Post GIA Conference Thoughts
“And the beat goes on…………”
Coming off last week’s GIA Conference I am left with several thoughts:
1. My respect for, and empathy with, the funding community continues to grow. These are smart, dedicated people who care deeply about the health of the fragile arts ecosystem, and are earnestly trying to figure out ways to address the big challenges the whole field faces. They come up with intelligent, reasoned pilot projects, strategies, and approaches they hope will yield results that can help guide us all in making the difference we want to make. They aren’t risk averse and when attempts to get a handle on a problem don’t work out, when well intended approaches fail, they simply go back to brainstorming and the drawing board and reaching out to stakeholders for more input. It’s easy to armchair quarterback every decision, but not particularly helpful. Still, being on the front lines they are subject to public scrutiny and that’s as it should be.
Their efforts are constrained by two realities beyond their control: 1) there simply aren’t enough funds in the collective coffers of all the funders to address all the issues for all the community; and 2) they are program directors, not Board members — and often times their advice and counsel is trumped by Board priorities with which they may not agree, but are powerless to avoid. That is the reality of foundation and government funding processes.
2. While strides have been made in ratcheting up the awareness and understanding of both the need for adequate capitalization of arts organizations, and the ways to go about moving in that direction, it is, and will likely remain slow going across the board. There are two big issues with capitalization: 1) to change organizational behavior, it’s necessary to first change organizational culture, and that isn’t easy in many cases; and 2) the big obstacle to achieving even half the gold standard of six months operating / reserve capital, is that it is simply a money issue. You need more money to build the reserves, and more money is axiomatically hard to come by. You can increase awareness and knowledge, and arm people with the tools to go forward, but you can’t wave a magic wand and increase their revenue streams so they can achieve capitalization. We will continue to make some progress, but unless and until there is significant improvement in our finances, this will be, in many cases, two steps forward, two steps back.
3. The big issue of equity – and the specific of fairer allocation of scarce resources – faces another kind of culture that doesn’t seem to be changing much at all – and that is the long, systemically established favoritism towards a small handful of large budget cultural institutions in cities across the country. That the lion’s share of arts funding goes to this small cohort of organizations is well born out by the research, and it is structurally part of the arts funding machine. I don’t see much, if any, real movement from that inequitable reality and I don’t expect it will soon change. Before there can be any wholesale change in that allocation system, we would have to change the culture of the Boards that run these organizations and which have sworn allegiance to the way its always been as the admission ticket to a Board seat. Funding the “haves” that have always been “haves” is not, in itself, totally wrong – as these are valuable assets to any community, and they need every funding dollar they can get. But on an equity basis it’s largely indefensible. I just don’t think the change many call for is coming soon. And frankly token efforts will not do us much good at all.
4. There are a number of areas where the news is nothing but positive, and where great strides are being made with results that promise to be of enormous benefit to us all – including in the arts and aging / healing field, in the research arena, in the policy area, in placemaking – particularly as the same relates to working with cities, governments and business, and finally (though in pockets – more all the time) in arts education.
Too often people only have complaints against funders. I would like to thank them. I admire their tenacity, their positive attitudes and their creativity.
And now that I have thanked them, I would like to encourage them to push the envelope more; to have a sense of urgency about changing the dynamic and move us quicker in the area of equity.
It’s frustrating not to move quicker where the need is great. There is so much that might get done if society had the right priorities and we had the necessary tools and resources. But things are getting a little bit better all the time.
Have a great week.