GIA Conference Monday Report

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on…………”

The first day of any of our art conferences seem to always be the longest.

Janet Brown opened the conference with the reminder that the three operating principles of GIA continue to be: Inclusiveness, Collaboration, and Curiosity.

I. Recent GIA Conferences have featured IDEA LAB — short TED-like presentations by a trio of different working artists. And Monday’s IDEA LAB artists were all excellent. The one that caught my attention was Yuval Sharon, founder and artistic director of The Industry, an L.A. based experimental opera company that produces performances that can only be categorized as way outside the box.

He touted three:

  • A warehouse based production where the audience was invited to walk all around the actual production and view it from anywhere they choose — in front as an audience, backstage, from the wings.
  • A production of a full opera at L.A’s downtown Union Station – a working railroad station with arrivals and departures and teeming with travelers.
  • And most ambitious of all — an opera performed in 24 moving vehicles on L.A.’s freeway system called “Hopscotch”. Really, the opera is performed in chapters and people get in these cars / vans for ten minutes at a time. And then can opt for another chapter. Each moving vehicle travels to different parts of the city. Moreover, the “chapters” are live streamed. L.A. has long had a car culture, and this project fits perfectly into the identity of the city.

This is clearly not your father’s opera company.

II. Capitalization sessions:

I wanted to focus the day on the sessions dealing with capitalization of arts organizations, so I went to two. The first one (entitled Along the Capitalization Spectrum) was advertised as: “an examination of the spectrum of capitalization activities that can be undertaken in order to more fully and equitably support organizational financial health — lessons learned from recent years of capitalization-focused grant making and new directions based on that learning” — featuring presentations from Kresge and Mellon foundations.

The two Mellon programs caught my attention:

1. The Zero Loan Fund is a program is designed for organizations principally with temporary cash flow issues, delays in receivables etc. and the program is a form of bridge support, and isn’t really aimed at organizations with high risk financial problems. Loans are to be paid back in one year, and they have had a 96% pay back rate. This type of program seems to have positive results, though the goals of temporary transitional support are limited. They have plans for expansion of the program with larger loans available, and consideration of higher risk organizations as grantees (though they haven’t yet determined the exact criteria for the degree of risk.)

2. The more ambitious program is a pilot initiative that deals with the comprehensive financial health of 70 grantees and is still in the operational stage only halfway through its process, and thus there are yet any firm conclusions about either the approach or efficacy. They’ve done extensive diagnostics, and the educational component workshops are still in progress.

These two projects, plus the Kresge work with placemaking as incorporating support for capitalization, point out how slow the whole process of moving deliberately forward with programs that can both succeed in helping organizations become adequately capitalized for financial health, and which might also be replicated — in whole or in part for the benefit of the field.

What I came away with, was that the realization that there are multiple layers of issues involved in even the attempt to craft programs that might help arts organizations achieve real capitalization, and change structural organizational forms so as to facilitate that achievement — including everything from organizational transparency and truth telling to both funders and to the organization itself, to the possible stigma of asking for even a bridge loan, to the timeline it takes to develop approaches in this area.

The reality that some organizations living hand to mouth and literally on the precipice of survival might be of great value to the communities in which they operate further complicates the decision process of where to put dollars to help address the challenge of widespread inadequate capitalization among arts organizations. Even the contingent in the field that supports the notion that some organizations are so far gone as to not be savable, and that some organizations should, frankly, be left to expire without prolonged and likely futile attempts to change their circumstances faces the challenge of how to determine which ones fall into that classification.

II. The next session was entitled Building Cash Reserves in Arts Organizations — featuring a California Community Foundation 18 month pilot project which sought to help arts organizations build cash reserves (as opposed to basic operating reserves designed to cover base expenses), and involving five small to mid-sized Los Angeles based arts organizations.

Alas this project pointed up that even in this area of capitalization, there are so many variables and likely unanticipated complications that can undermine the effort that it impossible to consider each individual situation as anything other that completely unique and a standalone situation. Lessons learned included:

  • An 18 month timeline is too short. A three year timeline is suggested as it takes longer to cultivate existing or new donors (who would give to a reserve fund) and to build the culture of capitalization (and fundraising) within the organization.
  • There needs to be a consistency of leadership participation by the grantee and the Board president should be involved from the outset.
  • Consider the challenges of whole organizational change and be prepared for different outcomes across the spectrum.
  • Assure understanding of all roles and responsibilities of the various participating resources and consultants for the benefit of the cohort and the building cash reserves team.

When I asked about the reality that some arts organization’s situations might suggest that scarce resources ought to be deployed where they might have a chance of succeeding, there was the suggestion that the value to a community might trump that consideration. In subsequent conversations with other attendees, there seems an equally vocal group that rejects the idea that we can save everyone or that — with finite resources — it is smart to try. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle — we need to both consider all kinds of criteria in determining where to invest scarce resources while at the same time accept the realities that things can and do go wrong, and that we cannot always control when that happens nor fix it after the fact. Every decision funders make, results in a choice to invest here instead of investing somewhere else. That reality will not change.

The challenges of trying to promote adequate capitalization for arts organizations is daunting and mired with the fact that each organizational situational circumstances are unique, and that each organization’s level of financial sophistication varies widely.

III. The day’s last session for me was entitled People of Color and Arts Giving: A 360 Degree View. While “people of color maintain a deep interest in the arts, lead active cultural lives, and want to participate — particularly in art-making and art-learning” there is evidence that they don’t yet give in support of arts organizations nearly to the level of their White counterparts.

39% of California’s population is Latino/a, but they account for only 6% of arts giving

The why is varied:

  • They do give philanthropically, but to other areas such as churches.
  • There are fewer high income members in the cohort.
  • The culture of giving to nonprofits is still developing.
  • They have other investment priorities.
  • The question is how can arts funders promote the message that the arts strengthen communities of color and the answer to that questions will be tempered by: 1) a likely long (generational) timeline; 2) increased involvement of the community in perceived valuable arts activity; 3) arts education. No answers — just challenges as this stage.

But this is an important challenge for funders. As communities of color gain local political clout — and exercise that clout in the voting booth — more local government funding can/will likely go to arts organizations serving those communities. That may help.

Have a good day.

More to follow.

Don’t Quit