What If?

by Holly Sidford (bio), president, Helicon Collaborative

NCRP commissioned Fusing Art, Culture and Social Change to illuminate distribution patterns in foundation funding for arts and culture, and to encourage culture funders to allocate more of their resources toward directly benefitting disadvantaged people. As the author, I am gratified that the piece has attracted some attention. I hope the attention is leading to some reflection and some fresh conversations – within foundations, among foundations and between foundations and diverse cultural practitioners. I also hope it’s spurring some useful conversations within cultural organizations about our work in the larger context of issues and needs facing people in our communities.

Genuinely fresh conversations are difficult to organize; they are even more difficult to actually pull off. We are all caught in our respective worldviews, and in our organizational dynamics. And the days are short. While I was writing the essay, I was reminded repeatedly of how patterns of history and culture shape current realities. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” And management guru Peter Drucker got it right too: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Most change occurs incrementally. Authentic paradigm shifts are extremely rare. As the saying goes, “It’s easier to behave your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of behaving.” But sometimes the path to real change in behavior starts with a big re-thinking of the fundamentals. I would love to see a community, or a state, or a region, or the whole country take up this question:

What if we could start fresh and design a new system of support for arts and culture in this country, with equity as one of its fundamental tenets?

What would that system look like? How would we define equity and what would be its principles? How would we define art and culture, support and system? How would we balance aid to the system’s beneficiaries – people, communities, institutions, artists, artistic and cultural forms themselves, and the interests of future generations? Knowing what we know now — about the astonishing spectrum of cultural practices alive in our country; about the important contributions the arts and artists make to cognitive development in people of all ages; about the central role that art and culture play in community cohesion and the health of immigrant communities, especially; about the glories of art without social message and art with a distinct political purpose; about the dynamic interplay of the commercial, nonprofit and unincorporated cultural forms – what philanthropic goals would we set for the new system and how would we array its resources? If fairness and equity were fundamentals, how would we shape the functions of public sector contributors as well as the various private sector ones – individual and institutional? And by what philosophy would we establish measures to know whether our new design was working?

We may need to start again – at least in our heads – to see the possibilities in a fresh way. Anyone up for a design charette?