Sunday, September 15, 2019

Interview with Marian Godfrey

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

Marian Godfrey Bio

Marian A. Godfrey currently serves as Cultural Advisor to the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation in Sheffield, MA. She retired from the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2011. Prior to arriving at Pew in 1989, Ms. Godfrey had an extensive background in nonprofit arts management, handling production, administration, fund raising, and strategic planning for organizations including Mabou Mines, Dance Theater Workshop, and La Jolla Playhouse. She produced film and video projects, including a feature-length film for Mabou Mines that aired on public television nationwide. Additionally, she has worked as a consultant both for performing arts organizations and for foundation and corporate programs including AT&T: OnStage. She has contributed numerous articles to Grantmakers in the Arts' Reader and other publications. Ms. Godfrey has served on advisory panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, on the Presidential Transition Committee in 1992, and the boards of Theatre Communications Group, Grantmakers in the Arts, the Maine College of Art and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. She is the founding chair of the National Arts Policy Roundtable convened by Americans for the Arts and the Sundance Institute; is a member of the board of directors of the League of American Orchestras, the Poetry Foundation, TDC, and the Editorial Board for the Yale School of Drama’s on-line Knowledge Base. Ms. Godfrey is a graduate of Radcliffe College and Yale University School of Drama. In 2003, she received the John Cotton Dana Award for Leadership for contributions to museum education from the American Association of Museums. She is married to Thomas J. Gardner and divides her time between Richmond, Massachusetts and Vinalhaven, Maine.

The Interview:

Barry:  You shepherded the Cultural Data Project while you were at Pew.  Can you walk us through the thinking in its launch and early iteration?

Marian:  The original idea for the Cultural Data Project arose from conversations in the very early 2000s between the Pew Charitable Trusts’ local culture program staff (Greg Rowe, Bobbie Lippman and me) and fellow grants officers in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania: our original co-conspirator was Olive Mosier at the William Penn Foundation, followed immediately by Philip Horn at the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Janet Sarbaugh at the Heinz Endowments. So from the very beginning the CDP was a collaborative idea that was collectively designed and grew into a collaborative program. All of us as arts program officers were hungry for better information about our applicants and grantees—in part because the accountability-and-results movement had arrived at the doorstep of arts philanthropy, and we needed better information to make our case within our institutions for supporting both individual organizations and the arts ecosystem as a whole. And all of us were concerned that we were “surveying to death” our respective applicant, since most of them routinely applied to two or more of us, and we were all asking for a lot of information in different formats and different levels of detail. We were too heterogeneous to be able to implement a unified grant proposal template, but we believed that it would be possible and beneficial to use one unified tool to collect the historical information of all our applicants. This would provide both funders and the arts organizations themselves comparable data—both across organizations and through time—that we believed would lead to better decision-making by us and better organizational planning and development by the arts and culture organizations that participated in the program.

We were also responding to the zeitgeist: by the turn of the millennium the old arguments for the importance of the arts to our society, and for support of the nonprofit arts sector, were losing their resonance. Our conversations in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania were part of a growing national discussion among arts leaders about the need for better data and better research on the arts and culture sector in order to build a case that would resonate in the 21st century.  At the same time other sectors had already figured out how to take advantage of the exploding capacity of digital tools for information gathering, and the arts needed to catch up.

Barry:  How did it subsequently grow, and what were the early obstacles?

Marian:  We envisioned and designed the CDP as a Pennsylvania program, one that was aimed at providing a statewide dataset along with tools for grantmakers and arts organizations throughout Pennsylvania. For Pew, CDP was a part of the local arts program in Philadelphia.  We initially had no more expansive aspirations for it. By the time the CDP was launched in 2004, Pew’s national arts policy and research initiative, which had provided some of the intellectual and conceptual grounding for its design, had been closed down. So it is ironic that once word got out about the program nationally, primarily through presentations we made at Grantmakers in the Arts, our colleagues in other states started putting their hands up and saying, can we have this too? From Pew’s perspective, the potential for taking a local program into a larger national arena was first raised by our board. I made a presentation to them with a progress report on CDP in Pennsylvania, and one of our board members said, you aren’t thinking big enough—you don’t know what you have here. That allowed us to begin exploring the pros and cons of working with other states, and what it would take to create a sustainable business model for a larger initiative.

Along the way to its Pennsylvania launch and then to its expansion, we encountered many of the problems of any start-up.  For example, we lost more than a year of design work when our original technology partner proved not to be able to deliver the product we needed, and we had to make the tough decision to jettison them and start over from the beginning. Later on we struggled, with mixed success, to find ways of working with national service organizations, whose data needs were more specific than our approach could easily accommodate. And we learned two hard lessons. The CDP operating model depended on the underwriting of participating public and private funders who would both pay for the program in their states and require their grant applicants to use the CDP form, a necessity if the database were to be well enough populated to make it fully useful to both funders and arts organizations. Because of this our vision of operating in every state proved elusive, as many states do not have sufficiently robust philanthropic institutions whose leaders are both believers in the value of data and able to invest resources in the project. So we were faced, right from the get-go, with barriers to the kind of access to both information and support we were trying to advance. And, we were greedy for good, reliable and comprehensive information and did not want to compromise on either quality or depth, so the form applicants were required to fill out was larger and more labor-intensive than was optimal.

Barry:  What was your original vision for how the data could be of use to arts administrators, and for what purposes?

Marian:  Our intent was always for organizations to be able to track their own financial and operational trends over time, and to be able to compare specific aspects their operations to those of other organizations, for example by discipline, by geography, or by organizational size, or some combination. The dataset was structured so that organizations could run a report on, for example, what their fundraising expenditures and staffing look like compared to other organizations of the same type or size.  That particular report was one of several that got a lot of traction early on.

Barry:  Has that vision been born out?  Or did the project go in unanticipated directions?

Marian:  I can’t speak for the present, but many organizations did use these reports as part of their organizational planning, as we had hoped. In the initial years, however, we were disappointed that some organizations looked at the data reports as strictly a compliance requirement for fundraising, and did not fully explore how they could own and use their own data.

In a sense, the CDP jump started a much larger entry of the field into data collection and research.  And now after a decade or more, we are making inroads into all kinds of data collection projects.  Which directions of that trend do you see as especially important to the nonprofit arts?  And where do you think we need more research that we currently aren’t doing?

One of our fondest hope was always that other initiatives would be launched to gather data on audiences, and data on artists, so that over time more comprehensive information about the whole nonprofit arts field would be built up collectively.  This has in fact happened. Consistent and comprehensive data on community-based arts organizations and activities, especially those embedded in social service organizations, has been harder to come by, at least until recently.  CDP (and now DataArts) has worked long and hard to bring more of the thousands of small but important community based organizations into its dataset, and has developed a “short-form” questionnaire for low-budget organizations that is easier to fill out.

Barry:  PEW does extensive state of the art research on society, demographics and trends.  Much of that research is of direct use and value to the arts.  Was there ever any attempt to embed within the PEW research apparatus, an attempt to ramp up arts research specifically?

Marian:  Early on we had some discussions with the Pew Research Center about whether it would be feasible to set up a sub-unit devoted specifically to arts research, but the need for the PRC to maintain its editorial independence, as well as its decision-making process about what research to undertake at any given moment, precluded such an initiative.  Nevertheless, PRC has undertaken specifically arts-related research projects from time to time, and more importantly, much of its research into new technologies and new media and their uses and users are directly relevant to the arts community.

Barry:  Talk to me about arts philanthropy.  From your vantage point and experience, what are we currently doing right and what are we doing wrong?  Where are the dead ends and where are the promising opportunities?

Marian:  We all have gotten some things right and some things wrong. I suspect our greatest sins have been those of omission, not commission. And in the foundation world, as we like to say, the behavior of any one foundation does not predict the behavior of any other foundation, so generalizations are pretty useless. It’s my personal opinion that at this particular moment, the greatest challenge arts philanthropy faces is to decide what our responsibility is to the institutional nonprofit arts infrastructure that our investments have helped to build over the last 70 to 80 years. Many of these organizations are struggling to reinvent themselves in response to changing social expectations, and some are not even trying. How can we support their efforts at transformation at the same time as recognizing that much of the current cultural activity that is most exciting and relevant now—that is swimming in the waters of digital technology and rapid demographic change, for example—is being produced by artists, new and small arts organizations/projects, and arts entrepreneurs--who are not yet being sufficiently appreciated or supported by institutional philanthropy? Sometimes I look at this dilemma as a binary choice: do we try to evolve the old system or do we blow it up, and just go with the excitement of new and different artists and work?  Of course, any time you consider a binary choice like that it is imperative to find, instead, a larger conceptual frame within which both parts can fit. Or you rethink the problem altogether.

Barry:  Holly Sidford’s report on allocation of funds took the field by storm a decade ago when she reported that a disproportionately large percentage of funding went to the largest cultural institutions.  Her follow up study of a few years ago showed that not only hadn’t that changed, it had actually gotten worse.  Why is that?  Can anything be done?

Marian:  I think the only way to change this state of affairs is for the donor base for the arts to expand and diversify.  As long as most of our “major” donors are white and are interested in Eurocentric artistic traditions, the largest grants will continue going to institutions and facilities that have been built to provide art and cultural experiences in those traditions.

Barry:  The issue of systemic racism has given rise to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion taking center stage for the entire field.  Janet Brown moved GIA to address that issue.  Many others have joined the effort. And we have arguably made progress in diversifying our staffs.  But not yet our Boards.  Can we ever get to where we say we want to go unless and until we diversify the Boards beyond a sparse representation?

Marian:  The decision of an organization’s board to embrace the values and practices of equity and inclusion, and to commit to substantively diversifying itself as the means of enacting those values and practices, is the fundamental requirement for any organization if it is to make any headway. Executive leadership also has to be committed to this journey, so that board and staff leadership collectively drive the work forward.  It’s important to keep working on all the other components of becoming a diverse, equitable and inclusive organization: recognizing and serving diverse audiences, artists and artworks/repertory, and recruiting diverse staff and volunteers; but an institution cannot transform itself absent the leadership of the board. I think we just have to get real about this. It’s the values (equity and inclusion) that have to change, and boards can only fully enact those values by changing their own composition.

Barry:  And in consideration of Boards, I’ve heard from quite a few foundation program officers that they see challenges they would like to address, and they’ve even identified some solutions to problems, but that often their Boards hamstring any initiative to take action.  What can we do in this regard?  How do we diversify those Boards?  How do we increase arts program officer’s authority in decision making?

Marian:  The answer is the same as my previous answer. Much as my foundation colleagues and I have dreamed about the power of leadership from below, I think we have to recognize that the best we can do is try to influence board decision-making through some combination of moral suasion and good marketing of our ideas. IF there is no interest or readiness on the part of a foundation’s board to change its ideas or its approach, arts program staffers may eventually need to find a more conducive place to pursue their more progressive goals. I know what a bummer it is to say that, because philanthropy is too small a field to move around in easily.

Barry:  While we have seen increasing cooperation and collaboration by and between foundations, and by and between foundations and public agencies, to address issues that concern the whole field, in large part those joint efforts are few and far between.  Is that because foundations are still largely territorial and governed by the policies and politics of the wishes of the foundation founders that insist funds are allocated in certain ways and even to certain recipients, or is there some other reason for slow walking dealing with the big issues that challenge the whole field.  Is there a way to change that dynamic?

Marian:  Collaborations are always hard, and take a lot of time; they are worth it when a collective body can pool enough resources to have real impact on the problem to be solved or the opportunity to be grasped. And yes, some organizations place more of a value on working collaboratively than others. I think the greatest difficulty is in problem (or opportunity) definition, and matching the scale of the problem/opportunity with the scale of available pooled resources. We can get seduced by the romance of solving some of the really grand, global problems—in any field, not just the arts—but you have to be an incrementalist to make collaborations work.

Barry:  You’ve had the opportunity over your career to work with scores of arts organization leaders.  You’ve seen ones that get things done, make a difference and change the paradigm.  You’ve also doubtless seen those who can’t seem to rise above and reap success.  What are the qualities you think the best leaders exhibit, and are those innate or can they be learned?

Marian:  A passion for the work; persistence; curiosity and willingness to learn; a sense of humor; respect for other people and ideas; willed optimism in the face of all obstacles. I am not sure how much of that can be learned, and how much must be innate, for leadership to emerge. Some of those qualities are innate but undeveloped, and can be coaxed or coached to emerge in their full potential.

Barry:  If lower level staffers continue to struggle with, often times, less than living wages, will that begin to negatively impact our recruitment and retention of those people we want to lure to the field?  How do we deal with that?

Marian:  This is a problem that has been around for a long time, though not always articulated or recognized. It’s a cultural problem (grounded in the idea that people should be grateful for the non-financial rewards of the job); a financial problem (there’s not enough money in the system to fix it); and a psychological problem (if people operated from a sense of abundance, rather than of poverty, would that allow creative leaders to fix the problem?). I don’t have a clue how and in what order those situations could be remedied.

Barry:  You’ve long been involved with the League of Orchestras - one of the better run national service providers.  What do they do well, that others don’t?

Marian:  All the national arts services organizations are grappling with the same challenges we have been talking about in this interview, each in their own way, driven by the specific needs of their constituencies. I am currently on the board of the League of American Orchestras and one thing I am proud we are doing is taking on the challenge to become a more equitable, diverse and inclusive organization ourselves, starting with diversifying our board, and engaging in board and staff training and education. The League wants to provide leadership to its member orchestras around the DEI challenge, and we have started, as we must, by attending to our own house.  We have been inspired by the example of Theater Communications Group, which is about five years ahead of us in this work, and also of Grantmakers in the Arts, which has made racial justice a priority for itself and its membership.

Barry:  Despite the fact that the Department of Education includes the arts as a core subject, and many states have provision for sequential curriculum based, professionally taught, standards based arts, in every discipline, for every child, the hard, cold reality of arts education is that there isn’t the money to put even one arts teacher in every school in the country, let alone one teacher for each of the major disciplines - visual arts, music, theater and dance.  Rich districts can provide access to the arts that poor districts simply cannot or will not.  And that’s been the reality for at least two generations.  It’s a have and have not world.  There is a consensus that our future audiences depend on kids being exposed to and involved in the arts when they are growing up.  Is there anything we can do about that, or are we stuck in this position forever?

Marian:  When the arts can persuade all those skeptical policy makers, and all those people sitting around their kitchen tables with so much else to worry about, that our children as individuals, and our democracy as a whole, will suffer without the arts—until that argument is believed—we will continue to struggle with this. That said, Americans for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts have both had some recent successes raising the profile of arts education (and getting money for it appropriated), especially within the Department of Education and in Congress.

Barry:  What do you wish you knew when you first started out in the field that you know now?  How would that knowledge have changed your work or, at least, your approach to your work?

Marian:  I don’t know. If I had not taken for granted that everyone knows what I know: that arts (specifically theater in my case) made it possible for me to live, at a moment of personal crisis; and that arts experiences can be exalting, can grant precious moments of grace—I might not have gone into arts administration in the first place.

Barry:  And the other side of that coin - what single piece of advice would you give those starting a career in the nonprofit arts management field?

Marian:  Do not assume—particularly at this moment of maximum turbulence—that the past can teach you what the future will bring.  Everything is changing.  Pay attention to that. Your passion for the arts is the thing that will endure and see you through, if you are both capable and lucky.

Barry:  What do you think will be the biggest challenge the nonprofit arts will face in the next decade that may not be on many people’s radar screens yet?

Marian:  I am concerned that we lack the literacy we need about how social media works: how profoundly our understanding of and beliefs about the world can be manipulated, are being manipulated, by both ostensibly benign and overtly bad actors. The arts will have to make their way in this occult digital world. I would like to believe that the arts could participate in helping our populace to develop social media literacy, so that people can nurture and enjoy their own aesthetic, as well as social and political autonomy as they conduct their lives in a digitally shaped world.

Barry:  We’re in the middle of a generational change in leadership.  What, if anything, should we try to do to inventory and preserve the institutional knowledge of all those who are leaving the field?

Barry, I don’t know much more about this than when we dug into it a couple of years ago. I do think young people are more interested in learning from veterans like ourselves than we give them credit for. I wonder of the national arts service organizations could provide forums or focus groups of senior leaders both retired and still in service that could capture some of their wisdom.

Barry:  Is it time to reinvent the NEA, or not?  Why?

Marian:  I expect the NEA needs to be reinvented just as much as everything else about the arts ecosystem right now.  Probably the main thing is that we hold onto it until we have a better idea of what we will need in the future.

Thank you Marian.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit