Gathering

Action Strategies for Building Participation

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 12, No 1 (Winter 2001)

Frances Phillips

October 18-20, 2000, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, co-sponsored by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and Heinz Endowments.
November 13-15, 2000, San Francisco, California, co-sponsored by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

The Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund has been convening recipients of audience development and cultural participation grants for several years. At the start, the meetings were organized by artistic discipline or by type of institution with, for instance, museum representatives, literary magazines and presses, and theaters each holding their own meetings. In 1999 the Fund changed this practice, combining all disciplines and organization types into two national meetings and, rather than taking the standard technical assistance and panel discussion approach, began using Open Space meeting management. In an Open Space meeting, discussion topics are generated and led by meeting participants. Notes are taken, immediately recorded on laptops, and printed each night for distribution the following day. A powerful benefit of this meeting style for gatherings convened by a grantmaker is that it honors the knowledge in the room, treating all participants as peers and breaking down the usual "grantor/grantee" opposition.

The Wallace Fund's new approach was applauded by grantees who, in evaluating the 1999 Seattle and Boston meetings, asked for an additional spin on the model: opportunities to interact with the arts community in the city in which the meeting was held. Having selected Pittsburgh and San Francisco as its 2000 meeting sites, Wallace staff approached the Heinz Endowments and Walter and Elise Haas Fund about co-sponsoring the meetings and combining our grantees in a shared conversation. In each city, the meetings were held over three days' time, with formal presentations about new thinking in audience and organizational development (superbly organized by Jerry Yoshitomi) on the first afternoon, an opening party with local entertainment that evening, followed by a day and a half of Open Space meetings. As a co-host, I visited the first evening and second day of the Pittsburgh meetings as well as the full program in San Francisco. They were a highlight of my work in 2000.

Notes from the meetings can be found on Wallace's Web site. While the notes are interesting, they only faintly represent the dynamic, candid quality of the meetings. With Open Space, one must choose among a vast menu of topics. I participated in conversations about how to stop feeling like a supplicant (or improving the grantmaker/grantee relationship); developing audiences for controversial work; what to do when the values of your organization clash with the values of a community group you are trying to serve; improving funder practice; "Mo' Money, Mo' Meaning;" using the Web to develop audiences; and working with faith-based organizations. Other topics ranged from architecture as an audience development barrier to how to better involve corporate leaders in a board of directors.

Coming into this partnership, I had some concern about mixing the Haas Fund's small- and mid-sized-budget grantees with Wallace's larger-budget grant recipients. And I worried about possible jealousy: The Haas Fund's grants are much smaller than those awarded by Wallace. When it came to the budget size discrepancy, I believe some of the San Franciscans were intimidated for a short time on the first morning, but the Open Space process is a great equalizer and they soon jumped in as session leaders and active participants. I was proud of their brilliance and insights. And, if jealousy was felt, it was not expressed.

I continue to see results of the San Francisco meetings. One burned-out executive director who had resigned from her job felt reinspired and decided to return to her post. One major, highly successful agency with a history of isolating itself is planning an arts community reception to celebrate and introduce its new director. Space for the arts is a well-documented crisis in San Francisco, and several smaller organizations that manage performance and rehearsal spaces now are meeting with one another monthly to better coordinate their efforts to serve artists. There's talk of ongoing roundtable discussions about making better use of the Web and of analyzing audience surveys.

I tip my hat to my colleagues at the Wallace Fund for recognizing the power of convening grantees and for honoring the value of their experience and knowledge. I thank them for extending this exciting opportunity to others.