Monday, November 2, 2009

November 02, 2009


 Hello everyone.

“And the beat goes on.............”


The GIA (Grantmakers in the Arts) gathering in Brooklyn last week captured my attention for several reasons. The obvious reason is that anytime most of the major funders in the nonprofit arts sector gather, what they talk about is of keen interest to the rest of the field. After all, they control the money. But what really captured my interest was a feeling that this conference heralded, I think, a different GIA; a more open organization; one perhaps more inclined (and arguably now more enabled because of a shift in its member’s attitudes) to promote and facilitate future collaboration and ways to work as an entity to address cross sector problems that are both common to most arts organizations and transcend those smaller entities.

GIA has been, for most of its existence, a fairly small umbrella organization, somewhat provincial, with few resources of its own. By choice, it really spoke for no one, least of all itself. Foundations, like sovereign nations, are fiercely independent and averse to ceding any of that independent authority. The GIA member base has only, in the past five to seven years, really begun to expand beyond a small cadre of founders; its’ staff remains small and its’ charter is only beginning to undergo changes that might expand its’ mission and areas of operation. What excites me is that it may now be moving from its former Mom & Pop status and its role of being a sort of academic clubhouse for a small group of funders, to becoming more of a player – and, in the process, filling a void in marshalling resources to address big issues.

I have always thought that it has enormous potential to advance our field. The very idea of a wide swath of money people acting in concert to realize certain big tent goals is attractive. By and large there haven’t been enough forces allied to address those bigger issues that impact us all; indeed, most of the money has long gone to individual organizations and their efforts in the creative realm, but little to those issues that might empower and enable us as a sector and thus make it easier for all those individual organizations. While this track is easily understandable, it has been, to me anyway, myopic and has kept us back to some extent. Virtually every successful sector, public or private, has at some point figured out how to support individual constituents while at the same time figuring out how to act collectively to deal with the big challenges facing the whole field. We really haven’t yet crossed that finish line in the arts. Perhaps there is now a confluence of events and circumstances that might give rise to more of our disparate parts acting in concert – for purposes of mutual concern and benefit.

Governed by rules and regulations created by their founders, foundations have, for a long, long time, talked about collaboration and ways to strategically address common sector challenges and problems, but have been severely restricted in actually allocating funds, time and other resources to doing so. Principally and most obviously among those limitations have been mandates established by the creators of these foundations, that they spend their money within certain geographical boundaries and not outside those boundaries, and that the funds go to either organizations and their programs or to artists, but not to those organizations or projects addressing bigger tent issues. Even those few foundations that were permitted some funding of projects outside certain territories, found it difficult to stray too far from those territorial imperative restrictions. Government agencies were, of course, even more obviously confined to geopolitical venues in allocation of their financial resources. Geographic limits combined with the anathema towards sector wide challenges to keep funding local. And many problems are simply bigger than a local bent.

Most of the collaborations and actual partnerships between foundations have centered on the easiest places for funders to cooperate – principally in the areas of research and data collection (from basic nonprofit data to audience development) and in support for lofty goals such as more arts education. There are a host of other challenges facing the sector that, arguably, can only be addressed effectively on a regional or national scale entailing cooperation and collaboration by and between many funders and other stakeholders, but, in reality, we have seen precious little of that kind of effort, despite all the talk. While the NEA and the Regional Arts Organizations (and, perhaps, even some of the larger State Arts Agencies) might have helped lead forays into this kind of more strategic cooperation, for whatever reasons, they have really not done so. Such efforts have largely fallen to some of the national arts service and discipline based arts organizations – and those organizations, for the most part, do not, of course, have the funds, staff and time to mount significant efforts.

I have long found that the Arts Program Officers at the major foundations are some of the very best and brightest of our thinkers, and long ago came to the conclusion that were they someday to find a way to act in concert, that it would be a true sleeping giant. Most of these leaders, it has always seemed to me, would very much like to figure out ways to leverage their base funding in concert with their foundation brethren to tackle some of the big issues facing the nonprofit arts universe, but have historically been held back by Boards and bosses and legacies considerably more conservative, risk-averse and cautious than these leaders are.

So this GIA Conference captured my imagination of what might be. There are several factors that might signal that GIA (and the larger funding community it represents) is on the verge of a paradigm shift –at least in terms of its willingness to work in concert:

First, asking Ian David Moss to blog live from the event (at his blog Createquity) was a significant move on two levels: One, Ian is young - a Millennial generation member; and, Two, this is the first time GIA has opened up its meeting to such transparency.

Second, Janet Brown’s ascension to the head of GIA signals a transition in thinking and leadership; she has already begun to co-opt her membership to more unified actions.

Third, GIA’s membership has expanded to include the full range of funders (including state and local government agencies) and recent GIA leadership (e.g., Claire Peeps, Frances Phillips and others) have opened up the organization in major ways.

Fourth, we are now in the second wave of arts program foundation leadership. Those who basically invented the field when such programs were created and came to flower over the last couple of decades, have since moved on to other pursuits within the arts or have retired (the Cora Mirikitanis, Nancy Glazes, John Orders, John Kriedlers, Michael Moores et. al.). They have been replaced by the next generation of leaders who come to their posts with other arts sector backgrounds and agendas and who, now able to build on what the first wave created, are pushing to re-define foundation arts program priorities. The Ben Camerons, Daniel Windhams, Oliver Mosiers, John McGuirks and many others are at the earliest stages of redefining and remaking the world of foundation arts programs.

Fifth, these newer leaders are pushing the envelope at a time when the foundations they work for are undergoing profound changes in their board compositions, their funding priorities, and their basic assumptions about philanthropy and ideas and thoughts on how to leverage their grantmaking activities to produce results.

Finally, the economic crisis and the needs of the field have given rise to inward reflective thinking and openness to changes in approaches.

So I ask myself the rhetorical question: “Will GIA and the new arts funder community leadership finally be able to launch real cooperation and collaboration in addressing a host of challenges facing the sector – challenges that really demand a national perspective and focus? Will that effort succeed in involving government – from the NEA to local municipal funders as well? Will it spur increased thinking of ourselves as a cohesive sector?

To be sure, there are many forces that will work against any such shift – however minor. Grantees are jealous and powerful forces in local communities who do not, understandably, want to see any funds re-directed to challenges and issues larger than their own viability, especially in these precarious financial times. Many have become addicted to, and dependent on, the foundation largess. Boards remain conservative, partial to certain larger, established cultural institutions and are still somewhat risk-averse. There are political, as well as fiscal, reservations and concerns. The arts funding community leadership itself (including not only foundations, but government agencies (at all levels) and corporations) is extremely diverse and by no means on the same page when it comes to determining which issues to address or how to address them. Not unlike every other community, there are egos involved at every level of our sector that keep consensus on where to put resources difficult to achieve. The field itself likely disagrees on what to emphasize and how to deal with problems. There is the issue of scarce resources – money and time, both in short supply, both essential to fashioning and crafting new approaches to long existent challenges.

And then there is the tendency to talk a lot about the big issues, which talk seems to, in part, paralyze any real effort to do anything. To be blunt, we have talked about all of this (from collaborations to advocacy, from convenings to technology, many times before and little has come out of that talk. (Note: I didn’t say nothing has come of the talk, just too little – in my opinion).

So I was fascinated with the reports on the “closed session” wherein the funding community took up identification of the major issues facing the arts, and what should be the arts sector funding community priorities. As Ian reported in his blog, Ben Cameron summarized that session as follows:

Participants collectively identified the following four issues as the most important to arts philanthropy for the next ten years:

1. Demographic change and social equity
2. Technology and its role in creating a new generation gap
3. The impact of increasing globalization
4. The rise in arts participation that blurs the line between personal (amateur) and professional“

Well you can’t get more general and vague and less specific than that. Who could disagree with the above? So I asked the session’s facilitator, Diane Mataraza, for some background on the session, and here’s what she told me:

“We divided up all conference participants into 10 groups by structures and resources. Each of the 10 groups, facilitated by a peer, was asked the same three questions, based on the premise that in 2020 the creative sector (however each participant wished to define it) will be healthy and successful. Given that... we asked:

1. In 2009 what did you do (or begin to do) to contribute to this success?
2. Given your response to question 1, what were your priorities and who were your partners or allies?
3. What is GIA uniquely positioned to contribute to your success?”

In a further report on Ben’s presentation, Ian (who had access to Ben’s notes after the fact) added this in his blog post:

“Each of these issues leads to and requires collaboration, according to Cameron, particularly efforts such as data gathering, research, convenings, and leadership development. In doing so, arts funders will need to seek out important allies that have not always been among the usual suspects, including individual artists, the media, government agencies, and others. Cameron appealed to his audience to “pledge to instill in ourselves the same principles that we seek to instill in our grantees,” namely, “showing up, speaking truth, and letting go of predetermined results.”

The full list of anticipated interventions is as follows:
  • Data gathering, tracking and evaluation 
  • Leadership development and mentoring 
  • Advocacy 
  • Arts education 
  • Innovation/ experimentation 
  • Networks and collaborations 
  • Convenings 
  • Efforts to articulate and substantiate the value of the arts in and for their communities
And here’s the full list of key collaborators in this work:
  • Artists 
  • Other funders 
  • The media, including TV, radio and the press 
  • Youth groups 
  • Social service agencies 
  • Non-arts government agencies (transportation, education, economic development) 
  • And many “outliers” in different groups, including casinos, libraries and energy corporations  
  • Non arts sectors, citing especially the value of other sectors to nurture and stimulate true innovation”
All of this is still very general and vague and (for me anyway) leads to lots of questions as to specificity:

• What kinds of data should be gathered, tracked and evaluated?

• What do they mean by “leadership development and mentoring”? Are they referring to emerging leaders or established leadership or both?

