Sunday, February 12, 2012

Interview with California Arts Council Director - Craig Watson

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

Note:  I apologize that the font in this post may be smaller than usual posts, and the spacing may be inconsistent as well.   It seems to happen when I try to copy a document and paste it into this blogger format.  As I am severely IT challenged, I do not know why that happens.  Invariably, any attempt I make to change the format is unsuccessful. Stupid blogger.  

Craig Watson was appointed to the position of Director of the California Arts Council last August. He is the first to hold that position who was selected by the Council itself and not appointed by the Governor.  Immediately prior to this appointment he was the Executive Director of the Arts Council of Long Beach.

Barry What is your vision for the agency?  What would you hope to accomplish in first eighteen months of your tenure?

Craig:  Having just completed my first six months, I can see a path forward that is very exciting. Even with the state’s budget crisis, the environment for positive change is good. First, we have Governor Brown back in office – he created the California Arts Council in the first place and believes in it. We have an arts field that is hungry to demonstrate the power of the arts to simultaneously lift our spirits and revitalize our communities. And finally, we have some of the smartest people on the planet wanting to help rebuild the Council into something great. 

Our goal is to create an agency worthy of our diverse citizenry, helping them to be active participants in the stunning depth and breadth of our state’s creativity, and to make the arts a regular part of all Californians’ life experience, children and adults alike.  We will, of necessity, focus on bringing more resources to the Arts Council for grant-giving, but also on strengthening our “bully-pulpit” clout for advocacy and representation of our field. 

We are working on several fronts at the moment and there is plenty to talk about.  

Barry: The lack of state general fund support for the CAC over the past seven years has decimated what was formerly an extensive grant program, and as a result, hundreds of organizations and programs that use to receive meaningful funding for a wide variety of needs have not gotten anything for years.  That has made the agency largely irrelevant to many.  What are your thoughts on how to make the CAC again a relevant player in the California nonprofit arts ecosystem?  Can its relevancy be re-established without new funding revenue?

Craig:  Becoming a bigger and more significant funding source certainly has a way of getting people’s attention, but in the short-term, given our state’s financial position, an increase in General Fund support isn’t going to happen. We are actively working on funding strategies outside of the General Fund, such as the Arts License Plate program, Tax Check Off for the Arts, and others.

But there are plenty of opportunities to be relevant in other ways. We are pursuing relationships with other state agencies, looking for those places where we have something specific to offer in the way of expertise or influence. For instance, the California Department of Education is now led by an arts-friendly Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson. Early in his tenure and inspired by a direct request from the Arts Council Chair, Malissa Ferruzzi Shriver, Torlakson has assigned his chief of staff to work closely with us on several initiatives. A joint Arts Council/Department of Education citizen taskforce will soon be appointed to draft an important policy document titled Blueprint for Creative Schools: How the Arts and Creative Education Can Transform California’s Classrooms. 

And related to that, the Arts Council last week released an RFP to engage a planning firm to support a new arts-education collaboration called “CREATE the STATE.” “CREATE” being an acronym for “Core Reforms Engaging Arts to Educate”. This collaboration grew directly out of California’s involvement with the National Endowment for the Arts and its “Education Leadership Institute” held last May in Chicago.

“CREATE the STATE” has a diverse leadership and supporter base. The Department of Education and the Arts Council are joined by the California Alliance for Arts Education and the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association to bring together the various stakeholders in arts education – the California PTA, California Arts Advocates, corporate and foundation funders like Hewlett, Sony and Boeing, the university research community, professional teaching artists, arts discipline-focused associations, arts non-profits, creative industry and education leaders. These partners are working together to create and implement a shared action agenda for education reform that views arts education as an essential part of the solution to the crisis in California schools

While this effort is the most advanced of our inter-agency pursuits, we are also working toward potential projects with the agencies involved in Corrections, Economic Development, and State Parks.

Barry: Another consequence of a weaker CAC has been the lack of a unifying statewide force to bring the entire nonprofit arts sector together and develop a greater “sense of community”.  How might you address that situation?

Craig: In all of my early discussions around the state, it is clear the role the Arts Council played historically as a convener has been missed. We are getting back in that business where is makes sense. This past November, we convened a powerful cross-section of leaders for the kick-off of our arts education efforts under “Create the State” and nearly 120 attendees gathered at Loyola Marymount University. At the end of January we partnered with the California Institute for the Arts on a research summit to review current gaps and needs in arts research.  Given the large number of NEA Our Town and ArtPlace grantees in the state, we hope to co-sponsor a convening on Creative Placemaking in early 2013.

