Sunday, September 15, 2013

Interview with Deborah Cullinan

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

Deborah Cullinan is the new Executive Director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.  For 17 years, she was the Executive Director of Intersection for the Arts, a socially conscious arts and community development organization, and one of San Francisco most respected and important arts organizations serving artists and communities. Under her direction, Intersection received numerous prestigious awards including the 2011 Philanthropedia Award for Highest Impact Arts Non-Profit in San Francisco, and during the period her national star rose significantly.  She was a 2011 Gerbode Fellow and has presented at the National Endowment for the Arts, the 2011 Andy Warhol Foundation Initiative Conference, and others. She is a co- founder and co-coordinator of Arts Forum SF, an inclusive forum committed to sustainable and forward-thinking arts policies in the city of San Francisco.  She has been active in San Francisco and statewide advocacy efforts serving on the Board of Directors of California Arts Advocates and Californians for the Arts.

Here is my interview with Deborah:

BARRY: What is your analysis of the benefits and weaknesses of creative placemaking?

DEBORAH:  To address this, we’d first have to agree on a definition. In a great article in Public Art Review in 2012, Jon Spayde talks about two different definitions. One emphasizes creating spaces that connect people. Another emphasizes the overt role artists and public art play in contributing to growth, specifically economic growth. Much of the dialogue we are having around creative placemaking makes this same kind of dichotomous distinction as if these are not inherently connected notions that should live on a continuum of placemaking that results in prosperity not for few but for many.

To my mind, we miss the point when we get stuck in age-old debates about the utility of art or 20th century notions of gentrification. Of course art has utility. It is about beauty, inspiration, connection, compassion. And, beauty for its own sake is immensely purposeful. Art fuels transformation. So do the dynamics of a rapidly changing world. Cities rise and fall. Neighborhoods grow like webs – people and streets and services and buildings connecting to make something whole. And, they fall apart in the face of crisis. Like any eco-system, they change – even fall apart - when some things thrive and others do not.

A reason to consider creative placemaking as an important practice (if an imperfect phrase) is the inevitable, and often inequitable, change that happens in our communities, in our cities. We forget that places exist. We are rarely making them from out of nowhere. Rather, we bring them meaning. Art - when it prioritizes making meaning in public places - can cultivate inclusive and equitable change by connecting people to the history of their neighborhoods, and to each other.  Without that connection – that sense of understanding, of history, of empathy – how can we begin to attempt the complex work of community development? The question, to me, is about what role artists and arts organizations can play in building healthy, connected systems that result in a change that is more mindful of what has been and more focused on what should be.

BARRY:  Intersection for the Arts’ 5M project has as its central core “connectivity”.  Please explain how that works in your 5M project, why it’s important and what the wider implications might be for the arts sector.

DEBORAH:  Intersection came to the 5M Project (a 4-acre creative development in downtown San Francisco led by Forest City Development) following an epic search for a new building that started in 2008. Telling the story of this is, in my opinion, an important way of answering the question.
At the time the story begins, the economic spiral had not yet revealed itself. Intersection for the Arts was in pursuit of two things: a new building; and, new models for artists to live more sustainable lives.

Like many cultural organizations, we thought – then – that our very own building with a bigger theater and a gallery on the ground floor – would solve all our problems. We found what we thought was that perfect building and we discovered that we were in competition for it. We figured out who it was and sat down to wrestle over it. It turned out to be the founders of The Hub Bay Area – now known as Impact Hub (a global collection of co-working communities for social entrepreneurs). Within 5 minutes of conversation, we came to the beautiful realization that we were better off together than we were in competition. We imagined a global network of social entrepreneurs and artists. Art integrated into a system of social change. Artists learning new, more entrepreneurial models.

We set out looking for buildings together. By this time the economic downturn was clear. The market was a mess. We had building after building into contract and we lost every one of them. Block by block, communities were falling apart. Block by block, the needs and challenges were different. And, we started to realize that maybe what the world needed was not another theater – but a new model for arts-focused community development. A refreshed way of thinking about how creative placemaking, community arts and collaboration work together to help make our neighborhoods better places to be.

We started building partnerships - depending on the very specific needs of each neighborhood – with community organizations, affordable housing developers, youth development organizations, and more.

After we lost the very last building, we got a call from Forest City Development about what we now call the 5M Project. What they described was uncanny in its similarity to what we had been cooking up – just larger, they had much better language for it, and with scale and the potential to change models for urban development – with art at its core - not just in San Francisco but across the country.

Forest City’s vision is that the 5M Project is designed to build our economy and strengthen our communities. At 5M, artists, makers, social entrepreneurs, technology innovators, youth leaders, and community stakeholders are coming together day and night. It is a place designed for creative people to come together and make change.

Intersection is a lead partner. This is an organization that believes that there is nothing like art for creating connections – allowing a place where people can gather and where difference is valued. Through Intersection’s work, the 5M community thrives, it makes deeper connections to the people living, working and struggling around it. And – through those connections – it makes opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Lets think about this for a minute.

Through art, we can draw people together, we can encourage movement on our streets and in our alleyways. Without that movement, we are at risk. At the 5M Project, people coming to work benefitting from San Francisco’s tech boom have a tendency to walk out the door and turn right. That right turn points them in the direction of renowned restaurants, the financial district, the convention center, and one of the most upscale shopping centers in the country. If those same people turned left, they would encounter the 6th Street corridor, which is known for blight, crime, drugs, and homelessness. It is also a corridor that represents rich and threatened cultural diversity and history. To overplay this a bit, if we don’t turn left and we don’t encounter each other – we can’t make change. If we only turn right, we can so easily further concentrate poverty and social challenges as opposed to creating movement that encourages us all to see each other – to see each other’s problems and challenges as our own. Art encourages movement and connection.

Similarly, without creativity and inspiration how will the kids who go to the neighborhood school – the one with no art and enrichment programs (without Intersection), the one where an extraordinary number of the student population are homeless or marginally housed – how will these kids know about, imagine themselves into, and prepare for the jobs of tomorrow?

Intersection’s role is to develop and implement arts-focused community development strategies that create bridges, provide inspiration, and link squarely into opportunities (internships, jobs, positive economic change).

BARRY:  Looking back on your long tenure at Intersection, what do you think you did that had the greatest impact, and what remains in your mind as important unfinished business?

DEBORAH:  When I came to Intersection, I had no idea what I was doing and I had little formal background in the arts. I was very struck by the fact that an organization that was so venerable could be so fragile, so disconnected from and even irrelevant to its immediate surroundings. I recall being very confused by the way in which arts organizations talked about arts programming and community programming as discrete and separate things. In fact, most often, the community program seemed to exist solely to serve the arts programming. In a very simplistic way, I wondered how the art could thrive if it was not connected to the notion of community. In the arts, we build venues. We want audiences – which requires that people will want to open doors and come inside. Yet, we struggle with how to create community gathering spaces that honor culture and tradition, that allow for artistry and mastery, and that mean enough to enough people that they thrive. My greatest contribution was that I was na├»ve – that I did not understand and in that lack of understanding I imagined that we could build an organization that was not afraid of emphasizing artistry as much as community, one that sought to be fully integrated into the systems that make up its neighborhood, one that is also not afraid to be useful to its community (put differently, one that is not concerned that the art will suffer or lose value if it also embraces its own utility and if it sometimes puts service of community in front of itself).

I could not have known it then, but I know now that this was the beginning of Intersection’s epic journey to the 5M Project and to boldly embracing its mission as an arts-focused community development organization. And, of course, this work is unfinished. It is the historic work of the organization from the early 1960’s when a group of men and women imagined an organization called “The Intersection” – one that would be responsive to its context, one that would commit firmly to pursuing positive social change, and one that would allow intersections, collisions, and experiments.

Leaving Intersection is profound. It is a bold and powerful organization. It is also an organization that had little capacity to take the enormous leap it has taken. Now, though it has not yet caught up to itself, it faces another major transition.  Organizations like this – ones that have contributed to civic life in profound ways – should have cushion, room to experiment and fail. Just as I hope that Intersection illustrates that art and community are integral, that mastery and messy go beautifully together; I hope that arts organizations can come to new more entrepreneurial models that allow them to be creative, responsive, to take risks, and push forth the best ideas.

BARRY:  What are you hoping to do at YBCA in your first six months?

DEBORAH:  Among the many things I hope to do, I want to re-ground the organization in its founding vision. Despite challenges and controversy along the way, today the Yerba Buena Gardens project - which includes YBCA - is an extraordinary example of creative placemaking and community development. It is a synergistic collection of thriving businesses, cultural organizations, vibrant gardens, and a diversity of people living, working, playing, and sometimes struggling together. YBCA was founded to fuel this vision of synergy and connective – to place art and community at the heart not only of this beautiful model for urban change but also at the very center of San Francisco’s civic life.

In whatever we do, I believe we must take pause now and then to reflect on the why – the beginnings. As YBCA contemplates complex questions and opportunities, it should do so by first visiting its founding vision as a community and cultural asset and then redefining that vision in today’s context. This likely means thinking about and improving upon how we are supporting and connecting to the local community. It most certainly means that YBCA will embrace its role as a civic institution – a leading advocate for San Francisco’s creative, cultural and community life.

BARRY:  You have long been involved in the greater SF Bay Area advocacy efforts (as well as the state organization).  This year (finally) saw the first major increase in state funding to the arts in California in a decade - a one time allocation granted by the Speaker of the Assembly.  What do you think should be the arts next step / strategy in trying to secure additional long term funding?

DEBORAH:  I think we have to continue to build networks and coalitions that can be mobilized and that link directly into the major concerns and opportunities facing our State. Arts funding, on its own, is a less compelling and isolated case to make. We have only a few strong and active advocacy networks – including Arts for LA and Arts Forum in San Francisco. We need to link those and cultivate more. From there, we will be more successful employing strategies that integrate the case for the arts into the case for a healthier California. This includes funding arts and arts education, ensuring access to culture and creativity, committing to cross-sector collaborative problem-solving, and building healthier communities.

BARRY:  Yerba Buena’s performing facility is in great demand (particularly by dance companies due to its stage and facilities).  In fact the demand greatly exceeds the availability of the space.  In the past YBCA has tried to balance its availability to both local and out of town companies (that may have a higher profile).  That position has angered some local performance organizations who would like more of the space time available to local artists and arts organizations.  As the new Executive Director, what is going to be your position on this issue?

DEBORAH:  In addition to YBCA’s curatorial programs, it has a Community Rental program that offers discounted and subsidized space and support. It might surprise people to know how much of the time is used by local artists and organizations. Specifically, the actual percentage of use of YBCA by local artists is nearly 75%. Beyond the community partnership program, the curated performance programs have traditionally been composed of 25% local artists and in the 2014-15 season, local artists make up a full third of the curated season. YBCA hired a local artist as its Director of Performing Arts a year ago in part to address this perceived dichotomy. He's clearly moving to make YBCA a global player with a local mission including the institution of a new commissioning program that resources artists' work outside of what's happening inside the YBCA buildings.

Regardless, I worry that this kind of “this or that” dialogue perpetuates perceptions and divides that may not exist and cause us to define too narrowly what a cultural organization can be. I think there are real opportunities to cultivate partnerships, to make YBCA’s space and – beyond space - resources available, and to think not only of YBCA’s facilities, but of San Francisco’s cultural facilities and how we all work together. If we reflect only on what happens in buildings and on stages, we limit the possibilities for cultural centers to cultivate and support local artists well beyond space use. I believe that in today’s world, cultural organizations –especially those that are rooted in bricks and mortar – must first connect to and be part of their immediate communities. YBCA has a role to play in supporting the growth of very important Bay Area artists just as it has a role to play making global connections through artistic exchange and engagement. However, it will not be successful if it is not deeply rooted in its own City and deeply connected to the artists who are illuminating the way.

BARRY:  How do you think San Francisco rates in terms of providing direct services and support to artists, and what do you think YBCA’s role ought to be in the provision of those services?

DEBORAH:  We continue to experience an extraordinary number of artists migrating away. San Francisco is too expensive. Artists lack affordable live and work spaces and access to quality health care. We must work harder to push for policies that ensure that Cities like San Francisco incentivize artists to live, work, and contribute to the creativity and innovation that makes Cities thrive. I think the arts organization of the 21st century should not define itself as a “presenter” or a “producer” or a “service organization,” rather it should think of how all these things work together to create a thriving creative community with more and more people actively participating. I want to be asking questions like: What are the ways in which YBCA can support creative businesses, artists, and community development? What are the incubation, commissioning, and support programs today?

BARRY:  Increasingly, more and more people are taking the position that for far too long a disproportionately large percentage of all funding (especially from the private philanthropic foundation community) has gone to the major cultural organizations, at the expense of the smaller, multicultural organizations, and that such an allocation is inequitable and unfair.  Do you agree or disagree?  And what should be done?

DEBORAH:  Funding should be aimed toward impact and should not be based on entitlement in any direction. I don’t care as much about the size of the organization from a financial standpoint as I care about why it exists and what makes it successful. I worry that by perpetuating notions of big and small based on who has what today only furthers divides and, inevitably, maintains concentrations of wealth and concentrations of need. At the same time, if we are trying to create a strong arts infrastructure across our country where more people are actively participating, expressing themselves, engaging in conversation and collaboration, then we must look at how this infrastructure is supported overall. Ideally, we think more like an eco-system and we spread our resources accordingly. Organizations like Intersection have enormous impact but never receive the boosts in capacity that enable them to grow beyond a certain kind of accepted financial dysfunction. If nothing else, it is an inefficient practice to continue to fund projects while not paying attention to capacity building. I’d suggest that we grow organizations when they are adaptive and responsive. Fund organizations – not only projects - that genuinely represent - in every way - their communities.

BARRY:  IFTA posted one of the best Interim Director job announcements that I have ever seen - in that it was a very comprehensive overview of what needed to be done to effect a smooth transition.  In short, it recognized that staff, volunteers, patrons, supporters, funders, audiences, artists, clients, constituents, community partners and stakeholders all ought to be considered in the transition period and that the usual caretaker Interim Director - whose charge would be limited to keeping the chair warm and putting out the big fires until someone new was hired - would simply NOT be enough.  Why do you think so few organizations take a comprehensive approach to the transition from one leadership to another?  What advice do you have for organizations about to undergo a major leadership change?

DEBORAH:  It is near impossible to anticipate leadership change. It rarely happens at the right time. What Intersection had was a very strong group of organizational thinkers on the Board – real, strategic, and visionary leadership. We must understand the role of Boards and not reduce them only to fundraising entities. These are the leaders who will manage transition. It is in these capable and committed hands that I left Intersection. Without naming names, I would suggest cloning at least a few of them and populating more boards with people who can think strategically, organizationally, and with vision.

BARRY:  What is your assessment of the principal challenges facing the presenting community in San Francisco, and do you have any big ideas about how you might address those issues at YBCA?

DEBORAH:  In some ways, “presenting” (as it is formally understood) is new to me. So – as a slight outsider – I think there may be an inherent challenge in the underlying assumptions. It is harder and harder today to curate experiences that masses of people will choose to participate in. We need to break down the presenting role in a way that allows for people to have a role in the curatorial structure and to gather around inquiry and possibility. Conversations that they can engage with and participate in. For example, YBCA’s approach to performing arts presenting – with Marc Bamuthi Joseph at the helm – is complex and is about creating cross-sector communities who are looking at important questions and challenges. With “Future Soul Think Tank,” Marc assembled a group of thinkers, artists, designers, programmers, scientists to respond to the question “What will Soul look like in the year 2038?” An intimate group of people come together to discuss, debate, and collaborate. The results, thus far, have included related events and a recent community gathering/installation where teams took over as much of the YBCA campus as possible with astounding projects that evoked soul, pushed paradigms, and gathered hundreds and hundreds of people to be with each other, to put their hands on objects, to dance into the future. I want to see more and more of this kind of intentional community-building where the YBCA buildings are less places where you come to watch and more and more places where you come to make, to participate.

BARRY:  What was your last “aha” moment?

DEBORAH:  It was at the SoCAP conference at Fort Mason last week. SoCAP is a world renowned conference dedicated to increasing the flow of capital to social good. It brings together social entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists and global innovators to explore how to accelerate the good economy. Close to 2,000 people participated this year. I worked closely with colleagues at SoCAP and The Hub as well as an amazing new friend – Laura Callanan – to insert artists into a dialogue that is about social impact and social investment. We asked “How can there be a conversation about innovation, social change, and meaningful investment without artists?” During the very last session track of a long and intense conference, a group of artists – Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Jon Moscone, Tareneh Hemami, Lexi Lehban, and Marcus Shelby gathered a standing room only crowd to talk about artists as storytellers and changemakers.  One of the last questions was from an investor who asked “how can we work together to make the case for investment for artists and arts projects?” When the session was over, countless people approached me to say that it was the most inspiring and hopeful conversation that they had participated in all week. One person said, “You get to work with these people every day?” Coming out of an enormous summer of transition, the “aha” was simple. I am deeply grateful. What we know about artists, working in the arts, and devoting ourselves to inspiration and transformation, we must cherish and we must share!

BARRY:  Who are some of the leaders in the arts that you hold in the highest regard and why?

BARRY:  So many people! Claudia Bernardi for her poetic humanity, her bravery. David Dower and Polly Carl for their integrity and courage. Moy Eng because she believes and she puts her full force behind it. Nina Simon for her passionate insistence that we democratize and instigate gatherings across boundaries. Chinaka Hodge for her grace, her leadership, her artistry. Jon Moscone for his willingness to use and risk his own privilege to make change. Marcus Shelby for his commitment to illuminating history. Ken Foster and John Killacky – my predecessors, mentors. Bert Crenca for his absolute vision. Theaster Gates for throwing open a new paradigm for cultural development. Evonne Gallardo because she is sassy as hell. Kate Dumbleton for her ceaseless curiosity and her commitment to the music that brings us together. Adam Fong for pushing new paradigms. Brad Erickson for tireless advocacy. Brett Cook and Evan Bissell for bringing us the faces and the stories. Ricardo Richey for bringing the stories of the street alive. Wendy McNaughton for making maps that show us who we are. Ellen Sebastien Chang for general fearlessness. Junot Diaz because he’s sexy and real. Dave Eggers because he is changing everything. Rhodessa Jones for never wavering. Carlton Turner because he stands firm. My son, Hayden, because he is an artist and a leader and because we should listen to our children! And that is just the beginning . . .

BARRY:  What one policy stance - taken or not taken by the arts field - do you think may come back to haunt the nonprofit arts in the future, and why?

DEBORAH:  In San Francisco, we are experiencing what we are calling the “tech boom.” With it, the rapid escalation of real estate on and around the Central Market corridor that follows decades of talk about making this corridor an arts district. Through City leadership (Mayors Office of Economic Development, Grants for the Arts, the Arts Commission and the San Francisco Foundation), we have made great strides in temporary activation that leads to lasting change. That said, we will (if we don’t already) regret coming up with strong anti-displacement policies for artists and long-standing, grass-roots arts organizations. The good news is that organizations like the Community Arts Stablization Trust (supported by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation) are emerging with proposals for new models for sustaining and growing capacity in our arts community.

BARRY:  What don’t most arts administrators understand and appreciate about support for working artists?

DEBORAH:  Artists need space to experiment, iterate, and develop work with community. We need to emphasize supporting the process as much as the product. We need to think of the life of an idea and not the momentary showing of a product. We need to think of the life of our artists.

BARRY:  You have a lot of experience as a fiscal sponsor.  Has the 501 (c)  (3) model reached the end of its usefulness and what should replace it?

DEBORAH:  I am not a “throw the baby out with the bath water” kind of person. I think the nonprofit and for-profit models have their place in our capitalist paradigm but both can be impproved. The 501C3 is not necessarily the problem. The problem is in not designing strong non-profit business models that support not only programs but also the ability to take risk. We need our nonprofit organizations to build structures that enable them to invest in themselves – invest to prepare for the unknown and to reach for uncertain futures. Fiscal Sponsorship - Model A, B, or C – is a good option that should be better understood and supported. We should be watching the rise of the B Corps and how collectives of designers and artists are tapping into a structure that can provide fluidity but also push for strong business creative models.

BARRY:  How do we go about raising the bar for professional development for both established and emerging arts leaders?

DEBORAH:  I think we have to stop training artists and arts leaders in isolation. To be successful in this world, we have to be fluid – able to speak multiple languages and work with people with very different goals, values and different skill-sets. Arts professional development is often insular and almost promotes isolation and discomfort moving across boundaries and working within “non-arts” contexts or across generations of leadership within the arts.

BARRY:  What ought to be a foundation’s primary strategy in funding the arts?

DEBORAH:  I am not inclined to suggest that all foundation’s should share a primary strategy. Rather, I might suggest that we should be developing strategies that ensure that the arts evolve in a changing world. We should be funding the makers and the delivery systems and think about being less “product” oriented. We need to build capacity in people, communities, and organizations – especially those that have been historically marginalized and, despite that, been carrying the important work forward.

BARRY:  What isn’t the NEA doing that it ought to be doing?

DEBORAH:  Funding individual artists, fiscally sponsored projects, and hybrid approaches. How will we build a future if our national agency does not have its hand on the heartbeat? What does it mean that artists who are changing the world are not able to receive direct funding?

BARRY:  What has been your strategy at IFTA in terms of securing community support and building meaningful relationships with your stakeholders. Do you have any advice you can offer?

DEBORAH:  Strong relationships are mutually beneficial. If we want to be supported, we have to be relevant and necessary to our stakeholders. We have to see our organizations as part of a larger system. What do we bring to that system? Why do we matter?

BARRY:  Increasingly organizations are turning to consultants for a variety of services - including temporary help, research, strategic planning, coaching, training and more.  What are the reasons organizations ought to hire consultants, and what gives you pause over an increase in this trend?

DEBORAH:  There are things that I really needed help with at Intersection that either I couldn’t see clearly or I didn’t have the capacity for.  When I had the luxury of working with a good consultant, whole paradigms shifted. Consultants bring perspective, capacity, and an ability to help work out the most stubborn kinks. We are also in a world where people are increasingly turning away from permanent, full-time employment with one organization. We are losing talent and have to adapt to keep that talent and expertise in our organizations. The flipside of this is that it is expensive and, quite often, we wind up in situations where we are paying consultants to come up with ideas that we can come up with on our own and we lack any implementation capacity.  I hope to see us continue to move in the direction of longer-term relationships that also come with implementation support. For smaller organizations, we often cannot afford to hire the level of expertise we need to get us to the next level. Can consulting relationships sometimes – or, more often – simultaneously result in outside perspective/expertise and inside capacity building?

THANK YOU very much Deborah.  Congratulations on your new post and wishing you every success during your tenure.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit