Changing the Game: Next-Generation Strategies for the Arts

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 21, No 1 (Spring 2010)

Marc Vogl

My goal for putting together a session at the 2009 GIA Conference entitled: “Changing the Game: New Models, New Leaders, New Ideas for the Arts,” was to cast new light on old problems by enriching our collective conversation with new voices. I described it in the conference guide this way:

In moments of economic upheaval, technological transformation, and demographic shifts mastering the rules of the game does not guarantee victory—in politics or in the arts. Campaign organizers, next-generation arts leaders, and innovative artists share lessons for the arts sector on new ways of creating work, doing business, and harnessing the latent power of a broad community to make great art possible.

My thinking in recruiting four panelists, who had never attended a GIA conference before, was something like this:

Adam Huttler, the founder director of Fractured Atlas, the nation’s largest fiscal sponsor for individual artists and arts organizations, could talk about why funders should consider making grants to organizations that lie outside of the conventional 501(c)(3) framework.

Heather Cohn, a founder of the Flux Theatre Ensemble, fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, could talk about how this approach works for her and the art she wants to make.

Ebony McKinney recently left a position as a grantmaker at the San Francisco Art Commission to start a network for emerging arts leaders in the Bay Area. I thought she might talk about what changes younger arts professionals are hungry for and need to be made in order for the field’s future success.

And Nicole Derse, currently director of training for Organizing for America, but previously a community organizer and campaign manager , could describe her experience as one of the first fifty staffers on Obama’s presidential campaign.

What I really hoped for, of course, was that instead of presenting four mini-monologues, the panelists would converse with one another and with whomever showed up. To my delight, this actually happened.

As an entrepreneur and ardent supporter of artists who seek to subordinate organizational structure to organizational mission and artistic focus, Adam Huttler challenged every funder in the room to reflect on whether their approach to grantmaking rewards or punishes risk-taking. If grants are awarded to those who score well on an established scorecard, what incentive is there for trying something really new? If arts funders champion innovation and originality in the work they endeavor to support (and are experienced enough to understand that every new play commission won’t result in a Tony), shouldn’t they be more adventurous with the capital they provide to artists who work outside conventional nonprofit structures, make decisions using nontraditional leadership models, and create work on time lines that don’t fit neatly into established funding cycles?

Fractured Atlas receives support from a number of arts funders (including some represented in the room), so Adam was gracious about the way he framed the issue, but fundamentally he asked the nation’s arts funders to consider whether in making grants they acted more like a pension fund or a venture capitalist. Do we make grants to organizations whose work and tried-and-true programming can be expected to yield modest but predictable returns? Or do we get behind start-ups that might crash and burn but may also achieve dazzling outcomes if they receive meaningful support when they need it most? The vigorous head nodding around the room suggested that the Pension Fund vs Angel Investor analogy resonated, and I wondered which grantmakers, program officers, and board members would have funded a pre-IPO Google?

Heather Cohn, whose theatrical ensemble operates on a budget well under $500,000, attested to the cost savings of operating as a fiscally sponsored project and paying Fractured Atlas to conduct the administrative and tax-compliance activities necessary to remain eligible for the donations, grants, and benefits that charitable status affords.

When the floor was opened for questions, an unconvinced audience member wanted to know why the panelists believed new models would be any more “sustainable” than those dominating the nonprofit arts and culture landscape today.

“What is important to sustain,” said Ebony McKinney, “is the individual, not the institution.” The issue for emerging leaders is that the current nonprofit model privileges the organization’s durability (not its vitality) above all else. Too often the creative needs and the work/life balance of staff and artists who work for arts nonprofits gets steamrollered. As documented in a recent Hewlett commissioned report on Next Generation Leadership in the Arts, Boomers, Gen Xers and Millenials working in the arts regard this issue very differently. People born after 1970 want to see a paradigm in which uncompensated overtime, unacknowledged contributions, unsupported professional development, and deep misalignment between personal sustenance and organizational sustainability are not only questioned, but upended.

Perhaps because many of those in the room had volunteered or contributed to political campaigns in 2008, people were eager to hear from Nicole Derse about how the Obama campaign engineered such an unlikely success and which tactics that worked in battleground states might apply to arts organizations across the country.

First, Nicole said: “Act boldly! Hesitate at your peril!”

The Obama team shrewdly experimented with different organizing models. Rather than a monolithic get-out-the-vote strategy, the approach varied in different electoral districts, and at different stages in the race: when organizers saw that something was working, they deployed resources and committed to them in a major way. Feedback loops from the front lines through the local, state, regional, and national campaign staffs were critical in improving systems for training volunteers and engaging voters in the electoral process. Even when that feedback was negative and even after setbacks (and devastating primary losses), a conviction about their ultimate success quelled second-guessing and half-stepping in crucial moments.

The translation for those of us in the arts (for whom sometimes commissioning studies comes more easily than expending resources to solve problems innovatively) is that the fulcrum we use to balance thinking and acting may be in the wrong place. Nicole made clear that the Obama campaign’s approach was strategic, considered, and grounded in lessons learned from past victories and defeats. But they understood that with tremendous time pressure, and a leader who made the phrase “the fierce urgency of now” a part of his stump speech, over-thinking and not acting would be a losing proposition.

Everyone was familiar with the way the Obama campaign used the web and text messaging as well as a variety of new media tools to raise unprecedented amounts of money and engage volunteers and voters in new ways in 2008. Nicole helped us to understand that the campaign not only used new technology to do traditional campaign work faster, but that one could break from tradition too.

For example, she described the change in gathering data about potential voters. Phone-bankers at home on their computers logged information about voter-contacts in real time, and door-knockers entered information into an online database that field organizers and campaign managers could instantly access. That meant the campaign staff didn’t need to call volunteers and ask them about numbers—how many undecideds they had won over that day. Instead, they could talk about the most inspiring (or depressing!) encounter a volunteer had, or discuss with a phone bank captain what resources they needed or what new tactics they could try.

Simply put: they treated people as people because they had machines doing the machine-work.

In his personal approach to the campaign Obama established that the ability to tell a story well, and to eloquently share one’s life experiences, were important skills. With the benefit of new technology armies of volunteers were encouraged and taught how to tell their own stories when they went door to door and to articulate why this election mattered so much to them personally.

Thinking narrowly, there are obvious parallels between the fundraising imperatives of a winning political campaign and a successful arts organization. Arts organizations can certainly take a page from Obama’s success by facilitating on-line donations, by valuing small contributions, and by engaging each donor not just as a piggy bank but as an ally in making a difference. More broadly, however, the campaign’s approach, as Nicole discussed it, illuminates a trend that observers of arts patrons are increasingly picking up on: people want to participate. Thinking creatively about what participation could mean — making a donation, picking up a phone, meeting up with neighbors, organizing rallies, assuming leadership roles and being empowered to make important decisions — served the Obama campaign well. There may be important corollaries for arts organizations, and funders, who recognize that their mission and their chances of success hinge on giving people a reason not only to get involved but to be stimulated, appreciated, and rewarded for doing so.

Whether there was more than just caffeine in the coffee served by the Marriot, or the early- morning conversation was really just that exciting, the audience didn’t need any prodding to jump into the action for the back half of our session.

“What’s your generation’s metaphor?” a funder in the front row (clearly a generation more senior than the twenty- and thirty-somethings on the panel), wanted to know.

“Open source,” responded Adam, with approving glances from his peers.

The term has a specific meaning in terms of how software is created collectively, shared widely, and improved and adapted infinitely, but it worked for the panelists on many levels. Heather said that her ensemble’s philosophy is that, as Ian Moss quotes it in his blog report (available at gia2009.wordpress.com), “great ideas should be put out into the world — they are not yours to own.” For Ebony, the emphasis emerging arts professionals place on networking (both in person and online) derives from a faith in building a “commonwealth of knowledge.” Nicole affirmed that transparency and inclusion are essential pillars of any organizing effort that seeks to involve young people. Whether it’s simply that those who came of age with the internet don’t believe that success is a function of secrecy, or that there is a deeper, more complicated generational rejection of late twentieth-century me-first capitalism and early twenty-first century administrations that lie to make war, was not addressed in our session. However, the comments from audience members across the generational spectrum made clear that greater openness has made arts philanthropy effective in the past and that the open source approach to solving massive social problems, supporting innovative artists and organizations, forging bonds with members of the arts and the non-arts communities, and not least of all, working with fellow funders, may well be the path to future success in our field, too.

Throughout the 2009 GIA conference there was a constant refrain: the status quo is not going to cut it. Chief Oren’s opening invocation warned about the perils of complacency in the face of catastrophic climate change; Wynton Marsalis’s history lesson challenged the crippling immorality of venerating only the artistic contributions of cultures and people that we know; and numerous sessions echoed some variation on the phrase, “It’s not business as usual.” Finally, Janet Brown declared GIA’s new motto: “Louder and bolder!”

So, what ideas can we be loud about? How are we going to act boldly? What unusual business will succeed? Who don’t we know that we need to know and support? What changes can we make in our offices, in our grantmaking practice, and in our areas of influence? The panelists who participated in this session didn’t answer these questions for us, but their wisdom, spirit, and honesty helps us on our way.

Marc Vogl is a program officer with the Performing Arts Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.