Category Archives: Arts Funding

Stuff of Dreams

My four-year-old often wakes in the middle of the night, anxious for answers to important questions: “Mommy, are robots real?” “Mommy, are giants bigger than Daddy?” “Mommy – the barf that flew out of my mouth last night – can we pretend it was fire?”

Andrew

Andrew, four, fire-breather and dreamer

Though I’m tired of stumbling between his bedroom and mine in the wee hours of the night, I understand that his brain is on overdrive, and I adore his insatiable curiosity. (And believe me, his questions continue throughout the day.) The blessing and curse of these nighttime wakings is that my brain starts to spin, too – and while my boy dreams about robots and giants and breathing fire, I think about spinning sculptures, water dances, and wonderful new friendships. I think about Ebb & Flow.

Just over a year ago, I brought together some of my favorite people in Santa Cruz to brainstorm an idea for a grant opportunity. The California Arts Council had just launched its Creative California Communities program and it seemed a perfect time to join sandboxes with people both in and out of the arts world – likely, and “unlikely” partners, as we like to call them. From that first meeting, the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project was born. (You can read the full origin story here.)

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logo mark by Doug Ross

Fast forward fourteen months and our program has become a movement. Our partnership is now a radical collaboration in which we share leadership, responsibility, and successes. It’s put the Arts Council’s work in front of people who didn’t know much about us. Most importantly, it’s bringing the community together to think about our river and RiverWalk in new ways.

I’ve been speaking about this program both near and far, and while it’s fun to share the various bits and pieces of awesome that comprise Ebb & Flow, the important thing is to reflect what we did right, to acknowledge how much of that “right stuff” was accidental, and to make those good choices intentional, moving forward.

But let’s start with the awesome. Ebb & Flow starts on First Friday, June 5th. Indulge me in a little imaginative trip, if you will. Start your evening downtown where we’ve closed off Cooper Street. There you can join artists, friends, neighbors and strangers to build two kinetic, mobile, river-inspired sculptures. After that, follow the nearest kids to First Friday venues for a scavenger hunt of artistic river critters. Once the moon rises, take a nighttime River Walk to see aerial dancing off a downtown bridge, watch an inspiring short film about our river, and witness a lighting ceremony of a new temporary public art piece that celebrates the ancient peoples of Santa Cruz.

Ohlone

One of the “Guardians of the River” by Geoffrey Nelson

The next day, put your kids in a Radio Flyer wagon or grab your best friends and some pinwheels, and join the Ebb & Flow Kinetic Sculpture Parade down the Santa Cruz RiverWalk.

Fish Bike Lee

Fish Bike by Lee Myers

Not only will you see some of the wackiest kinetic art Santa Cruz artists have to offer – you’ll also witness the unveiling of ten new temporary artworks along the RiverWalk. These stunning pieces range from huge sculptural fishing rods dangling from a bridge to black metal “ghost” silhouettes of riverboats and bears that once roamed the river to massive sculptures of coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Upstream by Kirby Scudder

Upstream by Kirby Scudder

End your kinetic parade journey at the Tannery Arts Center for the Ebb & Flow River Arts Celebration. See the unveiling of Kathleen Crocetti’s and Anna Oneglia’s stunning new Ebb & Flow community-built sculpture.

Kathleen Crocetti - Ebb & Flow Table

Kathleen Crocetti – Ebb & Flow Table

Dance to Marty O’Reily, members of SambaDá, Flor de Cana, and so much more. See inspired dance by Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center Youth Company, Te Hua Nui, and even BANDALOOP dancing off the Tannery buildings. Join the kids in getting river critters painted on your face; print your own Ebb & Flow poster with Doug Ross; take a short tour of the river behind the Tannery and learn about the birds and fish that call it home; get water wise by interacting with the Coastal Watershed Council and Save Our Shores; and leave motivated, inspired, and delighted with your new friends and new knowledge about what the San Lorenzo River means to Santa Cruz County.

At least, that’s how I plan on spending the day. With just over four weeks to go, it’s no wonder that my head is spinning at 2 AM, wondering how we can make this event not just a wonderful couple of days, but a lasting movement that transforms how our community loves and cares for our river.

There’s a lot of art in this project. And a lot of joy. And through joyous art-making and art appreciating, we are realizing the goals of Ebb & Flow:

  • elevate community water literacy
  • inspire economic activity
  • activate underutilized community spaces
  • strengthen cross-sector relationships
  • build stewardship of the San Lorenzo River
  • make awesome art!

That last goal is actually the means for getting everything else done.

So what did we do right? And what can we do better next time? Stay tuned, and I’ll blog about it soon. For now, make sure you don’t miss the awesome. Book your calendar for June 5th & 6th to witness the beauty, spectacle, and wonder of Ebb & Flow.

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“Ideas, like large rivers, never have just one source.” – Willy Ley

Last Sunday, my three-year-old Andrew wanted to go on a bike ride. So my husband put Andrew’s bike in the back of the car, strapped in Andrew and his little brother Alex, and drove to the Tannery Arts Center campus, where I work, and where there is plenty of paved, safe open space.

