Living Our Values: Grantmakers in the Arts annual conference Race, Space, and Place in Oakland 2018

Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) treated this year’s annual conference in Oakland as an experiment in living our values in real time. GIA has historically held the conference in a hotel, negotiating each venue contract approximately two years in advance of the event. This practice was designed for the convenience of our registrants and for its affordability. But when Unite Here – an organization of working people, coming together to win dignity and higher standards in the hospitality industry and beyond – announced that its workers at the Oakland Marriott City Center were going on strike, two weeks before the conference, GIA had a series of tough choices to make.

GIA provides more than professional development for our grantmaker members. We foster a multi-platform community in which we discuss big issues like, “How do we allocate resources through the lens of our values?”

When I greeted you, our conference participants, upon accepting the role of President & CEO one year ago in Detroit, I expressed my admiration for your strongly held belief that artists are workers who deserve to get paid; for your commitment to pursuing racial equity, and for your directly supporting low-income communities. Upon the announcement of the hotel workers’ striking for better wages, I thought of the faces of nearly all the employees at past GIA conferences who greeted me at reception, who served my food, or who cleaned my room.

We understand the workers that are striking need support and GIA defends the idea that “one job should be enough,” as the call from picket lines made clear throughout the country.

With this very tangible understanding of the context we were about to enter, the GIA team and board asked ourselves, “How do we put into practice the content of so many of our conference sessions as well as our year-round work? How do the arts join and strengthen social justice movements happening now?” We committed to refusing to cross the picket line and to ensuring that in order to participate in this conference no one else would be required to do so either.

The GIA team worked with our conference planning committee in the Bay Area and engaged in a superhuman effort, led by our Deputy Director & Director of Programs, Nadia Elokdah, to re-design the entire conference top to bottom within two weeks. At over 600 registered attendees, Oakland was anticipated to be the largest conference GIA presented, therefore finding adequate and convenient space proved to be a challenge. All 59 conference sessions were held in cultural venues in downtown Oakland, all of which were walking distance from each other. The opening reception and plenaries took place at the Tortona Big Top, a circus tent that we rented for the events, one of the few spaces large enough to hold the full house. To the Oakland cultural community, we extend immense gratitude; these efforts proceeded at a rapid pace primarily due to their willingness to trust in the GIA community and open their community to us without hesitation. This is only possible given the year-long relationship-building to which GIA and the local planning committee commit when coming to a new host city each year.

While re-planning was our first task at hand, we knew communication to participants and presenters would be just as important. We alerted our registrants in advance that this would be a less convenient and comfortable conference, and we posted a FAQ, a list of alternate hotels, and a map of the conference session and plenary sites. Even before arriving, conference registrants began sending GIA staff and board notes of support for our decision and sticking by our values. Once in Oakland, participants remarked that the conference was far more interesting and energizing for being in the community. By the end, participants were calling it “the best conference ever.”

All in, this was a far more expensive endeavor. But a budget is an expression of your values. And our members’ support for our decisions and the increased expenses incurred in standing alongside social justice movements is an expression of the values of our cultural funder community.

I joined GIA to work alongside peers whom I deeply admire. I’ve spent a decade working as a grantmaker in the arts. I found my peers – my fellow grantmakers – to be worlds apart from the too-common reputation as “elitist,” “privileged,” “disconnected,” “sheltered.” If ever one of our cultural grantmakers is deemed isolated from the concerns of the communities they support, I hope they hold in their mind the mental image of themselves convening in the big top tent and walking through the streets of Oakland from a black box theater to an ALAANA-owned art gallery. I hope they hold in their mind the moments they spent in a circus tent with an unfinished floor, listening to john a. powell discuss cultural imperialism; listening to Sean Dorsey express radical self-love for his trans body; watching AXIS Dance Company perform with an integrated, mixed-ability ensemble; and witnessing a provocative conversation about the labor of artists between Boots Riley and W. Kamau Bell. Living our values is sometimes not convenient, but we see a community that is willing to put themselves out to do so. This is how we participate in cultural shifts. This is how we begin to realize the equity we want.

We thank all the IDEA Lab artists – Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik, Ellen Sebastian Chang, Antoine Hunter, Jocelyn Jackson, Meklit, Michael Morgan, and Amara Tabor-Smith – who exemplified to all of us how they live their values through their art practice.

GIA extends gratitude to our conference planning committee chaired by Shelley Trott, Kenneth Rainin Foundation and including, Roberto Bedoya, City of Oakland; Tom DeCaigny, San Francisco Arts Commission; Emiko Ono, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Frances Phillips, Walter & Elise Haas Fund; and Ted Russell, Kenneth Rainin Foundation, for making this pivot in real time possible.

I also thank our board chair, Angelique Power, president of the Field Foundation of Illinois, and our treasurer and board chair-elect Glyn Northington of Propel NonProfits. I thank our board member Ken Grossinger, founding chair of CrossCurrents Foundation, for his moral and strategic leadership in drawing on his years of experience in labor strategizing to inform our decisions.

And finally, I thank our cultural grantmaking community. You are the dedicated individuals who make these public and everyday expressions of our community values possible with your support, your engagement, your words, and your actions.

Thank you.