Regional Reports

Los Angeles: Art Funders Commune

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 2 (Fall 1998)

Danton S. Miller

Here in Los Angeles, the thought of an "arts funding community" had been something of an oxymoron. Because of corporate policy, political agendas, and familial preferences, arts grantmakers have long worked in isolation from one another. Sure, we like one another, go to the same shows, eat the same special-event salmon, but collaborate and communicate on a regular basis? Well, if only...

Attempts at convening the community were made. The best example was probably the L.A. Arts Loan Fund, which provides no-interest short-term cash flow loans to arts organizations, but was also hoped to provide the kind of forum for the exchange of ideas that had made its San Francisco counterpart such a hot-bed of arts news, gossip, and policy development. But, alas, membership around the table was restricted, and the “family unit” was undermined by the economic travails of the early '90s that did much to erode the arts funding posture of the city's most magnanimous corporate citizens. Their absence created a leadership vacuum that further aggravated the already occasional nature of grantmaker communications.

That all changed last fall with the establishment of L.A. Arts Funders. Taking their cue from a kaffeeklatsch created by the heads of some of L.A.'s more prominent arts organizations, Wendy Hauptman (then at AT&T), Cora Mirikitani (The James Irvine Foundation), and Laura Zucker (Los Angeles County Arts Commission), convened a group of seventeen arts grantmakers from the greater Los Angeles area for the first of what was to become a monthly gathering to share information and identify common interests. The group's numbers have grown above twenty, and now a broad and fairly inclusive cross-section of Los Angeles arts grantmakers is represented, including the corporate community (e.g., Edison International), foundations (e.g., the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation), and public and semi-public agencies (e.g., Long Beach's Public Corporation for the Arts and the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles).

Meetings have generally proceeded from an overview of funding activities and other updates to an open discussion that touches on a variety of topics. Among the topics discussed have been policy concerns (including nascent work in cultural indicators), the challenges confronting small and mid-size arts organizations and ways grantmakers might best work with these organizations, support of individual artists, and support for arts education activities.

Recently, agendas have begun to focus more on in-depth discussion highlighting specific topics, projects, and programs. At one recent meeting, for example, Kym Eisner, executive director of Audrey Skirball-Kenis (A.S.K.) Theater Projects, discussed that organization's Playwrights-in-the-Schools Program. Included in her presentation was a segment titled “Hard Lessons A.S.K. Has Learned,” which proved particularly helpful in identifying some of the keys to developing successful in-school arts ed programs (e.g., get the administration involved).

As Kym's presentation points up, one of the great delights of the L.A. Arts Funders meetings has been the emergent leadership role assumed by the staff of family foundations, three of which are deserving of special mention: A.S.K. Theater Projects, the Durfee Foundation, and the Flintridge Foundation.

Of particular interest in discussing these groups' work is the role that they are playing as harbingers of a return toward supporting the creative act and the work of individual artists.

Part service organization, part operating foundation, and part independent grantmaker, A.S.K. Theater Projects is “a local and national resource for the theater and its artists [that] facilitates the creation of new work through a broad range of artistic and educational programs.” Too numerous to list here, suffice it to say that A.S.K. has a dazzling array of programs including ones dedicated to supporting the work of living playwrights (readings, workshops, retreats, an exchange program, and a commissioning program), an annual festival of new work, regular “affinity group” meetings for the theater community, and related publications. All this in addition to the arts ed program mentioned above. And, all with a staff of seven and an annual budget of $2 million. For more information, they can be contacted at info[at]askplay. org or 310-478-3200.

Although it has been in existence since 1960, the Durfee Foundation got a major boost when it hired Claire Peeps as its executive director in 1997. Already a known force in the L.A. arts community (among her previous positions was that of curator of the LA Festival), Claire has helped increase the Foundation's profile both locally and nationally — in and outside of the arts.

As its guidelines state, among Durfee's grantmaking foci are “individual effort, reward[ing] creativity and risk-taking, and build[ing] partnerships.” In addition to a sabbatical program for leaders in L.A.'s nonprofit sector [see page __ of this newsletter], the Foundation recently announced a Music Fellowships program that will provide support of approximately $22,500 annually for the next two-to-three years to each of six virtuoso performers in a range of Western (i.e.., R&B and jazz) and non-Western (e.g., Afro-Cuban, West African, Egyptian, Cambodian, and Indian) traditions. Among Durfee's other programs are one that provides operating support for social service providers and a program that supports “avocational” travel to China for those affiliated with designated sponsor institutions. Total budget (including non-arts grantmaking) is approximately $1 million. For more information: admin[at]durfee.org, or 310-899-5120.

Founded in 1984, the Flintridge Foundation provides support in four program areas — theater, visual arts, environmental conservation, and community services. Like Durfee, this foundation also received a infusion of new energy (in 1995) when it hired another veteran of the L.A. arts scene, Pam Gregg Wolkoff, as its senior program officer for arts and conservation.

Today, the Foundation's annual grants amount to $1.5 million, of which $600,000 is awarded to the arts. Since its inception, Flintridge has contributed more than $3 million to theater and visual arts in California, Oregon, and Washington. The Foundation's theater program provides grants averaging $15,000 to small and mid-size ensembles that have developed a distinctive artistic voice unique to the actors, playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, and designers involved.

The Visual Artists Awards program, inaugurated in 1997, provides biennial awards of $25,000 each to twelve artists whose singular artistic voices can be identified in exemplary work for at least two decades. Artists working in traditional arts, crafts media, or fine arts are eligible to apply for the awards. The 1997—1998 Awards recipients include Chris Burden, John Divola, Lynn Hershman, David Ireland, Tom Marioni, Ron Nagle, Noah Purifoy, Nancy Rubins, Betye Saar, Mark Thompson, Carlos Villa, and Al Wong. For information about Flintridge and its programs, call 626-449-0839.

So, now if anyone tells you that “there's no there there” in L.A., you can no counter, “But, you're wrong! There's an arts funding community!” A community that has congealed, cohered, boasts the active participation of a growing cohort of family foundations, shares a commitment to the support of artists and creativity...and meets the second Thursday of every month. Give us a call if you're in town.

Danton S. Miller, The James Irvine Foundation