“All truths are easy once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” – Galileo Galilei
“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.” – Winston Churchill
I have a BFA in Musical Theater. It’s the kind of college degree that brings a smirk to many a face, as people assume I spent four years tap dancing and walking around in clown shoes. I did do both, at times, but I actually spent five years taking between 20-24 units a semester learning a deep curriculum in music, dance, and theater. Oh, and taking all of the “core” subjects required for a liberal arts college degree. Scoff if you will, but I learned how to put in the hours to get the job done, and my late-night cramming was often in the ballet studio as well as the library.
One of the most eye-opening courses I took was Directing 101. All actors need to try their hands as directors when learning the craft, and I found directing to be challenging on so many levels. Running a casting call, finding a set designer and light designer, working around numerous schedules, looking for both talent and “fit”, getting the group as a whole to deliver both professionally and artistically – it was tough work (and, years later, so very familiar).
The most enlightening element of the process was being on the other end during an audition. You quickly learn that the audition begins the moment the actor walks into the room – not the moment she begins her monologue or song. How she walks, how she interacts with the accompanist, how she introduces herself – all of it matters almost as much as her ability act or sing. Actually, the audition begins even before that – it begins when I read her resume. There I learn not just about her professional past, but how she presents herself, her writing ability, her professionalism, her artistry as expressed through simple things such as font, brevity, and design.
Being on both ends of the creative spectrum was helpful then, as it is now.
I’m back in a dual role, as the director of an arts council that is also a funder. The Arts Council is both a grantee and a grantor, at all times. We spend a great deal of time on fund development but even more time figuring out how to responsibly disperse much of those funds so they can have a profound impact on our community. I’m also aware that this dynamic may color some of my relationships with both those who fund us, and those we fund. I wish I could remove that weird power dynamic altogether, as it just feels like an impediment to real relationships with people I really enjoy. But it’s there, and all I can do is show up in an authentic way when I’m interacting with my friends and colleagues.
Sometimes, though, being in this position allows us to imagine, design, and implement a change that we think is really cool. We know what it is like to spend dozens of hours on grant applications that may or may not get funded, or may have a pathetically small return on investment. We know the frustration of wishing we could be working to meet our mission, rather than working to raise the funds we need to do our work.
To that end, the Arts Council has made some major changes to our grants program. We opened up the cycle so funding for arts projects is available year round; we simplified who is eligible for general support grants versus project grants; we reworked our grants panel so truly qualified folks in each discipline will be reviewing applications; we’re offering professional development grants to both artists and arts organizations; and we moved to a much better online system for our grantmaking. But the change I’m most excited about is our new Sponsor Grant category.
The Arts Council has been funding the arts in Santa Cruz since 1979. And there are organizations in this county that we’ve been funding for all of those 34 years, whose longevity rivals our own. There are other organizations that may not have been around as long, but which have consistently provided excellent programming for the community and maintained strong management practices.
Every year, these organizations jump through our grantmaking hoops to be considered for funding. Every year, we see their strong balance sheets, high-quality programing, dedicated and talented staff, and devoted audiences. And every year, we award them funds. Which begged the question: why are we making them jump through hoops?
Enter the Sponsor Grants. These grants are ongoing, annual funding for the strongest and most impactful arts organizations in the county, based on the following criteria:
– Ten years of producing programming in Santa Cruz County
– Been funded by the Arts Council for five consecutive years
– Provide leadership in their art discipline and/or in the Santa Cruz community
– Have strong and consistent management and board leadership
– Have a stable or growing budget
– Have stable or growing audiences
– Significant cash reserves
These organizations do not have to submit a grant application; instead, Arts Council staff does a site visit with both board and staff members, and at the end of the fiscal year, the funded organization will send a basic report that speaks to the criteria above. Unless these organizations experience dramatic and negative changes, we will continue to fund them year after year. All of the hours that would have been spent on a grant application will now be spent meeting their mission and creating fantastic programming for this community. We, too will save time, not having to collect, read, and score those grant applications, so we too can spend more time focused on our mission. In return for this funding, the Arts Council is given a sponsorship package commensurate with any other donor of the same level. This way, we promote the Arts Council’s own work in the community, ultimately building our capacity to provide even greater support to the organizations we serve.
One particularly exciting element of this category is that it’s not just about budget size. Some of the organizations in the cohort are major institutions – the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the Museum of Art & History – but others are much smaller, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center and Pajaro Valley Arts Council. Kuumbwa Jazz, the Santa Cruz County Symphony, and Tandy Beal round out the group, representing a broad range of artistic disciplines. These organizations also serve communities from the border region near Monterey to the far north county.
There are many other wonderful organizations in this community, of course, and some are close to qualifying for this grant. We hope to help elevate these organizations so they too can join the Sponsor category. Indeed, we are creating another new exciting grant category designed to help a cohort of organizations take the next step in their development. But that’s news for another day.
The Sponsor Grant category – and indeed, all of the major changes in the program – is the brainchild of our Grants & Technical Assistance Manager, Jim Brown. I can only take credit for being smart and lucky enough to talk him into joining our team just over a year ago. A former Executive Director of both the Diversity Center and 418 Project in Santa Cruz, with a background in in the tech world, Jim hadn’t had direct experience as a grants manager. But he did have experience as a grantseeker, and as a natural innovator and great thinker, he was able to completely re-think how we can make an impact with our funds. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.