Turns out it's not that simple.
I was talking with Ted Russell, a senior program officer from the James Irvine Foundation, one of the biggest arts funders in California. I asked how their new Exploring Engagement Fund (of which my museum was an early grant recipient) was going. He paused. He said they've been somewhat disappointed by the applications they've received and surprised by the mixed response in the field to their new approach to arts grant-making. Some have raised the question of whether the Irvine Foundation is "too far ahead of the field" with a grantmaking strategy that focuses on active arts engagement for all Californians.
I don't think the problem is the Irvine Foundation's approach, or even their communication around it. The "who, how, where" strategy is clear and well-reasoned. In a lot of ways, the Irvine Foundation's challenge is comparable to that which any organization that changes its strategy faces. Who exactly is the market for this new approach to arts funding? Just as an institution that changes its focus has to either attract a new audience or engage its traditional audience in a change process, the Irvine Foundation has to execute this new strategy in partnership with its grantees.
To be successful, I see three tasks ahead for the Irvine Foundation:
- Help traditional arts institutions understand and connect with the new strategy. Ted told me that the Irvine Foundation staff have learned that they have to work on how they communicate about the new strategy and support capacity-building for organizations to be able to be successful in the new paradigm. Longtime grantees have relied on Irvine for years for one kind of support and now see themselves being thrust into a different set of expectations. Even organizations that care about community engagement could be stymied by the creative challenge to hit two of the three "who, how, where"s with a single two-year project. It's not surprising that they push back against the changes. Part of me wonders whether it's worthwhile to invest more money in trying to convince traditional arts institutions to embrace active engagement--but then I realize that that's the work I've been trying to do for a long time. I think a strong way to do this is by reaching out to program staff directly. I know there are people within traditional arts institutions who will be empowered by Irvine's new strategy--people who feel frustrated that their passion for serving low-income families is met with lip service, or people who are pigeonholed into an education zone because of their enthusiasm for active art-making. I'm hopeful that those individuals and departments will go to their development directors, who are spinning their brains around trying to repackage their organizations in the "who, how, where" paradigm, and offer a way forward for funding AND increased priority on Irvine's vision for the arts in California.
- Actively recruit new grantees who may now be eligible or appropriate for funding. I have no doubt that there are many incredible artists and organizations that could do wonderful things with funding from the Irvine Foundation. But those individuals and institutions may not be on Irvine's map... and Irvine may not be on theirs. The kinds of organizations that focus on active art-making and social practice are different from those that focus on arts consumption. Organizations that work in nontraditional venues may not label themselves as arts institutions. Organizations that engage marginalized communities and have long been shunned by major funders might not attend to the strategy shifts of those foundations. Just as working with "nontraditional" audiences often requires more intensive forms of engagement, working with nontraditional grantees will require the same.
- Have courage. I believe in a few years we will point to Irvine as a catalyst for significant change in the arts sector in California and around the country. But being on the leading edge is scary. It requires confidence that the grantees and the projects ARE out there. It requires turning a deaf ear to complaints from institutions that aren't willing to engage audiences in what Irvine feels are the most effective ways. I have no illusions that the Irvine Foundation (or any foundation) will continue to put forward an approach that works personally for me or my institution. But I sincerely hope that every foundation will continue to be thoughtful and courageous in constructing grantmaking strategies that they feel will do serious good in the community.