Beauty, Justice and Alternate Finance

Towards Beauty or Towards Justice: Must We Choose?

Organized by Elizabeth Méndez Berry, Program Officer, Surdna Foundation; and Risë Wilson, Director of Philanthropy, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Moderated by Elizabeth Méndez Berry, Program Officer, Surdna Foundation. Presented by Paul Rucker, Artist; Alex Rivera, Artist; and Deanna Van Buren, Artist, Designing Justice+Designing Spaces.

For filmmaker Los Angeles Alex Rivera justice and beauty exist in a dynamic exchange and represent his most fulfilling work.

The Sleep Dealer began as a short, is now a feature and is being prepared as a future television series. It frames a time when borders are sealed. The internet transcends. Pure labor crosses the border, while bodies stay out.

The Sixth Section was made in collaboration with immigrant rights groups and day labor organizations who assisted with production and  “inhabited a version of their own story.” It helped radicalize civil disobedience organized within detention centers. Rivera is working on making the film more cinematic and adding a fictionalized treatment of story.

Rivera called out a crisis in Latin filmmaking since those making “risky, audacious work, and connected with community” are rarely able make a 2nd film.

Oakland-based architect DeAnna Van Buren ( examines the role of restorative justice and alternate justice in communities today. “Why not design to restore?” she concluded. This is where the Bayview Hunter’s Point Pop Up Resource Centers began. Resolving that detrimental physical condition could be addressed through design, she sought to address extreme lack of resources. She launched into a masterplan for several sites and micro units. Her process involved deep listening and vetting by the community members she hoped to serve and engage since she didn’t want to assume that what she thought was beautiful would resonate with the community.

In response to a need in education, she designed a school on wheels. In response to safety and support for women leaving jail Van Buren drafted mobile resource centers.

Van Buren presents herself as someone with privilege, but not expertise. Though interviews and discussion potential users help her design a matrix of possible resources. Priorities are caseworkers, cleanliness and security, lockers for storage, and spaces that feel private. Observing that the architecture of justice is often cold and bare, her work for these projects are tactile, beautiful and strive to become more hopeful. They’ve helped design pattern that she has expounded on fabricated at artist residencies. Wood surfaces will be stained.

The described projects will be finishing up this year and there are possible projects in the works in LA.

Art makes the unseen seen in Paul Rucker’s work and helps people become more empathetic. A multidisciplinary artist now living in Baltimore, Mr. Rucker began by showing Proliferation a mesmerizing “animated map” that charts 300 years of prison growth. In a manner similar to Ava DuVernay’s movie 13th he links the breakdown of plantations to rise penitentiaries and mass incarceration. He broke down prisons as factories “paying” prisoners $33 to 1.25/hr to farm fish, calm wild fires, pick cotton, and the list goes on.

He presented the photo of a wood sculpture that whistles for Emmett Till. The notes symbolize Rucker’s instrument, the cello, as well as black bodies. There were also clan robes in Kente cloth to highlight Dutch colonization and African slave trade. He is clear that the work has to mean something to him and that he doesn’t make artwork to sell. A self-trained artist, Rucker calls Creative Capital retreats the biggest turning points in his life and practice. He built strong artist relationships and collaborations there and at each of the residencies he’s participated in. ( Rucker called out relationship building as key, and long term.

Rivera often begins by asking “what can I do to help?” He often begins relationship building by sharing expertise, such as video making.

Van Buren has refined her practice with trauma informed training and by creating an emotionally safe space to do creative work. Rivera and Van Buren agreed that the scale of their work, film and architecture, can be cost prohibitive. Van Buren has secured funds from Google, Twitter, the City of San Francisco, the Public Utilities Commission and through Community benefits.

Ideally, Rucker remarked, these kind of projects which call for prolonged relationship building, call for 3-5 or 5-7 years of funding and some kind of flexibility. While Van Buren is often able to secure concept funding, she looks to a future where philanthropy takes the first loss on the project and social impact investors fill in the gap. Rivera lamented that the US doesn’t have a structure akin to the to Canada and UK film boards.

“Wow, Paul’s cello. Incredibly moving to know this is where we are. Every element with so much nuance and such depth!”
— Tamara Alvarado, Executive Director, School of Arts and Culture, San Jose

Alternative Finance and Artists

Organized and moderated by Judilee Reed, Director, Surdna Foundation.

Presented by Penelope Douglas, Artist in Residence, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; and Laura Zabel, Executive Director, Springboard for the Arts.

Judilee Reed, of Surdna Foundation, started those of us in attendance off with a little context that highlighted significant disparities in funding.

Findings from a new report to be released in next few months with Helicon Collaborative, updated from a 2011 report from the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy’s funding equity report charts the following data points:

  • Total giving by the top 1000 foundations show (in aggregate) approximately $2B given for non profit arts and cultural activities.
  • Of those allocations, the largest 2% of arts and cultural orgs in US (those with budgets over 5M) see nearly 60% of all grants, gifts and contributions. That’s a drearier future than we saw in 2011.
  • Groups with annual expenditures of under $1M saw their share of all gifts, grants and contributions drop by 5 points.
  • That group (37,000 organizations) represents the fastest growing cohort in total of arts organizations.
  • They represent 90% of all groups and are the organizations serving communities of color, LGBTQ populations and disabled populations.

Creativity Connects, a report recently released by Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) summarize current trends that play a role in artists ability to have healthy creative practices and features systems that support or fall short in supporting artist endeavors. Among those fundings, Reed brought focus to:

  • Artists moving from conventional discipline based systems of creation and presenting such as gallery presentations and dance performances to hybrid contexts that utilize their training in new ways and to reflect larger community concerns like social justice, urban planning, public architecture, health and human services
  • Further suggestions that economic conditions for artists imitate challenges in other segments of the work force really related to the gig economy. For example, high cost of housing, insufficient protections and limited access to capital to push forward enterprises

While I think everyone in the room understood that contributed income is important, other types of financial support have to be considered and included. In this scenario the resources, beyond the $2B described above, could potentially be expanded to include other resource systems. This could have transformational and lasting effects for arts and culture and for the last few years, Surdna, Kresge and others have been looking to alternative finance – “financial channels and instruments that lie outside of traditional finance systems such as commercial lending or banks” according to Reed.

The main question of the session as I understand it was: How do we begin to figuring out how to knit together the cultural sector with a system of finance that yields product lends itself well to arts and culture?

While case studies and examples were discussed, it was a great afternoon of sharing thought provoking ideas invoking systems connecting social, cultural and economic benefit.

Penelope Douglas has a long list of credentials. Former executive at Odwalla, a social responsible business. Artist in residence Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). Strategic advisor to RSF Social Finance. Strategic Advisor to the Opportunity Finance Network. Fellow, SF Federal Reserve Bank. Serial social entrepreneur. Artist.

Though a successful executive early in her career, she eventually left and founded Pacific Community Ventures to figure out financial tools that made sense to social finance and entrepreneurship. Douglas raised many millions in investment and philanthropic capital, but still failed to see deep and long lasting change in low income and underserved communities. Eventually, she hit upon the idea of Culture Bank. The concept’s hypothesis – reduce risk and make artists highly investable because artists move culture and if you don’t have culture you have no hope of creating a lasting social and economic future for us all.

This jibes with the notion that unfettered economic growth is an outdated concept (where is my copy of Small is Beautiful?! ;-)) and that culture at the center of investment will spur a world that is quite different.

How would investment work? The aim would be to raise several $100M in capital, philanthropic in intention in first iteration. This could galvanize established art collectors to pledge their art to the fund in order to secure the credit from those with whom we invest. On the other side of the investment is the artist themselves. Returns would be financial and not financial – art and money. Outcomes would attract products still in development – a kind of pay for success model. Artists have the ability to shift culture through their work, and could have impact on larger health outcomes for example.

Laura Zabel, Executive Director at Springboard for the Arts in Minneapolis, has put forth countless innovations related to financial products and mechanisms that increase equitable opportunities for artists. Keep power and agency with artists, she says. Once upon a time, Springboard had it’s own micro-lending programs but had difficulty scaling in a meaningful them way.

However, they see a great deal of potential in KIVA – expanded opportunities or artists and artisans in US which inverts the usual crowd funding paradigm which helps artists to raise 20% from existing network (friends and family) and 80% from others. The fact that campaigns are up $10,000, 3 years to pay back and 0% interest makes the deal even sweeter in Zabel’s estimation. Also, individual artist or small business owners are then in a strong position to connect to new markets and develop regular clients.

She also let those in attendance know that after Great Depression only top 3% were allowed to make venture capital investments, while this was designed to help regular working Joe (or Jan) from going broke it continued to help concentrate wealth at top. Currently, and this different often by state, investment can be crowdsourced for larger ($200,000-$1M) investment.

A long-term issue highlighted by Zabel and Lori Pourier form First Peoples Fund is after several years how does one keep the capital pool for artists’ products and services strong? This discussion is to be continued…

“One thought that stuck with me is the idea of investing in artists because they change culture — something that is so needed because a financial system based on constant growth is unsustainable.”
— Renee Hayes, Grants for the Arts, SF