Duck Blinds

Hal Cannon

Recently, while sitting in a coffee shop in Chicago, I overheard a language that sounded familiar. Being a folklorist I'm sensitive to occupational language. You can blindfold me in front of conversations of cowboys or farmers and I will be able to pick out a number of things that distinguish their talk. And having a private language is not bad, it's a reality.

My automatic response in Chicago was to look over, thinking I might know the woman talking. There was something so familiar in her words. Yet seeing her sitting there in her handsome business suit, I had no idea who she was. Putting it together now, I realize I was listening to grantmaker vernacular. As I listened closer to the words I saw they had nothing to do with the arts but, nevertheless, it was pure grantmaker.

"Our emphasis is being redirected into publishing. There are several research studies in progress and we feel that our role, increasingly, has to move towards policy and research." There was more, but then I saw the grant seeker with his young sidekick sitting across from her. He paused, trying his best to seem not like a hungry stray dog but more like a trusted friend, wagging his tail leisurely. But he wasn't at ease. I could tell. He was sweating.

This may go against the grain of those who live and die by research and policymaking. Believe me, in the right hands both policy and research are critical. My gripe is when they are used as an excuse or barrier to listening, to engaging in an ongoing conversation of values—values that range from the traditional to the dynamic, from the local to the universal, from the privileged to the egalitarian, or from the heart to the mind.

Some of the best funders I've known work intuitively. They may know the research, the policy, but they always allow the field they serve to challenge, and they adapt to the needs that come to light. These folks have an uncanny ability to find creative energy coupled with society's needs, and they help make magic happen by infusing money. Some of these fine people are leaving the philanthropic field frustrated because they are not allowed latitude within institutional structures.

I have a simple research proposal. We gather the names of twenty-five of the most respected grantmakers in the field. Perhaps peer review helps us find the names. We ask them to respond to the following: "Please rank these attributes according to how helpful they are in your work: a) research, b) policy, c) empathy, d) listening." You be the judge. What's important to you?

In talking with many nonprofit leaders lately, I hear over and over how perplexed they are by the increasingly prescriptive nature of funding—how they are caught between the creativity of their own approach to a mission and the increasingly narrow guidelines of foundations and other funding sources.

The tension my nonprofit colleagues feel results from grantmaking priorities. At the same time, funders are caught in a conflict. Do we fund in a shotgun approach or with the deadly accuracy of a high-powered riffle? How do we balance funding support with advisory support? We all want to foster creativity, art that will make a difference to society. But how are we doing? What is our score in fulfilling our public trust?

With so much knowledge gained through research, so much emphasis on policy, we as funders naturally want to share what we've learned with those on the front lines of making art happen. Yet, sometimes the very research we fund, the very policymaking we support, limits and confounds the people we serve. The lesson we need to learn is that while policy and research give us some framework, the details are up for debate.

Dudley Cocke and I both serve on foundation boards, but our full time work is on the front lines of the arts. Because we are not in the daily work of grant making perhaps we just don't understand the pressures. But that aside, we are frustrated by the barriers that are built to separate the askers from the givers. The architecture of these barriers is diverse. As advocates of good policy and helpful research it is painful to see these tools misused. As Dudley says, "The way that I would characterize the research and policy making you decry: it is intended to result in a grand blueprint, i.e. social engineering. Such has a chilling effect, both in society and philanthropy. It's the hubris of a foundation that thinks it understands the world viewed from its 8000 square on the 28th floor of a skyscraper."

As I've brought this subject up with funders I find it resonates with many. There is something in most of us that fights for arts that are under-represented. The areas I generally work in are what I'd call, "the underdog arts," such as folk and ethnic arts. Another is the documentary arts. In recent years I've become convinced that we need to pay more attention to documentary artists who work to amplify the arts in the new world of digital technology.

This year at the GIA conference the Third Coast Audio Festival will present an Audio Listening Room. Some of the best independent documentary radio made today will be presented, both artful radio and radio that represents the arts. There is incredible energy and creativity behind independent audio/radio production these days but very little response from foundations and other funders. It's as if this work is all dressed up for the dance without any partners. This is not just an issue for media. The question is broad. How can artistic energy penetrate the funding world if it does not have the tools of power—advocates, policies, and research?

Hal Cannon is a board member of the Fund for Folk Culture. He is founding director of the Western Folklife Center and the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and currently produces public television and radio features.