Dispatch from GIA: Artists front and center, modeling the way forward

Rather than posting a daily roundup of sessions that I’ve attended at GIA I decided to see all my sessions and then reflect upon them thematically.

Let me start by saying that this has been a terrific conference and that the quality and impact of this conference seems to stem from three things:

  1. CHANGED FORMATS. This year GIA introduced a session at the 8am breakfast session, called IDEA LAB, that featured a handful of artists doing eight-minute talks (a la TED), interspersed with videos of artists (captured from various sites), introduced and summed up by the always inspiring and thoughtful Ben Cameron at Doris Duke Charitable Trusts.
  2. NEW PEOPLE AND LOTS OF THEM. I have been away from GIA for a few years and I can tell you that there are many new voices at GIA. This has led to new topics and a richer discussion in the sessions. Evidently, this is the largest GIA conference to date.
  3. PATIENCE TO TACKLE LONGER TERM ISSUES INCREMENTALLY OVER TIME. Finally, there was a palpable sense of needles moving at many of the sessions I attended. While (as at all conferences) there was encouragement for new ideas to be introduced, I was compelled by GIA’s commitment to stick with some of the more intractable issues that face grantmakers and those they fund and to design sessions to keep members focused on doing the slow, steady, incremental work that will lead to broadening, deepening and diversifying audiences (to use Wallace’s language), addressing issues of race and class in the sector, and strengthening the finances of organizations so they can fulfill their missions (the capitalization initiative). Rather than feeling tedious it felt as though great attention is now being paid to learning from the work already done, building upon it, and continuing to move forward.

Though we are still stuck with the panel format (which almost all arts conferences still rely upon) I also noted that in every session I attended the panelists stuck to time limits and left ample time for those in the audience to make points and ask questions.

So let’s dig in.


The theme of this year’s conference is “The New Creative Community” and it seems to have been infused throughout the three-day gathering by the presence of artists and thinkers from other fields, who gave talks aimed at illuminating new practices, conceptual frameworks, and metaphors. From these contributors I heard art being conceptualized as a tool that enables us to be in charge of our own narrative (Favianna Rodriguez); as a mechanism for pushing out new values (Trey McIntryre); as a tool for connection (Ethan Zuckerman); and as that which enables us to think about time in new ways (Carin Kuoni).  I heard that artists shape and transform by holding spaces, telling stories from deep within, and building bridges (Marshall Davis Jones). I heard that learning an art form is only one benefit (and perhaps a side benefit) of an artistic practice (Quiara Alegria Hudes). And I heard artists articulate about embracing diverse rather than absolute aesthetics (Byron Au Yong).

The dominant metaphor is clear. Art is a counterforce in a world in which we are surrounded by destruction, division, and decay. It engages, activates, pulls, pushes, and creates pathways between people, places, and times that would otherwise be disconnected.

And what do artists need to do their work? Grants of sufficient size and duration that they can find the time to think, experiment, and do their best work. A rather beautiful and uncomplicated idea offered up over and over again to a field that (in my humble opinion) can have a tendency to ignore mundane issues and simple solutions and instead create much more complicated problems that require complex interventions. For the first time, in a long time, I was at an arts conference in which artists (rather than organizations) seemed to have primacy. Where are the new ideas going to come from? Artists. Where does the energy to create community organically originate? Artists. Who are the entrepreneurs in the arts and culture sector? Artists.


Indeed, I attended a terrific session called Artists ARE Entrepreneurs led by Heather Pontonio (Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation), Cinda Holt (Montana Arts Council), and Bill Cleveland (Center for the Study of Art & Community) whose very point seemed to be that rather than thinking of artists as dependents to be supported it’s time to see them for what they really are: self-employed small business owners whose work has significant elements of risk, control, and reward. What are the implications of thinking of artists as entrepreneurs? Well, for one it would suggest that we may need to provide them with professional development aimed at strengthening their entrepreneurial skills. But another implication would seem to be that funders need to be recognize the potential for programs or practices to diminish (rather than enhance) the artist’s sense of agency by putting them in a subordinate or supplicant position in relationship to the institutions that (ostensibly) exist to help advance their work.

In this session Bill Cleveland reported on a couple of terrific studies that he did, including one called Artists Count in which he surveyed more than 3,000 artists in St. Louis. This is a rich study and I would encourage you to go online and read the summary. Here were some of the top-level findings that I picked up from the session that may be particularly relevant for funders. What do artists need to thrive? Well, there are some small things that mean a lot): Feedback (!!!), Friends and Family, and Helping Hands. No surprise, Work, Space, Audiences, and Funding top the list. But so do Respect, Predictability, and Time (unencumbered for reflection). Cleveland’s recommendations, arising from the findings of his two studies, are that funders should be focused on Fellowships, Micro-Funding, Growing Art & the Community, Career Development, and Strengthening the Arts Ecosystem (while being very careful not to harm it).

In the session we also heard about artists in Montana that have been participating in an Artrepreneur program and how they have been able to expand their networks and advance their work using skills and contacts made in that program. Organizers also passed out a survey aimed at helping participants reflect on what types of data they are collecting and why. The point was made that while artists and their artistic process and product are often the intended beneficiaries of funding programs (many of which channel funds through organizations) quite often funders do not solicit the perspectives of artists in their evaluations of programs and organizations.

Finally, I was taken by a comment made by Heather in her opening remarks. She said, “No one has laid out a path or framework for artists to think in terms of being entrepreneurs or startups.” While I see entrepreneurship programs cropping up now in conservatories, I do think that Heather’s point is well taken–that there is a tendency in the arts and culture sector to see entrepreneurism as being at odds with artmaking.  However, I mentioned to the organizers after the session was over that there is a framework that posits the artist as being akin to the entrepreneur. I learned about this framework thanks to an oral defense by a masters student at Erasmus University. This framework, which comes from the great early 20th century economist and political scientist, Joseph Schumpeter, would seem to suggest not that artists are entrepreneurs but that the essence of entrepreneurship is artistic (as the focus of his inquiry was the nature of the entrepreneur) and that the artist and entrepreneur have similar characteristics and behaviors.

The Entrepreneur/The Artist The Static Majority/Manager
Breaks out of an equilibrium Seeks equilibrium
Does what is new Repeats what has already been done
Active, energetic Passive, low energy
Leader Followers
Puts together new combinations Accepts existing ways of doing things
Feels no inner resistance to change Feels strong inner resistance to change
Battles resistance to his actions Feels hostility to new actions of others
Makes an intuitive choice among a multitude of new alternates Makes a rational choice among existing alternates
Motivated by power and joy in creation Motivated exclusively by needs and stops when these are satisfied
Commands no resources but borrows what he needs Commands no resources and has no use for new resources
Source: Swedberg, R. (2006). The cultural entrepreneur and the creative industries: Beginning in Vienna. Journal of Cultural Economics, 30(4), 243-261 as cited in the thesis of K. Pille (2013).

Funders have been spending a lot of time the past several years trying to encourage entrepreneurial behavior or innovation in risk-averse and static organizations (run by “arts managers” rather than entrepreneurs, for the most part). I am pleased to see that there seem to be several efforts now underfoot to bring artists into institutions so that bridges can be crossed, the status quo can be disrupted, and fresh thinking and approaches can emerge.


This idea is exemplified brilliantly in a new program of the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, Building Demand for the Arts, which is about bringing artists into arts organizations to work collaboratively with arts managers to think about and experiment with new approaches to building demand. Barry Hessenius was also at this session, which was presented by Ben Cameron and Alan Brown of WolfBrown, and has given a great summary of it in his GIA Day 2 Breakout Sessions Report, so I will only briefly summarize some key takeaways from the session.

This is a long-term program but the researchers (WolfBrown and Associates) and Duke have promised an annual report reflecting on the new knowledge being created in these learning communities (which is how they are conceptualizing the participants in the program). Alan Brown began this session with a brief reflection on the shifting discourse around building audiences, much of it led by funders who continually reframe old problems using new language. Is building demand different from developing audiences? I don’t know and I’m not sure that this is the conversation that Duke is wanting to engage. The core ideas seems to be this: audience have been declining, we want to reverse the trend, we believe that traction could be made if artists and organizations could come together to consider the problem. Why? Because audience decline is not primarily a marketing problem, it is a problem that relates to content, but also to such things as setting, format, and process (i.e., the degree of orientation towards, or involvement of, the community).

There also seems to be a strong desire embedded in this initiative to look backwards at years of efforts (by Duke and other foundations) to address the “audience problem” and see if something can be learned and brought forward. A theoretical framework, if you will, that might help us understand the path of from DISINTEREST/AVERSION to the arts experience to LIKING to  LOVING and finally to SHARING and bringing along others. I, for one, will be looking forward to the first annual report.


I decided to attend another session on audience engagement, this one led by Teresa Eyring, who reported on a multi-year program of Theatre Communications Group (also funded by Duke). The program goals are to study, promote and support successful audience engagement models in theater and the session reported on some findings to date, including a number of strategies or paths for audience engagement and community development currently being employed by theaters. The research has also brought forward four recommendations for organizations seeking to engage audiences: (1) Get out of season-to-season mentality; (2) connect audience and community development strategies to process and programming; (3) connect to your constituents outside of buying a ticket and attending a show; and (4) form community partnerships.

Though this was not articulated at the session, it seems to me that there are some clear implications of these recommendations for funders. Arguably, lack of adequate capitalization, single year grants, and the overemphasis on short-term evaluation has contributed to a season-to-season mentality. Funding tends to be directed at strategy implementation and product creation and distribution, rather than to strategy development and process (the time to think and plan). And evaluations tend to be focused on metrics that can be counted (butts in seats) rather than assessing the quality of relationships between organizations and those they serve. If grantmakers want to see organizations improve in their ability to engage audiences, it would seem they may need to recognize their role in some of the current challenges the arts sector is facing.

Following Teresa’s presentation leaders of two organizations funded by the program (Robert Hupp of Arkansas Reperotry Theatre and Trina Jackson of The Theater Offensive program: OUT in Your Neighborhood) reported on their work. I will only repeat that it is incredibly valuable to have artists at this conference discussing their work. It was a rich discussion and I jotted down several concepts in my notebook that resonate for me, including: “engagement over time” “risk taking is a relative term” and “the tyranny of project support.” Emilya Cachapero of TCG was also in attendance and spoke up to talk about the evidence that they are seeing (now a few years into the program) of structural change; organization buy-in; and growing loyalty of patrons. I applaud TCG’s efforts to track these more subtle and perhaps more meaningful measures that new practices are beginning to take hold and, more importantly, have impact.

I was truly pleased to have the opportunity to sit in on these sessions, all three of which left me feeling quite hopeful and inspired.