies on acceptance of more tolerant and embracing policies and practices, when political consensus on who we are as a people is apparent - is a long way off still.  In the meantime, progress is made by leaders with vision and courage and the belief in, and commitment to, doing the right thing.  That doesn't seem to be the current prevailing instinct.

And we must, it seems to me, focus on moving that leadership to act.  That must be the focus, otherwise we are spinning our wheels.

There's a line in an Eagles song:  "Things in this life change very slowly, if they ever change at all".  Unfortunately, this sad report is a confirmation of that sentiment.  I guess we take comfort in the knowledge that while change is slow, it is also likely inevitable.  The tragedy is that while inequity continues, people suffer, damages are done, and it is harder to move forward on multiple fronts.

One hopes that we won't have to wait for wealth to transfer to the people of those communities who now suffer the inequitable distribution of funds, because while over a long term, that kind of transfer will likely happen to one degree or another, it may take a long, long time.

Read the whole report, raise the issues locally, and work to unify our sector to move in the right direction - towards equity.  So that five years from now - equity in funding is more a reality.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Giving Circles and the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................................."

A decade or so ago, Giving Circles (loose aggregations of small groups of people - more often than not friends or business colleagues - that pooled small amounts of money and, as a group, determined where to allocate the funds) started to gain prominence in philanthropy, and portended to grow to be a major factor in charitable giving.  These pools of funds allowed individuals to increase the impact of their otherwise limited giving, and, in the process, allowed people to become more involved in their communities and with each other.

Because of the attractiveness of involvement, networking and impact, the phenomenon grew, and today there are likely thousands of such groups of varying levels all around the country. There hasn't been substantial research on the numbers of such circles since their early launch, and, while there are a couple of aggregation groups that seek to identify some of these groups under common banners, those efforts are extremely limited.  So we don't exactly know how many of these groups exist, the dollar total of their giving, nor where the money substantially goes.  We don't know if that number is growing or not and to what extent, as we don't know how many new Circles launch each year, and how many existing Circles cease to be.   Moreover, all these Circles will be populated by different demographic groups and the age, education, income level, jobs, geographic location and more variables will play into how individual Circles operate.

Is the potential of Giving Circles in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, or more?  Will Giving Circles ever reach, or surpass, the giving of Crowdfunding, or foundations?  Open questions, the answers to which are important - for the whole nonprofit universe.

Very likely, there are some of these groups that allocate some of their funding to arts groups, though it is unlikely that the percentage of the total of such funds is very high.  If you have a dozen or so friends who, say, each contribute $1000 per year to a Giving Circle, perhaps one or more of those people favor support for the arts, and thus maybe a percentage of the total pot of that group might go to the arts in a given territory in any given year.

If Giving Circles represent a large (and maybe growing) potential source of funding (and that is an open question), the challenges are:  1) how do the arts (as a sector) make the case for some portion of these groups allocating their funding (or percentage thereof) to the arts (in general); and how do individual arts organizations work to actually become recipients of these kinds of gifts; and 2) Is it possible to create and sponsor new Giving Circles that give most, or all, of their funding to  the arts?

On the first issue, it is very hard for an individual arts organization to even identify where there are Giving Circles that might potentially consider them as recipients, let alone who such groups are.  Individual organizations simply don't have the resources or time to address that challenge.   And that information doesn't appear to be easily accessed.  What might be helpful would be for someone on a national level to tackle the problem of identifying existing Giving Circles and how they might be contacted.  That will remain difficult, as only those Giving Circles that have expanded their membership and the total of their funding pool to the point where they have affiliated with a Community Foundation as a donor advised fund may be easily identified (and that number has to be very small, particularly as growing to that level somewhat defeats the original intent of the Giving Circle phenomenon as being small, intimate and offering its members hands on participation in the consideration of which organizations to support).  It would take a major effort, even in siloed individual territories, to compile an accurate listing of Giving Circles.  Compounding the problem is the likelihood that Giving Circles may operate for a limited period of time, then cease to exist.  We just don't know.  The information would be valuable to have - and not just to the arts sector, but to the entire nonprofit universe, and it remains a major effort for the entire nonprofit community.

