Who do arts funders exist to serve? Who should decide where the money goes? Do historic processes serve current needs and goals?

This is my third, and final, post reporting on the 2013 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference. Rather than writing up a daily roundup of the sessions I attended at GIA I decided to reflect upon them thematically. The overarching theme of this year’s conference was “The New Creative Community.” In my last post I discussed how this theme seemed to manifest in a general orientation toward the role of the individual artist in moving the field forward. I wrote:

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.

As I begun mulling over the last two sessions I attended two other manifestations of the conference theme began to emerge—What communities do arts funders exist to serve? and How do those communities participate in the decision-making process?


Laura Zucker (Los Angeles County Arts Commission), Huong Vu Bozarth (The Boeing Company) and Glyn Northington (Target) were the presenters for a session called “Who Are Our Constituents?”  I was compelled by the description of the session in my program: “Borrowing a concept from the for-profit sector, what does grantmaking look like if we try to think about those we serve as constituents? Are we in a business-to-business model, generally characterized as a collaborative relationship between organizations, either of which is the actual end-user (constituent)? Or are we in a business-to-customer model, serving constituents directly?”

As the session began I took note of an argument that seemed to be advance through the presentations: (1) Corporations are often, by necessity, quite explicit about the constituents they exist to serve (which can include, for instance employees and their families or customers).  (2) There is frequently a quite conscious effort to align philanthropic contributions with the values and priorities of these constituents with the hope that this will encourage their loyalty to the company or brand. (3) Philanthropic investments by corporations are frequently tied to a theory of change to reach business objectives (e.g., “Strong businesses thrive in strong communities; and nonprofits create strong, vibrant communities”). (4) Are there lessons in this approach for government agencies and private foundations?

This session allowed ample time for discussion, which Laura Zucker opened by asking What are we trying to change? Who are we responding to? Probing the contours of strategic investment, in particular, she wondered aloud When does positive investment turn into manipulation? What’s the line between reactive philanthropy and responsive philanthropy? The discussion was wide-ranging but a good bit of time was spent reflecting upon the Irvine Foundation’s recent shift in focus away from a more traditional form of arts philanthropy to one in which the focus is on hands-on participation. Irvine is a great case through which to examine the questions Zucker was asking. (For those reading this that may not be familiar with this shift, here are two Jumper posts, here and here, that delve into the shift and also point to other bloggers reflecting upon it.) Clay Lord (New Beans) who was in the audience (and who has also written at length about Irvine’s new approach on his blog), kicked off the discussion by making the observation that we should not assume that private foundations are not aware of their constituents  and that one could argue that Irvine, in particular, is almost “hyper-aware” of its constituency. Laura Zucker agreed and remarked  that Irvine’s constituency seemed to have shifted from arts organizations to people in the community not being served by arts organizations. Jeanne Sakamoto from Irvine, also in attendance, spoke up to modestly reframe the point; she remarked that Irvine sees its constituency as all citizens in the regions it serves and that their new approach was intended to help them serve everyone, rather than the minority of citizens that traditionally participate in the professional nonprofit arts.

The conversation then touched on the implications of such shifts on grantmaking processes—for instance, lightly institutionalized organizations that do the best job of reaching immigrant populations may not have the capacity to fulfill reporting requirements of foundations or even government agencies.  This led to a discussion of the grant application itself and how this may both preclude some organizations or inadvertently nudge them in the direction of adopting practices and structures that are at odds with their nontraditional goals and values. Zucker made the point that there is (sometimes? often?) a disconnect between what funders have traditionally thought of as indicators of best practice (which get translated into eligibility requirements and metrics considered in the application process) and the new practices that they are now hoping to see in organizations. The session ended with Zucker posing a few questions for everyone to consider as we walked out the door:

  • Are we aligning our practices with what we say we want to do?
  • If people give to people, who are the people in this relationship?
  • What processes will allow funders to shift from engaging in a funding transaction (which too many are doing at the moment) to engaging in a relationship?


As it turned out I walked from this session into one led by Ian David Moss, Ed Harsh and Daniel Reid on the limitations of the traditional grant panel and whether that process may need to change. This session was asking, in essence, If arts grantmaking has traditionally existed to channel funds to worthy people and project not adequately valued in the commercial marketplace, do current panel processes allow funders to find and fund voices not already being recognized by the commercial marketplace? Moss discussed ideas theorized in a 2012 piece he wrote for the GIA Reader called Audiences at the Gate and argued for a grantmaking model he calls “guided crowdsourcing”. In contrast to a more traditional model in which the distribution of funds is filtered either through a program officer or grants panel, guided crowdsourcing employs an army of what Moss calls “citizen curators,” who are brought into the process to ensure that a large and diverse pool of potential grant recipients is able to be recognized and reviewed.

Ed Harsh was on hand to discuss the shift that New Music USA has made in its grant panel process. (New Music USA is the new organization that was formed out of the merger of Meet the Composer and the American Music Center.) Harsh explained that there were two fundamental ideas motivating the recent shift in its grantmaking philosophy: (1) It’s better to ask artists what they need than to tell them what they should want; and (2) the application needs to be rethought as a way to engage the public. With regard to the panel process itself the new system needed to enable the fair evaluation of projects with little in common and needed to scalable. New Music USA’s new process engages a large, virtual panel (all paid for their efforts) to review an estimated 600 applications. Each application is reviewed by four panelists, specifically matched to the application based on the particular expertise needed. One of the key benefits of the large number of panelists is that it allows for individuals with diverse skills to be selected at this initial stage. The 600 applications is whittled down to the top 20% (using an algorithm) and then another virtual panel is engaged to go through the same process with that group. The process allows for virtual deliberation if necessary to discuss applications but does not require discussion of applications for which there seems to be strong consensus.

Following the excellent presentations by Moss and Harsh, others in the room raised their hands to mention large shifts and small tweaks that they had made or were planning to make to their grant panel process—some in response to having a glut of applications and some in response to recognizing that the old process was not yielding high quality decisions. It was exciting to see that so many funders are rethinking some of their longstanding, fundamental practices and processes.


Tuesday’s luncheon plenary, which featured a keynote address by Ethan Zuckerman (Media Lab at MIT and the Center for Civic Media) actually dovetailed nicely with these two sessions. Barry Hessenius has given a nice summary of this talk in his GIA Day 3 Post. I jotted down a few questions that Zuckerman posed that strongly resonated with the Constituents and Grants Panel sessions I attended:

  1. Is there a change happening in civics and grantmaking  – a new paradigm about how change happens in the world?
  2. How do the arts help us embrace cultural diversity locally and globally?
  3. How  do we find and support the innovators who are rethinking the paradigm?

Like the other two keynotes given by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Nikky Finney (whose acceptance speech for Poetry at the National Book Awards has gone viral, read it here, or watch it here) Zuckerman’s keynote was inspiring, intelligent, and provocative. I have given scant attention to these keynotes in my posts (in large part because I was so captivated by them it was difficult to take notes). I hope and trust that GIA will post them.

Finally, on the last night of the conference participants were invited to view the collection at the new Barnes Foundation. I never visited the old Barnes and I know the move was controversial, so I really approached the experience as a newcomer. I was moved almost to the point of tears by this collection (by both its content and its presentation) and highly recommend a visit to this museum on your next trip to Philly.

My sincere thanks to GIA for the opportunity to blog. It was a great conference and I am pleased to have been given a chance to give those not in attendance a glimpse into the ideas that were in play.