Why Art?: In Times of Trouble

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 13, No 1 (Spring 2002)


Two streams of thought come together here. On the one hand, we want the Reader to reflect the continuing impact on our lives of the events of September 11, 2001. On the other, we want to follow an emphasis in GIA's current plan on the organization's second purpose — to increase the presence of arts philanthropy within philanthropy in order to strengthen support for arts and culture. As part of working toward that large goal, we aim to more clearly articulate contributions that art and artists make to their communities and to better understand the interrelatedness of our work with philanthropy's work in other fields. Highlights of GIA's conference in early November 2001 included discussions revolving around and responding to September 11. Many remarks arising in these discussions are relevant as well to the mandate given to us in GIA's plan. We share some of these thoughts below as part of a continuing conversation.
-Anne Focke

From "Beyond 'Art' — A Community Perspective"
A concurrent session on the conference's first day
Penelope McPhee (John S. and James L. Knight Foundation)
We've all thought a lot about what community is since September 11th. We've thought about it, both at the very smallest scale — our families and the people closest to us — and we've thought about it in the very largest context of where we fit in the global community and what it means to be an American in this world.

I know that all of you have probably had the same experience at your foundations since September 11th that we had at Knight Foundation. From nonprofits in general, and arts organizations in particular, there are two very distinct voices coming to the foundation.

One voice is those artists and arts organizations saying, "What can we do for our community?" And the other voice is those groups saying, "What should the community do for us?" It leads directly to the question that we've all been struggling with about relevance, and about the arts as part of community, and about what the arts really mean to community and what they do for community.

We've experienced in the last couple of months the real power of art to bring us together; to help us understand something that's not understandable; to ignite our imaginations about solutions. At the same time, we were facing some struggling organizations that haven't found their role in being relevant to their communities and yet have great expectations about what the communities need to do to preserve them. It's a question that we're going to have to deal with as grantmakers.

We in south Florida struggled with the very same question after Hurricane Andrew and we had the very same kinds of responses. And I'll tell you an interesting story. Hurricane Andrew was in 1992, almost ten years ago. I remember distinctly two groups who came to Knight Foundation. One was a very new children's museum. They were in a storefront at the time. I think the storefront was wiped away with the hurricane. I don't remember exactly what happened to their facility, but the facility was not meaningful anyway. What they learned after that experience was that they didn't need a facility. What they needed was to be out in the community working with children, and they did that in all kinds of meaningful ways. They are now about to open a wonderful, brand new, huge, expensive facility because the work led them there, not because it led the work.

The other organization that I remember equally powerfully was a theater company, a major theater company in the community. The executive director of the theater company was in Aspen at the time of the hurricane. He called the president of Knight Foundation and said, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! The sky is falling and we need help!" The theater hadn't been affected by the hurricane, physically affected, but he was anticipating that there would be very real problems with subscription losses and single-ticket buyer losses and donation losses. All true, but his approach to the Foundation wasn't about, "What can we do for our community?" It was about, "What can Knight Foundation do to make sure we come out of this whole?" That theater company is on even shakier ground today.

After ten years, you can see what their attitudes have meant to the support and relevance of those organizations in our community. I think the same distinctions will come after September 11th. What we need to be helping arts organizations and artists do is figure out how they contribute, because they have a huge contribution to make.

From "After September 11"
A plenary session on the last day of the conference
Bill Keens (session moderator)
Are artists and arts organizations victims in this case? Whether direct victims of what happened in lower Manhattan or indirect victims, is this a case to be made to the private funds that have been raised or to public sources of support like FEMA? And what is that case? I believe we ought to test that idea here. If there is deep guilt about even thinking about it, we can at least try and exorcise the guilt by talking about whether it's reasonable to be making the case or not.

Ben Cameron (Theatre Communications Group)
Are artists and organizations victims? I just want to share something from a great interview in Fast Company magazine with a former east German terrorist, who now works with survivors in Kosovo. And she says, basically, people tell their stories in three ways: the Victim's Story, the Hero's Story, or the Epic Adventure Story. Victims may yield to passivity and collapse, heroes may fail to pay attention to the externals and the environment, but if we can see our stories as chapters in an epic adventure, that's the way we will make our survival possible.

MK Wegmann (National Performance Network — NPN)
First of all, I think we need to make a distinction. There should be no guilt about recognizing that there are artists and arts organizations in New York City who are victims. But characterizing the larger arts community as victims, different from anyone else in the United States, and thinking of ourselves as victims is a mistake. It's very important to make the distinction between the particular and the large.

The second point I want to make is that a positive outcome may be a return to civic life in this country, which has been in enormous decline. The media's current suppression of opposing points of view contradicts everything that I — although I do live in the isolated corner that is the arts world — have heard in conversations in bars, through email, on the Internet, and in other arenas. And if the media is not a place of public dialog, of civic dialog, then there has to be another place. Artists' role in fomenting and facilitating and bridging civic dialog is legendary and historic. And I think capitalizing on the ability of artists to participate in bringing communities together and addressing issues that are of common concern in communities is one of the greatest strengths and points of advocacy on which we can build.

Bill Keens
What is different about this economic downturn? Any of us who have been in the business for ten years have been through economic downturns before. What's different about this one? Is there really, as Steve Wolff says, a sea change taking place? Do we really have to approach this economic downturn thinking differently about how we do business? Have we been fat and is it now time to be lean, even though we didn't feel fat before?

Peter Pennekamp (Humboldt Area Foundation)
Besides the internal differences in the United States, there is another effect. We're at war. We're at a war in which we're learning very little from the media. We're at a war in the most incendiary place on earth. What will be expected of people in this country and other countries and how they will react to such a war is hard to predict.

There is a question about whether we're nearing some sort of end to isolationism as we've known it, with people beginning to ask serious questions about our foreign policy. Are we seeing a wholesale shift in America's foreign policy away from isolationism? How would such a shift affect us? Or, instead, will we see a shift towards greater isolation as often accompanies moments of great international conflict?

A Pakistani sign in a recent protest said, "America, we can't afford your standard of living." Is there a way to conduct foreign policy that avoids using countries for our own interests, leaving us wondering why they despise us a few years down the road when we abruptly leave? Is there a way to create stable foreign affairs without a big shift of resources from this country into other parts of the world? If wealth is redistributed — either to other countries or to a build-up of our military presence — what impact would that have on the nonprofit sector? We're all looking at retirement somewhere down the road, most of us here. What would it do to next generation, if there's a wholesale redistribution of wealth?

In times of crisis, the nonprofit sector is looked to, as are other sectors, to be part of solutions. And some sectors will be seen in more favorable light than others. What impact will that have on the next generation of nonprofit leadership?

What will be the impact of worsening structural problems, like the collapsing medical system in the United States? We're in the middle of a wholesale collapse of healthcare. What's going to happen next? How will that multi-trillion-dollar issue affect us?

Keens
When I listen to you, it seems so helpless! Can we only get to these specifics by going through such macro-concerns?

Pennekamp
A field that decides not to look at macro concerns is one that will easily be deemed irrelevant, out of touch, and actually an irritant in the national psyche. Barbara Tuchman, in March of Folly, tells about times when countries have simply ignored the prevailing macro-conditions out of immediate self-interest to their own detriment. And I think, getting back to what Ben said, if we look at artists as victims, we're going to commit suicide. That approach would run so badly in this country right now that, you know, we'll set everyone up for derision. What difference can we ever make if we can't engage around the issues affecting the country now, when many people are going to be feeling pain? Think about the impact of current events on the waves of Mexican immigrants in places like Texas and Florida and who are already dying at phenomenal rates. If the arts can't be engaged now, in ways that are outside of normal institutional concerns, I think we are going to see ourselves twenty years down the line as pretty irrelevant.

Nick Rabkin (formerly, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
I want to draw in another thread from the conference. Some of you probably heard Holly Sidford and Maria Rosario-Jackson report yesterday on the preliminary findings of their study on individual artists, and I want to quote the first of their findings: "Support for artists is unlikely to increase unless there is greater understanding of their work and more meaningful engagement with the community."

I mention this because I think it speaks very directly to Peter's macro point. It seems to me that this is actually a moment of enormous opportunity for the arts. This is a time when Americans are asking a set of profound questions about who we are as a country and as a society. We need a new analytical system to help find answers to those questions. It's an analytical system that — as Bill Joy, the chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, said at a recent meeting in Chicago — is not going to be based on conventional rationality.

Artists have a gift that needs to be brought to bear on the problems we're facing as a country now. And I have to say that sometimes arts institutions get in the way of bringing that gift, because the immediate micro concerns of sustaining those institutions inhibit the capacity of artists to bring the gifts that they have to offer.

Claudine Brown (Nathan Cummings Foundation and co-chair, 2001 GIA Conference)
One of the beauties of this particular session is that you bring with you your wisdom and your experiences. For me, this has been one of the greatest sessions of the conference because so many of your perspectives on this topic are going to be with us for a very long time. I have a couple of reflections.

The first is that we have something unique to offer, not just as grantmakers, but as people who are assisting individuals who run institutions and as people who are assisting artists. During times of trouble, I believe it's creativity that's needed as we think about how to solve problems and as we think about how to solve them differently.
Some of my grantees have called and said, "You know, no school groups are coming to our institution. We're struggling." A few of them have said, "We're sending artists out." I hope we're all going to be flexible enough to turn things inside out and not be facile about our solutions. One cultural leader called and said, "I'm going to have to lay off a lot of my staff." But then another leader called saying, "I met with my staff, and we've decided to reduce hours but keep everybody because we think it's important for artists and arts administrators to be employed; and we also think the character of our programs needs to be sustained." So again, I'm seeing some people who are solving the problems like they always have, and others who are looking at the situation as different and are solving it differently.

Another thing that came to mind for me is how we see ourselves as a class of individuals. Do we see ourselves as victims or do we see ourselves as people who have solutions? I would advocate that we see ourselves as people who have solutions, for a couple of reasons.

One thing that we didn't discuss here is that the endowments of our institutions are probably down. Our foundations are probably going to reassess what they do, why they do it, and how they do it. In GIA's own studies, some members told us more than two years ago that they fight continuously saying that the arts are valuable and should be sustained in their foundations. Now I think that fight will be a fight we will fight like we have never fought it before. And if we are not creative, if we are not problem solvers, if we are not seen as viable players within our own foundations, the arts are going to suffer.

My final word to you is, we are special, we are different, but it's important that we find classes that we belong to. This issue is raised by the question of who is a victim. When CETA first came into being, it was not created for artists. But we realized that the legislation included the kind of work we do. Analyzing small businesses is a really good idea, because many of our grantee organizations really are small businesses that have suffered as a result of 9-11. It's really important that we begin to see ourselves as part of other communities with like issues. We are special, but we are also the same. As we're solving problems, we may have solutions that others have not thought of, or we may have communication strategies that are really unique, that could be included in communication strategies of organizations in other fields.

Finally, Ben was really inspirational — how we see ourselves and how we go about doing our business is really essential. We're either going to be fighting what we think is one big battle — maybe winning it or maybe losing it. Or we are in an epic struggle, and we know that we're going to lose some battles, but we are going to stay in the mix until we make change.

We need to be vigilant about policy, because there is legislation right now that's going to change the way we do our work. We need to be vigilant about where we stand and what we stand for. We need to make every impact that our power and authority allows us to make on behalf of the field that we support and care about.

And we cannot let artists be left behind. This conference was made better because artists were here. They make it possible for us to do our work. If we forget the importance of the work of the individual, we have lost sight of why there are grantmakers in the arts.