GIA 2013: Making Room for the New

I have now been to the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference five times. I sort of can’t believe I’m writing that – it simultaneously makes me feel old and very, very lucky. I’ve written about my experiences there now four of those five times; you can find my wrap-ups for 200920102011, and of course 2013 on Createquity.

I basically retired from conference blogging two years ago, but the opportunity to bring together our hot-off-the-presses editorial team in one place and try out a new medium for us (video) was enough to drag me out of the attic for this go-round. Once you’ve attended any conference for several years in a row, it’s easy to get jaded and start to care more about reconnecting with old friends and making new ones than about the session content. This phenomenon probably reached its peak for me during last year’s conference in, of all places, Miami Beach, where I arrived to discover a hot tub in my room and one of my coworkers got randomly upgraded to a swim-up bungalow. Kind of hard to concentrate on PowerPoint slides in that kind of environment; I remember hanging around the pool with colleagues right after presenting one afternoon, wearing my nametag over a full suit and tie and feeling like a very sweaty idiot. I figured I wouldn’t have quite the same sorts of distractions to contend with in Philly, but still, it was another year of GIA and what promised to be another year of what have become some very familiar conversations.

Many conferences have formal “tracks” corresponding to industries, sectors, topic areas, and so forth, so that if you identify with one of those tracks you can easily navigate your way through the content that is most relevant to you. The GIA Conference essentially has implicit tracks that pop up every year: arts and social justice/cultural equity, arts education, technology, support for individual artists, creative placemaking, and so forth. I’m more invested in some of these topics than others, and it had become my practice at GIA and other conferences to gravitate towards those topics and engage with the kinds of people who get invited to speak on them. Nothing wrong with that, except that over time I found myself learning less and less from these sessions; I was already pretty on top of whatever conversations were going on and had met most of the people there were to meet. I’ve now been to not just GIA but also the Americans for the Arts Convention five times each, and my most positive experience at each conference was my first, in 2009 – when I was new to this corner of the field and everything was fresh.

So this year, I decided to switch it up a bit and deliberately attend some sessions that were outside of my comfort zone. The first of these was the Arts Education pre-conference, which you can hear about in our first video blog if you haven’t watched it yet. I’m going to focus here on two sessions during the main conference that blew my mind for two very different reasons, neither of which I had a chance to talk about much during our in-the-moment recaps.

On Monday, I attended “Invisible » Visible: New Native Voices on the Forefront of Change,” organized by Reuben Roqueni of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. That morning, GIA had unveiled its much-ballyhooed IDEA LAB, a series of TEDx-style short presentations, and the initial round of mini-keynotes were all delivered by artists or curators. While some of these talks were compelling, most of them ended up being about the artist’s individual work or the importance of art in general without much connection to grantmaking practice or the broader themes of the conference, and felt like tangents as a result. I came to this artist-centric session bracing myself for more of the same, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Rulan Tangen of Dancing Earth started things off with a full-group movement and sound exercise which managed to transcend the awkwardness of our windowless hotel room setting. Poet Natalie Diaz followed with two riveting readings from her work, and media artist Cristóbal Martinez demonstrated two of his creations (one live and one via slides). The difference with this session is that not only was the artistic content engaging in its own right, it led seamlessly into a fascinating discussion about how to support, respect, and engage creatively with indigenous communities around the globe. Tangen’s participatory dance workshop helped to bring us closer to the subject matter, Diaz’s poetry laid bare the tensions between ancient traditions and modern realities that make up her daily reality, and Martinez told us of a remarkable installation in a Sydney art gallery that involved cutting out part of the floor to allow voices from the earth to echo through the space. Each of these artistic explorations, in their own way, showed a different side of the clash between Eurocentric and Native worldviews, of the power imbalances inherent in that clash, and of the halting and uncertain efforts to call to account and heal the rift. Because philanthropy itself is at the center of not only the clash but the healing, the artistic connection was not just a feel-good reminder of why we’re all here, but intimately woven in to the conversation itself.

The distance between that session and Tuesday morning’s “Alternate Funding Tools: Program-Related Investments” shows the range of GIA at its best. Deena Epstein and Robert Jacquay of Cleveland’s George Gund Foundation offered a down-to-earth, relentlessly practical, and admirably candid take on their own experiences offering lesser-used tools such as low-interest loans, equity investments, and more to arts groups in their community. The topic wasn’t uncharted territory only for me: session organizer Regina Smith from the Kresge Foundation kicked things off by asking who in the room had direct experience with PRIs; only a couple of hands went up. After a brief review of the history of PRIs, Jacquay described the Gund Foundation’s work with this tool. About 3.5% of the foundation’s investment corpus is held in this asset class, with examples of investments in the arts including a low-interest loan to the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art to help the institution secure a New Markets Tax Credit for a new building, using an equipment purchase as leverage with the landlord of an organization that was at risk of losing its lease, and (my favorite) depositing $25,000 in a local credit union that gives loans to working musicians. Epstein and Jacquay reported that despite a perception of PRIs as risky and unfamiliar on the part of some institutions, their experience has been that the due diligence process is “not a huge mystery.”

The theme of this year’s GIA Conference was “The NEW Creative Community,” and conference organizers made a concerted effort to deliver new thinking to its attendees both in the plenaries and the choice of breakout sessions. That effort wasn’t 100% successful in an absolute sense, as emcee Ben Cameron pointed out on the second day of IDEA LAB – when you try to make room for the new, a lot of times what you get is old ideas in new clothes. But attendees can nevertheless make room for the new in a relative and personal sense by taking a risk and giving unfamiliar topics a chance. I’m following up my GIA experience this week by attending the American Evaluation Association Conference in Washington, DC. This is my first time at this event and it is providing a rush of stimulation due to its dramatic differences from GIA and any other conference I attend regularly: over 3000 attendees from all over the world (I shared an eight-person table on Monday with people from Germany, Brazil and Indonesia), 1000 sessions (sometimes more than 50! at a time), dozens of workshops, and very little arts content. I’m getting a lot out of the experience because I’m stretching myself to learn things I don’t already know. So if you think you’ve seen and heard it all, take it from one who has learned his lesson and consider how you too can make room for the new.