Monday, January 22, 2018

Quick Exit Interview with John McGuirk

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

Note on last week's post on the Boy Scouts Merit Badge program: I had fully intended to research the Girl Scouts comparative program, and to include a recommendation that any effort on the arts part to reach out to the Boy Scouts, be matched by a similar outreach to the Girl Scouts.  But I completely spaced it out and neglected to do either.  Oh dear. While the Girl Scouts badge program doesn't seem as comprehensive, rigorous and demanding as the Boy Scout program [and why is that?], there is included in their program opportunities to delve into the arts.  And, of course, they must be included in our efforts.  Thanks to Lisa Robb for reminding me of that oversight.  

John McGuirk Bio:
John E. McGuirk is the recently retired director of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Performing Arts Program, where he also assisted the foundation president with local grantmaking projects and served as Hewlett’s liaison to the Community Leadership Project. Prior to Hewlett, John was director of the Arts Program of the James Irvine Foundation and director of grant programs for Arts Council Silicon Valley. He sat on the GIA Board of Directors.  Before that, he worked at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, CA and held positions at both the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Opera. John earned his M.A. in public management, with a concentration in arts management, from Carnegie Mellon University.


Barry:  You have been at the center of foundation arts philanthropy in Northern California for almost two decades as a performing arts program officer for the Hewlett Foundation, the arts program director of the Irvine Foundation, and then back as the director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Performing Arts program.  What has changed during that long tenure?  What’s different about arts philanthropy today from the past, and where is it headed?

John:  I believe the most significant change in arts philanthropy I’ve seen over the past two decades is the growing importance of cultural equity in grantmaking. This has its roots as far back as “multi-culturalism” in the 1980s when I first entered the field. Racial equity is a more recent priority at the national level as articulated by Grantmakers in the Arts.

As an example, we can look at cultural equity and the diversification of the Performing Arts Program’s grantee portfolio. Since its founding, Hewlett Foundation invested deeply in Western classical performing arts organizations (orchestras, theaters, operas, and dance companies) and these art forms merit continued support. But our region’s demographics have changed rapidly, and cultural tastes and consumer behaviors have also evolved. This meant that the art forms and aesthetics represented in the grantee portfolio needed to broaden and adapt to reflect the composition of our region. It has been my personal goal, no matter where you live in the greater Bay Area, that you have access to arts and cultural experiences that are both relevant and affordable. With an annual grants budget exceeding $20 million, the Performing Arts Program now directly funds more than 225 diverse organizations, and reaches another 600 organizations through our regranting partnerships with local arts councils, service organizations, and funding colleagues. Community-based organizations working in a wide variety of disciplines, aesthetics and cultural traditions are now an integral part of the grantee portfolio. One of my favorite projects during the past 18 months was working with author and consultant Laurie MacDougall to write A Fifty Year History of the Performing Arts Program . It documents the evolution of Hewlett’s philanthropic strategies in the arts over the past five decades, deeply rooted in multi-year general operating support and responsive to the ever-evolving cultural landscape.

Barry:  Given Helicon’s recent follow up report showing that in the past five years there has been an actual decrease in equity funding, what needs be done to change that reality?

John:  Helicon Collaborative’s report, Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy.  found that since its initial study in 2011, “funding overall has gotten less equitable, not more.” However, San Francisco is singled out as an exception to this national trend, and the report notes that sustained and systemic efforts have “produced funding distribution patterns that more closely reflect the city’s demographic profile and the diversity of the local cultural sector.” The report specifically mentions the work of the Irvine, Haas, and Hewlett Foundations, as well as the Alliance for CA Traditional Arts, Theatre Bay Area CA$H, Dancers Group CA$H, and the Creative Work Fund. “As a result of this multi-faceted and sustained work,” the report states, “not only does San Francisco have more diverse nonprofit cultural groups per capita than other cities, those groups also receive a significantly larger share of arts foundation funding than their counterparts in the other urban areas studied.”

The Bay Area has long valued cultural equity. Diversification of grants portfolios takes sustained efforts to achieve, but it is producing results over time. Grantmakers need to be cognizant of historical funding patterns and structural racism that have led to current disparities in arts funding, and persistently address these as individuals, organizations, and communities. We need to continue to adapt our funding priorities, application processes and selection criteria to ensure a broad and diverse applicant pool and grantee portfolio.

Barry:  Foundations have territorial imperatives, legacy commitments, vastly different funding priorities and local concerns.  Yet there are national issues than impact arts organizations everywhere.  How do we promote more collaborations and working relationships between foundations across the country to address the big issues than affect everyone?

John:  This is a huge question without a simple answer. It requires grantmakers to incorporate their institutional and geographic priorities into larger movements to achieve greater collective impact. There are some instances of success in regional and national efforts around key issues, such as arts education advocacy and policy, data collection, leadership, and capitalization. Often these efforts are successful because many funders put a little discretionary money into a collective pot to achieve a stated goal that aligned with local priorities and concerns. Some funders have the capacity to do this based on their charters and missions; others do not. An interesting example of funders working together is the creation of DataArts -- trying to streamline processes through a standardized database that ultimately becomes a tool for arts managers, funders, researchers, advocates and policymakers.

Barry:  Data collection, research and evaluation have dramatically increased in the past decade.  How has that influenced arts philanthropy and what will be important in the future?  Is there any downside to relying (too much) on research and data in the decision-making process?

John:  Collection of arts data, research, and evaluation have dramatically increased and improved in the past decade. I sincerely hope these tools are benefiting artists, arts managers, and board members -- not just funders who use this information in their decision making. DataArts, Arts Education Data Project, Audience Research Collaborative, Sustain Arts, Bay Area Performing Arts Spaces, Guide Star and others now provide critical information and tools to enable arts organizations to be more effective and sustainable. It also provides funders with the ability to look at the arts system with a broad lens – understanding an individual organization’s role within the larger context, identifying gaps, informing priorities. The downside is that these databases are not comprehensive – they only can help to paint a fuzzy picture based on available information. Efforts to keep information accurate and timely are essential, even though time consuming and expensive.

Barry:  First, we had capacity building, and sustainability efforts.  Then we had operational support emphasis.  Now we have equity / diversity and capitalization focus.  What will the next major shift likely be?

John:  Hewlett has long been interested in the capacity and sustainability of arts organizations. It is part of the rationale for multi-year general operating support -- providing arts organizations the greatest flexibility to meet the needs of artists and audiences alike. This intersected with a body of work initiated by national service organization, Grantmakers in the Arts, during the time I served on the Board of Directors from 2010 to 2016. It resulted in more funders taking the strategic approach of multi-year general support, or in the case of project support, providing adequately for overhead expenses. Similarly, prudent grantees have taken advantage of the robust economy to build their balance sheets by developing assets and reducing debt. The resiliency and sustainability of the arts sector remains dependent on organizations’ strong financial health.

The next shift is difficult to predict. Recently I have seen more arts organizations collaborating across the non-profit sector on key issues, such as the environment and climate change, displacement and homelessness, education, and others. When the economy slows down and resources are more constricted, we usually see more collaboration and consolidation among arts organizations.

Barry:  Which programs or initiatives launched by Hewlett and / or Irvine during your tenures do you think have had the greatest impact on the field?  What is that impact in brief?

John:  Arts Education – recent policy gains at the federal, state, county, and local district levels are making arts programs integral to a well-rounded education. Now is the opportunity to close the disparity gap for those students who do not have access to arts and culture in their classrooms during the school day (and after school and out-of-school programs). I continue to believe arts education provides students with a “creative toolkit” that is essential for their success in the long term – engaging in self-expression; connecting to their cultural identity and to others; developing a creative and innovative workforce; nurturing the next generation of artists; and building audiences for the future.

Commissioning New Works – in celebration of the Foundation’s 50th anniversary, we launched an $8 million initiative, Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions. Over the next five years, it will commission fifty works of performing arts of exceptional quality and enduring value that will premiere in the Bay Area. I was thrilled with the exceptionally strong projects that were proposed. It was the most competitive set of proposals that I have reviewed in my two decades of grantmaking. The ideas were outstanding, and it was extremely difficult to choose from more than 125 submissions. This major commissioning initiative complements our ongoing financial support and commissioning partnerships with Creative Work Fund and Gerbode Special Awards in the Arts to create new works in the Bay Area.

Effective Leadership —Hewlett and Irvine invested significantly in leadership development. The recently completed $20 million initiative, Community Leadership Project  produced significant results for low income communities and people of color in three regions of California. Similarly, we invested in a suite of research and supports for networks of emerging arts leaders across the state. This work gives me great hope for the next generation of arts managers’ smooth transition to full organizational leadership, the potential for shared responsibility, and transfer of immense knowledge by the generation of leaders preparing to retire.

Barry:  What’s next for you?

John:  I got married last fall-- my husband, Richard, and I have a small beautiful farm near the Russian River in Sonoma County. We are so lucky that the wildfires did not harm our home and property last year. I am looking forward to a long sabbatical to relax on the farm this winter and spring and to recharge my creative practices – a self-administered “rehab for workaholics!” I’ll dust off my old piano music, dig out my parched watercolors, find that pottery wheel buried somewhere in the garage, fire up the glass kiln, and get my hands dirty in the gardens.

In addition, I am volunteering to raise funds for artists and arts organizations impacted by the North Bay wildfires -- to help our neighbors recover and our community rebuild. Please join me in supporting the Creative Sonoma Recovery Fund!

Finally, it is my intention to continue to cultivate creativity and propagate generosity – likely consulting on projects where I can add value, and returning to teaching arts administration and strategic planning at Claremont Graduate University next fall.

I will remain forever grateful to the team at Hewlett, to my funding colleagues across the nation, and to the amazing artists, creators and leaders in our vibrant cultural sector. I offer my sincerest thanks and deepest appreciation to you all for your ongoing work!

Thank you John.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit