Final Thoughts: Cook It Up

This is my sixth and final post about the Grantmakers in the Arts 2010 conference, where I was invited to take part as a live blogger. It was tremendous fun: I got to write morning, noon, and night, which is my preferred type of ecstatic meditation. It was also a perfect antidote to the anxiety I sometimes feel when thrown into a sea of contacts and expected to network. Usually, the first time someone I’m talking to scans the room for a conversation-partner with more status, my heart sinks. This time, it was all just material. I’ve gotten lots of great response from readers already, a writer’s dream. Now I want to do it more, so if you’re planning a conference that needs up-to-the-minute blog commentary, let’s talk.

Some will tell you Some will tell you
Tell you what you really want ain’t on the menu
Don’t believe them Don’t believe them
Cook it up yourself and then prepare to Serve them
—”Jeremiah,” Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie opened the final plenary of the 2010 GIA conference with a recitation of these lyrics, then proceeded to practice what she preached. She alternately thanked the assembled funders for their support for artists, urged them to do more, and told edgy home truths:

  • The music business is about music, not business; artists are there to pull the cart, to be milked for money.
  • They say nobody wants war, but that’s not true: war is about money-laundering, not that this religion doesn’t like that religion.
  • I’ve got more degrees and honorary degrees than you’ve had hot dinners. Colleges today are corporate vocational schools where corporations and the military go to recruit kids.
  • When one has a billion and a billion have none, something is wrong.
  • In North America, we have five major heavily funded colleges of war where a guy can go and spend his life getting advanced degrees in how to make war better. We don’t have one such college of that caliber and funding dedicated to alternative conflict resolution. How can a young person learn from Martin Luther King and Gandhi?

Everyone I talked to (not a scientific sample, of course) wished she’d spoken at the beginning of the conference rather than the end. It wasn’t that they disliked the earlier speakers; people enjoyed all the plenaries. It was that Buffy Sainte-Marie’s words, weaving a world that contained both hard realities and real hope, highlighted the intense contradictions of funding arts and culture in confusing, super-stressed times.

These days, the challenge is to hold those contradictions, all of them at the same time. Sainte-Marie’s own story showed how: her hard childhood, and the way it led her to the life of an artist. “I never played sports,” she said, “I played art…. That is what has motivated and sustained me, what I reach out to in my life today.” She was told that “music comes from notes and lines and staphs, and that there aren’t Indians anymore, so you probably can’t really be one.” “That kind of dichotomy,” she said, “has beaded the edges of my life.”

She described how her song “Universal Soldier” was suppressed by the president of the United States, explaining that Lyndon Johnson wrote to commend radio stations for blacklisting her music. Not understanding music publishing, she’d signed away the rights for one dollar. A decade later, she’d made enough money to buy them back for $25,000. She was able to have a career in Europe, Asia, and Australia that fueled her foundation and educational project, The Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, with its Cradleboard Teaching Project. “But,” she said, “my country has been denied my voice.”

The conference was extremely well-planned and well-executed, with caring and attention to detail. GIA leadership displayed grace and charm, exuding a genuine respect and affection for members. The program’s diversity of offerings held something for nearly everyone. Participants eagerly embraced the opportunity to talk with each other in the interstices of the formal meeting: everywhere you looked, people were huddled together, talking at double-speed.

Mostly, though, people were talking with those they already knew. There are natural affinities among those engaged in like enterprises or partnered on projects. The challenge that remains to be met in a gathering like this is to enter into deep dialogue that crosses boundaries and categories within the arts funding world, that airs and encompasses the contradictions as directly as Buffy Sainte-Marie did in her talk.

There are structural obstacles, to be sure. A philanthropic conference is a gathering of grant-givers and recipients (or those hopeful of receiving). To prevent it being a mad pitch-fest, participants are asked to avoid anything like solicitation:

To preserve the capacity for open discussion, all attendees must refrain from fundraising or solicitation or activities that may appear as fundraising or solicitation to others. Organizations that solicit funds are expected to be represented only by individuals whose roles involve programming and/or policy, and not by fundraising or development staff.

But agreeing not to behave in certain ways doesn’t alter the underlying relationships, which are unavoidably shaped by disparities of economic and social power. Based on this meeting (and countless others I’ve attended), I’d say that we haven’t found ways to get beyond mere acknowledgment to collective exploration of what those disparities mean, how they affect us, how we can face and renegotiate them.

Throughout the conference, almost everyone I spoke with continued to bring up the conundrum of the National Capitalization Project (I wrote about it on October 18th and touched on it a little more on October 19th too). People repeatedly asked why the report did not anticipate and address the concerns that circulated in the breaktime buzz: would its assertion of an “oversupply” of arts organizations create a triage mentality? When so many community-based groups are struggling to pay salaries, is it wise to focus on securing a cushion for those who have access to major resources?

At first, people hypothesized that the preponderance of major foundations on the NCP team had skewed the conversation toward well-funded organizations. But on the conference’s final day, several people approached me to say they’d learned that these concerns had indeed been aired in the NCP dialogues, but hadn’t been reflected in the report and recommendations.

I think this is a very hard challenge, demanding tremendous courage, vulnerability, and openness. Everyone has something to lose in facing a scary subject, given that the potential losses are very different, depending on one’s position: access, funding, privilege, pride. But surfacing and holding the contradictions that Buffy Sainte-Marie described is such a worthy challenge, and of all philanthropic sectors, arts funders are best-equipped to face it, precisely because they comprehend the total engagement of the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual possible through art.

On the plane to my next destination, I found myself imagining GIA commissioning a piece of theater for its next conference: Work with performing artists adept at collecting and weaving first-person stories into powerful art. Strive for a 360-degree view of the personal, communal, and spiritual challenges faced by members of the sector, so that everyone feels fairly represented. Allow whatever degree of anonymity enables the most truth to emerge. Make fearless theater about art and money.

This is a group whose members know, from personal experience, the insight and understanding that can be gained from sharing stories with respect, presence, and caring. No matter where you are located on the continuum of artists and funders, imagine how this could deepen self-knowledge and working relationship. Imagine how shared, intentional reflection could benefit the field.

“In between the medicine of the arts we carry and the people who need our visions, there are middlemen and gatekeepers who’ll sink the boat,” said Buffy Sainte-Marie. “Grantmakers can be the other side of that story.” I’d love to see that play. Wouldn’t you?

Here’s Buffy Sainte-Marie describing the origins of “Universal Soldier,” then singing the song.