But to the extent that it is possible to begin to identify specific Giving Circles, or approach the field of such Circles in a given territory, we would still need an arts sector-wide strategy to facilitate approaching them, whereby we prepare case making materials that urge Circles to consider the value of supporting the arts, both to be used in a generic sense as we make the case to Circles in general, and as individual arts organizations might make the case to specific Circles.

On the second issue of how to encourage the formation of Giving Circles that are essentially exclusively vested in supporting the arts, we again need the case making materials, and, further, we need to develop strategies to recruit and enlist potential donors to launch such Circles -- either as generic supporters of the arts in general, or as supporters of specific individual arts organizations.  One place to start, might be within the lists of strong individual arts supporters that already anchor support locally for specific organizations.  We might be able to recruit some of these people to go the extra step of forming Giving Circles.  Or, we might approach various workplaces, civic groups, parent organizations, seniors, military veterans, hospitals or whatever.  Thus, if a tool-kit, with a power point presentation, bullet point material, open letters etc., touting the value of the arts, arts education, arts and seniors, arts and healing, arts and the military, and so on were available, arts groups in any given location could use that to encourage new Giving Circles to form that focused on the arts.  Fertile recruitment might exist in local PTA's, AARP chapters, Veterans groups, medical groups and hospitals and more.  Perhaps, local arts agencies could be the beneficiaries of grants that would allow them to make such forays into their local communities on behalf of local arts organizations.

To be sure, tapping into the Giving Circle wing of current philanthropy, will depend on a sector wide effort, first in identifying, then in the education of, extant Circles,  coupled with media coverage of consideration of arts specific Circles.  This will likely take at least regional, and more ideally, national funding support by the arts to tackle the challenge on a field wide basis, from which progress, development of materials, and best practices can help individual arts organizations make the case for their funding from Giving Circles.  It might be easier in the short run to promote, encourage and nurture the creation of new Giving Circles that focused primarily on the arts than in targeting existing Circles.   This kind of effort is really part of the larger effort to move public will towards the valuation of the arts across the board.

The point is that the Giving Circle wing of philanthropy may be substantial (though we don't know for sure), and that we need then to find ways to effectively tap into it for the future.  And if it is a substantial source of funding, the these questions are worth some consideration.

Have a nice week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 9, 2017

In Times of Deep Division and Turmoil, What is the Role of the Arts: Refuge or Resistance?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................"

And Should You Market Towards One or the Other?

For some artists, creation is virtually always a political act and their art is directly related to what is happening in society.  They want to influence and impact with their art; to provoke, console, to relate. For others, their creation never relates to the politics of the times, rather it stands separate and independent in whatever statement it makes, or doesn't make.  They create their version of beauty for the beholder.

The decision belongs to each artist.

Audiences too may make a similar decision, with some people drawn to exhibits and performances that respond to the issues and feelings of the times, and others put off by art that carries a message of any kind relative to current events.  Some people find comfort, solace and strength in art that address how they are feeling towards those current events.  They are attracted to art and artists who can help them make sense of what seems hard to fathom.  Art can provide a refuge from the clamor and din of strident voices and warring factions, and that can be a powerful attraction.

For others, artists that address the turmoil are using art as a pulpit to lecture and preach and it amounts to propaganda, and irrespective of its level of excellence, it is off-putting and they want no part of it.  To them it only contributes to the divide, rather than helping to heal.

Again, the decision belongs to the audience.

But art organizations - presenters and exhibitors - have a similar decision to make in what they present and exhibit, and how they market their performances and exhibitions.  Does an organization elect to present art that more obviously than not seeks to provide either refuge or encourage resistance to its audience?  Does the organization present art that does one or the other, but consciously choose not to emphasize or highlight that aspect?  Some performances and some art will be more provocative and elicit more strident supporters or detractors,.  And in a no win situation, the decision not to make that decision is itself subject to criticism in some quarters as a sell-out.  

The question looms - from a strictly marketing perspective - are organizations better off marketing art as refuge or as resistance?  Does one approach stand a better chance of attracting a larger audience?  Or are they better off not considering the issue or making a conscious choice in their approach to marketing?  Or at least not making a point of it?  And do they know their audiences well enough to make the right decision?

Any decision on the marketing question, is likely to be based, in large part, on an organization's understanding and appreciation of its own audience, their preferences and their mind-sets.  Marketing seeks to increase audience size and share and is directly related to financials, and so whether or not to characterize offerings in troubled times as providing refuge or offering the chance for resistance (or purposefully doing neither) will depend on the belief that with certain audience segments, such characterization, one way or another, will increase ticket sales or deplete them.  That decision may be more accurate if based on some data, if data is available, but it may also be a decision that might more properly be governed not by standard marketing considerations, but by the decision aligning with the organization's mission and vision.

The easiest and safest path is, of course, not to characterize either the content of the offerings or the intent of programs in any way - neither as meant to console nor as a call to action (whatever that action may be).  Yet that may be avoiding an important decision the organization should not be avoiding.  Thus the whole decision may be a moral one for the organization on one hand, or a purely practical decision on the other.

And whose decision is this?  The executives, the staff, the Board or the organization's ecosystem community?

The questions seem to be worth asking, even if there are no right or wrong answers.  By asking, the organization may learn something about itself and come to understand both the art it is presenting and the audience it attracts.  That may be valuable information.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Disruptive Innovation

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.................."

In an article by Greg Satell in the Harvard Business Review on innovation he notes:

"...every innovation strategy fails eventually, because innovation is, at its core, about solving problems — and there are as many ways to innovate as there are types of problems to solve. There is no one “true” path to innovation.
Yet all too often, organizations act as if there is. They lock themselves into one type of strategy and say, “This is how we innovate.” It works for a while, but eventually it catches up with them. They find themselves locked into a set of solutions that don’t fit the problems they need to solve. Essentially, they become square-peg companies in a round-hole world and lose relevance."

He goes on to describe four types of innovation:

  1. Sustaining innovation:  Most innovation happens here, because most of the time we are seeking to get better at what we’re already doing. We want to improve existing capabilities in existing markets, and we have a pretty clear idea of what problems need to be solved and what skill domains are required to solve them.
  2. Breakthrough innovation:  Sometimes, as was the case with the example of detecting pollutants underwater, we run into a well-defined problem that’s just devilishly hard to solve. In cases like these, we need to explore unconventional skill domains.
  3. Disruptive innovation
  4. Basic research 
It is the third category that caught my attention.

"When HBS professor Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, it was a revelation. In his study of why good firms fail, he found that what is normally considered best practice — listening to customers, investing in continuous improvement, and focusing on the bottom line — can be lethal in some situations.

In a nutshell, what he discovered is that when the basis of competition changes, because of technological shifts or other changes in the marketplace, companies can find themselves getting better and better at things people want less and less. When that happens, innovating your products won’t help — you have to innovate your business model."

And I wonder if that might not apply to our sector and our efforts to stem the tide of audience decline, and even public valuation.  I think it may be possible that we are getting better and better at things people want less and less. 

While we have made some strides in trying to innovate in response to the challenges of high tech and other changes in the marketplace (by, for example, experimenting with other delivery forms of our performances and exhibitions), we have largely kept at improving what we have long done.  And despite the attempts to innovate in response to the challenges by continuing to improve what we do, that may not be innovation at all.  What we may need is innovation that has more to do with our business model than innovation related to our core offerings.  The offerings may not be the entirety of the problem.  We may need to disrupt our whole approach to innovation.

Innovation in changing our business model is, of course, more difficult than innovation in changing our offerings or how they are delivered, in part because there are government and other constraints on the nonprofit model itself.  But therein may lie the crux of the challenge to how we innovate.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit