Monday, July 4, 2011

Listening to Lessons Learned

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………………….”

In a provocative posting (read the whole piece and the thoughtful comments) on Blue Avocado, former Program Officer for the San Francisco Foundation, John Killacky offers brutally honest insights and conclusions about current arts philanthropy and funding, based on lessons learned during his tenure.

For the most part, John’s words are far more succinct and eloquent than any paraphrasing I might offer and so I shall let him speak for himself as he raises important questions:

In John’s own words: “There is a crisis here, as arts funding remains disproportionately skewed toward the classical behemoths. With organizations like Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Opera imploding because of structural deficits, I worry that precious philanthropic resources will be further diverted to maintaining what was, instead of capitalizing a more representative future. By merely preserving the past, we fail as cultural stewards and act irresponsibly.”

He concludes that the failure of funders to center on artistic excellence in multicultural support, opting instead to focus on operational infrastructure stability, often allocating insufficient resources over too short a period of time, has contributed to the inability of culturally specific organizations to achieve long term viability and artistic growth.

As John said himself: “Excellence matters -- and there was not a lack of artistic excellence -- but what was missing were the multiple perspectives in philanthropy needed to judge excellence in culturally specific organizations.

As a result, a separate "other" track was created for these organizations, a kind of affirmative action track with far less resources. By creating this separate track, we may have unintentionally entrenched a two-tiered caste system.

In addition, support to culturally specific organizations often focused on administrative infrastructure building and considered artistic quality a lower priority. This was a mistake, resulting in further undercapitalizing artistic efforts.

Maybe philanthropy should have taken a page from venture capitalists’ playbooks, investing more deeply at a significant level over a five- to eight-year time frame, as well as offering a range of non-cash, value-added assistance by sitting on boards, mentoring, and coaching of senior managers, in addition to artistic support. This is not hands-off, outsourced grantmaking. Focus on the triple bottom line and then get out!

Another problem I now see was that support was often not tied to the marketplace: box office, tuition, and auxiliary income are crucial. I once attended a performance with a colleague doing a site visit. The work was stale and there were only six of us in the audience, still the group met my colleague’s requirements for funding. Longevity with diminishing artistry is not success.”


“Noting the continuing long term trend of underfunding of artists, it is time to reverse this and provide artists adequate time, money, and other resources. Focusing support on individual artists may be particularly pertinent for culturally specific art practices that do not lend themselves to organizing within the 501(c)(3) nonprofit construct.

For many venture capitalists, there is a rule of thumb regarding start-up investing. It suggests that on 1/3 of your investments you will lose all of your investment. On another 1/3 you may make or lose a little. The other 1/3 is where you make your money, and one or two is probably where the bulk of the return is. Unfortunately, this kind of risk-taking would seem foolhardy to funders.

Philanthropy should always be seeding the future along multiple frontiers….after awhile, if an artist or artist organization does not get traction in its community, then perhaps aesthetic Darwinism should prevail – yet, without small and emerging culturally specific organizations to allow artists to find their initial stage legs, I worry about subsequent generations realizing their potential in larger venues”.


“It is time to give up the false dichotomies and biases between professional/amateur, high/low, esoteric/popular, and contemporary/traditional. Instead, philanthropy should be investing in the cultural interests that allow people who live in our communities to lead more expressive lives".


In a related piece (to John's arguments), Roberto Bedoya's White Paper on the Color Line in U.S. Cultural Policy published by NAMAC (National Alliance for Media Art + Culture), "examines the deficiencies in cultural policy assumptions, formation and research mythologies as they relate to the allocation of resources and the articulation of value in the cultural sector. He argues there is a strong bias at work in many cultural policy research efforts to privilege the notion of objectivity, along with a reluctance to engage with the social meanings and motives framing this research. Further, he posits that communities of color are most affected by the impact of Western research methodologies and he offers the concept of "stewardship" as a new framing term for the policy community. Stewardship, he explains, is the idea where cultural policy makers and assessors measure an organization’s success by listening and learning about the stories, images and worldviews that drive an organization’s mission instead of the purely empiricist research prevalent in most cultural sector research methodologies today."

As Roberto says himself:  "The absence of a policy frame, a discursive space for the experience and knowledge associated with multiple worldviews, is creating a color line in U.S. cultural policy. The lack of awareness and acceptance among some policy researchers and policymakers of the variety of experiences in our society and work, coupled with the reluctance and at times deliberate inability among them to work with phenomenological knowledge, draws this line."

Moreover, he argues: Policy Studies is a field that overwhelmingly embraces “policy” as an empirical science that separates facts from value. This separation, within the cultural policy field, fails to engage with the phenomenon of imagination and how it affects decision-making within artist-centered cultural practices and the support structures for artists and their creative processes. It also fails to engage with the utopian and ideological goals and effects of empowering talent and community that animate the missions of many ethnic-specific organizations and community-based organizations. Empirically based cultural policy research is adequate when studying the quantifiable components of the cultural sector.  Yet when it comes to artists, creativity and an understanding of how imagination enlivens our social imaginaries, a post-empiricist phenomenological-oriented policy research is a more appropriate way to proceed."


John’s honest and frank appraisal of some of the challenges to arts funders raises for me yet one more issue – and that is how do we preserve institutional memory and insure that current and future leadership can benefit from the lessons learned and wisdom gained from those who "have been there and done that" already. Our failure to create mechanisms and methodologies that will allow us to pass down all that is learned from one generation to another is a foolish and costly mistake and misstep.  And though this has been discussed before, we have yet to address the issue in any systemic way.  All that knowledge being lost is a powerful condemnation of our myopia, and a tragedy that cannot but make all our jobs needlessly more difficult. 

I have spoken to several retiring funders and program officers in the past couple of years – all of whom had very definite thoughts, opinions and ideas about what the funding community is doing wrong, and how it might do a much more effective job in advancing art, artists, arts organizations and access. But you rarely hear the themes and sharp criticisms echoed by those departing  leaders - except perhaps as whispers to their most trusted colleagues. To a large degree, I think perhaps many of those people felt constrained while in the employ of foundations, corporations and government, and not free to express their true feelings as to the direction their employers were taking, the approaches adopted, and perhaps even the underlying mission statements and broad strategies in furtherance of those lofty goals. It is only after they leave that some of them feel they can say what may have been on their minds for quite some time. Even then, not all are at ease in sharing all the conclusions they have come to. That is a problem for us. We need their frank assessments and keen insights, and to learn from their mistakes. We must develop some way so they can (and will) share all that they have learned from their time and experience, and not hold back and reserve their conclusions - even when those conclusions are painfully critical.

Maybe, as far as the philanthropic / funding sub-sector goes, GIA could tackle this problem and at least put the issue on the table for consideration and dialogue. I would love to see a panel of past program officers of foundations large and small, together with retired government funders at local, state and the national levels in a no-holds barred offering of their straightforward, candid assessment of a wide range of obstacles and barriers as well as opportunities and open doors to how we fund the arts. If I ran a foundation and had an opening for my arts program officer position, even before putting out the job description, the first thing I would do would be to invite four or five former arts program officers at other foundations and government funding agencies to lunch and ask them what is and isn't working in arts funding based on their recent experience.

We need a lot more John Killackys', and the continued analysis of people like Roberto Bedoya, coming forth with lessons learned over time, sharing their regrets and pulling no punches in their advice. And we need to listen carefully to what they say and hear the well-intentioned advice offered. And to do that we have to create some kind of system that preserves this knowledge base.  Otherwise we just plod along in a false vacuum.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit