The Future of the Arts In California

Elevating Key Questions and Stimulating Dialogue, An Introduction

James E. Canales

As arts funders, we often perceive our capacity to direct financial resources to worthy arts organizations as the most valuable tool at our disposal. That's probably correct and, indeed, as it should be. After all, most of our institutions have been established by donors for the core purpose of grantmaking, and the law mandates that we award grants for public benefit.

At the same time, those of us who are privileged enough to be employed by philanthropic institutions should embrace a broader view of how we might effectively carry out our mission to support and advance the arts. While granting financial resources to benefit artists, arts organizations, and the audiences they serve is indeed our core work, foundations can add value in numerous other ways as well. Because many have written thoughtfully on the ways that foundations add value beyond direct grantmaking,1 I will focus here on one powerful tool that I believe has particular resonance for the arts at this time of enormous change.

In considering the arts in California — the geographic focus of all of the James Irvine Foundation's grantmaking — this article focuses on the critical role that foundations can play to lead people to issues of significance. By virtue of our resources, relationships, networks, and ready access to smart, creative, and talented people, foundations have the ability to: 1) illuminate the challenges and opportunities facing a field of activity, 2) frame these concerns in ways that are more readily and broadly accessible, 3) stimulate, promote, and in some cases, lead an open and inclusive dialogue among key constituents, 4) identify the most promising solutions to key challenges, and 5) commit resources to partners capable of implementing such solutions.

We at the Irvine Foundation are currently in the midst of just such an effort: examining the arts sector in California. Through this article, we want to share some early findings about both our approach in carrying out this work as well as the substance of what we have learned. In doing so, we invite you, as our colleagues in the funding community, both to help us think through the findings of our examination and to encourage your own foundations to consider similar approaches in your areas of interest. While we certainly don't want to encourage duplicating our efforts, we do want to harness the full potential of our foundations to address some of the major challenges facing the arts today.

Irvine and the Arts in California
Since its inception in 1937, the Irvine Foundation has been a consistent funder of the arts in California. Our foundation's sustained com-mitment to arts and culture organizations across the state, combined with the many changes we have observed recently in California's artis-tic and cultural communities, led us to initiate a project early in 2006 to examine the forces, trends, and challenges facing California's arts sector today.

As a result, we retained Holly Sidford and her colleagues at AEA Consulting to complete the first phase of this project, which was designed to elevate the key concerns critical to the future of California's arts sector. In early September 2006, we circulated a working paper that describes the initial findings from this first phase, based on a set of interviews with arts leaders across the state as well as a review of the relevant literature. In sharing this working document, we acknowledged that the underlying causes of the sector's current condition are complex and have been many decades in the making. The six months of interviews and analysis that went into this paper were insufficient to understand all the dimensions of California's cultural ecosystem, and we know that more research and analysis about the contemporary context for culture is certainly needed. Yet, the goal of the working paper was to spur a fresh and comprehensive discussion among the many entities in California that will shape this sector in years to come.

Below we have provided a short excerpt from the working paper. We invite you to download the paper in its entirety from the Irvine web site.

Next Steps
While the working paper acknowledges that California remains a wellspring of artistic and cultural innovation and that we should take pride in that fact, the paper also describes five key themes that, if not addressed, may threaten the health and well-being of the sector
going forward.

To identify potential approaches to address the challenges that surfaced through the study, we have circulated the working paper to a broad set of constituents, mostly within California. Through articles such as this one, we are also finding ways to broaden dissemination to others who may find some of the themes applicable to their settings, even outside California.

We have also commenced the second phase of the study, which intends to gauge whether the themes resonate in the arts community, to outline possible implications, to identify additional quantitative research that is needed, and to encourage recommendations to emerge. In this next phase, we will actively engage other arts funders, artists, arts administrators, and cultural and policy leaders throughout the state.

As one of our approaches to gather feedback, we started a blog to encourage dialogue about the working paper. Through the blog, we have been collecting reactions, ideas, suggestions, cautions, concerns, and other commentary. Comments have been accepted until October 31 although the blog will remain live beyond that date for those who wish to read the posted comments.

We believe that further debate and discussion of the five primary themes, combined with new, focused research and analysis, will lead to further refinement of these themes and will help to identify the most attractive intervention points to ensure a more sustainable future for the arts in California. In seeking to find consensus around these points, we intend to go beyond the traditional constituents and to involve leaders from the public and private sectors at both state and local levels as well. It is our hope that such collaboration will lead to new approaches and strategies that can improve the prospects for the arts, and further strengthen their contributions to the citizens and communities of California.

As one of our many obligations as a public service institution, the Irvine Foundation seeks to draw attention to concerns that are critical for California's future and to contribute to identifying solutions to the challenges facing our state. The continued health and vitality of California's arts and culture is one such critical concern, and we hope that this working paper — and the activities it engenders — will lead many of us to tackle head-on the challenges and opportunities facing the arts community today. California's arts sector deserves no less.

James E. Canales is president & CEO, The James Irvine Foundation.