A Culture of Possibility Podcast #4: Community Arts Funding

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the fourth episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. We hope you enjoy the episode and invite you to tune into our next episode which drops on 21 May and features cultural organizer Denise Johnson of Baltimore, MD.

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In the second and third episodes of “A Culture of Possibility,” we interviewed South Dakota community muralists Amber Hansen and Reyna Hernandez, followed by performing artist Clare Reynolds, codirector of Restoke in Stoke-on-Trent UK. As with every guest, we asked each of them how their work is supported, getting answers that point both to differences in the US and UK situations and similarly disturbing trends in arts funders’ outlooks.

François and I, both of whom have been following cultural policy and funding trends for decades and commenting on them for nearly as long, thought it was time to have another conversation about that.

“I think the contrast between the systems illustrates to some extent the dilemma that artists working with people face everywhere,” said François, “which is a dilemma of either finding ways to do your work independently, which generally means that you have to have another kind of job to live off, or conforming to the expectations of funders.

“In the wealthier parts of Europe, artists have increasingly become used to that stream of resources, but some of the most exciting and impressive and moving work has been in the south and east of Europe, in places where that funding is much less available, and for other reasons there is often greater mistrust of the donors and their expectations, and therefore artists are more willing to make alternative arrangements. It’s a really difficult situation because neither is good. Doing a day job to be able to do the artwork that you believe in without external interference — what I call “working without help and without permission” — it’s part of the ancient tradeoff that I think affects all human beings, which is the tradeoff between freedom and security.”

We talked about how these systems evolved, contrasting the National Endowment for the Arts’ annual budget of about 50 cents per capita with European counterparts. Even adding in what local, state, and private funders invest, US funding falls far short. On the podcast, we offer a capsule history of funding trends since the Sixties both in the US and Europe.

“One of our permanent kvetches here,” I said, “is that the work is always seen as emerging. Stuff that’s rooted sixty years ago is still treated like it just hatched out of an egg.” That’s indicative of widespread failure to take the work as seriously as conventional arts work oriented more to display than participation. One consequence is that community-based projects are asked to justify themselves with all sorts of quantified change indicators, logic models, theories of change, and so on, while red-carpet arts groups such as ballet companies, art museums, and symphony orchestras aren’t expected to change anyone, nor to quantify their value. They just get funded for existing year after year.

“If you go to the opera, a ballet performance, a museum,” I added, “you’re not expected to show that you’ve become a better citizen, you’ve changed in these ways, you’re more functional, you can do your work better or whatever it is as a result of having that experience. Those institutions are lavishly funded by-and-large, and they are not burdened with the requirement that they set up this proof. The extra requirements of all the structures and the paperwork and the interactions that you don’t really want to have with people because you don’t actually think it’s useful for your work to have them fill out a little questionnaire after every mural-painting session or every writing workshop or performance — the least-resourced and those least desiring to do it this way are burdened with the largest requirement that they should do it.”

A core point both of us feel keenly is how both arts funders and social service-oriented funders persist in seeing the people community-based artists work with as deficient, in need of improvement, and consequently want to measure the work based on proof that it changes people. The condescension of that takes my breath away. Change needs to happen, but it’s the funders and policymakers who need to change, opening their eyes, ears, and hearts to the realities people reveal through community arts.

When at the end of a year’s project funding grantmakers want value to be demonstrated in the form of higher test scores or lower drop-out rates, they are ignoring the real and deep value of sustained relationship that supports people in speaking their own truths and making their own paths, that creates possibility and nurtures skills over time. Many community artists feel obliged to accept these requirements or lose access to funding, wasting time on voluminous paperwork that functions as a culling mechanism — write us this massive plan and we’ll put you in the queue to be considered for a grant — and sometimes, distorting the work to meet the criteria.

Tune in to hear François explain why this is politically, ethically, and both intellectually and artistically wrong. Just a taste: “I wrote a report back in the mid-1990s in which I established some principles for evaluating arts projects with social objectives. The second principle was very clear: that it’s unethical to seek to produce change in someone else without their informed consent. It’s not rocket science…. We get that in medicine, in social service. Why does the art world think that somehow it is allowed to get funding to improve the school attendance record of young people or distract them away from offending behavior or whatever it may be and not tell the people who are invited to take part in this video project or this hip-hop project the reason why they’re there? I find that just unthinkable.”

You’ll also hear both of us offer a range of ideas about how these systems can be improved.

Doing this podcast episode set me to thinking about all the funding-related studies, reports, dialogues, talks, and protests I’ve taken part in over the decades. Understandably, many people in competition for scarce grants swallow their objections to the system, not wanting to bite the hand that may feed. But mostly I haven’t been a grantseeker for my own work, so I have felt free to speak out. I am used to people coming up to me after the talk or emailing me off-list to thank me for standing up. It’s less lonely now than formerly, as the quest for accountability is clearly picking up steam.

But there’s still an impediment that is hard for most people to get around, and that is the personalization of arts funding in the US. In a system where worthy grant applications vastly outnumber funded projects, funders’ prime directive is to find justifiable ways to cull out 90% of the applicants. Standing out within the crowd of applicants is a clear advantage. Being friends with program officers or board members may matter more than any other factor. Philanthropy cycles arts organization leaders into positions as program officers and out again to lead bigger groups; people become colleagues and friends, and those relationships are reflected in grantmaking. I’m not accusing anyone of self-dealing or ethical breaches. The foundation and public agency program officers I know are mostly committed to the values of cultural democracy, and trying hard to do their best within a constraining system. But being chummy gives you a leg up, and people who have that advantage tend to defend it. So when I write or speak about arts funding, the most frequent pushback is to defend the good intentions of the folks who work in those systems.

Personalization also has a much larger impact. The US philanthropic sector is plagued with an extreme fear of failure, especially of looking like losers. Everything that seems truly risky is eliminated in the culling process. Every grants initiative gets a report framing it as a success. Contrast this with an investment approach: venture capitalists typically offer seed funding to a dozen projects for each one that turns out profitable, understanding that instructive mistakes and creative gambles are what create the foundation for future successes. But if your ego is on the line, if looking like a winner is primary, your risk-aversion will put a brake on creative risk.

I don’t doubt people’s good intentions. Nor that there are a few grantmakers making meaningful institutional changes — US foundations spending more than required five percent, separating support from deliverables, downplaying application elements such as press reviews and professional videos in favor of community support, and so on. But most are caught in systems distorted by structural flaws that can’t be resolved by individual warmth, responsiveness, or good intentions. They have to be overhauled.

Slowly But Surely,” James Booker and Jerry Garcia.

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about arlenegoldbard.com.

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