Expanding Cultural Family

Funders, Tools, and the Journey toward Equity

Jen Gilligan Cole

Understanding and embracing transformational change are ubiquitous in cultural policy circles. Research on dramatic demographic shifts, seismic alterations in technology and audience consumption, and postrecession political realities compel arts leaders to master not only their genre but the sticky notion of change itself. Grantmakers in the Arts' own equity work, EmcArts Community Innovation Labs, and ArtPlace’s placemaking practices are all attempts to recalibrate the arts funding ecosystem to respond and adapt to change. As funders, we find ourselves acting both as champions for this new normal and trying to develop responsive programs.

The Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission (Metro Arts), like many local arts agencies, strives to be a change agent. We embrace political and demographic shifts and actively improve our work, our services, and our Nashville community. We bring creators to the table and invest time and money in stakeholder-based planning. We facilitate creative placekeeping/placemaking and collective impact practices. We have a strategic plan with a theory of change at its core.

In 2012, we used that theory of change to update our grants program, including new technology, categories, and outreach and outcomes measurement. After two years of implementing “change,” we found the same sixty organizations applied for the same projects in the same communities. Although the projects supported important arts organizations doing meaningful cultural work, they overwhelmingly supported existing audiences. Despite our program adaptations, we had not moved the needle on equitable employment for artists of color or funding for grassroots cultural providers. We had not deepened support for content celebrating the ethnic, religious, cultural, gender identity, and age realities of the 668,000 residents we serve in Nashville and Davidson County. Essentially, we had not really changed.

We were disheartened. Why weren’t communities of color applying for grants? Why weren’t Latino cultural groups coming to workshops? Why was our geographic reach not penetrating our lowest socioeconomic neighborhoods? So we sat down one-on-one with artists of color and grassroots cultural leaders and asked these questions directly. Somewhere in the asking, the answer came like a lightning bolt: privilege. We had asked black, Asian, and Latino artists to adopt our systems with the notion that they would just come along. We had signaled that belonging for cultural producers serving nonwhite, nonwealthy communities was to do things our way. We had changed on the outside, but we had not altered our values, our practices, or our power.

In other words, we had treated change like an unexpected visit from our Aunt Sylvia. We had fixed up the spare room and put out the nice towels. We had made the Bundt cake we thought she liked and bought the lavender hand cream that reminded us of her. We had created the appearance that we had welcomed Aunt Sylvia, but really we were secretly watching Game of Thrones in the bathroom and counting the minutes till her train pulled away.

Our agency finally realized that if we want to get serious about fairness, equity, and community, we need to embrace the wild notion that Aunt Sylvia is not a house guest, she is family.

When we accepted this concept, our decisions moved from polite to deliberative. The pullout couch works for a few days but not forever. Someone will need to make room to accommodate her needs. Will we need to find new money to build on to the house? How will she get to church or the doctor? What changes are we willing to make to systems so she can now be integrated into our family? What happens when Aunt Sylvia tells us that family pizza night won’t work with her gallbladder? Will we accept her as she is? Will we be willing to establish a new ritual together?

To follow the metaphor, if we as arts funders want to respond to the realities of our communities, we must throw out old values and rewire how we look at artistic agency and excellence. Most importantly, we must stop practices that treat artists and communities like guests and outsiders.

Ask Disruptive Questions

Metro Arts started to ask new and disruptive questions. Instead of “Why don’t you apply for our grants?” we asked, “What do you need to prosper?” and “How can we support the beauty of your neighborhoods?” When we stopped thinking about how artists related to our grants program and our rules, and simply accepted how organic cultural production was happening in our community, we learned a lot. We learned of dozens of festivals and exhibits that were orchestrated via informal networks and neighborhood collaborations outside of nonprofits. Refugee leaders from Kurdistan, Somalia, and Egypt revealed deep mistrust of government applications. Grassroots artist collectives who produced sociopolitical work found our once-a-year review process restrictive. Many African American artists embedded in a network of congregations felt deep distrust from decades of exclusionary practices and that the spiritual nature of their work was at odds with us as a municipal funder. Our conversations revealed that although we thought we had streamlined our grants, most still found our processes full of jargon, difficult to complete, and laced with coded notions of “artistic excellence.” By iterating that we valued artistry regardless of whether it fit into our program mold, we uncovered a flourishing, but underinvested, network of culture makers in our ecosystem. In this sometimes painful listening and discovery, the idea for our THRIVE microfund program was born.

Imagine New Tools

All of what we learned smacked against the funding system we had polished and perfected since the 1970s. Surely all we needed to do was invent a grant program that had rolling deadlines, contained no wonky terms, addressed cultural and religious fears, detangled embedded racist notions of “quality,” and was open to those without a tax exemption letter. After countless hysterical and infuriating discussions with our city attorneys, we determined that grants just would not allow us to do what we needed to do. They were the wrong tool for the job — like a bulldozer at an archaeological site. We were stuck. We needed a new tool.

We found it buried in an obscure passage of our municipal purchasing code. On page 96 was an allowance to sole-source purchase services of “Musical acts & musicians, animal acts, petting zoos, clowns, magicians and other entertainment acts.” The provision alone revealed much about how cities and funders have framed cultural creators who are not formally trained or who act outside of accepted institutions. The rule evoked a not-so-distant past, where artists of color were paraded as part of roadside shows — disconnected from the ”mainstream (white) culture” and funding streams in communities. Yet in this loaded phrase, we also saw the spark of an idea. What if we could negotiate a way for all artists and creators to be paid directly for projects, without bidding projects out? Over the course of a year we tested our idea. We convinced the city purchasing director that a broad understanding of “artist” should be added to the rule. We convinced the payment services division that artists need not go through the same vendor registration process as construction companies and invented a one-page payment work-around that satisfied both artists and our payment processing staff. We convinced a city council member to advocate for a new staff position and $40,000 in seed funding to kick-start the idea. We called our idea THRIVE — not a grant but a microinvesting tool to help artists, neighborhoods, and communities THRIVE.

THRIVE funds artist-driven community projects ranging from $2,500 to $4,000. Organizations that receive funding from our grants program are not eligible. Applicants can be artists, neighborhood associations, or any group of culture providers and need not be registered as tax-exempt organizations with the IRS. Applicants must prove that the funds will pay artists and must have a bank account so we can issue payment. Applicants complete a one-page project description form and a one-page budget. Then they submit a brief online survey and photo documentation at project completion. We review projects monthly and therefore distribute dollars throughout the year. In our first nine months, we directly supported more than two hundred artists, 60 percent of whom were artists of color. One hundred percent of the projects occurred in low-income neighborhoods with little formal cultural programming. The overwhelming majority of the artists we supported had never received project support or written an application of any sort. We changed our patterns, our processes, and our belief system about what is valuable and worthy of investment. In return, THRIVE changed our organization.

Accept Dissonance as Work

We now distribute $100,000 in funds annually and have learned that THRIVE demands a different way of working altogether. We can’t just send guidelines out into the world and wait for applications to roll in. We ask that all applicants meet in person or by phone with our staff so we can troubleshoot budget and feasibility before they submit. This translates to hours of coaching that often occurs in coffee shops or at neighborhood dives, not in our office cubicles. This means recruiting events after the traditional workday, and nighttime and weekend workshops. We have produced YouTube content on how to complete forms and build budgets so artists who might have three part-time jobs can access the instructions anywhere, anytime. We accept handwritten applications and ensure that when we score them, we make accommodation for language and ability. THRIVE has become an informal professional development program. We mentor artists who complete projects and then bring new artists to the table. The staff ratio is one many funders would not accept: one full-time employee deployed to support an informal network of cultural creators. We have come to believe that rightsizing human capital investments combined with financial support is one way we can begin to address cultural equity in our ecosystem.

THRIVE continually pushes our comfort boundaries about where and what we fund. Our first application was from a neighborhood band who wanted to write and perform a song about gentrification. That sparked an electric debate among board members about the role of public funders in controversial issues. THRIVE surfaces conversations about “quality” because projects emerge from a neighborhood rather than a formal cultural institution context. This allows our team to proactively look at cultural production and examine our own race and class biases in the process.

This journey has informed the entire agency, and we are now reimagining all of our community investments, including grants and public art commissions, through this lens of guest versus family. We are examining if our systems actually invite people in or unintentionally keep them out. We are questioning whether the tools we use, that all funders use, really work for equitable community cultural investment. We are remapping the role of staff time investment as equally critical to financial investment in artists and neighborhoods. Through THRIVE, we have come to understand that change is not something we plan and manage but a messy, beautiful, and constant negotiation — rather like what I imagine it would be like if Aunt Sylvia moved in as an accepted and cherished member of the family.


THRIVE is an open competitive community microfund. For more information, go to http://www.nashville.gov/Arts-Commission/THRIVE.aspx. Metro Art’s theory of change puts residents at the center of cultural investments: http://www.nashville.gov/Arts-Commission/About-Us/Our-Strategic-Plan/Our-Theory-of-Change.aspx.