GIA – Day 2

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on……………………….”

GIA in San Francisco, Tuesday: Day 2

This day started out with a continental breakfast that included scrambled eggs, fresh fruit and croissants — a definite step up from the usual hotel continental fare — served in the Fairmont’s Venetian Room, once a high end night club in San Francisco where Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey (look her up all you Millennials out there, she was the real deal) and Tony Bennet held court.

Breakfast Roundtable on the topic of Does Art = Creativity?

Consensus of the group was that you can be creative and not be an artist, but that likely all artists are creative. Though I would think some would suggest that a very creative engineer or scientist (and certainly there are such) IS arguably an artist, but then we get into semantics and who really cares? The more interesting issue to me has to do with our employing the use of “art = creativity” as a strategy to advance our cause. We’ve been making that claim for awhile, in part to try to convince the business community that they need us and we have value to them. While they embrace the concept of “innovation”, and while we have made some progress in convincing them that creativity is linked to innovation, they still basically don’t buy the link (or at least don’t “see it”) between the arts and creativity. That makes me wonder if we should re-think that as a strategy. Perhaps it is coming close to having outlived its usefulness. I don’t know — I am only asking.

There was also discussion of the Richard Florida ‘creative matrix’ theory, and the consensus there was that it has now been so largely discredited and compromised that it may be of very limited use for us in the long haul. It isn’t that his thesis is wrong, it’s just that ascribing the existence of creative communities solely to the arts is a stretch. One tablemate hit it on the head when she opined that it is the “quality of place that attracts talent, and while the arts may play a role, Florida’s argument is really a human capital argument more than one focused on creativity.” Bill Cleveland changed our table debate when he posited that creativity is about condition and capacity — all kids are born creative. Still the direct link between that reality and what we know as the arts eludes us.

Breakout Session: Enabling Engagement: Launching Irvine’s New Strategy

This session — ostensibly to explain the James Irvine Foundation’s new arts grantmaking strategy — was perhaps the most important session of the conference. Not because of Irvine’s do-over of its strategy per se, but because of the fundamental questions it raises. Questions raised not in criticism, but in sussing out all the ramifications, implications and down the road impacts.

The session was jam packed with the “A” list of major foundation funders from across the country who had obviously come to see what one of the major forces in arts funding in America was thinking. The Irvine Foundation had invested well over a year and had enlisted some heavyweight consultant talent to help it formulate an updated strategy for its grantmaking. This wasn’t completely a wholesale makeover, for certain key elements of the Irvine strategy (e.g., its commitment to the Central Valley and the Inland Empire geographic territories, and its commitment to the priorities of addressing the needs of low income California residents and under or inadequately served ethnic diverse communities) remain in full force and effect. Rather it was more of a refinement. But as the devil is always in the details, refinement of the commitment is, in itself, of keen interest to others in the field because those refinements have major impact in the implementation.

The key element in the new Irvine approach — and that of others as well — is ‘engagement’. That term can mean many things on many levels. And while it has enormous appeal as indicative of our sector-wide goal to broaden and deepen the experience of people in the arts, and may be transformative in changing the patterns of our thinking, my fear is that it may too quickly become the buzzword of the month and thus end up marginalized and a cliché. The Irvine approach is to acknowledge demographic and technological change and embrace diversity that focuses on our ability to thrive together. I think I got that right — I hope so.

Several issues were raised in this session that I think are important. And while they were raised in the context of the Irvine presentation, they are by no means exclusive to Irvine. Quite the contrary, they are core to all foundations and funders, and I think the whole of the funding community is going to have to deal with each of them in the near term:

  1. The first issue is symbolized by the size of the Irvine Foundation and relates to those similarly situated (but it is by no means confined to large foundations). Irvine is a major force, not only in California, but in the entire national arts sector. It has for a decade or more bred some of the best leadership the arts have yet produced — from Cora Mirikitani to John McGuirk, and now to Josephine Ramirez. This is an important shop in our industry. Their programs and policies have an effect well beyond their grantees. Part of the reason Irvine is important is the size of the corpus of its endowment. The best analogy I can think of is the supertanker that comes out of the Oakland port headed under the Golden Gate Bridge out to sea. If that tanker wants to stop and make a course change it cannot do so in an instant — it may take it ten miles to come to a stop and then change course. Irvine, as an operation of some size, similarly takes an effort to change course. And when they do so, it’s a big deal. As we move increasingly — as a sector — to the demand that we become flexible and able to more quickly respond to changes with change within ourselves, the issue of our larger foundations (or any of our organizations) being able to somehow respond with nimbleness will be an issue. The velocity of change will likely necessitate that responses to that change can also be quick and adaptive. How we deal with the need for us to be able to quickly respond with changes in our approaches will be an issue for funders to address over the next few years. It is not inconceivable that we will need some version of rapid response mechanisms.
  2. A blog reader who is a recent Irvine grantee wrote me concerned that as Irvine continues its policy of requiring a budget threshold of at least $100,000 to qualify to apply for a grant, because her organization — having fallen on tough times and now under that threshold — will no longer qualify for Irvine support. I asked that question at this session, and Josephine Ramirez’s response was, I think, reasonable and rational. She said that because the Central Valley and the Inland Empire territories were, and remain, foundation priorities across programming, that — while the threshold remained in effect — they would on a case by case basis consider bending the rules to insure that the investment they had previously made in supporting local organizations would continue.

    The issue of having a threshold budget size or other base qualification criteria to even apply for a grant is common to most foundations — and perfectly reasonable and legitimate for a variety of good reasons (organizational stability, consistency, ability to carry out certain functions, etc., etc.). But as Irvine consultant Steven Tepper from the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy cautioned (in a video piece played at this session) “change comes from replacement of what you have been doing, not necessarily from refinement.”, and so all the same grantees who have previously been funded may not be the ones who can help the foundation reach its current goals and objectives. I think Tepper was suggesting that it may be time to change the criteria and take a closer look at funding a different cohort of organizations than might have been the norm — including smaller budget sized organizations, more ethnically diverse organizations, and groups more on the cutting edge — particularly if the articulated goals are to highlight, strengthen and sustain change as part of an expanded “engagement” of the public in the arts.

    And therein lies one of the major issues for the funding community for the future: to what extent should we re-assess the criteria we have for whom we will fund? To what extent is it finally time to consider whether or not we should re-direct at least some portion of our funding to a different cohort of arts organizations based on a wholly different set of criteria? To what extent should we move some of our funding from those groups we have traditionally funded, to those we have not heretofore funded to any meaningful extent (including smaller, ethnically diverse, cutting-edge, and younger-run organizations serving a different matrix)?

    I think its important to note that if we do make some wholesale changes in the criteria we employ, it will not be because we are motivated by some definition of equity — of what is the “right” thing to do — but rather whether or not the grants we make are to the organizations that can best facilitate the achievement of our stated goals. This will be, I think, one of the major issues for funders to deal with in the next five years. I think it probably deserves much more attention and depth of thought, including the opinions of greater minds than my own, but I don’t have more space right here. It will not be an easy decision for most boards to make, and will involve an upending of the current culture of thinking in those boardrooms.

  3. A question raised by Bill O’Brien, from the National Endowment for the Arts, in response to a presentation made by research guru Alan Brown (also a consultant to Irvine in the process of its strategy change) touched on another fundamental issue funders (and the whole arts field) will have to deal with and that is whether or not we are consciously moving away from ‘excellence’ as a fundamental criteria for what we fund, in favor of something arguably more difficult to get a handle on — and that is a healthy outcome and a process that favors healthy outcomes. In part the argument for that shift (sort of made by yesterday’s keynoter Marc Bamuthi Joseph) is that defining ‘excellence’ has been, at best, a fool’s errand — somewhat arrogant, and really in the final analysis impossible; nothing more than a subjective opinion. Of course, defining what process produces healthy outcomes, let alone what a healthy outcome is, will likely also be equally as problematic. But the issue of using ‘excellence’ as the dominant criteria for what gets funded may well be making an exit — and I suspect it will not go quietly or easily. That too is yet another major issue with which funders will grapple over the next few years.
  4. The final issue that cropped up in the session was pointed out by Maria Rosario Jackson (yet another Irvine consultant) in her video presentation of some of the new metrics she saw as important for Irvine to consider in the evaluation of its new strategy. Her thoughts on what kinds of questions we should all be asking ourselves to ascertain whether or not our grant decisions were moving us towards our stated priority goals were a real eye opener to me. She talked about a shift away from evaluation based on audience participation and consumerism, and focusing on making, doing and teaching. She posited that we need to think about gauging organizational evolution; about how organizations think about the concept of ‘place’ outside their four walls, about how well they are creating new connections to previously underserved groups. She asked whether or not we should ask: “who is connecting to whom, and how well?” These are new ways to think about measuring our success, and that is my fourth major issue for the future. How indeed are we going to measure success?

So, this was to me an exceptional session, because the presentations of some new thinking led to some very meaningful and profound questions as to where funding strategies ought to go. Congratulations to Irvine for developing a shift that may serve as a model — not necessarily of exactly where we will be going, but of something that itself will be evolving over time and which risks asking the very questions that will challenge us to keep up with the velocity of change. I think this was an important session.

I would hope to further involve these thinkers in more blog posts on the issues raised above, and on the other issues that I would suspect will come out of this dialogue.

Breakout session: Turning Museums Inside Out

This offsite session featured Lori Fogarty (Executive Director, Oakland Museum) and Jill Sterrett (director of conservation and collections, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). I went to this session precisely because it’s not the kind of session I usually attend. And I’m glad I did because it was a winner. It was a simple conversation between the above two leaders who it turns out have been friends for a long, long time, and so this exercise was hardly a stretch for them.

There is no shortage of issues for museums to deal with and many were raised in this discussion. I am including a brief sampling. But first here is startling statistic from a study the Oakland Museum did on how long the average person who came to the museum spent there in total time (irrespective of their demographic background, the size or nature of the current exhibit et. al)??

Answer: 20 minutes.

  1. A challenge to both these museums is to break down the walls between the front of the house and the back of the house as it were so as to give the public more of what it wants — which is an insider view about how the museum works — from its curating policies and practices to its trying to escape being a (self) silo structured organization with too many areas of expertise separated from each other.
  2. How do museums integrate the work of curators, designers, exhibition space experts etc. into a single approach when mounting new installations?
  3. How do museums participate in the burgeoning on-line publishing on-demand trend?

My question to them was: given that most museums have archives of works so deep that it is virtually certain the vast majority of them will never be exhibited (due to the limited wall space available in the average facility), and admitting that the archives had differing levels-of-quality pieces in their inventories, the discussion for the last five years or so has been how to use technology to increase access to that treasure trove. But, before that, the discussion centered around whether or not there were ways to exhibit that archive excess by loaning out the works and exhibiting them outside the bricks and mortar four walls of the museum itself — with, of course, the hoped-for added bonus of further branding the museum and serving as an advertisement for new audiences.

So my question was: is this second discussion still alive? The response was that that discussion was very much alive, but that the issues that have always made such outside exhibitions impossible — insurance rates, issues of exhibition climate control etc. — remain a prohibitive barrier.

If that answer means that that archived work will forever remain in some vault unseen by the public, then I don’t think that really answers the question. The question becomes what is the purpose of the art in the first place — to be seen, or to be preserved. It seems to my uneducated mind that artists create art to be seen, not to be preserved. Should the Sistine Chapel be forever sealed because the heat and oils from the bodies of the thousands of people who view the ceiling over time degrade the paint and restoration is necessary every few hundred years — resulting to some purists in a complete change in Michelangelo’s original artwork? What would he have wanted — and does that matter? I just think that issues of insurance and even safety of the integrity of the works themselves don’t a priori trump the public’s right to see them, and the value of that public access. How long shall they remain in those vaults? For an eternity? I know, I know — I am unfamiliar with the issues. But I think letting all that art across the planet sit in drawers in basements, never to see the light of day, makes no sense at all.

Don’t Quit.