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Alex and Andrew, “working” at my desk last Sunday

I hopped on my cruiser to meet them there. I live about a block and a half from a trestle bridge that connects this side of Santa Cruz to the Boardwalk, and at the bottom of the bridge is the starting point for the River Walk, a long path that meanders next to the San Lorenzo River. The river runs through downtown and past the Tannery Arts Center, which is where the River Walk ends. The small miracle of this means that when I ride to work, I only have to be on surface streets for a block and a half. The rest of my ride I’m flying by the flora and fauna that call the river home – flowers and countless species of birds and tiny skittering animals – and eleven minutes later I’m at the front door of my office.

The sad part? I was largely alone on that ride. It was a perfect, sunny, 70-degree Santa Cruz early spring day, and almost nobody was out enjoying the river. No paddlers, no picnickers, no pedestrians. No families out for a stroll or packs of cyclists in their spandexed glory.

The San Lorenzo River is the historic and environmental heart of this city. These days, the community is both literally and figuratively cut off from it. A series of levees built in the 1950’s blocks the river from view; and as criminal activity increased next to it, the community avoided it, and many have forgotten about it altogether. But it wasn’t always so. A century ago, it was the celebrated lifeblood of the community, and even supported the most anticipated annual event in Santa Cruz: the San Lorenzo Venetian Water Festival. Four days of celebration included fireworks displays, dancing on a temporary floral pavilion, night parades, and lavishly decorated boats and barges. Thousands of lights were strung from shore to shore.

Venetian Water Festival Float

A float at the River Festival, some time around the turn of the century

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viewing stands along the San Lorenzo River

Now, the river doesn’t meet federal water quality objectives; it has a high concentration of criminal activity adjacent to it, and local policies prohibit access, so there is no swimming, paddling, or any other recreation in the water. Some community members don’t even realize we have a river running through our city, and many that do generally avoid it, as it’s not seen as a safe place.

The river should be our pride and joy. It should be a place where we come to celebrate and recreate. It should be an engine of economic activity and should be recognized as our main source of drinking water, wildlife habitat, and flood protection. It should inspire, delight, and restore us as we wander down its path.

There have been many stalled and unsuccessful attempts over the years to remedy this problem. Now, though, something is afoot that has the potential to, if you will, turn the tide. Greg Pepping of the Coastal Watershed Council has created the San Lorenzo River Alliance. The Alliance is a coalition focused on revitalizing the health of the San Lorenzo River and transforming it into a safe and welcoming community destination. Greg is working on pulling together partners from a wide swath of interests to collectively work on this vision. It will take years, but I believe he will be successful.

And the arts are going to help him get there.

The Arts Council, in partnership with the Coastal Watershed Council, the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, the City of Santa Cruz Arts Commission, the Tannery Arts Center, the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center, and numerous incredible local artists including Kathleen Crocetti, applied for a significant grant from the California Arts Council. This grant, through the Creative California Communities program, would invigorate both the river and the Tannery campus, and bring together some seriously awesome folks, many of whom have never worked together before. Here’s the “project thumbnail” from the grant:

Unlikely partners will unite to transform the community’s relationship with the San Lorenzo River and the Tannery Arts Center through the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project, a yearlong collaborative arts and educational initiative culminating in a Kinetic Sculpture Parade & River Festival. The Project will spark a movement that builds constituencies for the Tannery campus and the river, elevates water literacy, inspires hubs of economic activity, and strengthens cross-sector relationships. 

Sounds fantastic, right? We will create a large sculptural fountain which includes a water catchement system with a spill-way to the Tannery Garden. The large, round planters around campus will be decorated with water-inspired mosaics. We’ll do a series of educational workshops co-led by artists and water experts. We’ll create temporary public art at five River Walk access points to call attention to those locations and educate community members about the river.  And it will all culminate next June in a Kinetic Sculpture Parade & Festival, featuring work by Tannery and community artists, who will create sculptures that will parade down the river – or the River Walk, if the flow isn’t high enough – ending at the Tannery where we’ll celebrate with dance, music, artmaking, and food.

We’ll engage the environmental population in the arts, and arts audiences in a celebration of the river. We’ll use the energy and momentum created by the festival to advocate for friendlier policies for the use of the river (with habitat and conservation always at front of mind, of course). We’ll bring thousands of people to the Tannery campus. And we’ll help realize the potential of the river and the campus as major hubs of toursim and economic activity.

What if we don’t get the grant? I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t regret all of the time and energy I put into bringing these people together. Just the process of brainstorming the idea, and crafting the proposal led me to meet some fantastic folks, and to begin to deepen relationships with some I already knew. I’m happy to now be serving on the San Lorenzo River Alliance’s River Oversight Committee, and my own “water literacy” has been dramatically raised since I started working on this proposal.

And I’ve fallen in love with our river. I ride my bike on the River Walk whenever I get the chance, and I look forward to the day when my Sunday afternoon ride is idyllic in a different way : maybe not as quiet and peaceful as last Sunday, but wonderful in its own way with the sounds of kids laughing, paddlers splashing, cyclists spinning, birders spotting, and community members of all kinds finding a place to relax, reconnect, and restore.

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If you live in Santa Cruz county, and if you are interested in sharing your vision for the river and shaping the work of the San Lorenzo River Alliance, please complete this survey. Your input is extremely valuable to the Alliance!