We also continue to support statewide organizations that represent segments of the arts field like the California Association of Museums, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and the Latino Arts Network. They in turn have events to bring their membership together, but what we lack are the interdisciplinary opportunities for the non-profit arts sector to convene. To support more of these may require reorienting some of our existing funding or finding new funding, but it is a direction we are headed. The Arts Council can provide a “kitchen” for our most creative “chefs” to cook up more of our unique California creativity brew. 

Barry: One of the successful and hopeful avenues to garnering more funds for the Arts Council has been the arts license plate program invigoration of the past two years.  You have private sector marketing experience and have said that you believe one of your principal charges as Director will be to move closer to the goal of selling one million license plates.  What is the current level of sales for the plate, and how do you intend to get closer to the one million plate goal?  What level might we realistically get to in the next two years?  

Craig: Nearly two thirds of our $5.3 million budget in 2012-2013 will come from the Arts License Plate. This represents around 70,000 arts plates currently on the road today. 

When the Council set a goal of One Million Plates, they purposely set the bar very high and it summarizes the overall goal quite nicely –we want a significant, percentage of Californians to have arts plates on their cars (one million would equal approximately 1 out of every 32 cars). Second, the revenue from that level of sales and renewals would total out to approximately $40 million for the arts, an appropriate number for the arts agency of the most creative and innovative state in the nation. On a per capita basis, $40 million for the arts would put California in the top 10 or 12 (depending on the budget year) instead of at or near the bottom. 

And finally, we wanted folks who participate in the campaign in some way – from the celebrities who are helping get the message out, to the innovative companies providing pro bono services for the campaign, to the businesses considering purchasing arts plates for their fleets – to know they are part of something that can make a huge difference for the arts in this state.

The Arts Council is creating a campaign that can realistically aim towards the million plates goal. We have an incredible list of high-visibility “ambassadors” for the campaign that will be revealed in March using a variety of media platforms, including digital billboards, bus shelter signage, social media, radio and television. Much of this donated by major media companies committed to our cause. We are right now developing unique ordering systems that will allow easier ordering of the plates or the giving of the plate as a gift to clients, friends and families. 

Barry: Do you think the agency should more aggressively and actively pursue the strategy of pushing for future reinstatement of state general fund budget monies, or do you think the thrust of the CAC’s efforts should remain in pursuing supplemental income strategies such as the license plate program and the income tax check off option?

Craig: If we ever hope to see larger general fund allocations to the arts, we should aggressively pursue stronger relationships with our Legislature and State government overall, and better understand what motivates that audience. In the short-run, we must be realistic and accept that the economy is not good and nothing will change our immediate funding position, vis-à-vis the General Fund. But we are committed to the relationship building that in time can improve the picture. 

On a recent trip to Washington D.C. with WESTAF (the Western States Arts Federation), our California team was constantly and pleasantly surprised by how often the Congressional staffer we were meeting with had some direct engagement with the arts either currently or in the recent past, perhaps as a student. By speaking directly to those experiences, we have begun to build a foundation with that office that can be built upon. As elementary as it sounds, that same work is now being pursued by our Council in California. Our January Council meeting included an extra day in Sacramento, allowing the members to fit approximately 14 legislative office visits into their time in the Capitol. The positive response to those visits from both the Council and legislative offices reminds us that we have a great story to tell.  It is essential we not in any way abandon the perspective that the arts are a legitimate and essential part of the State’s investment.

Barry: How do you favor deploying the limited funds available to the agency?  As the former Director and the former President of the Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, I was personally gratified and applauded the agency’s efforts under Muriel Johnson to resurrect the State Local Partnership Program, and offer support to local arts agencies in the counties across the state, though I can easily see that those in other sub-sectors might have made an equally convincing argument for more support in re-establishing other past successful CAC programs that are now, unfortunately, dormant.  Which programs (or general areas of ‘need’) do you see as likely ranking high on the list to try to re-establish and re-introduce?

Craig: Even with the massive cuts it sustained starting in 2001-2002, the Arts Council has done its best to continue with programs in three key areas: infrastructure (by supporting local arts agencies and statewide arts networking organizations); arts education (through its Artists in Schools program that tie together teaching artists and professional arts organizations with the Visual and Performing Arts educational standards for K-12); and arts for underserved rural or urban communities (through the Creating Public Value program). 

But the funding limitations necessitate a “triage” system, and other areas that could be addressed if we had more funding include: presenting and touring programs, senior-related arts programs, arts in correctional settings; arts specifically for at-risk youth; arts and health programs; maintenance of the state’s public art holdings; assistance for entrepreneurial arts organizations and artists; general operating support for quality arts organizations … and so on and so on. All these areas – and more – have been discussed by the Council at one time or another, and will most likely be brought back for discussion as our funding increases.

These issues will be among the first things tackled as we announce next month some internal restructuring and also name a new head of Programs. That individual will work with me to fully evaluate our current grant programs; engage with the field regarding current needs and trends; and review unique opportunities where the CAC can make a real difference.

Barry: There have been considerable resources, time, energy and commitment dedicated in California (as elsewhere across the country) to the emerging leaders movement in the arts.  How specifically would you as the new CAC Director support and expand those efforts?  What might you do institutionally to make access to policy formation easier for that cohort of new leaders?

Craig: I greatly admire the work that has been done in this area throughout the country concerning this question, including the convenings and discussions that tackle the question of how to support and nurture young leaders. Programs that get undergraduate students paid work in the arts field have a great impact, like the Arts Internship Program from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission as a companion to the Getty Multicultural Internship Program. In my former position leading a large, urban arts council, we participated in both these programs. I am delighted to say that we were able to hire one of our interns and she is now a full-time and treasured staff member for the organization. As the California Arts Council improves its own resource picture, we will develop a more direct connection to these types of programs, specifically building a component for them that exposes young leaders to the legislative and government policy process. Americans for the Arts, through their Creative Conversations program each October, as part of Arts Month, has encouraged young leaders to step out and lead important community dialogue around cultural issues.  Sacramento should be the site of a “Creative Political Conversation”.

Finally, small as we are, we’ve placed a communication emphasis on our website and Facebook/Twitter sites as a way to keep current with our arts community and use the tools that appeal to a younger demographic. Shortly after I joined the Council I noticed that our Facebook page had just a little over 4,000 “likes” or friends. And in looking at our State agency counterparts, only Arizona and the D.C. Commission on the Arts had roughly the same numbers. So in a friendly challenge to Arizona, joined quickly by D.C., we kicked off a “race” to 10,000 “likes”. We ultimately won that race (maybe it wasn’t a fair fight), and in the process learned a great deal about what is of interest to our constituents and particularly those younger arts leaders we can call “digital natives”. By the way, during the contest, the NEA offered the “winner” the prize of being featured for a week on the NEA’s own Facebook page. That week of California content will kickoff on February 21st.

Barry: One of the assets and opportunities available to the CAC Director is the “bully pulpit” and the power to convene.  How might you use those tools, and for what purposes?

Craig: When I was chosen by the Council to lead the agency, it was clear that my beliefs aligned with the members desire for the CAC to become more visible throughout the state, and not just with the traditional arts field, but to include others in education, business and industry, and certainly government. My first months as the Director of the Arts Council have been a whirlwind of conferences, speeches, presentations and meetings – and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon. The heavy schedule has served to both bring me up to speed on the current status of the arts field, but also to send the message that the California Arts Council is serious about making a significant impact on the creative fabric of California.

I also indicated to the Council that I would continue the good work the agency had started under my predecessor and with the tremendous efforts of the individual Council members. The Arts Council was intricately involved in two key areas when I came on board – the “Educational Leaders Institute” developed by the NEA led directly to the creation of California’s CREATE the STATE consortium on arts education, as mentioned previously; and the California Cultural Data Project, the tool organizations and funders use to streamline the report and grant application process, that has the added benefit of providing consistent data about the arts field, as well as financial and operating tools of use to the individual, participating organizations. Both of these projects will have a tremendous impact on the arts in California, in my opinion and the CAC is using its “bully pulpit” to drive both efforts forward.

CREATE the STATE has already created significant dialogue between education experts, elected officials, and business representatives who want a dynamic and innovative workforce for the future, and significant changes in education policy concerning arts education are expected in the future as a result. And data from the Cultural Data Project has already been utilized by experts to analyze the nonprofit arts field of California and its impact on the economy and communities, not to mention helping arts organizations with reports and grant applications. This key information will only become more useful as more funders come on board with the Cultural Data Project as part of their grant applications and we expand the definition of who belongs in the pool of CDP users. The CAC must use its relationships and leverage to close any significant gaps in this network.

