Sunday, October 7, 2012

GIA to Meet in Miami / Mini Interview with Regina Smith

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

The nation's arts funders meet next week.  This has become one of the most important and certainly most interesting of all the national gatherings in the nonprofit arts.

GIA's Chair - Regina Smith (Senior Program Officer - Arts and Culture - The Kresge Foundation) graciously took some time out from an undoubtedly hectic schedule to answer a few questions for me on the eve of the conference.  I am hopeful she might answer a few more after the conference is over.  That mini-interview is below.

In every field, it's of importance when the people with the money gather.  Where once GIA was a smaller, more insular organization of the older guard private funders, both public and private arts funders are now integrated into GIA.  The organization has gone through somewhat of a metamorphosis over the past few years, and is now more involved in a wider range of issues, at least somewhat more open and transparent, and more involved in collaboration and reaching out in new directions.  While somewhat conservative, it continues to change.

I had the pleasure to be at the last two conferences, and I found that the session offerings were really a cut above the typical national arts conference fare, and this year appears likewise designed to tick off every issue on anybody's list.  There are sessions on the three big fields the arts touch on outside our own borders as it were:  arts education, arts and creativity (and business) and arts and health care and healing.

There are sessions on research, data collection, and evaluative techniques; sessions on the arts and social justice, immigrants, diversity, communities and global exchanges; sessions on capitalization, leadership, facilities and even on arts and climate change.  This is not your Father's GIA.

But despite an undeniable comprehensive inclusion of almost all the topics conceivable, the thing I will miss most about not being at this conference this year, is the casual, but serious conversations that go on between the sessions - over coffee in the morning, in the lobby or over dinner at night.  Making those conversations possible and more likely is the fact that this isn't a mega sized conference of a thousand people or more.  Several hundred makes it much more manageable and intimate.  These are honestly some of the smartest people in our field.  They have experience and knowledge.  They value thought and are increasingly less risk averse.  And while they cannot solve all the challenges facing our field, nonetheless, it is they who are charged with trying to do just that.  For they control the money (well actually, their Boards control the money, but they are our link and they are the ones who must argue on our behalf).  So I would like to be a fly on the drape as it were next week, as private conversations invariably turn to the underlying issues, the trends in the field, the unasked and as yet unanswered questions that lie just beneath the surface.

What are those issues, trends and questions?  Here are some thoughts:

1.  What will happen to public funding for the arts in the next ten years?  Will the November election mark a turning point in Federal funding?  What do we do in that case?  What will it mean?  And if the economic recovery takes another five years or longer to be fully realized, (assuming a 'full' recovery is even possible), what will be the trend in budget cutbacks at the state and local level?  Can private funders realize their foundation's / organization's goals if public funding is not part of the mix?

2.  Will we ever succeed in reintroducing the arts into our schools on a national basis so that ALL kids have access?  Is there any alternative to arts in the schools to provide some kind of meaningful arts training (not just exposure) to kids in America (while we continue to fight to have the arts a truly core subject in all the schools)?  Realistically, how many more generations will that take?

3.  What happens next to the arts and creativity discussion?  Have we effectively dealt with the criticism that we use our data and research that correlates the arts with desirable outcomes as proof that it causes those results?

4.  Should we be doing more to fund artists and provide services to artists?  Are we too focused on the arts organizational infrastructure rather than on artists and artistic creation?  Is the mission to support "access" to quality art, or the creation of that quality art in the first place?  Is it both, and if so, how do we strike the best balance?

5.  How is the inevitable generational leadership transition in the field coming along?  Are we doing enough to make sure that transition works and to make sure we will have the best trained and prepared new leadership that we possibly can have?

6.  Is there any definitive indication that fewer philanthropic dollars will be earmarked for the arts in the future, and if there is, what can we really do to change that?  If it is true, what will it mean?

7.  Are there any mega trends in the private arts funder Board rooms that will likely have a profound impact on the arts in ten years?

8.  Arts and Health / Healing and Arts and Social Justice are clearly both gaining traction as themes in arts funding.  What's next for each?

9.  What, if anything, IS new on the pull between funding newer, smaller, multicultural arts endeavors vs. funding established, larger euro-centric arts organizations?

10.  Finally, it is in these small conversations that one gets a sense of how we are doing; how we see ourselves and the challenges we face.  I wonder, not being there, what the "mood" is this year.  What are people thinking about?  What is making them optimistic?  What is worrying them?