 

Ebb and Flow

Involve Me and I Learn

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I’m told that babies and young children often have major developmental leaps after traveling. There is something about being in a new environment that inspires the brain to do something differently, or that triggers a new understanding. My three-year-old Andrew took his first two steps in the airport on Kauai, at the tail end of a two-week vacation in Hawaii. My one-year-old first figured out that softly cooing “mama, mama, mama” (as opposed to just nondescript moaning) was a very effective way of getting my attention in the middle of the night when we were staying in a hotel in Tahoe. These may have been coincidences. But I know that the only way I can inspire change in my tired, comparatively old brain is by getting out of Dodge and going somewhere that is completely “other”, and taking real time to think differently.

Day 3 of Spitfire was the perfect cap to this experience. Andy Goodman came back and showed us that if we could change the story, we could change the world. Meaning, if we can effectively communicate the problems we are tackling and the solutions our organizations provide, we can build the resources we need to better our communities. And in the afternoon, Lizz Winstead (co-creator of the Daily Show, comedian, and activist) talked to us about how humor is a fantastic tool for activism. She’s hilarious, and, more important, she’s fearless. And thoughtful.  And that is a powerful combination.

I learned a lot over these three days. I had a bunch of “aha” moments, and many more moments of great satisfaction as common sense, best practices, and my own passion for my work at the Arts Council all came together to illuminate great possibilities for my organization. And I realize that if we don’t integrate some of this learning, we’ll – in some ways – just spin our wheels and never fully realize the Arts Council’s full potential, and fall short of the additional tremendous impact we could have in this community.

But if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have known what we were missing. It’s true that integrating what I learned into the Council’s work will take time and energy. But what would be worse: business as usual, or a little more work on our plates that will inspire the next era of Arts Council awesomeness?

The point is this: we all need opportunities to think differently. We all – as individuals and organizations – need great trainings, taught by wildly skilled instructors and attended by passionate, smart executors, so we can learn to, say, move in a different way (like a toddler’s first steps) or communicate in a different way (like a baby figuring out a deeply instinctive motivator for his mama).

In the nonprofit sector, when money gets tight, we generally cite “marketing” as the first thing to get slashed from a budget, and we bemoan the loss. I’m willing to bet, however, that professional development gets cut long before marketing.

My advice: DON’T DO IT. Don’t cut it. Fund it. Over-fund it. Got a professional development budget? Double it. Talk about it at every staff meeting. Champion it to your board. If you are a funder, be very, very smart like the Hewlett Foundation and the Packard Foundation (oh, and wait, also like Arts Council Santa Cruz County) and invest in it for your grantees. If you are a staff member, and you find a training opportunity, and your organization can afford it, and the people who are running it look smart and savvy? Don’t make excuses that you don’t have time. (Don’t even let your sweet little new baby hold you back from going – trust me on this, you’ll love the sleep.) Just do it.

Spitfire 2

Some of the faces, and smiles, of folks working to better themselves so they can better the world

We’re all too busy, we’re all overcommitted, and I’m realizing that even as I tell that story about my own work life, I also find my “busyness” really boring. Enough already. Let’s all make a commitment to expand our minds, our social networks, our skills, and our lives by investing in the professional development of ourselves and our colleagues.

Time to Turn the Tide

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.–Lyndon Johnson, on signing into existence the National Endowment on the Arts

For ten years, the California Arts Council was 50th out of 50 states in per-capita arts funding. What does that mean? It means that, for every resident, California invested less money in the arts than any other state. Less than, say, Mississippi. Or Wyoming. Or Rhode Island. You get the picture. In the last couple of years, we’ve crept ahead of Kansas and Georgia, making us 48th out of 50. We won this “race to the bottom” in 2003 when the California Arts Council’s budget was gutted by 94%.

Most of us who work in the arts here are well aware of this groan-inducing, eye-rolling fact, and even if you didn’t know it, you’ve felt the effects. If you live in a small, rural area, it’s likely that your local Arts Council is run by volunteers or woefully underpaid staff, which means they have limited capacity to serve their greater communities. (Actually, this is true in some large metropolitan areas as well.) No matter where you live, your schools likely have fewer arts programs than during the California Arts Council’s (comparative) heyday.

When the CAC budget was slashed, it left the field with a greatly diminished state arts agency, which had at one time provided significant operational and programmatic support. Local arts agencies were forced to be scrappy, do more with much, much less – or, in some unfortunate cases, fold.

But let’s go on an even more macro level, and look at the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA’s funding peaked in 1992 with a budget of $176 million. The “culture wars” (i.e. the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe and others) resulted in massive cutbacks in 1996 when the NEA budget was itself gutted to $99 million. Since then, the budget has been taking two steps forward, two steps back. In 2013, the NEA was allocated $138 million. To put that into perspective, consider the following graph:

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The graph is a bit old (and hard to read), but the information, sadly, isn’t. (You can see it better here.) Yep, out of the thirteen major countries studied, the US was 13th. We won the race to the bottom again!

Why does this matter, in my wee town of Santa Cruz? Because leadership matters, and like it or not, top-down leadership often has the most significant impact. We grassroots folks can show how we are inspiring children, building bridges, creating jobs, beautifying the world, and changing lives, but if the top leaders and legislators in this country don’t recognize the value of what we do, we’re blowing dandelions in a wind tunnel.

The California Arts Council, Californians for the Arts, and local arts agencies from across this state are working to steer our Golden State ship in a new direction.

I spent Wednesday in Sacramento with these good people where we attended a legislative hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Arts. One of the purposes of this hearing was to introduce and discuss the 2013 Otis Report on the Creative Economy in California. (And for those of you not wanting to wade through 261 pages, here’s a PDF with the salient points.)

The short version is this: the creative industries in California account for 7.8% of the state’s GDP. They generated $273.5 billion in total output, and employed 1.4 million workers who paid nearly $13 billion in taxes that went into the state general fund and to local governments. Yep, we are talking billions.

And yet, our state’s investment in the arts totals about three cents per resident.

California is one of the most creative places in the world. This state is responsible for nurturing wildly innovative businesses and projects that have transformed the world. To not increase our investment in our creativity would be jeopardizing the competitiveness of our country as a whole. The Otis Report puts it this way:

“Since the US economy increasingly depends on the production of intangible goods, it is necessary to recognize that the production of ideas is an important form of investment.”

(Emphasis mine.) And how do we produce new ideas? We give children and adults the opportunity to express themselves, to learn how to think critically, to fail safely and try again, how to work in teams, how to innovate, how to invite inspiration. We do these things through the arts.

Consider this: creators and community members in California are already doing great things with very little support. Imagine a world where we invested in the creativity of our great thinkers, starting from the time they were children. Imagine what we could do, what problems we could solve, what connections we could create. Actually, I can’t imagine. Because the sky would be the limit.

So what are we doing about this? Here’s the big news: two legislators are proposing an increase to the California Arts Council’s budget. This increase is modest when compared to the billions pumped back into the economy by the arts sector. The current proposal would take the Arts Council’s budget from $5 million to $25 million annually. $25 million is equal to the agency’s 1983 budget, adjusted for inflation.

Senator Ted Lieu will shortly introduce this legislation. And Assemblymember Ian Calderon has already introduced a bill that would also increase the CAC’s budget. “We must fund arts programs that reflect the contributions they make to the people of California”, he said.

Sometimes Sacramento seems really far away from everywhere else. It’s easy to think that lawmakers and legislation have little to do with our everyday lives. But I promise you: these funds will make a difference to your children, and your community. With this support, organizations like mine will hire artists to come to your kid’s school. We will produce stronger programming for you to enjoy with your friends and family. We will help artists and designers innovate as they create the next big idea and perhaps one day employ you or your kids.

Art matters. Investing in the arts matters.

So what can you do? Call your State Senator and Assemblymember and ask them to support this legislation. Don’t know who your electeds are? Find out here. Encourage your local elected leaders to contact them as well. Buy an Arts License Plate. They are beautiful and will directly support creative programming. Check the Keep Arts in Schools Fund when you file your taxes, and make a contribution that way. Donate to your local arts council. Ask for arts in your kid’s school. Take your kids to the museum, or the theater, or the library.  Support the arts in whatever way inspires you.

If Music Be the Food of Love…

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

“The golden age is before us, not behind us.” – William Shakespeare

The first time I sang onstage, I was in 6th grade, and I warbled my way through the second verse of “Winter Wonderland” in my school’s holiday concert. The first time I had a lead acting role was when I was fourteen, in my high school’s production of Godspell.

Since then, I’ve been on a hundred stages, sung in countless recording studios, performed in one-room school houses in the Ozarks and even, once, danced on a Broadway stage. Working in the arts has been one of the great gifts of my life. But working as a performing artist was also one of the most challenging of all my pursuits. (Though parenting takes that particular cake.)

The hundreds of hours of practicing my craft, of battling crippling stage fright, of the constant search for the next job, of dealing with elation one day and rejection the next – all of this gave me skills that have proved invaluable: grit and determination.

I hung up my acting hat over a decade ago, for two reasons: one, I wasn’t that great an actor and I knew it. Two, I always knew that there was something else that was truly my calling. Luckily enough, I discovered what I am meant to do, and get to answer that call every day at the Arts Council. My hard-fought grit and determination have never left me, and now I get to use them to build community through the arts.

Any artist will attest: working in the arts requires a profound sense of self, shutting out the naysayers, constantly proving your worth and relevancy, and baring your soul.

The passionate folks who are spearheading Shakespeare Play On are doing just that – with an astounding amount of grit and determination – and the world is responding.

For those of you who don’t already know the saga, in short, the University of California Santa Cruz’s Dean of the Arts pulled the plug on Shakespeare Santa Cruz (SSC) one week prior to the closing of their regular season last summer. I wrote about this back when it first happened, and won’t get into the “why” and “how” at this point. But I will say that after 32 years of being one of the most excellent Shakespeare companies in the country, and a beloved institution of theatergoers in Santa Cruz County and far beyond, the outcry was immense.

The Arts Council was, cumulatively, one of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s largest funders. And many of us at the Council, as lovers of great theater, were also raving fans. When talk began – almost immediately – about saving SSC, we wanted to be involved. Several SSC board members stepped up and created Shakespeare Play On (SPO) with the intention of reforming the organization as an independent entity, with the same artistic integrity (and artistic staff) as SSC.

Their idea is to front-fund a 2014 season by raising $885,000 by February 1st. The 2014 season proceeds would then seed the 2015 season. (Most theaters, out of necessity, operate in the opposite direction: they expend their resources to put on a season, and then pay their debts with ticket sales and sponsorships after the season is over.) This is a very simple but smart idea. In December of last year, the Arts Council signed on as Shakespeare Play On’s fiscal sponsor. Since then, we’ve been strategizing with their board members, helping to promote their vision, and receiving donations on behalf of the newly-formed organization, and holding those funds in trust as SPO works on getting their own non-profit status.

I’ve worked in the arts and in disaster relief, and rarely have I witnessed the kind of determination exhibited by the Shakespeare Play On leadership. They’ve been unwavering in their vision, clear about their scope, and unapologetic about what they need to make this thing fly. They’ve also developed one of the most impressive Advisory Boards I’ve ever seen. It’s been thrilling to be a part of it. As of today, they’ve raised over $682,000, and done so, as they say on their website, “with only Facebook, Twitter, and word of mouth, and without access to Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 32 years of donor, subscriber, or patron information.”

This is an extraordinary accomplishment. They still need to raise $203,000 in a very short time frame, but I’m confident that they will make it happen. And when they do, it will be a testament to the power of the arts, the passion that people feel for great theater, and the generosity of this incredible community.

Grit, and determination. With these, we can move mountains – and keep great art alive in Santa Cruz County.

In Trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway

Week before last, I spent four invigorating days at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference. It’s been aptly blogged by Barry Hessenius, the team at Createquity, and others, so I don’t need to do that here. I do, however, feel compelled to add to the themes that others identified throughout the conference.

Ian David Moss noted the usual the conference “tracks” that popped up: arts and social justice/cultural equity, arts education, technology, support for individual artists, and creative placemaking. But the theme that came up for me, time and again, was, simply, trust.

In this data-driven, results-driven, detailed application, and interim- and final-report heavy grantmaking world, we ask a lot of grantees. We ask them to create projected budgets, we ask them to have boards of directors with a matrix to our liking, and we ask for anticipated numbers of people served without acknowledging that the world could change on a dime (such as in 2008). We ask artists to not only excel at their artwork but also at crafting grant proposals. We ask them to fit within the sometimes narrow confines of what we think is worth funding.

Sometimes, inadvertently, we ask them to lie. It can be really difficult to be a perfect fit to qualify for funding, and I’m sure many applicants put on an extra coat of lipstick and suck in their bellies when it’s time for their grant to strut down the runway.

There was some excellent and fresh thinking about this in several of the sessions I attended. Here are some of the most interesting ideas I heard:

–        Eliminate proposed budgets. They are make-believe.

–        Eliminate proposals. Base funding on the past performance of the organization.

–        Simplify final reports, and ask for two narratives:

  • How did you spend the money?
  • Tell us a story.

–        Award grants to artists based on an interview and site visit, not an application.

–        Don’t direct the organization through application questions. Don’t expect them to have a certain kind of board. Don’t have expectations around their income sources. Just look at the quality and impact of the art or project.

–        Give general operating support.

–        Give general operating support.

–        Give general operating support.

Oh, did I repeat that last one?

The National Capitalization Project, has, gratefully, brought to the forefront the idea of strengthening organizations through helping them build reserves, and it has also focused on encouraging funders to give general operating support. But many grantmakers are still resistant to these ideas. Why? I believe it comes down to trust. The donors have (or had) a vision that must be followed; the boards of foundations need to know that the money is being spent according to the wishes of the donors; and the program officers must make funding recommendations in line with board directives. And finally, the artist needs to create within the framework of his or her proposal.

With so many degrees of separation between the funder and creator, trust can be a difficult thing to engender. Also, the stories of grantees mismanaging foundation funding, though few and far between, are unfortunately sensationalized and cast doubt on the whole philanthropic process.

But by and large, the people and organizations that are awarded funding do great things. So why don’t we make it vastly easier for both the grantor and grantee to meet their missions? Think of the dollars that could be saved if grantees didn’t have to spend dozens of hours each year on grant applications, and if program officers and panelists didn’t have to spend hundreds of hours reviewing applications. There are better ways, and some of the innovative organizations at the GIA conference are putting them into practice. But it requires trust.

Arts Council Santa Cruz County has been part of the problem, too. Our Create Grants are small pots of money that fund innovative, community-benefit, small-scale projects. Grants range from $500-$3000. Up until a year ago, if the grant was for more than $1000, we only gave them 70% up front and then gave them the final 30% after the project took place. What’s worse, we required an invoice for both the initial and final payment.

When I asked why this practice was in place, I was told that we did this in case the project didn’t go as planned, or didn’t happen at all. So we wouldn’t be out the few hundred dollars of the final payment.

To this day, I feel like banging my head against the wall when I think about this. It’s a small thing, maybe, but – really? We couldn’t trust our artists to figure out something cool to do with these tiny pots of money – or trust them to return the funds if the project didn’t happen? Or not worry too much about it, in the grand scheme of things? And did we really need to cut multiple checks, ask for multiple invoices, etc. for such a small amount of funding?

Here’s the kicker: I asked if, in 33 years of grantmaking at the time, if any grantee had canceled their project and not returned the money. The answer? Never. NEVER.

*THUNK* (sound of my head hitting the wall)

We certainly weren’t alone in how our process was designed. Indeed, we were engaged in what was commonly known as “best practices”.

Obviously, we don’t engage in this anymore. For the smaller grants, we just cut checks when we sign contracts. For the larger grants, we still split up the amount into two payments, but only for cash flow purposes. No invoices, no percentages based on funding amounts, and sometimes, as I’ve mentioned, no applications, even. We still have a long way to go to cultivate a true culture of trust, but we are working to be on the right side of history on this issue.

We are giving general operating support and fully funding project grant requests when we are able. More than that, though, we are working to build a climate of trust. We have great artists here in Santa Cruz who through their work make this one of the most exciting and dynamic places to live in the world. The way I see it, we need to trust them, and we also need to do everything we can to make sure they can trust us.

The grantee/grantor imbalanced power dynamic doesn’t serve anyone. After all, it’s the artists in this community who help us meet our mission to promote, connect, and invest in Santa Cruz County arts. Without the artists and arts organizations, we are nothing. Without our support, the creators have less capacity to do their work. This is a two-way street and I was heartened by the many funders who are embracing trust – and I hope that our collective leadership encourages more in the field to do the same.

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“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 CouncilKuumbwa 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.

Loss

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” – William Shakespeare

When I was a teenager, my brother Sean and I somehow ended up with two tenth-row center tickets to see Les Miserables on tour in Los Angeles. We didn’t know anything about the show, and we were teenagers after all, so before it started we were screwing around in our seats and feeling restless about what we wanted to be doing that night. At one point, I even turned to him and said, “Is this going to be funny?” And he considered the title and said, “I doubt it.” I then got an inspired idea. “Let’s go see the new Indiana Jones movie instead!” Sean was game, so we stood up to leave, right when the house lights went down. So we sat back in our seats… and two and a half hours later, stood up again, transformed.

We both have clear memories of that night, some twenty years ago, not just about what happened on stage, but what it felt like to be there, to be a part of that experience. It confirmed our career paths. A few years later I got a degree in Musical Theater and then spent many years performing. My brother Sean is one of the greatest actors I know, and his theater company, Gideon Productions, is a highly-acclaimed anchor in the indie New York theater scene.

I truly believe my life is different from having seen that show. I’d been performing since I was four, but somehow that night shook up and rewired my brain in such a way that doing anything else for the rest of my life no longer made sense. I belong in the arts world, and here I will stay. But it wasn’t about the art – it was about the story that unfolded in front of me through song, dance, sets, costumes, and music. The heartbreak, the devastation, the hopefulness, the love – all communicated to my crazy teenager brain in a way that little else could. And that is what art does. It leaves you changed.

I’ve had other moments like that night: seeing the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Legion of Honor. Seeing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Met. My own father conducting Night on Bald Mountain when I was four years old. Seeing The Secret Garden on Broadway. Seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Napa Valley Opera House. Seeing Dave Brubeck perform with his sons just a couple of years before he died. The first time I got to sing my mother’s brilliant song “Away to America” to my baby.

But there have been so many things I’ve missed. I didn’t get to see the original cast of Rent on Broadway. I’ve missed my brother Sean’s last twenty or so shows in New York. I’ve missed dozens and dozens of local artistic opportunities because I have two tiny children and I rarely get to leave the house after 6 PM.

I am keenly aware that I’ve not just missed these shows and exhibitions; I’ve missed the opportunity to see them ever. Because no show is the same if it has a new cast. No symphony is the same when a different orchestra plays it. I can see other shows, other events, other exhibitions, but I feel an acute loss about that ones I’ve missed.

And last week, while I was on a trip through the Midwest to see family and go to a wedding, I heard unthinkable news: Shakespeare Santa Cruz was getting the axe. This incredible program, which for 32 years has been housed by UCSC and beloved by the community, was being discontinued as of the end of the year. I sat there in my hotel room, stunned with the news. There is a great deal about this decision that I don’t understand, and significant community concern about the way it was done. But one thing is universal, for those of us who know and love SSC: we are feeling tremendous loss.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz provided generations of Santa Cruzans (locals and visitors alike) the kind of transformational experiences that I had at Les Mis. Everyone I know has a SSC story, be it about the show itself, or being in the glen, under the stars, with a bottle of wine, or maybe a first date. The shows have been sometimes racy, sometimes classic, always high-quality. They have set the standard for Shakespeare companies across the country, and the Shakespeare program was a major conduit that connected this community with the University – a relationship that is often fragile.

We’re told that the program was cut because the financial model didn’t work, and hadn’t worked for a long time. That may be true. But this program was worth more than its balance sheet, for the tens of thousands of children who, through SSC, experienced the Bard for the first time, and the tens of thousands of adults who shared the experience of seeing great art in an otherworldly setting.

My life would have been different if I hadn’t seen Les Miserables when I was a teenager. Maybe not dramatically different, but different nonetheless. How many lives did Shakespeare Santa Cruz alter in its 32 years? And how many people will now be denied that experience? It’s impossible to quantify that loss. In the business world, people often talk about “opportunity cost” – what is the cost for the business to be doing a particular piece of work rather than other activities? In this case, the opportunity cost is particularly painful. Without Shakespeare Santa Cruz, we lose connection, inspiration, talent, excitement, and togetherness. You won’t find those on a balance sheet, because they are priceless.

I’ve got arts issues

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”  – Mahatma Gandhi

“Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” – Jim Henson

I’m a junkie for professional development.

I loved school, so it’s no great surprise that I love learning environments. I even adore conferences, though I find that what happens in the hallways between conference sessions is often more interesting than the sessions. Or what happens at night over dinner. I was awarded an Emerging Leader scholarship to an Americans for the Arts conference several years ago, and it was at an after-hours beer-swilling event that I had the good fortune of sitting at a table with Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas. Ian, in addition to being totally brilliant and the editor of the Createquity blog, is a super cool guy, and my work in the arts is better for being connected to him. So it’s both the learning and the relationships that I love when it comes to participating in professional development opportunities.

I’ve had a hard time getting to conferences since my little ones were born. But I’ve enthusiastically thrown my hat in the ring for the Chief Executive Program through National Arts Strategies. It speaks directly to my professional development junkie heart, in that it is an extended, in-depth, intense program focused “tackling the big questions facing the field”. It’s highly competitive, so I’m not holding my breath about getting invited to participate, but even the application process was thought-provoking.

The application began with four short essays (yay! I love writing essays!) about organizational and personal goals, challenges, and leadership styles, ending with a straightforward question: what do you see as the four most important issues facing the arts field as a whole? I quickly brainstormed a list (of a dozen issues) and then narrowed it down to my four. But I wanted to know how the great minds around me would respond, so I wrote to my staff, my friends, and my family to give me their answers.

I’m very fortunate to be related to and friends with artists, performers, writers, and arts administrators across the country. So I was able to open up this conversation to folks like Dan Kois (Senior Editor at Slate), Catherine Trieschemann (playwright), Jonathan Farmer (poet and Editor-in-Chief of At Length) Sean Williams (actor, producer and co-founder of Gideon Productions), Linda Worsley (composer), Ehren Gresehover (co-founder and Creative Director of Stellar Engine), and many more, as well as the excellent staff of the Arts Council. Common themes emerged from this poll, but what interested me more was the commonality of passion and frustration I heard in the answers.

Here’s a sampling of the issues the group identified, and some related quotes:

  1. The failure and de-funding of arts education in public schools. This topped everyone’s list. In fact, one respondent said, “The arts have been taken away from our schools, and our kids, and the result is the loss of patronage and audiences, even public awareness and interest in the arts, for generations to come. This has to change. I can’t come up with any other issues that mean more than this.”
  2. The rapid elitification of arts – both real and perceived. “Practically, a huge amount of art — especially high-culture-type art — is prohibitively expensive and intimidating. But there is a huge amount of art that is in fact affordable and accessible. But the other side of the coin is that the PERCEPTION of art in America is that it’s an elitist/frou-frou/impractical thing, and so huge numbers of people don’t take advantage of opportunities.” Said another, “There is a stereotype that art is formal, dry, cold, and elite. Classical music, the Louvre, Shakespeare, those are art. The creative things that happen in our day to day lives are seen as something else. We miss how creative we all are, and that our creativity is art.”
  3. Outreach (which is related to #2). “We need to find a model that brings art to people where they will best use it. How do we put art in peoples’ homes, how do we make it part of their couch experience?”
  4. Equity in arts funding, and what is considered “art”. “There are many cultural groups that participate in creative practices with long, rich histories, which are extremely artistic, but these practices are not considered ‘art’ by funding groups, and in some cases not even recognized by the participants as ‘art’”.
  5. Raising consciousness of the public value of art happening in our communities. “The problem, as I see it, is that most people think that their cultural life is centered on things that happen other places, when the most vital experience can be had for a few bucks 10 minutes from where you live.  The challenge is finding ways to get people to engage with the things that are actually happening where they live.”
  6. Access to the arts. “There is little engagement for middle-low income families, especially for undocumented, houseless, and LGBTQ communities.”
  7. Funding for non-commercial art. “Finding funding for art that furthers the field but isn’t self-sustaining financially.”
  8. Unions. “Destroy them and start over,” said one respondent. “The fact that Brad Pitt can be a hardcore leftist while being a member of a ‘union’ with an 80%+ unemployment rate is disgusting. I’ve been hearing my whole life that the unions are better than not being in a union, all the while every union member is sneaking around behind the union’s back and every employer is disgusted with either the requirements being too stringent or being ridiculously contemptible.”
  9. Art and technology. “I don’t think the internet is killing art or anything, but I do think technological advances have changed it across fields in multiple ways, and we’re still steps behind in figuring out what any of it means and how it affects us.”
  10. The “reality TV myth” – the perception that art requires no real discipline, work ethic, or time to develop. “Art is a process. It’s that which makes great people even more able to do great things. When the process, when the journey, isn’t valued, we lose the value of what art and artists are.”
  11. Passive entertainment. “Before we had so much access to passive entertainment, we had to make our own.  I get the impression that more people drew the world around them or played instruments or sang or whatever in regular way.”
  12. A radical re-imagining for financing. “Start by disregarding pay-for-art-ingested, crowdfunding and public subsidies and see what’s left.”
  13. No growth. “So many arts organizations are flat. Flat in terms of budget and audience growth. Flat in terms of excitement and dynamism. Flat in terms of leadership.”
  14. Life without the arts leads to lives with no meaning. “Art should be a means and not an end. The biggest issues have to do not with serving ‘The Arts’ but with serving people who need to be served.”

Interestingly, the folks I polled all mentioned funding for the arts as a major issue so obvious that it wasn’t worth listing separately.

My top four are related to many of the issues on the above list. Here they are, with quotes pulled from my application:

  • The decimation of arts education in schools. “By not providing children with access to explore the arts, we are decimating the pool of future artists, arts appreciators, and funders. And we are devaluing the arts on a massive scale, which means dramatically fewer people – adults and children both – are enjoying the benefits of creating or enjoying the arts, leaving lives less rich, less diverse, and less interesting.”
  • Declining arts audiences. “Our theaters, dance companies, symphony orchestras, art galleries, and museums are closing their doors while we watch movies and play video games on our smart phones.”
  • Raising awareness of the availability, accessibility, and value of local arts. “In many communities, there are diverse, engaging, and affordable arts experiences at the ready. But community members either don’t know about them, or it would never occur to them to attend.”
  • Fundraising and financing the arts. “I work in California which has the honor of being dead last in the nation for per capital arts funding. The NEA’s budget continues to be under fire and is not nearly adequate to ensure that our great nation will have the great art it deserves. This top-down devaluing of the arts affects even the smallest arts organizations.”

So many of these issues are intertwined. None, I think, stand alone. Barry Hessenius, on his blog, just pointed to a Pew Survey on the perception of Americans as to how specific groups contribute to society’s well-being. According to the survey, only 30% of respondents believe that artists contribute “a lot” to the well-being of America. This is down 1% from the last time the survey was taken, in 2009. No wonder financial support for the arts is at such a low. And yet, as evidenced above, we have so many rallying points, and such clear challenges. We have the data and the passion to make our case. Why haven’t we as a field mastered how to effectively advocate for the arts? Whether or not I get invited to participate in the Chief Executive Program, I hope, over the course of my career, to help find answers, and solutions.

the best policy

“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”  – Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

Why is it so difficult to be honest with people who give us money?

One of my program staffers is struggling with a project partner.  This partner did not hold up his end of the work, which affected the project and the people we serve. And when it came time for the foundation which funded the project to do a site visit, my staffer had difficulty being fully honest with the foundation program officer, even though the problems were all too clearly illustrated during the visit, and even though the problems were not our fault. We all want our programs to succeed, and to continue, even if they don’t operate under ideal circumstances, and we are loathe to admit that something didn’t work well when generous donors are in the room.

In a similar vein, I personally am excluded from conversations and meetings sometimes when my role as the director of an organization that also acts as a funder is front and center.

I find all of this deeply frustrating.

When I was cutting my teeth at my first job as an executive director, I didn’t know that my colleagues in similar positions tended to shove the dirty laundry into the closet when the funder came to town. I didn’t know that it was the norm to sugar-coat and play up strengths. I had been working in disaster relief where it was important to paint achingly honest pictures of what was going on so the world would sit up and take notice. And I carried that practice with me into my work in the arts.

Then, one day, after I’d managed to get a major foundation funder to pay attention to (and fund!) my wee arts organization for the first time ever, I got a call from my program officer (who has since become a treasured friend) who said, “I find your honesty so refreshing – and it really helps me do my job better.”

I know this is old news. And I know that many final reports now specifically ask grantees to report on what didn’t work, what happened that was unexpected, etc. but I think that often, this is the only time that we as a sector open up to talk about what didn’t work. It’s relegated to a few sentences in a long narrative and surrounded by colorful language about just how awesome the organization is, regardless of whatever hiccup we own up to.

But here’s the thing: we aren’t helping each other when we don’t talk openly and brazenly about what went wrong. When I’m not at the literal table when specific challenges are being discussed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I can’t affect any change. And I’m not just a funder: I’m a human being, who longs to do the right thing, to show up for my colleagues, to make an impact, and to connect with people whose passions I share. Why cut me out of the conversation? Why cut any funder out of the conversation?

I think that grantees often forget what actors often forget: that the funder, and the casting director, desperately want you to help them solve a problem. For the casting director, solving the problem means finding an actor that fits the part. For the funder, solving the problem means finding a person or a group that can help meet the mission of the foundation. No one is doing anyone any favors here: we are all helping each other do what we were founded to do. When the Cultural Council provides meaningful artistic experiences for children, we are helping the foundations who fund us meet their own missions. When a Cultural Council grantee provides free dance performances for a solid week throughout downtown Santa Cruz, those dancers are helping us meet our mission. This is a cycle of support in which all parties should be a heck of a lot more equal.

But until we own up to our shortcomings, until we freely admit that some wild thing we tried didn’t work, until we stop treating our funders like parental figures rather than partners, we’ll continue to rob each other of deeper relationships and opportunities to make great things happen.

It’s also true that we need to share with our funders when something in the grantee/grantor relationship isn’t working. Are there issues with a staff member? With the application process? Or… with a project partner who is also in a relationship with the funder? We need to be brave enough to face these issues head-on.

My program staffer is a perfect example. She’s whip smart and fearless and is circling back with the funder to have a more honest conversation about what is going on with the project. One of the reasons she feels able to do this, now that she has a little distance from the site visit, is that the funder has made a practice in engaging the staffer in meaningful conversations about the project. It is definitely a two-way street of communication and respect.

As funders, we should strive to be in the same practice of openness and willingness to talk and engage. As grantees, we should insist on being brutally honest about the work of our organizations when talking to our funders, and even use foundation program officers as sounding boards when things go awry. If we don’t do this, we all miss out on empowering and enlightening our field.