Sunday, January 30, 2011

Interview with Olive Mosier

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………………”

Olive Mosier is the Director, Arts & Culture, at The William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, and the former Deputy Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. 

This is my interview with her:

Barry: What are the major priorities for your program at the William Penn Foundation in the next five years? What specific issues will you be trying to address in the next year or two? Are there any new initiatives that will launch soon? What challenges have you identified that you think must be responded to?

Olive: For the past several years, the goal of the Arts & Culture Program at the William Penn Foundation has been to try to build the financial strength of organizations to allow them to pursue their mission-driven work. In general, we provide multi-year core support, and we try to do this in a way that recognizes where an organization is in its evolution. In other words, is it in a growth mode, or trying to sustain a certain level of operations, or needing to contract its operations, either temporarily or permanently. Once we understand that, in consultation with the organization, we try to target our funding appropriately to help it succeed.

We are always trying to improve the effectiveness of our grantmaking and, to that end, in 2008, we partnered with our colleagues in the Culture Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts to better quantify just where our grantees stood financially as a sector. We retained TDC, a Boston-based management consulting firm, to conduct a financial analysis of William Penn and Pew grantees, which led to the 2009 TDC publication entitled Beyond Break Even: A Review of Capitalization Needs and Challenges of Philadelphia Area Arts and Culture Organizations.

In a nutshell, the study found that “arts organizations at all budget sizes and in all disciplines have troubling balance sheets and highly constrained capital structures.” 77 percent of the organizations TDC reviewed had weak financial structures yet strong financial literacy within their leadership. Although there were many factors identified that caused organizations to be undercapitalized, one telling factor was the tendency of us funders to stress a balanced budget rather than stressing the need to build appropriate reserve funds.

The TDC report also created a new business model lens through which to assess the type of capitalization approach, if any, that would be most useful to an organization.

Given what we learned from the insights of TDC’s work, William Penn and Pew retained TDC to create an online tool that allows organizations to use data from the Pennsylvania Cultural Data Project to better understand and project their own capitalization needs given their business model. Once it’s developed, we hope that this becomes a tool that organizations use both to talk to their boards and to funders about the capitalization needs essential to their mission. We are encouraging organizations to build the types of reserves that are appropriate to their business model, and have awarded some grants that help organizations get a running start on building a reserve fund(s) when we have deemed that to be the most effective grant for that organization.

We believe that pursuing a capitalization strategy will be our priority for the next several years. Building well-capitalized organizations is a multi-year approach that falls well outside a foundation’s normal three- to five-year outlook. We expect to continue learning when and how to make effective capitalization grants for the foreseeable future.

While we have no new initiative planned at this time, we do try to take advantage of the fact that, as a place-based foundation, we can sometimes respond, and help our grantees respond, quickly to an unexpected opportunity or challenge.

Barry: You have been one of those foundation pioneers that have actually invested in programs and projects that have tried to inform and educate the local arts field as to advocacy, including support for local programs that have sought to train arts leaders in advocacy and create and sustain infrastructure that allows for advocacy to grow and thrive. I know that your goal has been to try to create an ecosystem for advocacy that would eventually be self-sustaining. Where are you in your longer term thinking about what the William Penn Foundation can and cannot do in this sometimes controversial arena? And what do you think is a proper role for foundations in terms of financially supporting building increased advocacy capacity within our ranks?

Olive: Probably because I spent almost 20 years in Washington, D.C., working in or with national arts advocacy and public policy organizations, I have an acute appreciation for their work. In Philadelphia, we are fortunate to have local organizations that are smart and sophisticated about advocacy and public policy. But that was not the case when I arrived here in 2000. In fact, I was surprised that there was virtually no advocacy and policy work going on, and there was seemingly little interaction between local groups and the advocacy work of their national arts service organizations.

All that changed later that same year when Peggy Amsterdam became the CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. Peggy made advocacy a core strategy of the Cultural Alliance, and William Penn awarded the funding to carry out the work. And, while Peggy and I often talked about advocacy and policy priorities for the region, it was Peggy who charted the course and raised the visibility of and set the standard for everyone else. The region’s discipline-based service organizations realized that there was a role for them to play as well, both in collaboration with the Cultural Alliance and on their own, depending upon the issue. And, through this leadership, local arts groups learned the importance of having a collective voice. In 2008, when the City of Philadelphia created an Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy, yet another critical voice was added that brings in the perspective of the Mayor.

This ten-year growth of advocacy and public policy within the region started with Peggy Amsterdam demonstrating the value of the work. The role the Foundation played was recognizing that a significant amount of funding was needed to make this work effective, and we provided that. We continue to provide funding to the Cultural Alliance, the Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy, and others who work in arts advocacy and public policy. Our grant award contract is clear about the lobbying limitations of our funding, but I have found that organizations are pretty sophisticated in understanding the lobbying rules for 501(c)(3)s. And, last year, the Foundation brought in the Alliance for Justice to conduct lobbying training for any grantee that wanted to attend.

Lastly, I would say that an investment in advocacy and public policy is really an investment in effective leadership. The Foundation would not have given the kind of funding that was awarded to the Cultural Alliance had we not believed in Peggy Amsterdam’s leadership. The outcomes of advocacy and public policy are not always tangible, but sometimes simply create a sense of value within a community. The funding shouldn’t simply be tied to tangible outcomes but, rather, effective, sustained leadership.

Barry: What is your take on the funder conundrum of choosing between bigger (and arguably more meaningful) grants, but to fewer organizations vs. smaller (and thus less impactful) grants (but) to more organizations? What are your thoughts on support for major, mainstream (and longer standing) cultural institutions vs. newer, more avant garde, smaller, diverse organizations?

Olive: I don’t think that there is a right or wrong answer to this. Instead, I believe every funder needs to make this determination based on its own resources and mission. In terms of the arts funding at William Penn, we try to strike a balance. From time to time, we are in a position to make a significant grant to a major institution, but other times that same institution may receive a much more modest grant. We fund very small, avant-garde, and racially and ethnically diverse groups as well as major institutions. The first lens through which we look at any organization is the quality of its work in meeting its mission. We also look at the effectiveness of its staff and board leadership, its relationship to the community it seeks to serve, and its financial position. The Foundation believes that the emerging and up-and-coming organizations are as vital to the region’s cultural life as longer-standing institutions and, in fact, it is that very robust mix here in the Philadelphia area that makes the cultural scene so exciting and satisfying.

But the challenge with funding smaller groups is the IRS public support test, which often limits the size of a grant the Foundation can make directly to the organization. To overcome that limitation, we fund a variety of technical assistance providers that are able to provide consulting services and other help to small groups.

Barry: What issues would you like to see national conversations focus on in 2011? What dialogues do you think ought to be taking place that currently are not? And what concerns you most about the health of the nonprofit arts sector?

Olive: We are hoping that capitalization becomes a national conversation in 2011 and beyond. The Kresge Foundation and Grantmakers in the Arts are taking a leadership role in advancing this conversation with funders nationally, which I believe will be of enormous help to all of us as we learn how to approach capitalization effectively. Ultimately, we hope this becomes a conversation that staff leaders in arts groups have with their boards AND with their funders in an informed and candid manner.

We believe that the future of a healthy cultural sector is tied to how well it is capitalized.

But clearly there are other issues that are emerging all the time. Not too far afield from the issue of capitalization is the debate among museums around the sale of their collections and how funds from those sales can be used. Some museums that are feeling a financial pinch want to deaccession pieces and use the funds for general operations, and museums of different types are debating when or if the policy of using funds from deaccessions only for acquiring new pieces applies to them. I think this debate will continue as museums and all institutions try to work their way through the new economic realities and changes in audience expectations. The national arts service organizations will play a key role in helping us all think through how long-held sensibilities, policies, and practices may have to change in order to move effectively into the future. There are serious examinations going on across the disciplines in determining how their business models need to change.

Clara Miller, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, put it best back in 2008 at the Independent Sector conference here in Philadelphia when she said that too many organizations were just trying to hang on and come out the other side rather than recognizing that we are at a change point. But change is hard and not all changes will work immediately or be the correct change. We as funders need to allow organizations the time and provide resources as necessary to work through new ideas and new ways of conducting business.

Lastly, given the most recent dustup at the National Portrait Gallery concerning the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video from an exhibition, we may be headed for another conversation about the artist’s voice, which could be quite worthwhile if we manage to do it with insight and civility.

Barry: As part of its current strategic plan thinking, the NEA has decided to focus more on research as the underpinning of its attempt to make the public more aware of the value of the arts. In the past, our sector’s research efforts have centered on arts education, audience development, and public participation. Where do you think the sector’s research energy and efforts should center? What areas are being neglected?

Olive: I think that, while there is certainly considerable research along the lines that you describe, there is ongoing research on many issues, but much of it is carried out locally to meet local needs. For instance, here in Philadelphia, the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy recently published a study that measured the impact and strength of the city’s creative industries (for-profit and nonprofit) over a three-year period. The Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia published research about trends within its sector. Opera America and the Opera Company of Philadelphia collaborated with the opera providers throughout Philadelphia to learn how audiences were moving through the local opera ecosystem. And the Cultural Alliance regularly publishes trend analyses and other information about the local nonprofit cultural sector, just to name a few.

I do think we need a better understanding of demographic and other changes happening in the country and how that will affect how people interact with the arts. The Cultural Alliance’s Research into Action study begins to probe that for Philadelphia. And anything that helps the public value the arts is certainly worth pursuing, as the NEA proposes. Also, I would love to see more research partnerships among national and regional funders and among national and local service organizations.

Barry: There has been an undercurrent in government funding programs for the arts (arguably attributable in part to not wanting to stir up public controversy) whereby public funds for the arts have largely gone to programs and projects (including operational support) that really center on “access” to the arts rather than on creation itself. Funding for artistic creation (and direct support to artists) has come more from private foundations in the past decade. Do you think that separation likely to continue and is the best balance for the health of the arts in America?

Olive: I think the balance you describe is about right, although I’m not sure that it has to do with avoiding controversy but, rather, because government funders are often limited in how much due diligence they can conduct around an organization. Given the vast numbers of requests they get and often limited staff and financial resources, they are more able to effectively assess a program and project separately from the larger condition of an organization. And it still gives the organization that important imprimatur of federal, state, or local government support.

Barry: What are the major mistakes you see your grantees and arts organizations in general making in the face of the challenges of the past two or three years, and what might be done to help organizations get on a better trajectory and repair the damage created by those mistakes?

Olive: My response goes back to my earlier reference to Clara Miller talking about recognizing that we are at a change point. I think that most of us – funders and arts organizations alike – were slow to recognize that we were at a change point. When we finally caught up to Clara, for funders, it meant needing to make decisions about the type of funding that was going to be most useful to organizations in the change environment and modifying existing grants, as necessary, to make them more useful. For organizations, it meant recognizing that business as usual was not going to get them through what we all came to call “the new normal.”

Going forward, I think we are all trying to build on the lessons learned.

Barry: What is the best new idea for our field that you have heard in the past year?

Olive: I love the Knight Foundation’s initiative of funding Random Acts of Culture. I think that, particularly for art forms that some may find less accessible, such as opera, these unexpected bursts of creative expression are wonderful ways of breaking down barriers. It’s been wildly successful in Philadelphia.

Barry: Much has been said about the impact of technology on the democratization of not only the creative process, - including production, distribution, marketing, and even fundraising, but also on access to all that is being created. Many have concluded that there is a new generation of artists, individual funders and even audiences that exist and act wholly outside the current nonprofit arts infrastructure. Do you think that infrastructure as an operational model is on the wane or even ultimately doomed? How do we build intersections with that public segment (including next generation artists and consumers) that may see us as irrelevant at best, and obstructionist at worst?

Olive: I don’t think I can’t answer this as well as I might like. I do think that how people, particularly younger people, want to experience the arts is changing. I agree that there seems to be a move toward people wanting more curatorial control over their experiences. And, when you read some of the statistics, such as the people who have never known the world without cell phones or the Internet, it’s clear that that would have an impact on expectations. I do see many of the cultural groups here recognizing this change and trying to respond to it, with varying degrees of success. In Philadelphia, the Knight Foundation recently launched its Knight Arts Challenge as a call for good ideas about the arts that can come from artists or arts organizations, for-profit and nonprofit businesses of any type, and individuals. I’ll be interested to learn how many of the ideas selected through this venture are centered around this very question.

Ideally, as we move forward, I hope that what evolves is funding and audience support for both approaches – the more traditional operating models as well as newer models.

Barry: Michael Kaiser is but one of many people who are concerned that as a sector we really don’t provide anywhere near enough professional development opportunities to our leaders and managers. What do you think is the role of funders in trying to address that unmet demand and need, and how do you think we can best move towards providing adequate training of our ‘managers’?

Olive: The opportunities for professional development are varied by region. I would argue that there are many such opportunities in the Philadelphia region. Technical assistance providers, the local arts service organizations, some funders and some of the schools and colleges offer various free or affordable professional development workshops, classes, and other opportunities in more areas than I could possibly begin to list. But, in regions where that is not the case, funders can support arts managers in attendance at places like the Stanford Nonprofit Management Institute or Harvard’s Executive Education Program, or to workshops and clinics at the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Also, the Nonprofit Finance Fund and many colleges have online classes and workshops. And national arts service organizations usually offer a variety of professional development opportunities throughout the year, both online and at conferences and workshops. Again, funders can help underwrite managers’ attendance at these events.

Thank you very much Olive.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.