Undoubtedly there will be debates and wide ranging viewpoints.  I am sure some of those conversations will plant the seeds of ideas that will germinate and might just end up being the genesis for new initiatives in the future.

Here is the mini (four question) interview with Regina Smith:

BARRY:  What motivated the Kresge's recent commitment to Creative Placemaking?

REGINA:   The Kresge Foundation partners with nonprofit organizations nationwide to improve the quality of life and create access and opportunity for underserved communities.

Since 2009, the goal of Kresge’s national Arts and Culture Program has been to contribute to creation of healthy, vibrant places. To achieve that goal, we developed a portfolio of three integrated and mutually reinforcing initiatives (Institutional Capitalization, Artist’s Skills and Resources and Arts and Community Building). By 2011, we recognized an imbalance in the implementation of the portfolio; it was siloed and neither integrated nor mutually reinforcing. It also became apparent that to achieve our goal of healthy, vibrant places we required a unified strategy.

Creative Placemaking is the integration of arts and culture into comprehensive community improvement efforts. We view it as a natural evolution that unifies the three initiatives of our previous work. It is also the most succinct demonstration of the Team’s alignment with the Kresge Foundation’s aspiration.  

BARRY:   What role do you think the nation’s arts funding foundation programs will play in shaping the future of the sector in the face of diminishing government funding support?

REGINA:  This is an interesting, and extremely loaded, question. It implies that the funding levels of the nation’s arts funding foundations have remained level, and the declines have been exclusively in government funding. That hasn’t been the case. The contraction of resources in the philanthropic community has resulted in program revisions and a re-examination of priorities.

Neither the public nor private sector can, in isolation, support the arts sector. As a result, I think the opportunities are rich for a shared vision amongst public and private arts funders at the local level on how to effectively support the cultural sector.

BARRY:   How has GIA, the organization, changed in the past three years?

REGINA:  Like every affinity group, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) strives to deliver quality programs and services to its members. The range of arts funders and supporters has grown over the years, which has been great for the field. For a membership association, however, it was challenging to remain true to the mission as an affinity group of arts funders, and yet be inclusive of the expanding universe of organizations that support the arts field.

I would characterize GIA three years ago as trying to be all things to all people. In an attempt to overcome the criticism of being an exclusive club of large arts foundations, GIA overcompensated and honestly lost a bit of its focus. It happens. It’s a challenge for any organization, but for a national affinity group with a small staff and modest budget it was challenging.

Over the past three years, GIA has sharpened its focus. It’s very much a work in progress, but internally and externally GIA has a greater sense of clarity on who we serve and how we can best deliver on our mission.

BARRY:   Under yours and Janet Brown’s leadership, GIA has launched new initiatives in several areas including capitalization, arts education, and equity.  That is a broad and deep agenda - what benchmarks in those areas are you looking for as hallmarks of meaningful progress?

REGINA:   One of GIAs core competencies is its ability to convene; bringing diverse groups of arts funders together for thought-provoking dialogue around issues facing arts funders, our communities and the arts sector. Another core competency is the dissemination of critical thinking that might encourage our members to examine their practices.

I mentioned the sharpened approach to our work earlier. Without a supportive and engaged membership, GIA doesn’t exist. The initiatives you mentioned emerged directly from the GIA membership. The GIA staff, under Janet’s leadership, worked with a committee representative of the membership to design each initiative, which has sparked dialogue and debate among members and potential members alike.

The GIA membership is very diverse. It includes public and private arts funders. As a result, there are no expectations that every issue or topic will be applicable to every member. Although our members and potential members operate within different organizational structures, GIAs primary goal is to strengthen the “community of practice” amongst arts funders. This crystalized approach provides a marker for how we work as a staff and board, and how GIA serves its members.

I mentioned earlier that we’re a work in progress. Each of the initiatives you mentioned is new within the last two years. All serve as pilots for how GIA can engage its membership beyond the once a year annual conference and the quarterly newsletter The Reader. We’ve used an iterative process of testing and learning versus chasing a specific benchmark.

Thank you for this opportunity to chat about Kresge and GIA.

BARRY:  Thank you Regina.

Have a good week.  And GIA delegates - Have a great conference next week.

Don't Quit