Monday, April 22, 2013

Interview with Knight Foundation's Carol Coletta

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

Carol Coletta is the new  vice president/community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation (beginning May 6th)  She is the former Director of ArtPlace, a national initiative to accelerate creative placemaking across the U.S. ArtPlace is a collaboration of the nation’s top foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Prior to joining ArtPlace, Coletta was president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, a national network of urban leaders building and sustaining the next generation of great American cities.  For ten years, she hosted and produced a nationally syndicated public radio show, Smart City.  She also served as executive director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Conference of Mayors and American Architectural Foundation.  Coletta was a Knight Fellow in Community Building at the University of Miami School of Architecture and was named one of the world’s 50 most important urban experts by a leading European think tank. She is a Senior Fellow with the Design Futures Council.

The Interview:
Barry:  You have an impressive background working with cities as they aspire to transform into places that better serve those who live in them.  Your old mentor at CEOs for Cities, Paul Grogan, said you turned that organization into “an idea factory for cities.”  To what extent would that be a good description of what you might hope to do in your new position at the Knight Foundation? In what areas of challenges to arts organizations would you hope to generate new ideas and new thinking?

Carol:  Dennis Scholl leads the arts portfolio at Knight, and I hope I’ll be able to support his work in our national and communities portfolios.  He already has our local program directors convinced that the arts are one of the best investments they can make in their communities.  Just look at what he’s done with the Knight Arts Challenge.  It will be fun to see if we can bring the same imagination and impact to the rest of the portfolio that Dennis has brought to arts at Knight.

However, if I believe my own pitch at ArtPlace, we will have a better portfolio if we have artists at the table when we develop our strategy.  I’m going to work on that.

Barry:  You were the Director of ArtPlace - the collaborative place making effort of the NEA, thirteen foundations, six banks and other federal agencies - to use the arts and design to improve and transform cities into more livable - more vibrant - communities.  There has been quite a lot of discussion, skepticism and even criticism of the concept of vibrancy as an indicator of the success of the ArtPlace projects.  Of course, only time will tell the outcome of a project as ambitious as ArtPlace.  Without rehashing the previous thinking on the subject, do you have any additional thoughts in hindsight now on vibrancy as a measurement tool - it’s strengths and its vulnerabilities?  Or any thoughts on how Creative Place Making might evolve in the future?

Carol:  Any time you introduce a new idea, some people will be confused or threatened.  The more familiar metrics for the arts are things like, “Did attendance increase?”  “How many people did we touch with our outreach efforts?” These are all helpful guides on the progress an arts organization is making.  But ArtPlace is focused on creative placemaking.  So we want to know what happens in a place when we invest our funds in art.  Americans for the Arts has done a good job on calculating economic impact.  We want to add to that knowledge by measuring the changes in vibrancy and diversity in the places we invest.  As I have said many times, personally, I love dance on a proscenium stage or art in a museum.  It thrills me.  It is an important part of my life.  But with ArtPlace, we are trying to understand the changes that occur in places where we and others invest in arts.  If we can demonstrate a positive correlation… if in fact we can show that investing in art is positively correlated with increases in vibrancy and diversity… the case for art investment becomes far more persuasive, especially to those who do not today recognize the value art and artists can add to communities and to their own agenda.  With the ability to understand change in so many different communities, ArtPlace will have a very rich resource from which to draw lessons. And since it’s all open source, absolutely transparent and relatively cheap to maintain, anyone can use it.

Barry:  A two part question on collaboration:
First, ArtPlace is a pioneering effort in and of itself in getting the public and private sector to collaborate on an ambitious, national agenda - and, from my viewpoint anyway - no small accomplishment (totally apart from the successes or not of the individual grant projects funded).  How might the field replicate the success of such a national collaboration to tackle other issues and what advice might you offer to build other national collaborations?  Do you see championing more such efforts in your new post at Knight - particularly within the arts sphere, and which areas do you think might be ripe for such efforts?
Second, also on the issue of collaboration:  Most of the larger foundations that support the arts have a varied portfolio of areas they support in addition to the arts.  Knight is no exception.  In your new position, your canvas is larger than just the arts - combining the spheres of influence (national strategies and communities) that two people use to head at Knight.  In a sense, what Rocco tried to do (with much success) at the agency was getting the Endowment working with other federal agencies.  How do we get the various wings of larger individual foundations to cross collaborate within their own organizations?

