Sunday, October 29, 2017

Grantmakers in the Arts in Transition

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

Grantmakers in the Arts is meeting in Detroit for its annual conference.

For the second year in a row, health considerations necessitated my declining GIA's generous invitation to blog from the conference - an opportunity I enormously enjoyed in years past.  The GIA conference was my favorite arts leadership gathering for several reasons, including the amassing of many of the sector's smartest thought leaders, the chance to gauge the prevailing winds of where the field's focus lied, and where it was going, and, on a personal note, the increasingly important to me, chance to again see old friends, and meet new leaders.  This year is special, for this year GIA is saying goodbye to its extraordinary and visionary leader, Janet Brown, as she retires.  It's hard to minimize the superlatives in characterizing the impact and effect Janet's leadership has had - clearly on the arts philanthropic community, but really far beyond that into the policy climes of everything we do.  And I am sorry not to be able to share with others the privilege of paying acclimations to her as she departs - not the field, but the GIA gig.

Well done Janet Brown.  Well done.  And thank you.

This transition period is a monumental one for GIA.  With Eddie Torres now assuming Janet's position and the organization relocating from Seattle to New York City, I am informed that none of the Seattle staff is making the move and staying on, and so GIA is in a major hiring operation.  This wholesale change in the running of the organization, and its move to the center - along with D.C. - of the East Coast hierarchy of national arts organizations, is both an opportunity and a challenge for the collective arts philanthropy community's organization.

Clearly, being on the east coast will offer the organization some new opportunities for interaction with other national arts leadership groups, with outside funders, with government and with the private sector.  That geographic change comes at a cost though.  The move is a blow to the West Coast's presence on the national stage, emblematic to some degree of a diminution of the presence of more outlying areas in favor of major urban areas - particularly East Coast centered.  GIA is, of course, a national organization, with members in all places and along all strata of the nation, but its hard to estimate or appreciate the influence not being an east coast New York, but still national, organization had on a number of areas from policy thinking to the luxury of some detachment from the hectic pace of a more urban setting.  Moreover, with a brand new staff, there will be less institutional memory to guide this transition and temper any too radical change.

But on the plus side, this new beginning will give the organization and the philanthropic community it represents a chance to evaluate where it's come from, and moving to, and most importantly, where it now wants to go.   This is a rare opportunity for a national organization to re-think policy and protocol and move in new directions while solidifying its deepest commitments.  It isn't very often, that a new important organization leader gets the chance for a kind of clean break with the past operation, and the opportunity to mold a new future.  Not jettisoning the past, but aligning it with a new future.  A new location and a new staff are a big deal.

Of course, GIA has a really smart Board that provide continuity, stability yet can still allow leeway and freedom.  And Eddie Torres is an experienced leader with a steady hand and who knows well that moving too fast to make changes is always fraught with problems.  Still, he gets a chance to make a big impact early on as he helms a new GIA to a new trajectory.  I'm not talking about some wholesale change in priorities or even programs.  No, GIA has spent years, under Janet, developing a commitment to its arts philanthropy's support of capitalization of financial stability of arts organizations, and to meeting foursquare the challenge of equity, diversity, inclusion and racism. That work isn't finished and continues.   Indeed, the sessions and plenaries at this year's conference confirm that the issues of equity, diversity, and social justice, together with arts and aging and arts and healing, are major arts philanthropic pursuits along with the continuing involvement of arts funding with arts education, data and research, assessment and evaluation.  These core issues will remain high on GIA's agenda.

New York is a different city from much of the rest of the country. Certainly from Seattle, GIA's base since its inception.  New York runs on its own time clock, its own energy and sense of urgency.  There is a sense of impatience to business in New York, a rush to get things done, and it is, in part, this insistence on results that nurtures New York as a place of action.  That is an extraordinary asset, and it attracts a high level of talent, ideas and acumen in as diverse a workforce as exists anywhere.  Headquartering in New York colors the whole of an organization, just as centering in Washington D.C. or Silicon Valley colors organizations located in those capitols.  Eddie Torres knows New York well.

There will be fundamental questions for GIA and its new leadership as it moves forward.  One area that will be an unspoken elephant in the room, perhaps not in everyone's full consciousness, but one which will underpin everything else it does, will be how it sees the nature of the demand of the challenges it wishes to continue to address, and the new ones it determines to add.  And that issue is in its timeframes.

Lara Davis, currently blogging from the conference, and whom I had the pleasure to co-blog with in the past, and who is one of the sector"s bright leadership stars, covered the Pre-Conference on Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy in her blog today.  In it, she ended with a summation put forth by the session's organizers of "the responsibility of our racial equity work as follows:

  • Training on structural racism is important to build common vocabulary and perspective 
  • Language matters 
  • Community involvement matters 
  • Cultural change and perception takes time 
  • Be patient and adjust as you go 
  • Take action from where you are – don’t wait for perfection

Bullet point number 4 is, of course, a truism about change in general - it takes time.  And so the next bullet point advising patience would seem to make sense too; of course, we need to be patient.  But how patient is an issue that is, I think, open to debate.  The timing issue I think GIA and the philanthropic community must grapple with will be the need for urgency.  As Martin Luther King coined the phrase: "The fierce urgency of now." The forces aligned against that which we believe is important for people and society are on the march.  We can't be too patient in our settling for small gains.  We need to exert and extend ourselves if we are to make meaningful progress.   I think the field needs a fierce debate on how fast we need to act in these areas.  I saw an article that urged patience as Puerto Rico tries to recover.  But for those with no house, no clothes, no food, no electricity - whether in Puerto Rico, Houston, Florida or Santa Rosa and Napa -  the absence of urgency is no virtue.  Complacency and acceptance is part of the problem, not the solution.  Similarly, for us, for our small field, while patience is an inevitable reality to be endured, it ought not to be always embraced.  For those arts organizations that remain underfunded because we can't get to equity, for those schools that lack arts education because of an unequal and inequitable funding system, for those agencies that still have to fight just for survival funding, patience is no virtue -- patience is often code for not now, not yet.  We need a greater sense of urgency.  We need to move the needle - finally and faster.  I think it growingly unacceptable that we preach too much patience, and fail to demand more of ourselves to move quicker.  

I'm not arguing for acting the fools rushing in, for knee jerk reactions without thought.  I am hoping for a higher bar in our demands and on what timeline.  I am hoping for pushing ourselves more to get not what others think we need, but what we know we need.

There are a score of other areas GIA stakes positions in; areas which demand its attention and benefit from its involvement - and these issues will be on the organization's agenda as it makes this historic move.  And I know full well that GIA members are not the ones truly in charge of all arts philanthropic funding decisions.  More often than not, GIA denizens work for those who make the final decisions.  That's why I, like the field, look to GIA for continuing bold leadership.

Again, thank you Janet Brown, and congratulations Eddie Torres.

Have a great conference.

P.S. Janet has agreed to do an exit interview here prior to the end of the year.  I hope Eddie will do an interview too - maybe in six months after he's had time to come up for air.

Don't Quit