Sunday, March 30, 2014

Interview with Judi Jennings

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

Bio:  Judi Jennings is the Executive Director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW), a private, independent philanthropy supporting feminist art for social change. Formed in 1985, KFW provides grants and retreat space to feminist social change artists developing new skills and to feminist artists and allies directly engaging with communities to advance justice and equality in Kentucky.

Jennings earned a Ph.D. in British History from the University of Kentucky and continues to research and write on abolitionism and radicalism in the eighteenth-century. She also served as the founding director of the University of Louisville Women’s Center and worked at Appalshop, Inc., a nonprofit multidisciplinary arts and education center in the heart of Appalachia that inspires and supports communities’ to solve their own problems in just and equitable ways.

Here is the interview:

Barry:  The modern feminist movement had its antecedents in the early 20th Century suffrage struggle.  In the 1960’s and 70’s Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and others helped redefine the movement to embrace a host of issues of importance to women’s equality.  How would you define or characterize ‘feminism’ today?  What are the key areas that are most in need of attention?  What successes and what failures?

Judi:  As a recovering academic, I greatly appreciate your references to these s-heroes of the modern women’s movement. Feminist writer Sallie Bingham, who established the Kentucky Foundation for Women, is a personal friend of Gloria Steinem. So the foundation has a direct connection and deep debt of gratitude to women leaders of the 1960s and 70s.

As a social justice historian, I will add that today’s women’s movement goes back much further than the suffragists. Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies appeared in 1405, and de Pizan is an early example of a single working mother. Fast forwarding to the 20th century, it is also important to remember women leaders who worked for racial and economic justice. For example, Ella Baker  and Mary Harris (Mother) Jones are big in my pantheon of feminist s-heroes.

For me, feminism today is an essential component of global efforts to further social justice for all people. My definition of feminism includes female, male and transgender folks working to advance political, economic, cultural and social equality, as well as those focusing on gender equality. I believe that women’s rights and human rights are one and the same. Feminist successes include leading and participating in the ever-growing national and international movements for social justice and making gender justice an essential component of global human rights.  Feminist failure is that we have not yet built the unity necessary to achieve justice and equality for all, even in the US.

Barry:  The mission of the Kentucky Foundation for Women is to “promote positive social change by supporting varied feminist expression in the arts.”   What specifically are the needs of ‘feminist artists’ and are those needs different from the needs of artists in general?  What are the key challenges to women arts administrators?

Judi:  The needs of feminist artists are the same as the needs of all artists, and the needs of all artists are the same as the needs of all humans. Human needs and rights include: safety, respect, a living wage, affordable housing, and the right to cultural expression.

Because of structural inequalities, women in general, and women of color and poor women especially, have less access to resources and opportunities to fulfill their basic human needs. KFW focuses on women and girls in Kentucky to address the systemic inequality here. We focus on feminist expression in the arts because it is a powerful force to reveal inequalities and inspire change.

Women arts administrators face the same challenges as all women, such as unequal pay and racial discrimination. The fact that there are lots of women arts administrators can mask the fact that having more women working for unequal wages may not represent progress. There is also racial inequality in the field of arts administration. So the biggest challenge is advancing equity for all arts administrators because that is the best way to make sure women arts administrators are being treated equally.

Barry:  Obviously, not all women artists define their art as linked to social change.  Why have you focused your energy on that sub-set of artists?

Judi:  Sallie Bingham’s vision for the Kentucky Foundation for Women focused on feminist artists working to advance positive social change. The power of art for social change is not always well understood, but I can see it plainly on the local level and in other places like Kentucky that have a rich culture but a poor economy. Kentucky’s culture has been stereotyped and denigrated to excuse the economic exploitation of our people, but culture and community are still strong here. Feminist artists are drawing on Kentucky culture as a pathway to transformative social change. For example, Mitzi Sinnot’s one-woman play Snapshot, explores themes of race, gender and the impact of the Vietnam War on her and her Appalachian family.

Barry:  The NEA essentially got out of the business of direct support for artists back during the culture wars of the 1990’s. They still haven’t moved in that direction.  What would you like to see the agency do to support artists in general and feminist artists for social change in particular?

Judi:  I would like to see the NEA put in staff time and financial resources to make a national case for the power of arts and culture to advance the public good and to demonstrate the important roles artists play in creating a better quality of life for everyone. The NEA could develop and articulate a theory of change about why support for artists is good for the nation. The NEA could help expand the definition of artists to include culture bearers and community-based artmaking and commit to ensuring equal access to artists everywhere of every background, including feminist social change artists. The NEA could demonstrate its belief in the value of art by reinstating funding for individual artists, either directly or through intermediaries.

Barry:  The issues of equity and racism have gotten substantial play in the past few years with increased funder interest in addressing the inequities.  You’ve written about that issue and argued that “rural” artists and arts organizations are part of the inequity of funding and support too.  What are the specific challenges facing feminist artists of color, and particularly in the rural communities and how do you think those challenges might be best addressed?

Judi:  When you look at structural inequalities of all kinds, including access to philanthropic resources, you can see layers of inequities at play, including, gender, race and geography. Holly Sidford’s report for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shook up the field and startled some by documenting that 2% of arts organizations receive over half of the sector’s total revenue and primarily serve predominantly white and upper income audiences.

Inequities based on geography may be harder to see, depending on where you live, but structural poverty plagues rural areas worldwide.  Rural poverty is often invisible in the US because rural people still do not have equal access to digital communication tools. The Center for Rural Strategies, based in Kentucky, works to build a stronger voice on behalf of rural communities through the innovative use of media and communications. Art of the Rural, a national collaborative organization, is working to articulate the shared realities of rural and urban areas and strengthen the emerging rural art and culture movement.

KFW recently partnered with Art of the Rural to map more than 40 feminist artists in rural areas and small towns in Kentucky working for positive social change.

The Grassroots Women’s Project, for example, is digitally publishing
The Notebook: A Progressive Journal About Women and Girls with Rural and Small Town Roots .   Stories From Da Dirt is a cultural education program based in rural western Kentucky that is bringing to light stories of African American resistance to slavery and female freedom seekers.

The stories of rural women of color are seldom heard in the mainstream media because of the overlapping structural inequalities of race and place. Having access to communication tools to tell your own story is a powerful part of social change. Creating new platforms for a wider array of people’s stories is an essential step in addressing inequalities and creating new pathways for advancing social justice.

Barry:  While Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have paid lip service to support for the arts, the arts remain, as Bill Ivey observed in farewell remarks after leaving the NEA, “the province of the East Wing” (the First Lady’s domain as opposed to the West Wing where policy is made) - the inference being that the “arts” are (only) women’s work (in the most pejorative sense).  Do you think a female President of the United States would really change that reality?  How do we deal with marginalization of the arts?

Judi:  A female President of the US could definitely change current realities.  Look at
Annise Parker, the Mayor of Houston, for example. She recently announced an exciting new cultural plan with substantial funding for the arts.

She is a woman who obviously understands the power of arts and culture. I believe this kind of consciousness is a better determinant in lifting up art and culture than the President’s gender, however. I also believe that transformative change requires local participation as well as a strong national leader.

Arts policy blogger Arlene Goldbard is a leading voice for creative ways to address the marginalization of the arts. I love how she is working with Adam Horowitz to develop the idea of a US Department of Arts and Culture!

I agree with Ken Wilson of the Christensen Fund that a too narrow definition of the arts is a major contributor to marginalization, Wilson argues that,  “One of the challenges is that art tends to be defined as creativity professionalized and separated from daily life. It is important to study the cultural dimension to arts funding which includes how people live with creativity and traditions in their daily life.

Barry:  What would you like to see your fellow philanthropic foundation colleagues do to be more supportive of artists in general, and feminist artists in particular?

Judi:  I would like to see my colleagues take more time to understand how arts and culture philanthropy itself may be perpetuating systemic inequalities that can have negative impacts on people of color and poor people. Inequalities in arts and cultural funding are often attributed to standards of “quality,” but I believe it is really more about power than aesthetics. The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond  compares structural inequalities to a big foot kicking communities in the backside. PISB challenges philanthropists to conduct our own power analysis to see how arts and cultural programs we fund may be part of that big foot. I believe the most important thing we can do as funders is to analyze our own practices and assumptions to be sure we are providing equitable access to all communities.

Barry:  How do you nurture innovation and risk taking by your grantees?

Judi:  KFW funds mostly individual artists in a state where many people still know each other personally. KFW tells the feminist artists we fund that we believe in them and the power of their work to create change. The artists tell us all the time that this affirmation is as important as the money we give. We believe in the power of small grants, so artists can try out new ideas and take chances. We do not require a work sample for our retreat program, so artists can experiment with new forms and ideas. In the grant program, we accept their definition of risk and innovation in their own context instead of imposing some artificial standard.  Last year, for example, Afrilachian (African American and Appalachian) writer Bianca Spriggs and photographer Angel Clark presented a courageous performance piece and installation honoring 13 women and girls who were lynched in Kentucky in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Barry:  Assess the current level of collaboration and cooperation by and between funders to address the needs of women artists, and what might be done to promote more collaboration and cooperation in address their needs?

Judi:  I believe that grant seekers are connecting the dots between funders more quickly than philanthropies are at this point. A local elected official in Louisville, for example, commissioned an artist in her neighborhood, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, to transform an abandoned apartment building into a symbol of the rebirth of their distressed community.  By doing this work, the artist learned about KFW and subsequently applied for and received a grant for her studio work.

Some national foundations are beginning to be more intentional about reaching out to artists in states like Kentucky. The Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York, for example, identifies nominators across the US to submit names for their Painters and Sculptors Grant Program.  In 2013, talented painter and KFW grantee Gaela Erwin received one of their $25,000 grants.

KFW staff works with independent peer panels to make recommendations about funding decisions to our Board of Directors. We often ask foundations who share our mission, like the Leeway Foundation to recommend artists to participate on our review panels. It takes time, energy and respect for artists and cultural workers in a wide variety of locations and contexts to make collaboration work, but these are encouraging signs of what can be done.

Barry:  Are you satisfied with the level of focus on feminist artists in the burgeoning field of art and social change, and what more needs to be done to insure that women artists are fully seated at the table where art and social change is discussed?

Judi:  Thanks for asking this question because it is an important one, but I would like to widen it to include all practitioners having access to that table. I believe that it is crucially important for artists and cultural workers from all backgrounds to be included in discussions about funding, especially when the subject is social change. However, some funders are not comfortable with those who may be or become grantseekers as part of their discussions. The newly formed Art, Culture and Social Justice Network that I am part of welcomes practitioners as well as funders in their discussions. The Steering Committee includes strong women artists, such as Tufara Waller Muhammad, a cultural organizer for the Highlander Center. The best way to make sure feminist artists are at the table is to work for equal access for all.

Barry:  What role ought feminist artists who are committed to social change play in the overall ‘placemaking’ efforts of the arts?  Are feminist artists seated at those tables?

Judi:  Feminist artists in Kentucky are doing the hard work of placemaking in their communities every day with very little funding or recognition from mainstream power brokers. For example, Arwen Donahue is creating an on-going online journal, which also includes sketches, about her life on a family farm in a small rural community. She is also doing a series of oral history interviews exploring the work of Kentucky’s agrarian writers. Her work is not only placemaking in her home community, but also about making the power of rural art and cultural more visible nationally and globally.

Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, has made great contributions to the field with his thoughtful analysis of placemaking.  An important theme in Beodya’s work is placemaking and the politics of belonging. Kentucky writer bell hooks also writes about belonging: a culture of place, and the theme is explored in Arwen Donohue’s journal. In my experience, much of the current national placemaking efforts are funder-driven and disconnected from many artists and cultural workers at the community level. These funder-led initiatives have their own economic systems and leadership that too often do not often intersect or support the work that feminist social change artists are doing in their communities.

Barry:  Who are the leaders of the movement to support women artists and are they carrying forth that banner effectively?

Judi:  First and foremost, I salute Martha Richards of WomenArts who truly has worked tirelessly in the fields of arts and women’s philanthropy locally and nationally to hold up the importance of supporting women artists. For example, she is the brain behind the idea of SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now), a day devoted to locally organized celebrations of women’s culture and creativity. There have been more than 1,000 events in 23 countries since Martha invented SWAN Day seven years ago.

Philanthropic siloes have created largely separate fields for funding the arts and funding women.  As far as I know the Kentucky Foundation for Women and our sister fund, the Leeway Foundation led by Denise Brown, are the only two philanthropic organizations in the US entirely focused on funding women and the arts (WomenArts is not yet a grantmaking organization).

Denise Brown and I are both active in the Art, Culture and Social Justice Network. As you have given me the opportunity to say throughout this interview, I believe the most effective way to advance equitable funding for women artists is to work for equitable funding for all artists.

Barry:  What are the qualities of leadership that we need more of in our field?  What makes for an effective leader?

Judi:  I had the honor of co-editing a book about the most effective leader I know, Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia.  Helen took part in the YWCA’s desegregation efforts in Georgia in the 1940s; earned a Ph.D in sociology and spoke out against the environmental devastation of Appalachia in the 50’s and 60s; inspired the development of Appalachian studies in the 70s; and worked at the Appalshop arts and education center and the Highlander Research and Education Center in the 80s and 90s. Although now retired, Helen still writes and speaks out for social justice, for example, calling for a moral economy for Appalachia 

Helen sets high standards for effective leadership in all fields and enacts the qualities I think we need more of in our own.  Here are a few: humility; faith in the power of all people to make their lives better given equal opportunities; a strong moral compass; sense of humor; focus on achieving social change rather than recognition. Plus she is a great cook, likes to travel and loves to dance. What more can I say?

Barry:  You’ve talked before about “scale” as being principally governed by local factors and that it ought to be considered and judged on those local considerations.  But in a wider sense, how do we move support for individual artists (all artists) to a much larger support base?  Is such widespread support merely an aggregation of localized efforts, or is it something bigger and more complex?

Judi:  Great question! My theory of social change is that lasting transformational change must begin at the local level and cannot happen top down. I wrote a book on a small committee of men who wanted to abolish the British slave trade in 1784, when very few people agreed. Four of them lived to see Parliament vote to end the trade in 1807

Transformational change from the bottom up is not just about aggregating localized efforts, although that is a very important step. A bigger part of the equation is about building, connecting and transforming at every level of engagement. Margaret Mead, perhaps most famously, never doubted that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens could change the world. To quote Ken Wilson again, the Christensen Fund operates globally but understands that  “you don’t get transformational results without engaging at the community level.” The Seventh Generation Fund operates globally by connecting indigenous people around the world working for local change.

Regional social justice organizations like AppalshopAlternate ROOTS, and the Highlander Research and Education Center play major roles in building transformational connections throughout the South and other parts of the nation and world. The process of connecting localities involves identifying shared structural inequities and finding synergies. For example, demonstrating how building a for-profit prison in Appalachia affected Hawaiian women who were housed there.

Arts and Democracy is a decentralized network that works nationally to build the growing movement linking arts and culture, participatory democracy and social justice. Through their network-building approach, they are connecting community-based creative practice with policymaking and systemic change.

Barry:  What successes (yours or those of others) gives you optimism that there is meaningful understanding and support for the value of artists and the arts in America?