Carol:  The first part of your question:  If every cause had a Rocco Landesman, they would have a major head start.  Rocco is that rare inspirational, imaginative person who sees things others don’t see and then sells his vision relentlessly.  And the funders, to their everlasting credit, caught his vision, said yes quickly and didn’t bog the start up down with a lot of rules and regulations that would have slowed things considerably.  We were able to take that powerful combination of actors and run very fast for two years to create a lot of excitement for creative placemaking.

Collaboration is hard – very hard – but if you can get an alignment of interests, you can achieve so much more from collaboration.  The key question is this:  What is it we can do together that we can’t do alone?  If you have a compelling answer to that question that serves the interests of funders, you have your reason to collaborate.

So would I champion another collaboration?  Absolutely.

The second part of your question:  The example of the William Penn Foundation’s approach to ArtPlace is instructive.  It is the only foundation that sent its lead program directors from both arts and economic/community development to serve on the ArtPlace Operations Committee.  I have incredibly talented colleagues at Knight, and we are already discussing how we can be helpful to one another.  The good news is that at Knight, we have a very clear lens on all of our work.  We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. That transcends portfolios and departments.  Collaboration is much easier when the collaborators are trying to achieve the same thing with the same theory of change.

Barry:  Do you have any thoughts on stemming the decline in audiences?

Carol:  Some audiences are declining, some are increasing.  So I think we need to be clear what problem we are trying to address.  There are so many facets of this question, and there are others far more knowledgeable than me to address it.

But I am professionally less interested in increasing “audiences” than I am in increasing the number of people who regularly use their creativity to add value to their own lives, their community and the economy.  I would love to see art be ever present – everywhere --  to stimulate this kind of daily reconsideration and reframing of what is “normal” and what the possibilities are.

Barry:  In the Knight Press Release of your appointment, you said: “Knight is a foundation with deep local roots.  What excites me most about this role is the opportunity to leverage that combination, by bringing the best ideas we can find nationwide into the Knight communities and leveraging the experience of Knight communities on the national level.”  Do you have any specific thoughts about how you and Dennis Scholl might work together to expand on that role of Knight for the benefit of the whole of the arts universe?  Are there any specific areas you see as ripe for that kind of approach (incubating, as it were, an idea in one city, that might have national implications for the whole field) or are there any particular projects that would excite you?  Have you yet had a conversation about aligning your priorities with Dennis Scholl’s thinking in supporting the arts?  If not, what might you put on the table to discuss with him?

Carol:  I love this question.  I’ve been thinking about it, and I have a couple of specific ideas that don’t fit neatly into the ArtPlace portfolio but could be natural for Knight. But I’d better talk to Dennis first!  Stay tuned.

Barry:  Tip O’Neil - former Speaker of the House - once said: “All politics is local.”  You have, I believe, previously opined that his maxim might be worth embracing for the arts trying to impact local communities - i.e., that’s where the decision making really goes on.  Is that a fair characterization of your thinking, and how might the arts better embrace that concept to succeed at that local level?

Carol:  I don’t pretend that federal policy is not important.  It is.  And ArtPlace should have a point of view about how to shape policy to enable powerful creative placemaking that makes places stronger.  But place is local.  And local decision makers shape place every day – not just with a single piece of legislation. They decide what to build, where to build, how to program, what to allow and what to prohibit with their rules.  So yes, I am a big believer that the best opportunity to leverage investments in creative placemaking is local.

Artists should think of themselves as citizens first.  They should be civic leaders who sit at the table as equals when key decisions are being made about the community’s future.  They can’t assume a whiny, hand-out persona.  They need to be painting a picture of the community’s potential.  They need to describe their goals in terms of the community’s goals, not their own. The old adage applies, “People don’t want to hear your story. They want to hear their story.”  So tell people how you help them advance their agendas, their goals, their stories.

Barry:  What are your one or two big takeaway lessons from your stint at ArtPlace?

Carol:  In a collaboration, it is important to land on a message early and stick to it.  Be clear on what it is you are trying to change in the world, your theory of change, how you will pursue that change and how you will measure your progress.

