Minding the Gaps

How Do We See beyond Our Limits?

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 19, No 3 (Fall 2008)

Jaime Cortez

Jaime Cortez was an arts and culture fellow at the San Francisco Foundation for two years. At the end of his fellowship, he and the other outgoing fellows were asked to read a prepared farewell statement to the board and staff of the foundation. Following is his closing presentation, given on July 9, 2008.

Preparing a parting statement has been interesting because it has forced me to knit together a lot of disparate observations, ideas, and questions I've been considering during my fellowship. The foundation is a fascinating place and many subjects are worth discussing today, but what I most want to talk about are limits. Even institutions with mandates, skills, and reach as broad as the San Francisco Foundation's are constantly butt up against the limitations of what we do and how we think. Our foundation is designed to receive specific inputs and engender particular outcomes. Those are our limits, and just as surely as you would not plug a light bulb into a garden hose and expect illumination, we cannot plug certain kinds of organizations, individuals, and activities directly into our systems and expect a successful linkage.

Our limits have been pro-actively laid out and pruned over time to shape us into what we are today. Limits are not in and of themselves negative or positive. Limits can suggest organizational focus and discipline, or indicate rigidity and calcified thinking. What is critical is that we, in the spirit of service to the San Francisco Bay Area, engage in an ongoing and unsentimental re-evaluation of our limits.

I think back to the first time I administered the Murphy & Cadogan Award. This award is given to outstanding fine art graduate students studying in Bay Area MFA programs. The San Francisco Foundation organizes and administers the award and accompanying exhibition annually. I noticed that in submitting their portfolios, many applicants checked off artistic disciplines that were not quite appropriate to what they were doing because our categories were too limited to describe the fluid hybridity of their work. Some of the works submitted in the “painting” category, for instance, engaged disciplines and media well beyond the scope of traditional paintings. But the artists sent their portfolio as a “painting” submission because it was the closest fit. Their portfolios were then judged within a cohort of painters. This was clearly not optimal.

This year, for the first time, we added the category of “hybrid practice” for artists who didn't fit the more traditional categories. Twenty-two percent of the 115 applicants chose that category in its inaugural year. They were the second largest grouping of artists. They were judged against a similarly hybridized cohort of artists, thereby giving them a more appropriate context in which to submit their portfolios.

That was a minor procedural adjustment on our part, with small results, but it was very suggestive. It reminded me that the arts ecosystem usually evolves faster than our language or our conceptualization of it does. This is good news, because it indicates that the front line workers are constantly experimenting and innovating, with or without our knowledge. But this gap begs a question for all of us. We, as regional funders, are charged with having the proverbial 30,000-foot view of the ecosystem we seek to support. But what part of the ecosystem remains obscured from our sight, unattended by our activities, un-connectable to our systems, and unsupported by our funds? And how do we identify these gaps and attend to them?

We read. We read reports, policy statements, articles, books, requests, and more requests. We listen, I hope. We listen to individual artists, arts NPOs [nonprofit organizations], audiences and constituencies, fellow funders, and sometimes the arts nay-sayers. We show up. We visit the programs, see the presentations, and experience the community at work. When we do this—eyes and ears open, mouth mostly shut—we receive extraordinary amounts of information that must be sifted, sorted, and synthesized. Then we must decide on the next step for this information. We can ignore or challenge the information. We can store it away and later forget it or make of it the engine of change in our policy and programming.

This is what happened when Arts and Culture Program Officer John Killacky initiated the Fund For Artists. He listened to our stakeholders, read key studies, and realized that our system was supporting arts NPOs as broadly as it could, but individual artists, who are a procreative core within the arts ecosystem, got minimal funds or professional training. The Fund for Artists became a way to redress this imbalance and attend to a neglected segment of the arts ecosystem. And because it originally engaged three other community foundations (East Bay Community Foundation, Marin Community Foundation, and what was then called the Peninsula Community Foundation) it was a serious effort to work regionally toward the goal of supporting individual artists.

The Fund For Artists has thus far been a great success, and it has been informative and enriching to work on parts of it during my fellowship. The initiative has brought over a million new arts dollars into the region and supported hundreds of artists and the creation of new work in the process.

Despite this, my time as a fellow has shown me that the gaps in our support of the arts ecosystem are myriad and directly related to the limits of our systems and thinking. As an example, I'd like to share a few examples from my own department, with the hope that they might trigger your own thinking about gaps in the way you serve your field of interest—of the environmental project that's a bit too artsy or the education proposal that feels too slanted towards social justice to be a strong fit.

When I talk with artists and arts organizations about their greatest needs beyond money, I've often heard that they are starving for better, broader arts criticism and reporting. It is in some ways surprising to hear this because many thoughtful people claim that the rise of Internet culture with its amateur or freelance critics, citizen reporters, and blogs has made the trained, institutionalized critic all but irrelevant. But, what I hear is that professionalized criticism still matters to many. They believe it is critical to building their audiences, creating public discourse, and developing their own legitimacy and credibility. Think of what it means when an artist or organization can include a substantial, positive review from a major periodical or publication in their web sites, marketing materials, or grant applications. But even with the rise of inexpensive publishing options on the Internet, the work of artists and organizations goes largely unreported and unanalyzed outside of the materials they themselves prepare, such as wall texts, pamphlets, programs, liner notes, or catalogs. Enter Plastic Antimony.

Plastic Antimony is a fine new Oakland/San Francisco arts journal that has emerged in the past few months. It is attractive, thoughtful, multidisciplinary. It is not as diverse as my ideal arts journal would be, but it does have diversity. It covers both individual artists and organizations. It is not a nonprofit, but it is attending to a critical part of the arts ecosystem that we have not yet been able to support. Should we engage this journal? Should we ask and see if this for-profit publication can change to fit our mechanisms, or should we figure out how to retool our mechanisms to work with them? Or is there a third option that lies somewhere in between?

Another example. We are well aware of the invisibility of immigrant arts groups in our docket and the dockets of many other funders. This miniscule representation is completely out of alignment with the great numbers of immigrant residents of our region. My predecessor Sherwood Chen, with John Killacky, did some critical work in mapping the terrain of immigrant arts activities. Since then, we have worked with World Arts West's Ethnic Dance Festival to regrant monies to choreographers for ethnic dance groups. We have also worked interdepartmentally, collaborating with our co-workers in FAITHS (a San Francisco Foundation program that supports faith communities doing work in diverse neighborhoods) and the Koshland Program (a leadership development program designed to train, support, and lift up leaders based in neighborhoods facing great economic, social, and cultural challenges).

These programs have helped the foundation's arts department support and connect with some immigrant groups, and it is a good start. But we have limited modes of reaching out across linguistic and cultural barriers to bring in informally-structured groups that often have no offices, staff, boards, or fiscal sponsors, let alone 501 (c)(3) certification. They often function at a kind of retail level, with each dancer, for instance, paying for his/her own costumes and paying to receive lessons. These groups' sole source of income might be tuition and ticketed presentations for aficionados from their own and other communities.

We, as funders, could suggest technical support and training for these organizations so they can better merge with our systems, but in many cases, the members of these groups are already overextended and feel unprepared to go through the time-consuming and sometimes protracted process of becoming “legit.” Some of them may also face significant language barriers that make the process doubly daunting; others mayhave no cultural knowledge of what a foundation is and may feel suspicious of the process. Once again, this begs the question: how can we change our own internal systems to acknowledge the contributions of small, grassroots immigrant groups and facilitate their access to our funding?

I've spent the better part of my fellowship just learning to formulate my questions, so I can't claim to have comprehensive answers yet. There are however, some possible solutions I've begun to formulate.

Can we collaborate with intermediary organizations to regrant funds to these grassroots and for-profit entities? When designating grantees for donor-advised funds, can we think beyond our established NPOs and recommend organizations that function effectively beyond our current organizational limits?

Can we offer technical assistance focused on helping, say, immigrant folk dance groups to form a group with local peer organizations, thereby allowing them to pursue fiscal sponsorship together, lightening their workloads, and offering opportunities for information exchange and stronger local relationships?

What if we worked with immigrant practitioners by re-designating our grants and calling them “contracts” so they would not have to procure fiscal sponsors, thereby simplifying their process and saving them the expense of fiscal sponsor fees?

Should we create more departmental awards rather akin to the San Francisco Foundation's community leadership awards, that would allow us to support work that is hybridized across disciplines, is structurally different from what we usually fund, or is otherwise a risky stretch for us?

And finally, can we enlarge the funding pie by identifying a compelling need, collaborating with appropriate partners, and finding new sources of individual and institutional funding for our innovative problem solving?

In closing, I'd like to express my gratitude for the San Francisco Foundation and the Multicultural Fellowship Program. The discipline of self-analysis, re-evaluation, and attention to the gaps will stay with me as I move on to new institutions, new projects, and hopefully, new solutions.

Jaime Cortez is a San Francisco Bay Area artist, cultural worker, and arts consultant.