Monday, January 5, 2015

Interview with Danielle Brazell - General Manager -- Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles

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

Danielle Brazell Bio:
Danielle was Arts for LA’s (the Los Angeles regional arts advocacy arm) first executive director, joining the organization in 2006 as it transitioned from an ad hoc committee of regional arts leaders to a formalized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.  Over the last eight years, she has steadily built Arts for LA’s capacity from an informal network of arts leaders to a respected coalition of advocates working in partnership with elected officials throughout Los Angeles County. Today, Arts for LA’s network includes over 160 member organizations and over 40,000 people.

Danielle’s twenty years of experience include work as the director of special projects for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation and as the artistic director of Highways Performance Space.  She has been honored with numerous grants and awards, including the 2000 Getty Fellowship, a 2009 CLEAR Communications Fellowship sponsored by the James Irvine Foundation, and a 2010 SHero Award from California State Senator Curren D. Price. In 2013, Danielle attended the Executive Education program for State and Local Government Leaders at Harvard University. She serves on the board of Californians for the Arts, on the Arts for All Executive Committee, and represents Arts for LA on the Policy Committee of the California Alliance for Arts Education.

In June of 2014, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed her to the post of General Manager -- Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles - where she presides over a staff of 38 full time, and 80 part time employees and a budget of $9 million.

Here is the interview:

Barry:  What surprised you about running a major city arts agency during your first few weeks at the helm in LA?

Danielle:  I am amazed at the incredible work being done by the people who work for the City of
Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) to make arts and culture thrive in our
city on a daily basis. The shear talent, commitment, and resiliency that our arts practitioners bring to their work on a daily basis is inspiring.

The impact the great recession had on cities across our country continues to reverberate, including within the city of LA. Although we are in the last few years of digging ourselves out of this financial situation, turnover in the city’s workforce has emerged as a much larger challenge. To avoid falling off the fiscal cliff, the City offered early retirement for many of its employees who were within five years of retiring. The response to this offer exceeded expectations, and the city had no time to plan for a massive staff turnover. These individuals took their institutional knowledge, their relationships, and their management acumen with them. The resiliency of those who stepped in to fill the void have done an incredible job keeping the vision alive, often with little support and reduced budgets. The city is now facing another wave of staff turnover with at least a third of its leadership planning to retire in the next five years.

Yet at the same time, as the city begins to recover from the great recession, its senior leadership is turning its attention towards leveraging creativity as our signature homegrown industry, which will poise Los Angeles to live up to our potential as a creative capital.

Barry:  What is your assessment of the biggest challenges facing major city LAAs - yours specifically, but others in general?

Danielle:  I’m just starting to wrap my arms around the opportunities and challenges for the City of
Los Angeles, much less LAAs in general, so I’ll keep my comments to my own city.

The City of Los Angeles is on the crest of an exciting new wave. There is no shortage of opportunity to grow cultural infrastructure and programming at all levels in the City of
Los Angeles.

Although we have more artists working in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country, more intimate theatres than in Chicago or New York City, we also have more landmass than any other major city in the country. Our lack of density diffuses energy that usually creates a buzz, so our scale requires a different approach and energy.

The uniqueness of our cultural ecology is further informed by our thriving commercial creative industries. Fashion, design, technology, the visual arts, and entertainment represent 1 in 7 jobs in our region. Creativity is big business in LA.

For example, a visual artist may be represented by a gallery, show her works in an exhibition, or sell her works on her own, yet she might also work in film production as a set dresser. A lighting designer may oversee locations for film production by day, yet at night you’ll find him up on a ladder in an intimate theatre hanging lights. This fluidity between commercial creativity and public interest creative production is part of our ecosystem, but it also drives artists in the commercial sector.

Philanthropic and corporate support for arts and culture in Los Angeles is comparatively low. Individual support is stronger, especially for the major institutions. This makes small and mid-sized arts organizations more reliant on public support. Los Angeles also has multiple layers of government, municipal, school district, county, state, and federal support available.

However, as we all know, public support for arts and culture have been on the decline for twenty years. I often wonder if that’s because we have accepted a transactional value frame to our work. My experience tells me that people make decisions based feeling, not logic. So story, backed by data, is important strategically in rebuilding public will and public funding.

Barry:  And what then do you hope to accomplish in your first year?

Danielle:  Nothing short of a paradigm shift in the way we value arts and culture in Los Angeles and the role the Department of Cultural Affairs plays in increasing neighborhood vitality, prosperity, and the quality of life for its residents and visitors.

To achieve that ambitious goal, the work of our Department must become more visible and meaningful to those who authorize our funding. Our visibility must be at the proper scale. Transforming the Department from an analogue agency to a digital one in all aspects of our operations is a primary and necessary goal, from bringing our collection management and grants application systems online -- to aggregating event data and sharing it with the city family, community networks, visitors, and our convention bureau. From there we can connect our work with more people to further create meaning. I hope this strategy will build the value frame of the important work this department is accomplishing. Once we build meaning, we can demonstrate the return on investment for the city and its residents. It is a goal set very much aligned with Mayor Garcetti’s back to basics priorities.

Building the capacity and the spirit of possibility within the Department will position us to expand our reach throughout the entire city through signature festivals, iconic public art, and strong small, mid-sized, and large nonprofit arts and cultural organizations.

Barry:  What can an agency such as yours do to promote fairer and more balanced equity in the allocation of funding -- both from government (federal, state, local) and from foundations?

Danielle:  The term “equity” means different things to different people. Equity can mean distributing resources, like splitting the pie. It can also mean that those with unequal situations should receive a greater slice of the piece to help even out the gap.

At its core, equity is about fairness. Our national standard of public grant making is rooted in a set of established criteria to determine artistic excellence, and to build capacity to deliver the proposed projects and/or services. The peer panel review and scoring process is intended to keep personalities and politics out of grant awards.

However, those of us who manage public agencies can, and must, do a better job at making sure our applicant pool reflects the broad arts and cultural ecology of our region. To accomplish this objective, DCA is looking at strategies to increase the pathways for funding. Next year DCA will pilot a program to fund non-arts, nonprofit organizations in communities with traditionally low cultural infrastructure. We are also partnering with the Center for Cultural Innovation through a Surdna Foundation grant to pilot a Creative Entrepreneur Fund (CEF). The CEF will make strategic investments in creative businesses who are operating in the public interest. These sole proprietorship and LLC businesses fall outside the traditional 501(c)(3) nonprofit structure.

Barry:  By all accounts, you ran one of the best regional arts advocacy organizations in the country. What lessons did you take from that experience to your new post?

Danielle:  Arts for LA is one of many effective arts and arts education advocacy organizations doing great work in communities throughout our country. It is successful because it operates in relationship to its environment. It is clear and realistic in its strategic objectives and is fiscally prudent. Also, it does not advocate for any one person or arts organization, rather it advocates for all through its policy framework, which focuses on the policies and conditions needed for a healthy arts and cultural ecosystem. Finally, it helps authorizers and advocates play within the rules. That means that we all embrace fair and transparent distribution of funds, not leveraging personal relationships to receive special (pork) appropriations or funding.

At its core, advocacy is about relationships. It is about creating a winning situation for everyone…celebrating the accomplishments, but giving away the credit freely. Everyone advocates from a place of self-interest, but the message can never be about one’s own self-interest. It must always be about our mutual interest. This changes the conversation from an “us vs. them” perspective to a ‘mutual interest” reality. Finally, the impact of the messenger can make all the difference. Bring in the unusual partners to tell the story. Mobilize business owners, developers, and residents who are active voters and who can talk about how access to arts and culture make their live better.

Barry:  On the topic of advocacy, what is your assessment of state advocacy efforts in California and elsewhere? Advocacy efforts seem to be organized at the federal level, and to the extent state efforts support national goals, at the state level to a lesser degree, but there is hardly any effort to organize local advocacy efforts on a national basis. If all politics is, indeed, local - why hasn’t there been any real effort to organize the nation’s local advocacy efforts into a collaborative, cohesive whole?

Danielle:  It is a great question for a big country with multiple issues and overlapping political boundaries. Arts for LA’s primary focus is local (for a region with the landmass of Connecticut and the population of Georgia). Because of the interconnectedness of the political landscape, Arts for LA allocated a certain amount of its organizational resources to shore up support at the state and Federal levels. We coordinated these efforts with our statewide partners, California Arts Advocates and the California Alliance for Arts Education, and with our Federal partner, Americans for The Arts. But this strategy is difficult to maintain for a couple of reasons:

1) Elected officials are moved by their constituents. Which means that every campaign must have a very targeted approach. Targeted approaches require appropriate staff skilled at running campaigns (community organizing, training, and communications).

2) Term limits have created rotating leadership and many local elected officials run for state and federal office and some return to a local post. The sheer number of public officials in
Los Angeles is simply too large for any one agency to manage effectively.

And finally,

3) Legislative calendars overlap and if the messages are not coordinated at the local, state, and federal levels, advocacy burn out happens very fast.

Barry:  How is making the case for more local funding different than making the case for more state or federal funding?  And what are the impacts of those differences?

Danielle:  I don’t know if it is different. The secret sauce appears to be the same.

Barry:  If the revenue stream model for arts organizations is broken, can it be fixed, and how?  And if it can’t be fixed, what would a new model look like?

Danielle:  Is it broken? I don’t know if that is the case. The sector has a one-size fits-all model.  We need other models to foster a healthy ecology. This is why we are piloting the new initiatives I mentioned before. The City of San Jose successfully piloted a version of the Creative Entrepreneur Fund and our colleagues at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission are about to launch a pilot program to fund nonprofit health and human services who have high-quality arts programs. Continual and rigorous inquiry is essential to moving our sector forward.

Barry:  Progress in making arts education available K-12 seems to take two steps forward, two steps back.  How can we finally reach a tipping point in that arena?

Danielle:  Policy and advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint. Build political will, diversify the messengers, and consider running candidates. We see this strategy working at the local level. We need to pass mandates that have funding, required instructional minutes, and testing, tied to legislation. Without these accountability measures in place, arts education will be left to superintendents, principals, and outspoken parents to ensure delivery.

Barry:  Two of the biggest movements in the field in the past five years have been our Placemaking and Community Engagement initiatives. What is your assessment of these two theories?

Danielle:  These are new names for strategies that the arts community has been engaged in throughout the ages. I embrace new frameworks that expand the conversation of how arts and culture contribute to society.

Barry:  Assess the current state of the art field’s attempt to prepare our current and future leaders to meet the challenges of tomorrow? How effective are our professional development and college preparatory programs in training our leaders and our rank and file staffs to be better managers and administrators? In your future hiring of people at your agency, what will you be looking for in candidates?

Danielle:  The influx of college preparatory programs and arts and cultural professional development programs over the past ten years has raised the performance bar for our sector exponentially.

I entered the nonprofit arts sector through a local community arts center, first as a participant in a performance workshop, then as an artist, then as a teaching artist, and finally as an administrator. Because of these experiences, I am aware our field should have other strategies to recruit and develop talent.

Professional development programs and college preparatory programs may have also made it more difficult for people like me, who enter the field as an enthusiastic volunteer, to build a career in the nonprofit arts sector, and that’s something we should think about.

The skills I look for when I am hiring someone are emotional intelligence, passion, commitment, and the ability to learn. I also look for signs the person knows how to collaborate, think creativity, communicate effectively, and think critically. These four “Cs” are the foundation of what is needed for success in a 21st century workforce.

We must also continue preparing for succession. So many of our emerging arts leaders are saddled with insurmountable student debt. These emerging leaders are hungry for advancement, may want to start a family, and one day buy a home. But entry-level salaries in our sector are still quite low. This forces many dynamic leaders out of the nonprofit arts and cultural sector and into the private sector. On the other side of the coin, we have so many baby boomers who simply cannot afford to retire, that they stay in the field longer.

Barry: Most big city arts agencies face a plethora of political challenges - including dealing with local governments and a sometimes territorial competing arts organization ecosystem.  How do you navigate those waters?

Danielle: In Los Angeles the arts and cultural sector is incredibly collaborative.  We know it’s the way to success.

Barry:  What was your last “aha” moment?

Danielle:  Right now.

Barry:  Innovation is the current buzzword for arts administration.  But in government situations, arguably the constraints of bureaucracy and government often obviate against creative risk taking.  How do you deal with those limitations?

Danielle:  With creativity, patience, and partnerships.

Barry:  Other than the broken funding model, what other models (e.g., audience development, donor solicitation, marketing) do you think are broken, which can be repaired, and which not, and which models are working?

Danielle:  There is so much innovation happening in our sector. It would take another interview to articulate all the ways in which creativity is moving audience development, donor solicitation, and marketing forward.

Barry:  What kind of research is not currently available to you that would be most helpful in moving your agency forward?

Danielle:  I would love to expand the NEA survey on the relationship between engagement in the arts and civic engagement, i.e. voting.

Barry:  What is the current state of the relationship between larger urban arts agencies and their state agency, and how might it work better?

Danielle:  I can speak only for California. In my experience, my colleagues at the municipal level have a collaborative relationship with our state arts agency and with each other.

Barry:  Political appointees are often removed from their posts when the elected official who appointed them leaves office.  How does that influence and impact doing your job?

Danielle:  Short-term deliverable increments and demonstrated track record is the way I am approaching this appointment. Set the agency on a path to success, focus on the conditions needed to succeed, and do your very best to leave it in a better position for the person who will come after you.

Barry:  What is your management style and how do you keep your people motivated?

Danielle:  Empower, inspire, and develop accountability.

Barry:   How do we, as a field, better collaborate both by, and between, arts organizations, and with outside stakeholders and potential partners?

Danielle:  With deep and genuine curiosity, and a focus on where our venn diagram intersect. Operate from that space and celebrate your progress along the way.

Thank you Danielle.

Have a great week. Stay warm everybody.

Don't Quit
Barry

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