There is a piece of communication wisdom that I believe in deeply: Say one thing.  Say it simply. Say it over and over.

We tried our best to do that.  People didn’t always like it, but we stuck to the path we originally carved out.

A corollary to that is this:  Build a strong brand identity at launch.  It makes you look bigger and more important that you are until the reality matches the perception.

Figure out how to take advantage of the collaborators’ wisdom, experience, and contacts without treating every decision as if it requires consensus.  That is a difficult but necessary balancing act.

Never stop selling.

Don’t let the naysayers steer you off track.  A start up is like a political campaign.  You need a “finish line” to motivate you to work at a very fast pace.  And you have to expect a lot of attempts to distract you along the way.

Like a political campaign, you are trying to introduce something new into the world.  But people only know what they know. They only know what they’ve been told.  So if someone is spreading incorrect information about your work, you are obligated to respond, just like in a political campaign. But you have to do it in a way that doesn’t distract from what you have to do to make progress or detract from your message.

I don’t envy the people who make it their life’s work.

Put together a great team of entrepreneurs who keep their eye on the goal, expect the unexpected, can move fast and adjust on the fly.  Both collaborations and start-ups are unpredictable.  We were doing both at once.

Barry:  You have worked indirectly with a host of foundation leaders.  What do you think will be different now that you are on the other side of the desk as it were - working for a foundation.

Carol:  I hope I will continue to demonstrate humility about who really does the hard work and a spirit of learning together with grantees to understand what works.  Fortunately, the Knight Foundation is willing to risk some failure as long as we are learning along the way.

In leading the start-up of ArtPlace, I was fortunate to learn from some of this country’s very best philanthropists.  They taught me so much, and I hope I can put those lessons to work for a quick start at Knight Foundation.

Barry:  What are your thoughts on the issue of diversity within the arts?  Should we be funding more efforts for all arts organizations to be more diverse - in their support, art, audiences and structures - or should we be focusing on supporting primarily diverse groups and organizations themselves?  What is your thinking on the equity argument - that too much philanthropic support has gone to the larger, more traditional euro-centric arts organizations, and more ought to go to the smaller, and diverse organizations?

Carol:  I am particularly interested in how we achieve more economic integration in America’s communities and the role arts can play in that.  The effect on people’s lives of achieving economic integration – that is, people of various incomes living in close proximity – is positive on so many fronts.  But it is not easy to achieve, so I want to invest in artists and organizations motivated to test their ideas on how to do this.  I want to learn from their efforts.  On the other hand, showcasing diverse voices and cultures is really valuable to our communities.  We live in an America made richer by its diversity, and the arts reflect that perhaps better than anything else.

Barry:  What role might research and data collection have in guiding your decision making process and why?

Carol:  Research can help you understand how things work.  But without a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve in the world, data collection means nothing.  I am a big believer in being clear in describing the change you want to make in the world, your theory of change, where and how you will invest based on how you believe change happens, and how you will know if you are getting closer to the change you seek.

Barry:  What are your thoughts on how to move forward on the arts education front?  Given the economy and the enormous cost of putting trained, qualified arts teachers in every school, how might we get more schools to offer the arts?

Carol:  I don’t agree with your premise.  There is not an enormous cost to putting qualified arts teachers in every school, unless you also consider it an enormous cost to put qualified math teachers in every school.  In fact, in the scheme of things, it’s pretty cheap.  And we know how to do it.  We’ve done it before.  What narrow lives we must imagine for our children by not teaching art in our schools.  And where in the world do we believe we are going to get the juice to keep our economy growing?  Wake up, people!  It’s all about innovation, and there is no innovation without creativity.  It is ridiculous to pretend we can’t afford this investment, and we ought to say that.

Barry:  What are your thoughts about how we should develop better trained, more qualified leaders in the arts field?  What, if any, is the role of the philanthropic community in supporting professional development and training?

Carol:  I’ve seen the great benefit of bringing creative placemakers together to learn from each other.  I’m so glad we were able to do that this past January with ArtPlace grantees.  They are so smart and so willing to share, so willing to coach each other.  It is one of the best investments we’ve made at ArtPlace.

Thank you Carol.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit