Time for Candid Talk (Janet's Blog)

(7-20-10) This week, Grantmakers in the Arts launches its registration site for our 2010 conference in Chicago, October 17-20. This has made me think more about being “better together” and the possibilities for positive change when a community of practice meets to discuss their challenges and successes.

This year, I have witnessed some stellar conversations between funders. The National Capitalization Project, administered by GIA and supported by the Kresge Foundation, is a great example. The project brought grantmakers together to discuss the under-capitalization of the nonprofit arts sector and how funders might improve practices to change that reality. This conversation could have been superficial, filled with “my successes” and “here’s what others should do.” What happened was quite the opposite. Firstly, the conversation was informed. Liz Curtis provided a substantive literature review and the conversation was grounded with information from experts Clara Miller, Adrian Ellis, Russell Willis Taylor and Cynthia Mayeda. Secondly, that information became the foundation for candid conversation of where private and public funders have stumbled and triumphed over the past fifty years. The individuals in the room sought commonalities that would result in actions and recommendations they believed would benefit the nonprofit arts community. They pushed this conversation for results and the principles agreed upon will be rolled out for further debate at the conference in Chicago.

Conversation is important. It informs, it enlightens and it brings about questions for introspection of our own work and the work of others. It is, however, only useful if it’s honest and respectful. We seldom have a problem with “respectful” and sometimes, as I’ve written about in the past, our tendency to be respectful and inclusive overpowers the ability to have a candid conversation. Sensitive topics are avoided. Issues that have plagued the nonprofit arts sector for years seem too complicated to tackle or we have somehow been complicit in that complexity so it’s easiest not to talk about it.

This is a perfect time for candid conversations. The economic crises has ripped away the curtain and we have been somewhat startled by the results. We not only need to help build capacity and improve capitalization practices of the nonprofit arts sector, we also have become vitally aware that the arts as a value held dear by the general public is precarious. The arts are increasingly disappearing from education and audiences for major institutions are aging out. Demographics tell us a new story about our communities and technology narrows the gap between professional and amateur on a daily basis. Audiences and donors expect more engagement for their dollars. Those who believe in business as usual could be facing no business at all.

So candid talk in Chicago. There will be discussions about arts education, social justice, international exchange, capitalization of nonprofits, new grantmaking practices, technology and more. Practical discussions on interpreting balance sheets, requirements of fiscal responsibility for general operating grants, supporting new revenue streams for the arts and collaborations that really work are in order. It’s time for candid talk. I’ll do my best to see there is a lot of it in Chicago. I hope you will too.

Be Better Together.