Sunday, August 6, 2017

Robert Booker Exit Interview

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

Bob Booker is retiring from the nonprofit arts field after over forty years of active service.  I asked him to sit for an interview last month, and he graciously agreed.

Bob Booker Bio:  
Bob Booker was the Executive Director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts from 2006 to 2017.  Prior to the Arizona posting, he was the Executive Director of the Minnesota State Arts Board from 1997 to 2005, and he was the Assistant Director of that agency from 1990 to 1996.  He was a Board member of Grantmakers in he Arts from 2010 to 2017, and GIA's Chair of the Board for 2016-2017.  He was also a Board member of the  National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (1999 - 2006) and President from 2003 to 2005. He served as a Trustee on the WESTAF Board from 2007 to 2013, as a Board member of Arts Midwest from 1997 to 2004, and on the Minnesota Aids Project Board (1996 - 2001).  Bob has served on numerous commissions and advisory councils, including the Arts and Culture Committee of the Arizona Mexico Commission, the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission, and the First National Advisory Committee of the Goucher College, M.A. Program in Arts Administration.  He served on Grants Panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and for Michigan, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansa, and Iowa.

In 2006 he received NASAA's Gary Young Award.

Here is the Interview:

Barry:  You’ve had a long and distinguished career in the field, and the opportunity to have seen the field change from numerous perspectives - including running the state agencies in Minnesota and Arizona and as Chair of NASAA and GIA.  What are the biggest changes in arts administration in the past decade or two?

Bob:  The establishment of Masters programs in Arts Administration and the influx of those graduates.
The changes in corporate giving to the arts—businesses abandoning arts support programs while transitioning their giving responsibilities to their marketing divisions. The entry of young arts administrators into the field who lack a solid knowledge of philanthropy and community development or a working knowledge of the history of arts funding in America.

Most pleasing is the growth of small and mid-size arts organizations in rural communities and communities of color.  These young organizations spring up from the grassroots of their communities, reflecting local voices and perspectives, and provide new and increased opportunity for active participation by residents and visitors alike.

Barry:  If you were starting as an Arts Administrator today, knowing what you know, what is the one skill you would absolutely want to have?

Bob: Young arts administrators need to have a solid knowledge of nonprofit finance. They need to possess a clear understanding of balance sheets, audits and fiscal reports. In addition, a solid knowledge of at least one art form is paramount. A solid grounding in artmaking within the visual, literary, performing or media art forms gives the individual the basic skills to relate to other working artists.

Barry:  What’s wrong with arts advocacy today, and how do we fix it?

Bob:  We continue to preach to and create messages that are understood only by other arts advocates.  Though I find some of the national arts advocacy ads charming, they often include arts references that many Americans may not understand or relate to. Of course, this defeats the purpose of the campaign in the first place.  Why do we continue to focus on individuals already participating in the arts, apart from engaging them in direct advocacy calls and efforts?

As a field, we continue to misunderstand how Americans participate as creative individuals in their daily life. Our messages ignore what is important and has meaning to them, and how creativity plays a role in their families’ day to day activities.

In regards to arts advocacy in general, we need to take a new approach that places the arts as a vital, engaging activity of tremendous value to Americans.  Too often we approach advocacy and communication with our heads bowed and our hands out: “Please sir, can you save the arts? Can you save my organization that has been in the red for years and would you maybe consider following your state’s policy that requires arts programming in schools?”  We are too timid, too afraid of offending and are perceived as impotent, ineffectual and incompetent.

Barry:   Is it time to reimagine the NEA and what might NEA 2.0 look like?

Bob:  I might imagine a federal agency that is transparent in all their operations. The first step would be to open the entire panel process to anyone who wants to observe. Another step would be to reorganize the staff from discipline-based silos to programmatic teams working on specific goals in service to the arts in America and, more importantly, in service to the country’s citizens.  Some of these newly created programs might be funding-related or initiative or service-based.

Over the past 50 years, the NEA, alongside their partners, the State Arts Agencies, have built a great infrastructure for the arts in virtually every district in the country.  Now is the time to refine that work, examine who the participants are (and are not) and retool the agency to serve for another 50 great years.

In some ways rallying the various disparate elements of the arts is like herding cats.  How do we forge a “big tent? mentality and get those various parts of the arts to operate on the same page?

Barry:  What is the single biggest thing the arts can do to address the equity challenge and systemic, structural racism?

Bob:  During my tenure as president of Grantmakers in the Arts, the organization produced what I believe to be the most significant and powerful statement on racial equity among national arts organizations.  As members of the board we participated together in training programs that provided us with a collective grounding. With that basic knowledge and the full participation of board members in honest discussions of race, equity and respect, we moved forward.

Many organizations—often, unfortunately, very large institutions--continue to reject any substantial participation in this arena. Their actions or lack thereof shows the privilege, ignorance and racism that exists in our field.  As funders, board members and participants we need to address this issue across America.  I often say, “Look out the window and see what Arizona looks like; is this what your board, staff, and audiences look like?”  Our mission statement at the Commission is a simple one.  We imagine an Arizona where everyone can participate in and experience the arts. I often add, whoever you are, wherever you live and wherever you are from.

Barry:  State funding to SAAs is a political football.  What can finally be done to establish a reliable, sustainable and meaningful revenue stream for SAAs across the country?

Bob:  As an industry, we have tried many approaches to increase our resources to the field.  The National Association of State Arts Agencies prepared a briefing paper on this topic. .  Many of the ideas, like the establishment of an arts endowment, automobile license plates, fees and tax initiatives, have found varying degrees of success, depending on the state where they are implemented.  After watching Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment deliver millions of new dollars to issues and causes of importance to residents of the state, including the arts, I am inclined to say that this may be the only way to secure a steady long-term funding stream. Of course, the establishment of endowments is another way to go. However, in Arizona we saw our $20 million-dollar endowment swept in its entirety by the Governor and the Legislature during challenging economic times.

Barry:  As NASAA moves forward as the service organization for the nation’s SAAs, what would you like to see it focus on for the future?

Bob:  Historically, the organization has succeeded in providing premier services to State Arts Agencies.  The materials they produce for the field are first class, their conferences solid and well attended, and their strong voice in advocating for arts councils and the National Endowment for the Arts presents a clear, powerful and unified vision.  I applaud CEO Pam Breaux for her active leadership in these most challenging times.

Barry:  We have dramatically increased the amount of research being done by the sector.  What areas of research do you feel are the most valuable now, and what areas have we yet to explore that we need to prioritize?

Bob:  Research is important to any field or business.  Truly, the arts industry has benefited from solid exploration of issues we face every day and ones that we should be prepared for.  However, it is somewhat like those posts we see on Facebook where a friend asks for your calls to your Senator or Representative. If we don’t follow through and call the individual the effort is lost.  Research is similar.  How long have we seen the statistics about how some large institutions have been receiving the bulk of funding from both private and public sources? How many reports do we have to read about staffing inequities in the field or the needs of working artists?  The efforts of the researchers are null and void if we, as members in the industry, refuse to act on their discoveries.

Barry:  What is your best advice to new arts leaders?

Bob:  Your team is what makes the magic happen. Hire a staff that is creative, entrepreneurial, dedicated and kind.  Always support the element of risk in their work, thank them often, give them authority to act and allow them to fail and learn.  Don’t dwell on the negatives, but focus on the positives of their daily work. Throw out the time clock; flexibility is the sister of creativity.  Never be afraid to make staffing changes. Those individuals who don’t understand the importance of organizational loyalty and the importance of supporting their fellow staff members and director have no place in the organization.  Finally, enjoy the work, laugh a lot, listen and help everyone climb up the ladder to success.

Barry:  Under Janet Brown, GIA is a vastly different organization than it was when she assumed the helm.  What do you want to see in here successor, and where do you see GIA in 2020?

Bob:  I am so proud of the work that Ms. Brown and the board and members of GIA have accomplished.  During my tenure as Chairman, I saw the organization publish what I believe to be the most important and rational statement of Racial Equity created by any national arts organization.  The work that GIA continues to do regarding capitalization is so important to organizations large and small.  Cash flow and the ability to hold reserves for future challenges is paramount in the success of any nonprofit organization today. The advocacy work done in Washington on education in the arts is incredibly successful.

It would be my hope that the new President and CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts would continue the good work in capitalization, education and racial equity and build new resources and programs that address the needs of professional working artists and community arts development in the future.

Barry:  Where do you see SAAs ten years from now?  What will be different about their priorities and how they function?

Bob:   I hope that SAA’s refocus their agenda away from traditional formula-based grantmaking toward more inclusive and responsive actions focused on expanding the number of and access to arts resources and participation in the arts in communities across their state. Through strategic grantmaking investments and long term engagement of community, political, and arts folks, I believe we will see a renaissance in creative participation, while we build-up local arts infrastructure grounded on the interests and needs of the communities.

As agencies, we need to listen to community members across our states.  We must realize that our constituents are not the nonprofit arts organizations we fund, but the residents of our state. As we engage a broader audience of individuals in our communities, we will learn what is important to them and better support them in their homegrown efforts to leverage local creative assets to create positive change and address community needs and challenges.

Barry:  We have talked forever about increasing the public value of the arts in America. Assess that effort to date and for the future?

Bob:  Yes, I am remembering the work we did together with 13 other state arts agencies through the Wallace Foundation’s state initiative.  The discussions on building public value, barriers to participation and creative messaging still resonates with me.  I am quite excited about the work that David Fraher, the President and CEO of Arts Midwest, is doing through the Creating Connection initiative. The concept of building public will is not new, but the approach, data collection, and conversation coming out of the program is surely innovative and I believe will be helpful to all of us in the field.

Barry:  What are you most optimistic about for the future of the nonprofit arts, and what areas cause you the most concern?

Bob:  Our data in Arizona shows a dramatic increase in small and mid-size arts organizations working with artists to create new literary, visual, and performing art.  It also shows increased participation in the activities of these small and mid-size arts organizations, something not seen in our largest institutions. Support artists in the creation and exhibition of new work is paramount to the future of the arts in America.  These organizations, often young, small, and connected to communities of color are indeed building understanding and participation among audience members.

Barry:  What’s next for you?

Bob:  In late July, right before I retire, I will be attending my first artist residency program, The Sedona Summer Colony. It will be, I hope, a way to focus on my practice as a visual artist.

Recently I have joined the steering committee for the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, a program of the School of Business at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Working with issues on HIV and Human rights is a personal goal of mine. I look forward to traveling, working in my studio and sleeping late.  Who knows what’s next, I’ve never done this before.

I do know that I will cherish the memories of my work in this amazing field and the many people who I count as colleagues and friends.  It has been a great run and I’ve loved every minute.

Thank you Bob.  On behalf of the field, wishing you all the best.  We remain in your debt.

Have a great week everybody.

Don't Quit