Judi:  I am very optimistic about meaningful change through arts and culture in our country. Here are three great examples:

The Detroit-based Allied Media Projects.  AMP cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative and collaborative world. And they also work in a way that honors community-based and intergenerational work.

MicroFest USA presented by the Network of Ensemble Theatres, a series of four local explorations of the similarities and differences in place-based artmaking advancing social justice in Detroit, Appalachia, New Orleans and Hawaii.

Junebug Theatre’s 50th anniversary of The Free Southern Theatre, designed by John O’Neal, Doris Derby and Gilbert Moses as a cultural and educational extension of the Civil Rights movement in the US South.  Who knew that Roscoe Orman, who plays Gordon on Sesame Street, was one of the courageous actors in the early days of the theatre?

Barry:  Conversely, what worries you most about the continued marginalization of the value of the arts by the American public?

Judi:  I am most worried about the corporatization of more and more aspects of American life. Fueled by consumerism and out and out greed, corporatization seeps forward into government services, higher education, health care and even the nonprofit sector. I am proud to say community-based arts and culture is a major site of resistance to these pernicious corporatizing processes.

Barry:  There are programs out there that are trying to nurture and support young women in their pursuit of an artistic career. The League of American Orchestras newly announced initiative to increase early career women composers through a series of orchestral readings and commissions - in cooperation with Ear Shot and funded by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation Program for Commissioning Women in the Performing Arts being but one specific example.  What other notable projects would you cite as focusing on young women artists, and what is being done to try to provide mentorship of those younger women by the more established women artists in the field?

Judi:  Hurray for the Viriginia B. Toulmin Foundation! That is an exciting new program!
Most of the mentoring programs for women artists that I know about are field-based rather than funder-based. This is another good reason why it is important for funders to interact with the field. A few strong discipline-based programs that I know about are:  Women Make Movies,  the International Center for Women Playwrights , and the Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College in Chicago.

Anticipating your next question to some extent, I would like to put in a plug for youth-based programs like The Kentucky Center Governor’s Schools for the Arts.  Although this program is not focused on girls only, I see many young feminists finding their voices, deepening their artistry and embracing their identities as artists and cultural workers through the opportunity to interact with peers who appreciate their talents.
The Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop provides young people in the coalfields with opportunities to tell the stories that matter to them. The Institute focuses on how young people can be engaged in their communities and advance positive social change through place-based mediamaking.

Barry:  Do feminist artists of social change have a role in arts education and what is that role?

Judi:  Yes, definitely. Many artists and cultural bearers who receive grants from KFW’s Art Meets Activism program are doing arts education both inside and outside schools. By this time, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I believe this kind of intergenerational arts interaction is most powerful at the community level. Here are a few examples:

A teacher started an after-school writing program for middle school girls, who write about and discuss such important issues as bullying, anger management, relationships and compassion.

In an Appalachian area of Kentucky, two feminists are conducting monthly Artisan Women Retreats, community gatherings focused on learning more about the craft traditions, like quiltmaking and gourd art, that have long defined the region but are in danger of disappearing with the current generation of elders.

In far western Kentucky, a classically trained teacher at a regional university is bringing together young dancers of all levels of physical ability from rural schools and communities to create public performances that build bridges through dance

Barry:  Assess the current situation in research and data collection as the same relates to women artists and feminist artists.  What kinds of information and data do we need more of, and what advice do you have for the arts research community?

Judi:  There is a huge dearth of demographic information, including race and gender, relating to arts and cultural funding in this country. Moreover, individuals, small organizations and fiscal agents are not included in large-scale data collection. The arts research community could work with local funders and state arts agencies to collect a wider spectrum of information relating to all artists and to grantmaking with awards of less than $10,000. National arts and cultural policymaking efforts are incomplete without this information. How can we even have a meaningful national conversation about equity and appropriate levels of scale without this information?

Barry:  In the earliest days of the modern feminist movement, a percentage of men, (and women too) were put off and threatened by the rhetoric.  One might argue that we’ve come a long way, but it is still a white male dominated society so one might also argue that the progress has been slow and marginal.  What is your take on how far we have come and how far we have to go?

Judi:  Yes, I know feminist rhetoric has sometimes been off putting. Many women of my generation, including me, learned that the hard way. In the 1970s, some of us hurt and alienated our middle class friends who gave up their careers to stay home with their children only to feel devalued by the women’s movement. A hard lesson learned.

But mainly I think feminism is scary now because just saying the word is a call for structural social change, and change is scary. Recognizing feminism means being willing to give up the race, class and gender privilege you may currently enjoy. So it is way easier for bigots like Rush Limbaugh to make fun of feminists than it is to really look at the inequalities that feminists are pointing to. I really believe the backlash to feminism now is a testament to the growth of the national movement for equality for all.

I acknowledge, too, that feminists don’t always make the case for across the board equality for all (especially including underprivileged white men). So some people see us as a special interest group rather than a social justice ally. So we social justice feminists just need to keep on being more explicit that we stand for equality for all people.

Barry:  Who inspires you and why?

Judi:  Helen Matthews Lewis (see above)

Grace Lee Boggs is 98 and still speaking out for justice and equality. A philosopher and civil rights activist, her book The Next American Revolution is a must read for those who believe in the power of art and culture for social change.

Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. Nikky lived and worked in Kentucky for many years before returning home to South Carolina last year. She embodies in her life and every day actions the powerful words she spoke to the nation.

Afrilachian writer and KFW community member Frank X Walker winning the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Poetry for his new book Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.  Frank is the current Poet Laureate of Kentucky and writes powerful poetry memorializing local and national African American heritage.

The 2014 Girls IdeaFestival happening in Louisville this spring. The Louisville Girls Leadership program is made up of high school students from across our community who work together on creative solutions to the challenges faced by young women here. One of the girls recently wrote an op-ed for our newspaper explaining why she is a feminist.

Thank you Judi.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Came First: The Chicken or the Egg; The Question or the Answer

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

I have a morning routine.  I suspect virtually everyone does.   Some people stretch first, or brush their teeth or shower.  Others like me, make their coffee.  Then over a cup I peruse my emails.  Delete the spam, respond to some.  Some people go to their online news site of choice first to catch up with the world, check the traffic or the weather; others go to their Facebook page, still others to their own websites.  Going online has become part of the morning routine all across the globe.

I wonder if the patterns of early morning online activity differ from place to place, or among cohort groups like one generation as compared to another?  Do women approach morning online activity differently than do men?  Do people in the East have different patterns than those in the West?  Do those in rural communities have different morning online priorities from their urban brethren?  Whatever the approach, whatever our morning routine consists of, we very likely develop a pattern that changes little over time.  We get into a habit, and habits allow us to manage our time and organize our lives.  These habits simplify things for us.

I think we very likely get into routines based on habit and patterns in our thinking too.  And once set, it isn't always so easy to change.

The older I get the more it seems to me that too much time is spent on diving into the challenges we face and moving boldly forward in trying to arrive at solutions to problems and answers to questions.  Human beings seem to abhor vacuums; they seem to deplore hanging questions without answers, challenging problems without solutions.  Such vagaries and uncertainties assault our sense of control and leave us feeling powerless or incomplete.  If we have something unresolved, we want to identify it and get it resolved as quickly as we can.

I have come to believe that one of the keys to success is not necessarily knowing the answers to the questions that we face, but rather what questions to ask in the first place.  Or those important follow up questions that too often seem to go by the wayside.  I think we too often approach problems and challenges with a habitually formed mindset that may be counter productive.  Plagued by a kind of sense of urgency in having to solve a problem or meet a challenge, our first instinct is to trot out not only the solutions our minds are predisposed to embrace (based on prior thinking and experience), but to cling to well established (in our minds) processes for arriving at solutions and answers, when what might yield better results would be to focus on asking more questions about a given challenge.  I think too often our rush to solve a problem, leads us down the wrong road with the result of often pursuing the wrong solution.

Take the typical meeting.  When the topic of some challenge or problem comes up, those assembled typically already have preconceived notions and ideas about both the nature of the challenge and possible solutions.  Rarely does the meeting focus on asking more questions first.  Brainstorming is inherently about arriving at solutions, and too often that process doesn't focus on somehow asking more of the right questions first.  It doesn't seem to matter whether or not we fully understand the complexities of the problem itself, we need only to know it is a problem.

I suspect asking the 'right' questions is a skill that, like other skills, needs to be honed over time.  It needs to be prioritized and valued.  I'm not sure, but I think it is a skill that can, to at least some extent, be taught.  Asking the right questions before settling on the solution would, I think, save time and result in a more informed solution that had a better chance of succeeding.  Forsaking the process of fully vetting all the possible questions that loom behind some challenges, often leads us to approaches based on the limited experience of our own silos and the prejudices and biased thought processes that come from a reliance on habitual thinking patterns.

So how do we shift the emphasis from solutions to questions - at least at the outset of the process of trying to grapple with the challenges we face?

I think one of the critical variables is to listen better.  Too often we are so enamored with our own preconceived ideas of what to do that we don't truly consider where that thinking may be flawed.  It seems axiomatically more difficult to frame the right questions if you are wedded to what a given solution might be - even before we fully appreciate the nature of the challenge.

I read an article recently about a restaurant in Brooklyn called 'EAT'  that has a "no talking" policy a couple of nights a week.  People order their menu choices, and from that point forward nobody says anything.  The idea seems to be to focus on the food and the atmosphere and enjoy the experience without the interruption of everyday conversation and the cacophony of sound that detracts from the meal experience itself.  This is a hard idea for me to get my head into.  I go out to eat at restaurants with friends or colleagues precisely because I want the enjoyment of convivial conversation.  Despite the reality that the conversation is more often than not mundane and centers on simply catching up with each other's lives or talking on superficial levels about current happenings locally or globally, it is the interchange with other people that complements the meal.  And every once in awhile the conversation is even substantive and yields new thoughts and thinking.  How can you listen better if there is no dialogue at all?  I am sure this is probably just a trendy gimmick of the moment; an indulgence sure to pass.  (Too bad the obligation of silence that governs most arts venues is not also a momentary 'trend', rather than the sacrosanct condition of entrance that it has become, but that is a whole other subject.)

Yet the idea intrigues me - if for no other reason than it is something out of the ordinary.   I imagine transferring that idea to our attempts to deal with our problems.  What if, for example, you had a meeting wherein a power point presentation focused on a challenge and tried to highlight the various component parts of that challenge - setting forth what was known about the problem and what it was doing to the things you value - but no one said anything.  What if you then reconvened the meeting attendees a day later and then focused on simply asking questions about the problem, with no one talking about any possible solutions?  I wonder if that might be an interesting experiment that might later yield some new thinking on how to approach the problem.  I wonder if the shift from what one has to say, to not saying anything at all, would alter the processes of how we think about things.

What if you had a conference session that took that approach?  A problem and all its various attributes is presented in pictures and on screen words, but no one says anything.  Then the same people reconvene the next day and try to figure out what questions need to be asked before discussing ideas to address the problem.  Would Day #2 end up a more productive session?  Does it make any sense to experiment with ways to break with patterns of thinking as a precursor to arriving at smart questions that ought to be asked before any attempt to settle on possible solutions to problems?

I worry sometimes that we in the arts are engaging too much in a "nation building" approach to the challenges we face.  Rather than question who we are, what we do and why, we embrace strategies that seek to change the external environment, focusing the solution on the world outside of ourselves.  We try to apply and impose our own critical judgments and conclusions on the outside world and mold that external reality to what we envision as the ideal.  I am not a fan of foreign policy nation building efforts and believe that from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan our attempts to mold other cultures into our vision of democracy hasn't worked out as we might have hoped, and has, arguably, caused greater problems for us in the long term.   I wonder if we in the arts are sometimes guilty of trying to do the same thing - to mold an external marketplace and public reality into something it is inherently unwilling, or incapable of doing (at least on fundamental levels).  I wonder if we are asking the wrong questions in adoption of this kind of approach.

We seem to cling to the Field of Dreams "If you build it, they will come" mentality, and that approach hasn't come anywhere near yielding a reality which we had hoped for.  I wonder if we had spent more time asking more questions if we would have ended up with a different approach.  (More on this topic in a future blog………………)

Have a great week.  Ask more questions.

Don't Quit

Sunday, March 16, 2014

2014 Symposium on Creativity and Innovation in Public Education - Impressions from the Attendees

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

I couldn't attend last week's Westaf / CAC / Frank Gehry sponsored Symposium on Creativity and Innovation (in Public Education) due to traveling, so I asked several people if they would share their base impressions - not necessarily a line by line recap of what was said, but rather their strongest take-aways from the event.

Here first is Symposium Director Bryce Merrill's (WESTAF) introductory note:

The 2014 WESTAF symposium was streamed live and will soon be available as a video archive; we will also publish the proceedings online. I would encourage everyone interested in the topic to peruse the symposium readings, watch and rewatch the presentations, and contact the participants to have longer, deeper conversations about creativity and innovation in public education.

One concept presented at the symposium that provides a fitting framework for reflecting on organizing this event is James Haywood Rolling Jr.’s “swarm intelligence.” Rolling Jr. presented a view of creativity as a swirling, collective, and sometimes chaotic process--think of creativity as murmuration of starlings. To encourage creativity is to foster collaboration and interaction, not individualization and isolation. Applied to educational instruction, Rolling Jr. argues that a swarming classroom is a creative classroom.

The 2014 symposium was certainly organized by a swarm, with WESTAF, the California Arts Council, and Frank Gehry Partners (represented by Malissa Shriver) actively and sometimes chaotically collaborating to make the event a success. WESTAF alone has been organizing these symposia for more than 15 years, and we have a reliable system for doing so. Collaborating on this symposium challenged our typical way of doing things, but with favorable results. For example, the CAC and Gehry Partners wanted to make this typically closed event, where scholars engage with each other instead of outside audiences, a public one. The CAC arranged to have the event streamed (with thanks to Charter Communications) and Gehry Partners accommodated as many people in their studio as possible. While the live streaming was not picture-perfect, and the fifty in-house observers could have used more leg room, we were ultimately able to include a much broader audience for the presentations. And, as my welcome letter to the symposium reminded observers, WESTAF symposia are meant to open academic-level conversations to a broad field of practitioners and advocates, without sacrificing the sophistication of the content. With the help of the swarm, I believe we succeeded in fulfilling our mission and creating a new, more public space for the symposium!

Another novel arrangement at this symposium was the addition of a workshop on the third day that connected the symposium participants directly to a specific arts research and policy project. CREATE CA is a statewide initiative to advance arts and creative education in California led by the California Department of Education, California Arts Council, California Alliance for Arts Education, and the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. Symposium participants--broadly speaking, all experts on creativity--were invited to review the project, including its unique partnership structure (based on organizational principles of Collective Impact) and substantive objectives (embedding arts in common core, ballot measures to increase funding for arts and creative education, and so on). CREATE planning partners were then invited to engage with the participants in a facilitated dialogue about how the scholarship of creativity might inform the CREATE initiative. Themes from the previous day’s symposium were reiterated in the conversation, including the importance of recognizing the creative potential of all students and the academic notion that concepts like “creativity” are defined and redefined in multiple, often contested ways, depending on the disciplinary orientation of the researcher. This latter point is important for practitioners who often bemoan a lack of concept standardization--when trying to advance a policy to support creativity, it is helpful to know what it is! These exchanges--and many more!--between the symposium scholars and CREATE CA organizers were helpful for understanding the applied value of excellent scholarship.

WESTAF also encouraged the symposium presenters and CREATE CA organizers to view the symposium as the beginning of a lasting relationship. Many of the presenters expressed admiration and enthusiasm for the CREATE initiative, and offered to help shape its future in whatever ways possible. Certainly one workshop could not afford the amount of time and attention needed to thoroughly and thoughtfully advise on the development of this project, one that is complex and has several moving political, empirical, and ideological parts. However, for WESTAF, the point of the workshop and symposium was to ignite a dialogue with individuals (academics, policy makers, practitioners) that can make important contributions when included in the process.

I should also note that there we many individuals that would have been excellent contributors to the symposium but could not participate for scheduling reasons. The organizing partners of the symposium have a list of additional experts and thought-leaders to consult on CREATE CA beyond the outstanding group that attended the symposium.

Many of WESTAF’s values as an organization were on display at this symposium. We are fundamentally committed to using established and excellent scholarship to advance the arts field. We believe that when it comes to arts research, accuracy should never be compromised for the sake of advocacy. WESTAF also supports the progressive innovation of state arts agencies. Partnering with the CAC on this symposium supported the CAC’s efforts to become a thought-leader in the arts in California. Advancing the field through public-private partnerships is a core strategy advocated by WESTAF, and collaborating with Gehry Partners on this event further demonstrated the efficacy of this approach. Finally, WESTAF strives to keep up with--or stay ahead of--the times, taking risks and challenging status quos to better support the arts. This symposium intended to infuse arts education conversations with cutting edge research and programming on creativity and innovation. To that end, this was not an arts education conference; it was one that creatively looked to the future of arts in education through the lens of creativity and innovation.

Here are three attendee reports:

Dalouge Smith - President and CEO San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory

All people are creative.

This assumption underpinned much of the discussion at WESTAF’s “Creativity and Innovation in Public Education” symposium in Los Angeles earlier this month. Two of the nation’s most prolific and creative artists, Frank Gehry and Herbie Hancock said it. Academics and practitioners in the room said it. Even The Bible says it.

The first chapter in the book of Genisis describes Gods actions over and over as those of a creator. Before the chapter ends it states, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The only image we have of God at this point is the image of a creator. If mankind is created in God’s image then all mankind must also be creators.

I accept this statement that all people are creative like I accept geometry theorems. In case you’re geometry is rusty: a theorem is a general proposition not self-evident but proved by a chain of reasoning or a truth established by means of accepted truths.

Theorems provide us with two choices. We can spend time attempting to prove them or we can apply them to new problems. I found much of the discussion at the Symposium focused on measuring and proving creativity. Several references to the application of creativity were mentioned but it wasn’t until late in the day that Joel Slayton directly posed the question, “To what end is creativity applied?”

Upon further reflection, I started to realize that what struck me most about the day’s dialogue were the factors identified as most associated with creative behavior, not the descriptions or measurements of creative behavior and thinking. I heard three key factors that contribute to people having robust and mature creative processes surface repeatedly: motivation/passion/agency, skills/aptitudes, and breadth of experience and knowledge.

Self agency and intrinsic motivation were separately mentioned by Professors Mark Runco and James Catterall. Additionally, Julie Fry of the Hewlett Foundation described this as “belief in one’s own creativity empowers us with agency.” Professor Robert Bilder referenced the drive and emotion necessary to persist despite struggles. With self agency, anxiety over risk is mitigated while passion continues to drive action.

Accumulating skills, aptitudes, and knowledge provides individuals with tools to apply and adapt as they are confronted with challenges and opportunities. James Catterall named this “Means” in his presentation. Gerald Richards described how his organization 826 National imparts writing skills that participating children can then manipulate toward creative ends. Similarly, Lorne Buchman emphasized the level of aesthetic and technical skill students entering Art Center College of Design must demonstrate through their portfolio to simply achieve admission. Once admitted, they continue acquiring skills and practice application of their skills to “form focused problem solving.”

In addition to the vertical achievement of specialized skills, developing a breadth of experience and knowledge from other disciplines will extend the range of creative output a person can achieve. This was most explicitly highlighted by Professor Robert Root-Bernstein’s presentation on the polymath nature of Nobel and MacArther Award winners. Particularly in the sciences, these award winners have experience and training in many more subjects, including the arts, at much higher percentage rates than non-winners in their same filed. The data he and his research partner (and wife) Michelle offer may be the most compelling we have for promoting STEAM education instead of STEM.

One factor that didn’t include evidence to suggest its importance to exercising creativity but must not be ignored is empathy. Lorne Bachman highlighted this late in the day when he added that Art Center College of Design expects its students to study the humanities and human experience so they are practiced at exercising empathy even as they problem solve.

Days after the WESTAF symposium, Yo Yo Ma answered questions at Harvard’s Kennedy School and affirmed the key points I took away from the Symposium. He spoke of how easy playing the cello was for him even as a child and this motivated him to solve technical problems on his own. He spoke of learning the importance of moving past technique to discovering his own sound on the instrument. He advised the students in attendance to lift their heads out of the specific specialty they were pursing so they could see and participate in the wider world around them.  Finally, he described how his sensitivity to different cultural experiences and points of view was developed through his study of anthropology while an undergraduate even as he continued to study music. (

Bill O’Brien of the NEA pointed out at the symposium that “Trying to isolate the impact of arts education without reference to the larger system is to miss the point of its integrated presence.” I believe the same is true of creativity. I encourage us to stop wondering if we are successfully teaching creativity. Creativity needn’t be taught.

All people are creative.

Children need to be given the tools and experiences necessary for practicing creativity. This means ensuring every child discovers what motivates them, has opportunities to develop their skills to the highest degree possible in this motivating activity, is stretched to learn skills and have experiences in a variety of additional subjects, and has exposure to the breadth of human experience so they develop the empathy necessary to apply their creativity to the benefit of society and the world.

Making this happen requires us all to reach new heights with our own of creativity!

Cora Mirikitani - President and CEO - Center for Cultural Innovation-

I was pleased to attend the full-day WESTAF cultural policy symposium on “Creativity and Innovation in Public Education” on March 4, 2014 at the Frank Gehry Partners, LLC studio in Los Angeles.  This was the 15th such symposium convened by WESTAF, designed to bring scholars and practitioners together to offer critical thinking and exchange on intractable issues in the arts.  The format of the day was organized around 14 key presenters – primarily scholars – sharing knowledge and perspectives about research and policy work needed to advance creativity and innovation in public education.  Roughly 60 observers (including me) also crowded into the room to hear the proceedings first-hand along with a substantial virtual audience beaming in via a live streaming webcast, courtesy of the California Arts Council and Charter Communications.

With so many arts people in the audience it was interesting to hear the discussion framed under the banner of “creativity” and not the “arts,” per se, as there are many in our field who still think of these as synonymous (they aren’t).  With a topic so large, the conversation was often dense but always rich, offering up many nuggets of information and interesting takeaways.  Here are just a few:
There isn’t full agreement on the definition of creativity but a critical mass of scientific and research-based evidence is emerging demonstrating creativity as a key factor in good educational outcomes.
Developing educational policies and practices promoting creativity is hard, because individual creativity often goes against the norm, threatens power and lives at the edge of chaos – a disruptive state that is unwelcomed by most educational and political institutions.

Universal systems for evaluating and measuring the impact of creativity in education are not in place, hindering policy development and necessary advocacy efforts with parents, boards of education and legislators.

At the same time, there is on-the-ground evidence that artists and the arts are successfully creating innovative products, community engagement and social outcomes – often accelerated by innovative collaborations between the arts, science and technology.

There is admittedly a huge amount of information to digest in order to fully wrap your brain around this discussion.  Happily, WESTAF plans to publish the proceedings from this symposium, as they have in the past, and I was informed by Anthony Radich that presentations captured from the live streaming broadcast may be posted on the WESTAF website as well.  Did we solve any problems at the symposium?  Not really.  But to paraphrase one participant, because communication among the scholars and stakeholders in this issue has been a problem, convenings like this play an important role in moving the dialogue forward.

Joe Landon - Executive Director, California Alliance for Arts Education

1500 accountants can¹t be wrong.

In his prepared remarks, Steven Tepper from Vanderbilt University, referenced a study which asked 3000 accountants whether they considered their work to be "creative". 1500 responded that they did.

In her prepared remarks, Julie Fry, from the Hewlett Foundation, described growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, where a solid dose of arts education was part of the staple every child received in school. That exposure influenced the direction of her life, leading to her work as a program office focused on arts and arts education. But she wondered aloud about her fellow students, who shared the same educational experience and went on to work in the local factory for the rest of their lives.

I couldn¹t help but connect the two narratives to the work we do advocating for access to arts education for every child. Our conviction is that exposure to the arts better prepares every person to live a more
fulfilling life, in which they experience their role as "participant" in the direction of their journey, not simply the victim of external circumstance.

To recognize one¹s relationship to creativity requires exposure to creative opportunities. Out of those opportunities one discovers what it¹s like to make decisions, based entirely on one¹s personal judgment. Those judgments can lead to deeper connections including moments of inspiration.

Or, they can simply mean that one is connected to one¹s aesthetic judgment in a way that determines why a particular song or pair of pants 'works for you' and another doesn't. I know of no better way to expose a student to that inner journey than through arts education. And that is why we advocate that arts education must be a component of the education that EVERY child receives.

My heart goes out to those other 1500 accountants.

Finally, Joe also forwarded me a poem written by Francisca Sanchez (compiled from quotes of what people said at the event):

"let's build a city
in honor of frank gehry, herbie hancock, and malissa shriver

let's build a city that sings community a biography of creativity
where genius flowers in the hands and minds and hearts of our geography
where imagination like an exquisite bird of paradise rises wild
with beauty and daring choreography at every intersection of our words

let's build a city that embraces grace and fearless artistry
where young people congregate to declare war on uninspired fate
where they break the rules with unrelenting joy and curiosity
and construct elegant answers to questions of their own divine design

let's build a city that once and for all discards denial and duplicity
where chain link will never be the unexamined aesthetic of choice
where radical connectivity conquers fear and hate with cool disregard
and silenced generations regain their participatory voice

let's build a city past stability to the far edge of chaos
where we can see anew under the ecstasy of undiscovered stars
where we will master the logic of what might be and then
know once more what it is to be fully human again

let's build a city that is not bound by any known architecture
where freedom provokes clarity and a measure of collective adventure
where, like with jazz, we improvise and find our way past insoluble
while our unbridled exploration shapes the multiple dimensions of our play

let's build a city where intrepid dreamers celebrate creativity¹s
a place where we are illuminated by our own burning brilliance
where days make room for the double swirls of life¹s dialectics
that like fierce eagles glide by on curled breaths of lifting air

let's build a city of juxtaposed possibilities and inspired invention
where our art is that we know from making and make to know
where without warning ideas spark spontaneous combustion
and the collage of our deconstructed lives re-members our humanity

yes, let's build a city where justice can come home again"

francisca sánchez
© 2014

Thank you Bryce, Dalouge, Cora, Joe and Francisca.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Predictors When Hiring - Another Lesson from the Sharks in Silicon Valley

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

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on February 22, 2014 recounted an interview by Adam Bryant with Lazlo Bock (the guy in charge of doing the hiring at Google) noting "that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. ... We found that they don’t predict anything.

Friedman goes on to quote Bock saying:

"For every job, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive. 
The second, he added, “is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.” 
What else? Humility and ownership. “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, to try to solve any problem — and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.” And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, says Bock, it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.” What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time. 
The least important attribute they look for is “expertise.” Said Bock: “If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills. Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, he said, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that."

Should we, in the arts, question what criteria we are using in our new hires?  Should we move away from "experience" and "education" as determining qualifications, and instead focus more on team problem solving skills?  And aren't those very skills the ones we constantly tout as one of the benefits of arts education? What is important to consider in people who work in our organizations to our success in today's constantly changing and challenging environment?

In the Adam Bryant interview, Bock talks about what tools Google uses in making the determination of who, among qualified applicants, to hire:

"What works well are structured behavioral interviews, where you have a consistent rubric for how you assess people, rather than having each interviewer just make stuff up. 
Behavioral interviewing also works — where you’re not giving someone a hypothetical, but you’re starting with a question like, “Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.” The interesting thing about the behavioral interview is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information. One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable “meta” information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult."

Bock goes on to question the value of a college education as applied to real world situations:

"After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different. You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow, you think about things differently. 
Another reason is that I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer."

I wonder if that observation is applicable to the nonprofit arts? Are our college preparatory programs yielding job candidates with a set of skills that are arguably - if not useless, then - marginally useful, many of which perhaps need to be unlearned on the job? How do we sift through the sands of all the arts administration graduates to identify the ones who can "think on the fly"; to determine the ones who will  become effective leaders as well as good managers?  In a constantly changing business environment, where increasingly the emphasis is on adaptability, innovation and being nimble and flexible, should we not emphasize those skills in our potential new staff hires so that we might flourish in the competitive marketplace?  In short, are we clinging to an antiquated approach ill suited to the present reality?

As Bock notes:  "On the leadership side, we’ve found that leadership is a more ambiguous and amorphous set of characteristics than the work we did on the attributes of good management, which are more of a checklist and actionable."  And adds that:   "for leaders, it’s important that people know you are consistent and fair in how you think about making decisions and that there’s an element of predictability."

The take-away from this is, I think, that when considering a new hire and the process of your identifying the very best candidate available to you, it is essential that you spend time considering precisely (and not generally) the qualities in that hire that will enable your organization to succeed, and that the traditional way to approach that may no longer be a smart move.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Interview with Ruby Lerner

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

Bio: Ruby Lerner is the founding President and Executive Director of Creative Capital. Prior to Creative Capital, Lerner served as the Executive Director of the Association of Independent Film and Videomakers (AIVF) and as Publisher of the highly regarded Independent Film and Video Monthly. Having worked regionally in both the performing arts and independent media fields, she served as the Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, a coalition of Southeastern performing artists, and IMAGE Film/Video Center, both based in Atlanta. In the late 1970s, she was the Audience Development Director at the Manhattan Theatre Club, one of New York's foremost nonprofit theaters.

Lerner has written and lectured extensively, including at Harvard Business School (in conjunction with a Harvard Business School case study on Creative Capital) and for the University of North Carolina’s Entrepreneurship Program. She regularly presents on arts issues at conferences and summits, including the Grantmakers for the Arts conference, the National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture, IdeaFestival in Louisville and the Independent Sector National Conference. Lerner was a 30th Annniversary ArtTable Honoree (2011) and recipient of the John L. Haber Award from the University of North Carolina (2009), the Catalyst Award from the National Association of Artists Organizations (2007), the BAXten Award from the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (2007), a Creative Leadership Award from the Alliance of Artists Communities (2005), the Artist Advocate Award from the Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations (2003) and a Special Citation from Artists Space for her support of individual artists (2003). Ms. Lerner currently serves on the Headlands Center for the Arts Advisory Council; the Goucher College Committee of Visitors; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Innovation Circle; the National Advisory Board of the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, NC; and the National Advisory Board of the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Here is the interview:

Barry:  Creative Capital was launched in response to the NEA’s movement away from individual artist support as a result of the culture wars of the 1990’s.  Why hasn’t the Endowment reinstated its artist support and what would you like to see them do now?

Ruby:  I think you would have to ask the NEA that question.  I suspect it is because it was the individual artists' grants that got them into "trouble," and certainly things now are even more polarized, so I don't think we will see any movement toward reinstating awards to individuals.  This is really tragic, as they not only provided substantial financial support annually to working artists, which has not been replaced by the private sector, but they took a leadership role in articulating the issues.  There is no private funder that has the authority or standing to do that.  In the absence of direct financial support, they can certainly make a commitment to the infrastructure of organizations that directly support artists.  This would include service organizations at the national, state and local level, and that tier of presenting and exhibiting organizations that stay very close to artists, especially to their local artists.  They exist in many mid sized and larger communities.

Barry:  In the past five years, there has been a marked upshift in concern for the challenges facing America’s artists with more organizations (like the Center for Cultural Innovation) centering on artist support, more commentators raising the issues of individual artists (like Diane Ragsdale’s Jumper blog) and from foundations across the country.  Indeed the issue of how best to support individual artists is now a centerpiece of most gatherings.  So perhaps we have come a long way from when you were a beacon in the desert as it were.  But have we actually come very far?  What is you assessment of the overall response by the nonprofit arts community to the needs of individual artists?

Ruby:  Well, of course, it is great to see the increased discourse around issues facing artists.  There was precious little conversation when we launched in 1999.  And, of course, great to see new programs popping up here and there.  So, all good.  But I would say that what I feel Creative Capital has taught me is that a kind of piecemeal approach is just less effective. A new grant program here, a new professional development program there.  At the end of the day, what is it all adding up to--locally or nationally?  I heard the architect William McDonough (sp?) speak many years ago and he said that there is a big difference between mere "activity" and "legacy."  I think about that almost every day.  At CC, I hope we are striving for legacy!!!  I am not interested in just doing cool stuff.

Barry:  What, in your mind, are the major challenges facing individual artists and how can we best address those challenges?  If you had to pick one singular challenge that is most important (other than financial support), what would it be?

Ruby:  It might be their expectations.  Very few artists ever have, or ever will, make a living solely from their artistic work, and yet the mythology persists.  This is not to say it is impossible, but it is unlikely.  Some artists love teaching, some work in the nonprofit realm, others find work in the commercial arena that pays very well.  I often say to students, find something else you love to do as much as you love your artmaking, since it is pretty unlikely your art practice alone will support you.  I don't see this as a sad thing at all.  How exciting, really, to have the incredible skill set that artists are trained in, available to other sectors?

Barry:  The nation’s universities continue to churn out those with degrees in fine arts (not all of whom, of course, are, or want to be, practicing artists.)  Yet the total number seems far greater than the real world opportunities for them.  Is that a problem or asset?  What can (should) be done about it?  Indeed in an interview you said:  “I have a lot of questions after this decade of work about what is happening to people in arts schools and programs. I think a lot of it is not empowering training. People come out of it confused about success, or unable to define success for themselves.”  How can that concern best be addressed on a large scale?

Ruby:  Again, the vast numbers of graduates, both at the undergrad and graduate levels, coming out of our colleges and universities, is staggering.  And no, the artistic fields will never be able to absorb the volume.  But again, is this good for the society, to have all these creative brains running around--absolutely!
I think there is still an issue, although I think it has gotten better, with the teaching of professional practices in our arts programs.  For many years, it was considered "vocational" training and scorned, not so much by the administration at the colleges, but by the faculty, who had not themselves had access to such programs when they were students.  Mandatory professional practices classes in every arts program would make a big difference.

Barry:  Arts Advocacy has been principally carried on by arts organizations, and that effort has had a hard time rallying the nation’s individual artists to join its campaigns.  Why has it been so difficult to organize the vast numbers of artists on behalf of advocacy and lobbying efforts?  What can be done to finally get them more involved?

Ruby:  I think if artists think that their efforts are going to support organizations that don't necessarily support them, they will continue to be uninterested in getting involved.  And we have tended to see advocacy as being only in the public sector, but frankly, at this point, I would like to be lobbying Google, Amazon and Apple.

Barry:  In your artsfwd Arts Summit address, you challenged your own organization to be more inventive in figuring out how to support imaginative and innovative art?  You said you want to learn how to be as “savvy” as the artists in your program.  How are you going about doing that?  What are the human and financial resources necessary to be a useful partner to your grantees?  How do you help them move from project to enterprise?

Ruby:  It takes a village is what I feel we have learned.  We now believe that we need to "surround" each artist and project with a team of people and a bevy of informational resources in order to give them the best shot at success in a very crowded and confusing marketplace.  That is both people and dollar intensive.   We do a pretty good job, but it is still not as fully formed as I hope it will become.   We are just at the beginning of thinking about those artists who are moving from project to enterprise and that is really exciting--it will require different kinds of people and information--but the hope that we could help an artist further scale out the impact of their idea is pretty thrilling.

Barry:  Creative Capital has an admirable record of having supported over 400 projects in its history.  Yet that is but a drop in the bucket in light of the tens of thousands of artists that might benefit from more support.  Creative Capital can only fund about 2 or 3% of those that apply for support.  What is your thinking as to how to scale that number higher - much, much higher?

Ruby:  We don't necessarily think of growth in a linear way.  I think we are at capacity for a program that works so intimately and over such a long period of time with its awardees.  We don't need more awardees (46 per round is a lot) and this isn't something I find particularly interesting.  We make about a $90,000 commitment to each project we support--up to $50,000 in financial support, with the services being valued around $40,000 additionally.  That is a lot of money to be raising for each grantee roster!  And as you will see in the next question, I think we found a much more interesting way to scale out our work-through the Professional Development Program.  Instead of adding a few more grantees each round, we deployed resources to build a program that has now reached more than 7,000 artists.  We can't and shouldn't be expected to do everything.   What I would love to see is more local and regional organizations adapting our comprehensive approach, but I recognize that it is both money and people intensive and that it is a lot easier to just write someone a check and wish them luck on their project!

Barry:  Your Professional Development Program provides career, community and confidence building tools to help all artists become successful artists, and you’ve worked with more than 5,500 artists in 150 communities in your first 10 years,  What have you learned from that program and what are your plans for its future?

Ruby:  The program is now up to more than 7,000 artists in more than 300 communities!  It is so great, so moving.  Everywhere I go now, artists will stop me to tell me the impact the workshops have had on them. It is such a powerful program.  And it has so much potential to develop even further.  The weekend workshops became pretty expensive for people to bring to their communities during the downturn and so we went "modular."  Partners, like state and local arts councils, fellowship programs, etc.  can now design workshops for their very local needs--at a much lower cost.  So, we have many less expensive options now, which is great.  Plus, we started doing webinars about a year and a half ago and they are going gangbusters, we are doing almost one a week now, interviews, skills building, a variety of formats.  It is great. We are working on Blended Learning now, trying to combine the best of what technology makes possible with those elements that only a live person in the room with you can bring.  So, we will soon be able to offer an incredible range of ways for artists to participate with the program. Also, we have developed a LOT of collateral through our work with artists over the years, so could we put some of that together for additional offferings?  In other words, how can we continue to make what we have learned and built through our work with our own awardees, more widely available to others?

Barry:  Creative Capital was the focus of a Harvard Business School case study.  What are the central elements of a program that is characterized by innovation and  is entrepreneurial-centric?

Ruby:  Staying alert to changes in the external environment, staying alert to opportunities, having a "bias for action,"  the ability to move pretty quickly to try new things and a commitment to honestly analyze what is working and what isn't.

Barry:  The relationship between the nation’s artists and the arts organizations that support them, provide platforms for their work and serve as bridges to the wider public sometimes finds those two groups at odds with each other.  What is your assessment about how that relationship can be bolstered to be more productive and effective for all?

Ruby:  I think the question of how the relationship between artists and organizations can be bolstered is an important one and I am not sure I have an answer.  We do something that seems to be useful:  we bring all parties together around the premier of the artist's project.  The artist talks about their goals for the launch and the venue talks about what they are actually capable of doing to support the launch.  I call these meetings "Rendezvous With Reality" sessions, because the artists are always disappointed by what the venue ISN'T going to do!  But what is great is that we encourage the artist to use some of their CC money to accomplish some of the things they want the launch to accomplish.  This is great for everyone--the artist definitely feels supported, but really, so does the venue!  Nothing makes me happier than to walk into the conference room and see a table full of people all focused around maximizing the project launch.  But really this activity reveals the artist to be a good partner to the venue, and we hope that is something that can be built upon for the future.

Barry:  To what extent do those organizations like yours and others out there engaged in direct support for artists collaborate and cooperate with each other for the greater good?  What might increase those working relationships?

Ruby:  We have tons of collaborations through our PDP program--we rarely do direct marketing to individuals.  But actually getting together to discuss what is working across all sectors, that isn't happening, so I think we don't know as much about each other as we should.

Barry:  Have you noted any attitudinal changes on the part of artists over the past ten years?  How do younger artists of today differ from artists of ten years ago?

Ruby:  I think the current generation of artists does understand that they are walking into a tougher world.  The infrastructure in the public sector has basically fallen apart, a lot of the foundation world is obsessed with impact questions, which represents a real narrowing to me (although they would say it represents focusing in on the work that is designed to promote social change).  They aren't afraid of words like "marketing," and understand that the new media tools available allow them to amplify their voices in ways my generation of artists couldn't even imagine.  Also, they are really fun to work with because they often use humor to tackle serious subjects, which pulls people in.

Barry:  Assess the current state of research into the needs, patterns of behavior, support for and public attitude towards individual artists.  Where do we need more data and why?

Ruby:  This is an area I really know so little about and where we all could use better information.  But tracking individuals is so much harder than tracking organizations, so I know how difficult this is likely to be.  And then what are we going to be able to do with the info once we get it?  Is it going to make a difference to a conservative Congress, say?  So, I think clarity about how we would use the data would be important before we go to the effort of collecting it.

Barry:  Google calls you up one day and says:  “Ruby, we want to do something to be supportive of America’s artists.  Got any ideas?”  What do you say to them?

Ruby:   Here's my number:  212-598-9900x225.  Send them on over!  We see so many possible offshoots from what we are learning from artists, I could keep them busy for years!  Seriously, call me!

Barry:  Your program provides a full suite of services to your grantees, adopting an approach that is really more full scale mentoring.  What role might more seasoned artists play as mentors to younger artists and what is being done in that area that encourages you?

Ruby:  When we reached our 10th Anniversary, about 5 years ago, we asked ourselves, what happened informally during our first decade that could/should be institutionalized?  And the major thing we had observed is that artists who had strong support from other artists had fared the best.  So we formalized this into an Artist Advisor program that brings in our previously funded grantees to work with a cohort of new grantees.  This is THE best thing we have ever done, and not only are the Advisor to artist relationships strong, so are the relationships within each of the cohorts.  It is fantastic!

Barry:  What advice do you have to the philanthropic foundation community in terms of helping artists?  What initiatives would you like to see come from that sector?  What does it mean to risk negative blowback and even punishment for supporting controversial arts projects?  What advice do you have for foundations to enable arts organizations to go forward as responsible change agents supporting change agent artists?

Ruby:  The philanthropic sector should be the most adventurous sector in the society in terms of risk taking, and yet this isn't always the case.  Maybe it would be good for every philanthropy to have a "Failure Fund," a small set aside for high risk ideas.  We try to be that with every award, we often say that we are the risk capital for the field, but we know that isn't for everyone!  But a small mandated percentage, wouldn't that be great?  We have been really lucky, since we started our life with the charge to take risks in or funding, our wonderful donors, institutional and individual,  have always known what they are supporting.  And I think we have earned their trust, at this point.  We have a pretty good track record of support for important, and sometimes, groundbreaking work.

The structure of philanthropic dollars really needs to be studied more.  A number of years ago, to the best of my analytical ability and sleuthing at the time, I calculated that only the tiniest sliver of cultural support was going to assist living artists and the organizations that support them most directly..  (You don't have to be a mathematical genius to figure that out.)  I remember being shocked at how low the percentage actually was.

I suspect that foundation boards might be the culprit.  The program officers I know are fantastic.  So, how are we going to get more knowledgeable people on the boards of both larger institutional entities and family foundations as well?  How can foundation administrators make a more robust effort to educate the boards they have now about all the diverse activity going on in their own communities?  Maybe there is more education going on than I am aware of;  I hope so...

Barry:  Are artists fully seated at the table in the Placemaking efforts of the arts?  What role ought they play?  Is there a place for artist activists at those tables?

Ruby:  This is not a question I can answer, I just don't know enough about what is happening on the ground with these efforts.

Barry:  There is considerable evidence (with more research in the docket) that art and artists can play a very meaningful role in health care and the aging process.  Has Creative Capital gotten involved in projects that are in that vein?  When funding projects do you give any weight to those you think might have long term benefits to both society and our sector?

Ruby:  We support a lot of work that deals with social issues of all kinds, food, environment, criminal justice, etc.  We also fund work that functions purely in the aesthetic realm and this inclusiveness and mix is what I think makes our artist rosters so juicy!  I wouldn't want to be an entity that only supports one kind of project.  I think one of the things our artists love most is the mix of artistic disciplines, points of view, themes explored, diversity of aesthetics, age diversity, etc.

Barry:  Why do you think the American public so little values artists, and do you have any thoughts on how that mindset and marginalization might be changed?

Ruby:  I wonder how much interaction the public has with working artists.  I think it is pretty limited.  We have been going to the Idea Fest in Louisville every fall and bringing 4 artists with us to present their projects.  The attendees are not necessarily arts patrons; I call them "civilians".  There are high school and college students and of course, many adults as well.  And they won't let the artists out of the auditorium, they have so many questions for them!  The first year we went this lovely woman waited patiently for the crowd to clear and said to me, "I just wanted to say thank you.  I have been a traditionalist my whole life and today you really opened my eyes."  Someone else said,  "Your artists are talking about all the things we should be talking about as a society, but that we don't."  Where are the opportunities for THIS kind of engagement?

Barry:  The issues of diversity and race in the arts have become a front burner topic of late.  How do you think we are doing in addressing the needs of artists of color, and what do we need to do more of?

Ruby:  These issues have been at the forefront for as long as I have been in the field.  They aren't really new, and if they feel that way, I think that says what a poor job we have been doing in addressing equitability.  This has been a key concern of ours since the beginning; in most years, at least 40% of our awardees have self-identified as other than Caucasian.  I hope that number will just keep rising.  We haven't done nearly as well on the staff and board front, so we still have a lot of work to do.  And geographic diversity, which we also care about, has not been what we would like either.   We are pretty good on gender and age.  A few years ago, the age range was from 27-79.  That made me really happy!  It ALL matters to us.

One of the reasons that we have been able to grow through experimentation has been the ongoing, never wavering, support of the Warhol and Duke Foundations and a number of committed individuals and small family foundations who have been consistent supporters since the very beginning.  This adequate capitalization has given us breathing room.  I have run undercapitalized organizations in the past and year by year project support--that is no way to support a field.  IF something is working and you believe in it, commit to it long term.  This is the only way to build a healthy cultural ecosystem.

Thank you Ruby.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit