José Garcia, program officer, Strong Local Economies, speaks with Judilee Reed about what she and her colleagues are learning, including reflections on the role of capital in their work, displacement, the lives and livelihoods of artists and culture-bearers, and the centrality of the arts and culture to a sustainable community.
What makes arts and culture an essential component of a sustainable community?
The arts and culture component is simultaneously intrinsic and instrumental in its value. It can, for example, help move communities in an efficient and effective way toward stronger economies and create greater social cohesion. But because arts and culture is the manifestation of meaning—meaning that relates to who we are and what we aspire to, and an analysis of where we’ve been as people—it also has deep intrinsic value. Each of us has in some way and at some point been touched by the instrumental and intrinsic. It’s difficult to measure the impact or place a value on it, but it’s quite clear when we’re affected—intellectually or spiritually—by arts and culture.
How is Surdna thinking about arts and culture?
Surdna believes that arts and culture—and artists—play a critical role in sustainable communities. We see this in a number of ways: Young people’s paths toward creative and intellectual development are illuminated by arts and culture. Artists, designers, and architects are working in—and with—communities to translate their visions for their surroundings into solutions. And we’ve seen the important economic contribution that arts and culture and artists make within communities. Finally, we believe that artists are like “scientists of meaning;” they’re the ones who through their own creative practice continue to explore what’s important, not only to them as individuals, but to all of us as a shared society. We may not always agree with what an artist is saying, but the very act of disagreement is a way of interpolating and understanding what’s taking place and what we hope for in the world.
Why has Surdna decided not to support bricks and mortar?
Funders that support infrastructure—bricks and mortar—play a vital role in sustaining the arts and culture. Ours, however, is a complementary act, in that we are considering the elements that are necessary to fill those buildings. We continually ask ourselves whether the artists and culture makers who inhabit these building have the resources and the latitude they need to explore their creative practice in a way that connects with and enriches others in community.
Tell us about the role that capital plays in your work?
Private foundation giving represents a relatively small percentage of total giving within the not-for-profit sector, so we are very aware of our own limitations. Also, few of the strategies designed to help build capacity where commercial markets can’t—or won’t—operate are being effectively deployed in the arts and culture sector. And there’s a common, romanticized misconception of artists as eccentric, isolated geniuses.
In response to these dynamics, in partnership with The Kresge Foundation, we created a one-time grant opportunity called Catalyzing Culture and Community through Community Development Financial Institutions (C4) to try and learn more about how Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) are deploying their capital in support of individual artists and arts and culture organizations. Our hope is to create better understanding among CDFIs about the risk profile of artists, arts and culture organizations, or creative commercial entities—and their similarity to other more common types of loan applicants. It’s important to demystify what it means to be an artist, or to work in the field of arts and culture. And finally, we hope these grants will demonstrate why CDFIs are uniquely qualified to provide training to help artists, arts and culture organizations, and creative enterprises improve their management skills and grow their businesses
So were CDFIs supporting artists and arts and cultural organizations prior to your grants?
CDFIs have been supporting artists, and arts and culture entities, but that support has largely been embedded in other programs and not specifically identified as art-related. Some lenders, for example, offer innovation and small business programs in which artists and creative organizations participate. But they do so as businesses and innovators, not necessarily as artists. So it is difficult to identify which CDFIs are involved in arts-related work and at what scale. These are significant barriers, but also opportunities because, from a business perspective, creative enterprises and other community-based small businesses are quite similar. Hopefully, this will make it easier for artists to access existing financial systems that are organized to serve the community.
Why do some lenders have trouble understanding artists and arts and cultural organizations?
Often artists lack the training to communicate about their work in a way that can easily translate to financial support. To most lenders, for example, irregular payments to a business by its customers, or unpredictable revenue sources, might be misunderstood and thus disqualify an applicant for a loan program. But to an artist who might generate 80 percent of his or her annual receipts in a single month, it’s quite normal. Artists must help a lender understand that it is essential to take into account their full spectrum of activity in order to consider their qualifications for a loan program. Lenders can’t just look at one month’s receipts; they’ve got to look at 12 months or more.
Are artists learning how to make a living?
The same universities and arts schools that are producing creative and innovative BFAs and MFAs, are not always equipping these artists with the skills they need to succeed as businesspeople. In law school, students are offered ethics classes. But art school students are not necessarily taking accounting classes. We’re working to try and change this through programs like those offered by the Center for Cultural Innovation. Because there is an entire profession without adequate business training and little knowledge about how best to describe themselves and their work—from both creative and business perspectives—that can help them access programs that offer support and resources.
How are you thinking about economic development and displacement?
Often there’s this fear that arts and culture will catalyze growth that leads to inflated or more costly housing that eventually forces people out of a neighborhood. And there are many examples of this. However, we are taking an approach that aims for the kinds of gains that allow people the freedom and the choice to remain in their communities. But at the same time we do not want to create enclaves where there is a perverse expectation that residents should remain poor because their poverty is somehow associated with the qualities of a place and culture that enable it to remain authentic. We think about displacement across a number of scales including the displacement of culture, of people, and of an economy. So when we think about investments, it is critical to consider how we can help maintain a rate of growth fast enough so that it generates important returns, in terms of neighborhood safety and other qualities we care about, but gradual enough so that people who wish to remain in their community don’t get priced out.
What difference does it make when a community is engaged in the process of planning and developing?
Whether it is retrofitting the water system, designing a park, or creating a public space, people who are planning community improvements require some degree of local intelligence in their design. The best parks are going to be the ones that are made to fulfill the needs a local community. We believe that community engagement is vitally important, so we’re trying to create a resource path and a framing that will enable people to inform the design of their surroundings. City public works programs, for example, convene community hearings or neighborhood meetings where they “solicit” community feedback on a proposed plan. Yet these meetings are often under-attended and conducted in a cursory way that does not really catalyze the dialogue necessary to inform the real ergonomics of a place. Cities might invite community input on the selection of park benches where residents get to pick from the three different styles, as opposed to asking whether or not residents even need a park bench. Surdna’s community engaged design work starts by acknowledging that communities need resources to engage with architects and artists over a long enough period to generate the intelligence needed to inform the planning process. With the local organizations funded through our grantee ArtPlace America, we’re beginning to see how a patient and genuine process of engagement—with broad demographic participation—is generating better information about what residents want for their neighborhoods. As a result, we are seeing much better design work.
Surdna reviewed more than 1,000 proposals from artists and culture makers in response to a recent call for artist-driven projects. What did you learn about the state of the arts in our country?
The proposals helped us think about the cultural diversity of this country in different ways. We learned how artists are contending with issues ranging from immigration to criminal justice to economic equality and practically everything in between. Several of the proposals, for example, offered innovative approaches to documenting veterans’ experiences and ways of thinking about art as a means of healing, not only for them but for the communities in which they live. And we saw how specific ethnic-based artistic practices and traditions are evolving. With traditional Cambodian dance, for example, we learned about contemporary choreography that embraces new thematic areas that would never have been seen in the royal court dance of Cambodia.
How is this work being supported?
We learned about the limitations of philanthropy and the important role of other types of funders, and forms of funding. Foundations are not always well-positioned to support this kind of innovative work, because much of it is taking place outside—or barely inside—of the 501(c)(3) universe. It calls into question whether we have the right types of nonprofit organizations through which to support this work—because there was no clear indication of an existing group of nonprofits that is supporting this work. This poses some big questions for us—and other foundations—and for philanthropy in general around how best to support this type of art.
What are some of the challenges to placing a social justice frame around Thriving Cultures’ grantmaking?
One of the conundrums within this field is the assignment of artists and arts and culture in achieving the objectives of social justice. There’s a belief that artists’ creative work will inspire others to positive action, resulting in greater equity. In many cases this is true, and Surdna has supported some of this work. But I think we fail if that’s the only construct for our arts investments. What is also critical is the diversity of people and voices involved in dialogues around the meaning of social justice. And we need to see this playing out on a local scale so that we understand how communities are looking at social justice and defining sustainability. The United States is such a relatively new experiment that we don’t yet have answers to these questions. But we keep trying. I’m O.K. thinking about our work as part of an ongoing set of experiments. Though the solutions might become dated, I think we become better people for engaging in that activity. It becomes problematic, however, when we look for specific end goals when we’re talking about what arts and culture can do.