Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Conviction? Check. Money? Check. So What's Keeping the Arts Sector from Embracing Active, Diverse Audience Engagement?

A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a funder that shocked me. If you asked me a month ago what the biggest barrier was to American arts organizations adopting practices that support active engagement in the arts by diverse participants, I would have said two: money and legitimacy. There are more than enough people in the field who are enthused about active participation, and recent reports like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change have sparked field-wide conversations about how philanthropy might more equitably support institutions that serve marginalized communities. We have the arguments and the energy. So what's missing? The funding and validity that a major foundation can provide. I've always assumed that slow-moving, big, traditional, white- and upper-class-serving arts organizations are buoyed in their practices by funders who tacitly approve of their activities with their donations. Move the money, and the field will move.

Turns out it's not that simple.

I was talking with Ted Russell, a senior program officer from the James Irvine Foundation, one of the biggest arts funders in California. I asked how their new Exploring Engagement Fund (of which my museum was an early grant recipient) was going. He paused. He said they've been somewhat disappointed by the applications they've received and surprised by the mixed response in the field to their new approach to arts grant-making. Some have raised the question of whether the Irvine Foundation is "too far ahead of the field" with a grantmaking strategy that focuses on active arts engagement for all Californians. 

In the fall of 2011, the Irvine Foundation released a high-profile new arts strategy that focuses on the "who, how, and where" of arts engagement, with a focus on reaching nontraditional audiences through active participation in nontraditional venues. This was coupled by a shift in their funding, with all foundation arts funding moving into the Exploring Engagement Fund that requires grantees to address at least two of the "who, how, where" goals in each project.  

I was thrilled when this happened for two reasons. First, and close to home, it meant the possibility that the Irvine Foundation might become a funder of the work we do at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History around active arts participation and social bridging. But secondly, and more importantly, it meant validation for active participation in the arts. It meant dollars for marginalized communities. It meant opportunities for experimental practice. It meant one of the "big guys" was moving in what I see as the right direction towards making arts institutions more relevant to our diverse communities. It felt like a lucky break for the things I care most about.

But Ted made me realize it's not that easy. It is just as hard to be an activist funder as it is to be an activist organization. For the Exploring Engagement Fund to be successful, the Irvine Foundation needs really good applicants who WANT to do the kind of experimental, forward-thinking work that Arts Program Director Josephine Ramirez describes in her vision for the program. I assumed, given the energy around active participation and diversifying audiences that exists in the field, that there were lots of prospective grantees like my organization just waiting for this kind of opportunity to open up. It seems that the Irvine Foundation assumed similarly, and that the results have thus far not lived up to their (or my) hopes.

Why not? 

I don't think the problem is the Irvine Foundation's approach, or even their communication around it. The "who, how, where" strategy is clear and well-reasoned. In a lot of ways, the Irvine Foundation's challenge is comparable to that which any organization that changes its strategy faces. Who exactly is the market for this new approach to arts funding? Just as an institution that changes its focus has to either attract a new audience or engage its traditional audience in a change process, the Irvine Foundation has to execute this new strategy in partnership with its grantees.

To be successful, I see three tasks ahead for the Irvine Foundation:
  1. Help traditional arts institutions understand and connect with the new strategy. Ted told me that the Irvine Foundation staff have learned that they have to work on how they communicate about the new strategy and support capacity-building for organizations to be able to be successful in the new paradigm. Longtime grantees have relied on Irvine for years for one kind of support and now see themselves being thrust into a different set of expectations. Even organizations that care about community engagement could be stymied by the creative challenge to hit two of the three "who, how, where"s with a single two-year project. It's not surprising that they push back against the changes. Part of me wonders whether it's worthwhile to invest more money in trying to convince traditional arts institutions to embrace active engagement--but then I realize that that's the work I've been trying to do for a long time. I think a strong way to do this is by reaching out to program staff directly. I know there are people within traditional arts institutions who will be empowered by Irvine's new strategy--people who feel frustrated that their passion for serving low-income families is met with lip service, or people who are pigeonholed into an education zone because of their enthusiasm for active art-making. I'm hopeful that those individuals and departments will go to their development directors, who are spinning their brains around trying to repackage their organizations in the "who, how, where" paradigm, and offer a way forward for funding AND increased priority on Irvine's vision for the arts in California.
  2. Actively recruit new grantees who may now be eligible or appropriate for funding. I have no doubt that there are many incredible artists and organizations that could do wonderful things with funding from the Irvine Foundation. But those individuals and institutions may not be on Irvine's map... and Irvine may not be on theirs. The kinds of organizations that focus on active art-making and social practice are different from those that focus on arts consumption. Organizations that work in nontraditional venues may not label themselves as arts institutions. Organizations that engage marginalized communities and have long been shunned by major funders might not attend to the strategy shifts of those foundations. Just as working with "nontraditional" audiences often requires more intensive forms of engagement, working with nontraditional grantees will require the same.
  3. Have courage. I believe in a few years we will point to Irvine as a catalyst for significant change in the arts sector in California and around the country. But being on the leading edge is scary. It requires confidence that the grantees and the projects ARE out there. It requires turning a deaf ear to complaints from institutions that aren't willing to engage audiences in what Irvine feels are the most effective ways. I have no illusions that the Irvine Foundation (or any foundation) will continue to put forward an approach that works personally for me or my institution. But I sincerely hope that every foundation will continue to be thoughtful and courageous in constructing grantmaking strategies that they feel will do serious good in the community. 
When funders change their ways, it matters. It ruffles the landscape. It lays the groundwork for real change. And sometimes that might mean "being ahead of the field" with a big old carrot that gets some stuck organizations moving forward. 
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