Final thoughts on the GIA Conference

It’s been a pleasure covering the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference for you all, and I hope you’ve enjoyed getting a glimpse into sessions you may have missed or the conference as a whole (if you didn’t have the chance to be among the 351 attendees). Before I go, I thought I would leave you with some final reflections on my experience in Brooklyn last week:

  • I didn’t get a chance to mention my Monday night dine-around in Bushwick. Bushwick is a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Northeast Brooklyn that has slowly been invaded by artists and young hipsters as the Manhattanesque housing prices in nearby Williamsburg push them further East on the L subway line. We ate at a trendy restaurant called Northeast Kingdom, during which we met with representatives from local nonprofit organizations (both arts-oriented and not). Afterwards, we crowded into art gallery opening taking place in someone’s dining room(!) and visited a black-box theater (the only one in the neighborhood) where we apparently interrupted a rehearsal in order to get a welcome and tour from the proprietors. It was a strikingly different experience from the comfort of the Brooklyn Marriott and brought me back to my days as a bandleader earlier in the decade. I was familiar with some of the people who were leading us around from other events I’ve attended, and know that they’re concerned about issues of gentrification and cliquishness as a result of artists moving into an area. It seemed like no one really has good answers. I will say, though, that I’m impressed that this excursion was a part of the conference and that as many funders joined in as they did. These underground, emergent, barely-organized scenes should be part of the arts conversation too.
  • Speaking of emergent arts communities, we spent a lot of time in the off-site session talking about the economic impacts of artist concentrations, particularly in terms of real estate values. Though the discussion rightly focused much attention on how this connection could be used for advocacy purposes to encourage governments and businesses to invest in the arts, what was missing, it seemed to me, was any kind of proposal to help artists actually share in the neighborhood wealth they create. The reason this does not currently take place in a hot real estate market like New York is because most artists are too poor to be able to buy their own space in the first place, and therefore are also too poor to buy property to rent out to others. Here’s a thought that occurred to me during the session: why not create a REIT or other kind of pooled fund in which artists could make small investments, smaller than a monthly rent check? The fund could then purchase buildings and properties in the vicinity of artist concentrations, profit directly from higher real estate values created from the artists’ activity, and return those profits to the artists. If anyone knows of a program like this already in place, either in this country or elsewhere, I’d love to hear about it.
  • I was actually pleasantly surprised by the degree of racial and gender diversity in evidence at conference—especially the number of women of color. It seems that the field has really put its money where its mouth is in terms of opening up the gates beyond the old boys’ club, at least at the program staff level. It’s not only the right move, but a smart move in light of the country’s changing demographics.
  • Which brings us to Ben Cameron’s final speech, which I did not do justice to when I wrote it up earlier (his fast and fluid elocution made comprehensive note-taking a challenge). Luckily, Tommer from GIA forwarded me his complete notes, from which I will quote extensively below. As mentioned earlier, demographic change and the drive to greater social equity was, in fact, cited as one of the central issues for the next 10 years in arts philanthropy, along with technology, globalization, and the blurring of the line between professional artists and amateurs. The full list of anticipated interventions is as follows:
    • Data gathering, tracking and evaluation
    • Leadership development and mentoring
    • Advocacy
    • Arts education
    • Innovation/ experimentation
    • Networks and collaborations
    • Convenings
    • Efforts to articulate and substantiate the value of the arts in and for their communities

    And here’s the full list of key collaborators in this work:

    • Artists
    • Other funders
    • The media, including TV, radio and the press
    • Youth groups
    • Social service agencies
    • Non-arts government agencies (transportation, education, economic development)
    • And many “outliers” in different groups, including casinos, libraries and energy corporations
    • Non arts sectors, citing especially the value of other sectors to nurture and stimulate true innovation

    I found this paragraph from Cameron’s notes particularly interesting:

    Funders were self-critical as well, citing frequent isolation, the need for renewal.  Moreover, there were recurring conversations about the philanthropic exchange—conversations about inadvertent burdens funders place on grantees, the degree to which funders are proscriptive vs. responsive, and the need for increased candor and transparency in these times.

    I’m really glad that these conversations are happening at the funder level—it shows that people are really thinking about the issues described in a serious way. It was my sense throughout the conference that attendees are very much aware of the need to institute new ways of operating in order to more fairly and accurately reflect the times, but that putting words into action will be the real challenge. As Cameron stated in his speech, “the hunger to “shatter the box” was palpable in many rooms, even while we are clearly at an early point in figuring out what that will mean and how we can achieve that.” Funders are often seen as a cautious group, but dealing successfully with some of these societal shifts may well require taking more risks than might initially feel comfortable. If funders can overcome the fear of what the bosses will think, or what the board will think, or what the lawyers will think if we decide to do things differently, those risks can be evaluated with their upside in mind in addition to the downside.

  • With that in mind, it’s immensely encouraging to see that GIA itself is not afraid of taking a few risks, like (oh, just to take an example) asking an unknown blogger to bring the conference’s discussions to the public for the first time in its history! If you’ll permit me a moment of introspection for a moment, it’s sort of amazing that this experience happened at all. Two years ago, I was just another student in his first year at business school, and nobody in the world of arts philanthropy (save a couple of people I had spoken to or worked with here and there) knew who I was. The blog I’ve been writing since this time is the sole factor that made my attendance at this conference possible. It’s not just about the content—it’s about the fact that, prior to this decade, someone like me would not have had any means of sharing ideas about arts policy and arts philanthropy with people who actually work in the field on any kind of systematic basis. In the past, the platform to do so has only come with joining the field oneself. When people talk about how “technology” changes/will change the way we work, that’s what they mean. It’s not just about being able to do the things we already do more efficiently—it’s about changing whole organizational practices, behaviors, and cultures to take advantage of new opportunities that simply didn’t exist before. With that in mind, then, I want to express my deepest thanks to Tommer Peterson and Janet Brown for understanding this and for inviting me to play a small role in inaugurating this exciting new era for arts philanthropy.