• What is meant by the inclusion of advocacy? It seems to surface on lists of funders priorities all the time, but the reality is that funders don’t want to be directly involved with it on any level and run from it as a funding issue as fast as they can. So, other than believing it’s an important issue, what possible involvement could they have?

• As to the issues of collaboration and innovation – specifically what should we collaborate on?

• Convenings – again of whom, for what purpose? When?

• What is meant by ‘demographic changes” and “social equity”?

• What is meant by globalization?

The devil, as they say, is in the details. Diane informs me that they have several hundred pages of notes from the session to wade through before an anticipated report to be published in the GIA Reader this winter (The Reader is one of GIA’s really stellar signature tools and which may be the closest thing we have to an academically rigorous national arts & culture journal of policy). I hope this report, when published, has more specificity and detail, and I hope it generates increased dialogue within the funding AND the wider arts community about the role GIA might play in making funding more effective – particularly in dealing with the sector wide big issues.

There was also (I am informed by other sources) some reflective and even difficult soul searching discussion among the attendees as to where funders may have come up short in the exercise of their best intentions. Ian described it this way in his blog:

“I found this paragraph from Cameron’s notes particularly interesting:
‘Funders were self-critical as well, citing frequent isolation, the need for renewal. Moreover, there were recurring conversations about the philanthropic exchange—conversations about inadvertent burdens funders place on grantees, the degree to which funders are proscriptive vs. responsive, and the need for increased candor and transparency in these times.’”

My other sources tell me the conversations included funder missteps in addressing issues of diversity, equality in funding opportunities and a host of other issues. This candid internal dialogue, is, I believe, a very healthy sign and a strong indication that GIA may just be on the precipice of taking a giant leap forward in becoming a more significant and major player in promoting and facilitating cooperation, collaboration and partnerships in addressing sector wide problems and challenges. As Ian concluded:

“I’m really glad that these conversations are happening at the funder level–it shows that people are really thinking about the issues described in a serious way. It was my sense throughout the conference that attendees are very much aware of the need to institute new ways of operating in order to more fairly and accurately reflect the times, but that putting words into action will be the real challenge. As Cameron stated in his speech, “the hunger to ’shatter the box’ was palpable in many rooms, even while we are clearly at an early point in figuring out what that will mean and how we can achieve that.” Funders are often seen as a cautious group, but dealing successfully with some of these societal shifts may well require taking more risks than might initially feel comfortable. If funders can overcome the fear of what the bosses will think, or what the board will think, or what the lawyers will think if we decide to do things differently, those risks can be evaluated with their upside in mind in addition to the downside.”

I hope so. I hope the arts program foundation leaders will be bold and take risks. I hope they can successfully challenge and sway any reticence by their bosses and boards to avoid working as a unified whole to deal with big issues and spend (at least) some part of their treasure, time, and expertise on other than just local issues; that they fund projects directed at the sector as a whole in addition to the array of deserving organizations and artists that receive grants from them. I hope they will use GIA as a platform around which they can coalesce and begin to build consensus among themselves as to how to fund and tackle the big ticket items – including (on their own list: advocacy, convening, creating real collaboration, technology, the disconnect between amateur and professional artists and the current nonprofit arts ecosystem (and by implication – generations). I hope they will use that platform to take action steps they would otherwise be unable or unwilling to do as individual foundations and funders. I hope they will help the arts field to develop more of a sense of itself; to move towards taking advantage of our sheer numbers and potential clout. I hope they will help us to think in terms of us being a sector, a profession. And I hope that in attempting to do so, they can move others – from the NEA and regional arts organizations to corporations – to work with them to address sector wide issues. GIA is, in my opinion, uniquely situated to deal with some sector wide challenges that are too big to be dealt with on any smaller level.

A key marker as to whether or not Janet and those active GIA leaders will be able to move forward in terms of marshalling a more unified and concerted response to the bigger problems we face will be whether or not GIA’s members can, and do, allocate more funding to the organization itself (whether in the form of dues or contributions to specific projects) to increase GIA’s capacity to act – including expanded staffing, its own research efforts, and a pool for future special projects and cooperative efforts. It is that last item that will be the most telling. There are many things GIA might accomplish on its membership’s behalf which those members (at least as of this point in time) absolutely cannot and will not accomplish on their own. A strong, well funded GIA, capable of, and free to launch bold new initiatives and take risks in terms of mounting collaborative efforts (with the NEA, the Regional Arts Councils, state agencies, national arts organizations like AFTA and APAP, and with those stakeholders -- from the PTA to the Chamber of Commerce -- with whom we need greater outreach and intersections for cooperation) would be a powerful force for our growth and for our ability to address many of the big issues that currently go unaddressed. But it will take money, time, people and a willingness on the part of its membership to take risks and do some real analysis and out of the box thinking.

I am encouraged that people like Janet Brown, Diane Mataraza and Ben Cameron might be encouraged.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.