Fired Up

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” – Aristotle

I’m writing from the heart of Washington, D.C., just six blocks from the White House and a few light years away from Santa Cruz. I’m here for the Executive Training Program through Spitfire Strategies. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded my trip here, and my gratitude to them is matched only by my enthusiasm for the work. One of the best things about this training is that it’s cross-sector – there are nonprofit executives here working in river conservation, education, health, leadership, philanthropy, farming, wildlife – and only one other arts organization. It’s fantastic to learn from not just the think tank that is Spitfire, but also from the brilliance of the collective group.

This is also my first extended trip away from my little boys. While I could barely breathe from missing them as I fell into bed last night, I also experienced 9 1/2 hours of uninterrupted sleep for the first time in almost four years. If it’s possible to be both drunk and hung over from sleep, that’s how I felt this morning when I woke. But I digress.

A few preliminary observations about my time here:

1. I’m the only one in D.C. with hair down to my butt, a powder blue puffy winter coat, and a bag full of knitting. But, I’m a nerd anywhere I go, so this isn’t such a big deal.

2. It’s 30 degrees out but there are lots of men walking around in sport coats and ties but no jacket.

3. Women here wear pantyhose. Or is it just called hose? And where does one buy such a thing? This is the strangest thing I’ve seen yet.

4. It’s incredible to be in a city with such (comparatively) old and beautiful architecture, and where so much is happening, all the time.

While I delight in being a tourist, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to learn how to build the overall communications capacity of the Arts Council – to create our communications strategy, to help us tell great stories, and to do a better job of connecting with the people we serve, and the people who support us.

This was our first of three days, and it was intense. I imagine that the work we are doing would benefit any organization, or for that matter, any business, large or small.

We started by tackling our “brand strategy”, and “brand promise”. And yes, when I hear those phrases, my eyes roll back in my head at what sounds like really dull jargon. But what we are talking about when we use those terms is juicy stuff: the personality, the core beliefs, the very DNA of our organizations. We also discussed, at length, what we don’t do, what we are not. My list for that was pretty long, and included the following nuggets:

– We don’t make art. (We make art happen.)

– We don’t have a strict top-down management structure.

– We aren’t quiet.

– We are not too busy to listen.

– We do not operate solely in the arts world.

It’s eye-opening to clarify what you aren’t, so you can better articulate who you are.

We also did an exercise called “Best in the World”, where I was to distill what the Arts Council is truly gifted at as an organization. The Council runs great programs. But here is the thing that I believe is beginning to set us apart:

“The Arts Council champions the arts as a means to address and even help solve broad community issues and challenges.”

This is a newer focus for us, and other organizations (namely the MAH) are also doing great work in this arena, but it’s a movement that I think is critical to our long-term success, and the success of our community. I’ll be writing about this a great deal more in the near future.

One of the most illuminating elements of the day was a self-assessment we each conducted on our organization’s communications capacity. We rated our organizations on how far along we were in sixteen different areas. And… the Arts Council isn’t at the bottom of the barrel, but we are also far from the cream of the crop.

When you are deeply passionate about your work, it’s hard to point a magnifying glass at it and be objective about your strengths and flaws. But it’s also a relief to acknowledge, in black and white, where you fall short, so you can name the problem and consider how to address it.

Want to take a crack at it? Consider your organizational or business communications strategy. How would you rate yourself on:

– clear communication objectives

– a written communications plan

– someone in charge of implementing it

– talking with your board, staff, and volunteers every week about it

– a rockstar elevator speech

– tailored messages

– everyone from interns to executives being trained spokespeople

– a crisis plan

– refreshing your messages based on current realities

– an excellent system for measuring progress

– ultimately, a strong, recognizable brand

That’s only about half the list. And it’s all  important.

Equally important is getting out of my comfort zone and into a room of thoughtful people and skilled consultants who are giving me the tools to transform how the Arts Council communicates – and therefore transform how successful we can be. I’m very much looking forward to day 2. And, perhaps, 10 more hours of sleep, starting now.

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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.

Coverage

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” – Jane Addams

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa 

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion about the arts at Civinomicon 2013. This conference was touted as a “civic hackathon”, with an end goal of creating numerous initiatives that would benefit the Santa Cruz County community. Those initiatives are currently being voted on by residents throughout Santa Cruz, whether or not they attended the event.

The format was interesting, the crowd diverse and engaged, and there was free ice cream and beer. It takes something very compelling to tear me away from my children on a Saturday, but this was definitely time well spent. I was asked to create a presentation that outlined the state of the arts in Santa Cruz County, identify challenges in our sector, and then to facilitate a discussion during which the group would brainstorm ideas that could help improve the arts in our community.

I followed this format, but I didn’t ask the group to brainstorm ideas that could help improve the arts. Instead, I asked the group to brainstorm ideas that would help strengthen our community through the arts. There is a very clear distinction, in my mind, between the two. For me, it’s the difference between treating a symptom – such as a headache – and instead focusing on the health of your body – such as getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising, which in turn (in my case) prevents headaches. If we focus on how the arts can make the whole community thrive, then we have the opportunity to both make a major community impact as well as strengthen the arts.

Many ideas were generated, and the arts initiatives can be voted on here. As much as I enjoyed presenting at this conference, I would have loved to have joined some of the other conversations, on traffic, the environment, economic development, homelessness, public safety, and others. The arts have a role to play in all of those conversations, and we at the Arts Council want to be actively involved in solving the myriad challenges this community is facing.

To that end, I just got a phone call from a very kind reporter who asked, “Why is the Arts Council co-sponsoring a forum about Covered California and the Affordable Care Act?” And the answer is simple: there are many people in Santa Cruz County who lack health care insurance, or adequate insurance, and we want to help solve that. Many of these people in need are artists – innovators, creators, and designers. Artists of all kinds often are contract workers, or self-employed, with no regular paycheck, no benefits, and certainly no health insurance.

I’ve been there myself. For years, as a musical theater actor and performer, I jumped from job to job, show to show. In that life, paid vacation is unheard of, and health insurance – unless you are part of the union and happen to have worked enough in the past year to qualify – is a pipe dream. I lived my life for years avoiding going to the doctor and praying I didn’t get sick or injured. It’s no way to live, not for me, not for artists, not for anyone. Farmworkers, contract teachers, hospitality workers, the unemployed or underemployed, all should have the basic peace of mind that comes with decent health insurance.

Obamacare might not work for everyone, and certainly there have been challenges with it so far. But it will give many people who have spent years living in fear of a health catastrophe the opportunity to get insurance for themselves and their children. So, in concert with more than fifteen community service organizations, we are putting time, energy and money toward “Get Covered: A Public Forum on Affordable Health Care through Covered California”. This forum, which will be on December 7th at the Santa Cruz Police Department Community Room, will help educate folks about the new law and provide enrollment assistance. In our quest to find unlikely partners to do great work in this community, this certainly qualifies, and it’s gratifying to work with such a diverse group of smart people.

So while I love being asked to talk about the arts, and to engage the public on ideas that can help elevate the arts in Santa Cruz County, what truly excites me is finding ways that the Arts Council can support the health and vibrancy of this community. “Get Covered” is a step in the right direction.

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.

Proud Sponsors

“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.

Balancing Act

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” – Alain de Botton

“Having children is like having a bowling alley in your brain.” – Martin Mull

“I’d love to come to your conference. I’m a nursing mom. Do you have a place I can pump?” – me

As a kid, I used to count the days until summer vacation. Now, at the beginning of each fiscal year, I count the days until I get to start planning my conference schedule.  I love looking at the year ahead to see what’s being offered, where it’s happening, and who is going to be there that I can’t miss. I get almost as excited for conferences as I do for vacations, as these experiences feed both my passion and my soul. I find I learn best when I’m taken out of my comfortable environment and placed in a new space with strangers and friends I don’t usually get to see. These experiences are invaluable for my work, and my spirit.

But my attitude toward these opportunities has changed in the last few years. Now I weigh the benefits of the conference against the time spent away from my little boys and husband, and the scales are pretty weighted toward my family. Working a full-time job and being the parent of very young children is the greatest challenge of my life. And, sadly, our society is not set up to help us parents balance these great responsibilities.

There are many obstacles that working parents have to overcome, every day. We struggle to feel successful at anything, because there never seems to be enough hours in the day to truly serve our work and our children. One of a dozen issues I face every day is how, when, and where to pump. I’m a nursing mom, and though some folks still feel squeamish about hearing anything tied to that particular anatomical part, pumping is a constant reality and necessity for working mothers committed to being the primary source of nutrition for their babies.

To be clear, I hate pumping. I hate it. When Alex is a year old and I don’t have to pump anymore, I will gleefully set my pump on fire and send it flying off the tallest building I can find. But until then, it’s the machine that helps me take care of my baby, and where I go, it will too.

But I can’t let pumping – or parenting – completely derail my professional life. So it’s time to get back in the conference saddle. I’ve missed too many in the past few years. To that end, I’ve been exploring my options and I’m delighted about what’s coming up. Next month, for the first time, I’ll be attending the Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford. I haven’t been at the Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) conference in two years, so I’m excited to be attending this October. Other excellent opportunities are lined up for the winter and spring. These events are critical to my success at the Arts Council, as they connect me to great thinking in the field, fuel my passion, and deepen my ability to serve the arts both locally and nationally.

As I contemplate these opportunities, however, I have to consider how I can manage my commitments. And so every time an intriguing event comes my way, I pick up the phone, call the event organizer, and tell them that I’d very much like to participate, but is there a place I can pump?

To a person, I’ve been the first one to ask them this question, which I find both surprising and sad. What have other nursing moms done? Have they just not participated? Or have they pumped in a bathroom stall? Or in their car in a parking lot? Or have they been too shy to ask the question? There’s one conference that I’m not attending due to schedule conflicts, but I was particularly distressed that they didn’t have a ready answer for me, since the conference was all about empowering women in the workplace. We cannot empower women, or parents of either gender, in the workplace if we aren’t anticipating their basic needs. True, not every woman with a baby is pumping, but it’s my guess that thousands of women currently working in Santa Cruz are pumping, and maybe even pumping as I write this. While pumping.

The good news is, all of the conference organizers I’ve talked with eventually said “yes”, that they could accommodate my needs (which are pretty simple: privacy, a table, and outlet.) Indeed, the Arrillaga Alumni Center at Stanford, which is the venue for the Nonprofit Management Instituted, has a room reserved for nursing mothers. But why isn’t this the norm?

I travel a fair amount for my work, and engage with cultural leaders and institutions across the country. And I hear time and time again about how these institutions want to attract young, energetic, dynamic leadership. When I was in my early 30’s, I heard a great deal about the looming “leadership gap”, where major institutions in both the for- and non-profit sectors were terrified that their CEOs were going to retire and there wasn’t enough talent to fill their shoes. (All of the young leaders I was connected with at the time thought this was hogwash, because we were all ready and able to jump in, but that’s another story.)

But here’s the thing: if you want young leadership, you have to be prepared for the priorities of the young, and that often means starting families. I’m not ashamed to admit that before taking my current job, I asked a very pointed question: does the insurance policy cover maternity benefits? I knew I wanted to have children, and I knew I could do it and be a successful ED – but only if I wasn’t terrified about having to pay out-of-pocket for my health care needs.

But insurance is only the beginning. There are many things to consider around parenting issues if your organization wants to attract and keep young talent:

–          Does your organization have maternity and paternity policies that go beyond the (pathetic) federal requirements?

–          Are you willing to let parents (or anyone, for that matter) work flexible schedules?

–          Are you willing to create personnel policies that help young parents fulfill their parenting responsibilities? (A place for pumping is just one example.)

When organizing events or conferences, there is also much to consider. What about proactively making the conference appealing and accessible to young parents? There are many ways to do this, but here are two:

  1. On the conference registration, the form always asks if the registrant has special needs, such as wheelchair accessibility, hearing aids, even vegetarian meals. How about asking if the registrant will need a space to pump or nurse (if the parent is bringing the baby)?
  2. When providing event information for multi-day conferences, how about including child care referrals for qualified nannies willing to come watch children in the hotel room at night, so the attendees can attend the evening events?

Does this seem over the top? I don’t think so. These are small suggestions that in my mind need to seed a revolution on how parenting is prioritized in our corporate (and sometimes our nonprofit) culture. We do a terrible job of taking care of parents in this country. We value being overworked and overtired. We create job structures that reward time spent at desks rather than accomplishments in our communities. And we rarely celebrate the millions of people who manage to juggle kids and work and do their absolute best to be of service to both.

When you’ve got a little one at home and a big job at work, you feel as though you never have enough time for both. So the least we as nonprofit leaders can do is smooth the way, be thoughtful about how we structure our organizations and events, and work to make parents of young children feel a little more welcome.

Tagged

IT’S ALIVE!

“Do not plan for ventures before finishing what’s at hand.” – Euripides

“The little dissatisfaction which every artist feels at the completion of a work forms the germ of a new work.” – Berthold Auerbach

Today, the final piece of our rebranding puzzle will be snugly fit into place. Our new website, created by the incredible team at Studio Holladay, has finally launched!

We’ve been working with Studio Holladay throughout our rebranding process, and I cannot begin to describe how beneficial it has been to have the same smart group of folks working on all of the different bits and pieces. It is fun to see a visual representation of the creative process Holladay went through when thinking about our brand and how it would lend itself to our brochures, business cards, signage, and now, our website. We are so grateful to Iris Kavanagh and Crystal Birns, two former AC board members, who served on our rebranding committee and steered us in all of the right directions.

We had two potentially opposing goals when designing this site. We had a vast amount of information that needed to be easily accessible to the different groups we serve. But we also wanted a site that was visually arresting, colorful, and also clean and easy to view. So we tasked our designers to come up with a site that was easy to navigate while also being unusual and artful. We think they did a terrific job.

It was also important to us that our mission be front and center. That is why all of our programs and services are listed under our three core strategies: promote, connect, invest. We hope that by connecting our strategies to our programs in this way, we will do a better job of conveying who we are, what we do, and why our work is important when people unfamiliar to the Council come to our site. And we hope that our new site makes it easy for all of our user groups – Open Studios artists, teaching artists, grantees, schools, arts administrators, and so many more – to quickly and easily get the information they need.

It is tremendously satisfying to finally finish our rebranding process, coming just months after our permanent relocation to the Tannery Arts Center. Now, we as a team finally feel we are home, in many senses of the word. We have a name that makes sense, a brand that reflects who we truly are, a website that will help us be of service to our community, and a strategic plan that challenges us to be our best and highest selves, both as individuals and as an organization.

I am so grateful to the two board presidents who were leaders in this process. Marcella Alligham was our board leadership when we launched the plan, and Linda Charman accepted the mantle halfway through and finished the job. Both were invaluable, providing excellent guidance, motivation, and smart thinking. I’m also so grateful for Sally Green, our Development & Communications Director, who has been my partner in crime throughout this process. She may be on maternity leave right now, but her talent and warmth still reverberate through our hallways and help us make good decisions. And to all of the board and staff members who gave their time, energy, and passion to this project: thank you. I’m humbled to get to play in this sandbox with all of you.

And now, back to the work.

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.