Barry: There has been some complaint that the current Council is far too top heavy with Los Angeles based members, and that there is a regrettable dearth not only of geographical representation, but also of younger leaders, those with on-line experience in arts organizations, and in multicultural membership.  Will you be advising the Governor to try to address those concerns with his next appointments to the Council?   

Craig: The issues of geographic and multicultural membership of the Council has been discussed with the Governor’s office, and we expect will be kept in mind for future appointments. But I’d also point out that there is a great diversity of experience on the Council that lends itself to a dynamic governing body. We have:
  • an arts education expert whose expertise has proven to be invaluable with the CREATE the STATE and other arts education efforts; 
  • a chief administrator of a culturally diverse museum with strong ties to both the nonprofit community as well as state government; 
  • a policy and business expert who understands and contributes to the analytical analysis needed by a governing body; 
  • a former legislative staffer with years of background on other state boards; 
  • a visual arts expert with marketing and legal experience, including as the law relates to artists; 
  • a young arts teacher who continues to work with at-risk teens in after-school and correctional settings; 
  • an attorney and major arts supporter who has significant experience on performing arts organization boards, especially with fundraising and personnel issues; 
  • an arts advocate that heads a small foundation providing grants for arts organizations; 
  • the head of a mid-size arts organization with decades of experience in the performing arts and presenting arena; 
  • and…the parent of two children who has utilized her passion for arts education to become one of the greatest arts education advocates and experts the Council has ever seen.I can’t emphasize enough how hard these Council members work towards furthering the mission of the Arts Council – and obviously without financial reward. Their enthusiasm and hours of dedication alone make them great choices for the governing body of the Arts Council. This is a “working board,” more so then I’ve ever seen in government before. But additionally, the job skills and expertise of these individuals are key to the future of the Arts Council as we look towards increasing the impact of the agency, especially through an increase in non-General Fund revenue. 
  • And each one of these individuals recognizes the need for the Arts Council to reach all Californians in all parts of the state, and many work on a day-to-day basis with youth, young artists, multicultural neighborhoods and individuals, and arts experts from different parts of California, the nation, and the world. Also, the California Arts Council purposely sets its meetings in different locales in California specifically so we can hear from the field and obtain a greater understanding of the different geographic dynamics of our state. 
Barry: As you are the first Director to be hired directly by the Council, and not appointed by the Governor, you may lack the direct relationship with the Governor’s office enjoyed by previous Directors.  Are you concerned about that lack of direct relationship?

Craig: There will always be a direct relationship between the California Arts Council and the Governor’s office and the Legislature…nine of the 11 are appointed by the Governor, and two by the Legislature. The current Council has very good ties to the Governor’s office and other executive branch staff, including leaders of other agencies and departments. Part of the good communication is due to the active nature of our current Council, but I don’t see the nature of the relationship between the Council members and the Governor’s Office changing any time soon. 

This Council is also dedicated to open communication with the members of the Legislature. That may seem like a “given”, but it has not been an ongoing practice of this Council.  The Council members recently spent an entire day in Sacramento meeting with key legislators and building or enhancing these relationships. The positive impact of having multiple Council members and executive staff taking the time to meet with members of the legislature and their staff in Sacramento cannot be emphasized enough. These meetings are in addition to the time the Arts Council Chair, Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, and I spent in Washington, DC, with members of Congress and their staff as part of a team from the Western States Arts Federation last fall. 

Also, the experienced staff at the California Arts Council has key connections to their counterparts in other agencies, departments, and legislative offices – connections that are a result of their years in state service and their diligent work on behalf of the agency. I’m constantly amazed at how often one of the staff will say “I know a person there,” or “I know so-and-so here” when we’re in meetings strategizing projects. These kinds of relationships are not easily built up by political appointees in temporary positions, but by long-term managers who develop these connections through hard work and time. Often these staff-to-staff relationships are as or more productive than connections at the top. 

I’m actively working to develop similar connections and experience in my position as Director – connections and experience that could be wasted if the person in the Director’s seat departed on a regular basis, just as the experience and connections could become more useful. I will obviously keep the connections as strong as possible while I am in the Director’s seat, but the power of the Council members and the staff should not be discounted. The California Arts Council works as a team, and its connections are very strong.

I was hired after a national search and a gauntlet of interviews. It is a benefit of that process that I have an effective and productive relationship with this Council. There is a trust level there that allows me to lead the agency in new and exciting directions.

Barry: There is no shortage of intelligent, creative, savvy, experienced leaders in the California arts scene – how will you organize all that talent to advise and counsel you as you transition into this new post?

Craig: As I noted before, I’ve done my best to meet with as many people related to the arts world in California as possible – from the S.F. Bay Area to San Diego, from the Inland Empire to the Sierras, from the Central Valley to urban Los Angeles where I’m from. I’ve kept my eyes and ears open during this process, and continue to meet with California’s arts leaders throughout the state. Also, I was just elected to the Board of Directors for WESTAF and this will provide me a close-up view of what my counterparts in the western states are up to and how their successes might inform new initiatives in California. 

I’m fortunate that not only do I have arts experience in my background and from different locales (rural northern California from my early career, and urban Long Beach in my previous job), but I also have experience in the business world as a telecommunications executive. If the arts are to grow in California, we need support from government leaders and business executives. Both have good reason to want to support the arts in our communities and schools – the arts are integral to our creative economy and producing successful entrepreneurs, and arts education is a key factor creating a dynamic and innovative workforce for the future. I can use my ties in business to compliment the relationships with the arts field – along with the background of our staff and Council – to bring all parties to the table.

We are in the process of building much stronger ties to key advocacy and association groups in the state. To name a few, they include the California Alliance for Arts Education, the California Arts Advocates, Arts for LA, California Council on the Humanities and all the state-wide CAC grantees that serve special populations or disciplines, like the Latino Arts Network, California Association of Museums and the newly forming group representing teaching artists. These groups all represent a wealth of knowledge and stronger bonds only enhance our clout in Sacramento.

Barry: What do you see as the agency’s role in the promotion of arts education, and what are the major issues in that arena that you hope the CAC can play a part in addressing?

Craig: I’ve already noted our role in giving rise to the CREATE the STATE efforts and the work and convening that will continue under this banner. We will play a key role in the creation of the Blueprint for Creative Schools: How the Arts and Creative Education Can Transform California’s Classrooms document from the Department of Education. Hopefully our leadership role on these initiatives can add to the excellent work being done throughout the state in arts education.  Yet even as we can see progress, we are confronted by potentially significant setbacks. Witness the very current plan put forward by the Los Angeles Unified School District (second largest in the nation) to use the elimination of elementary school arts as a way to close their budget gap. 

For anyone working in this field it has been a roller coaster ride. In the RFP we recently published, the Create the State challenge was stated this way: 

“The Create the State Leadership Team believes that the next two years are a key "window of opportunity" as the No Child Left Behind federal policy expires - and potentially with it, the associated testing regimens of the past.  With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) California’s education policies on important issues ranging from assessment and accountability to sanctions and interventions will be impacted. It is projected that California will have greater flexibility to find innovative ways of improving the education system. Critical to the conversation is a broadened vision for assessment and accountability, which takes into consideration a wide range of solutions that, will have far reaching positive impact for California students. CREATE the STATE will contribute to these larger educational reform efforts”.
The Create the State coalition further articulated key objectives for the work ahead. They include: 
    • Expansion of the high school graduation requirement in arts subjects;
    • Establishment of Dance and Theater teaching credentials (currently there are only Visual Art and Music credentials);
    • Broad-based acknowledgment and practice of Arts Education’s inclusion in all pre-service teacher preparation programs;
    • Revamp of the school assessment system, including the work being done to create a school Creativity Index (i.e., SB 547); 
    • Embedding of the arts with the Common Core subjects (new design work underway with Hewlett Foundation funding);
    • Strengthening the arts connections to Career Technical Education and the area referred to as Linked Learning/Multiple Pathways;
    • Evaluation of possible ballot measures to raise education funding, including funds for arts education; 
    • Support for teacher continuing education program in arts education; and
    • How better to engage parents in arts education.
This is an ambitious work plan, but the California Arts Council, along with our Create the State partners, is devoting considerable staff time in concert with countless volunteer hours from our Council members to this cause and this coalition effort.  

We see this effort as nothing less than essential to the future health of our state and our citizens. The life-affirming qualities of arts and culture engagement and experience for all Californians MUST be asserted at every turn in our civic and community life and the California Arts Council is committed to giving voice to that assertion. 
Thank you Craig.
Have a good week.
Don't Quit.