Day III: Lunchtime Keynote with Kakuna Kerina

Following the conclusion of the Sewing Sails in a Perfect Storm panel, we headed to the ballroom for a lunchtime plenary session with Kakuna Kerina, former executive director of Harlem School of the Arts. Grantmakers in the Arts executive director Janet Brown opened the session with a brief annual meeting, at which she announced that GIA’s new website will debut in December. The website, which will be built on the content management system Drupal, will feature a community blog with 12 contributors, a news service  (formerly Economic Turmoil and Change), and new ways for grantmakers to find and communicate with each other based on shared interests. Brown, who has been at the top spot at GIA for about eight months, declared that the theme for GIA this year is “louder and bolder,” which fits well with her personality and 30-year history as an advocate and lobbyist for the arts. Her blog will continue with the new site as well.

Before Kakuna Kerina began her speech, Brooklyn Conference Chair Janet Rodriguez introduced a young pianist, Clifford Jones, who is enrolled at Lehman College. He began his studies at age 14 after taking a music appreciation class and taught himself to play piano using an electric keyboard at home, subsequently enrolling at the Harlem School of the Arts. He played a Gershwin-inflected original composition that, despite a few nerves-induced hiccups, showed tremendous progress in the few years since his first encounter with the instrument.

Kerina’s speech focused on the importance of supporting community arts and included many stories from her time leading the Soros Foundation serving West and Northwest Africa. Struggling to contain her emotions for much of the speech, she recounted speaking with individuals whose parents had been executed by the government, learning that births and deaths were the dominant themes of public celebration (enough so that it proved to be a sustainable advertising revenue model for 30 community radio stations), and a harrowing site visit involving a boat ride, sharks, disappearing Danish tourists, and ultimately a successful outreach.

Kerina used the examples to draw parallels between Africa and the United States, pointing out that there is little difference between a child in the developing world who has no access to the arts and a poor child in New York surrounded by cultural activity but with no access to it. She explained that community arts leaders often come from a socioeconomic background that makes them uncomfortable approaching donors. Furthermore, many of those leaders are not natural-born organization managers, but rather program people who started an organization because they saw a need for its services in their community. Unfortunately, most of these organizations are so under-resourced that they have trouble either attracting experienced arts managers or keeping up with funders’ expectations for scale and capacity development. Training board members to fundraise more effectively, for these organizations, often must come at the expense of programming.

Despite these challenges, grantmaking organizations often deal with communities whose cultural history requires preservation, and Kerina urged funders not to be afraid of being a part of that dialogue.