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The Future of Art Funding: A Conversation with Vijay Gupta and James E. Herr

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Future of Art Funding: A Conversation with Vijay Gupta and James E. Herr

SCG's Back to the Future blog series is a collection of conversations with philanthropic leaders exploring the key trends that shape the contours of the future. This series aims to expand our thinking on a variety of issue areas, as well as provide funders with the insights necessary to maximize their impact. 

Art is commonly believed to be an essential facet of our culture and a key indicator of our societal well-being. But has the ubiquity of the arts caused it to be deprioritized in our current funding landscape? More and more, the arts are being left out of funding budgets, constricting their ability to be powerful tools of empathy and persuasion in our contemporary social movements. 

To explore the state and potential of art in our contemporary moment, we held a session on “Funding the Arts for Social Justice and Economic Prosperity” at our 2019 Annual Conference: Foresight Philanthropy. To guide our conversation, we invited James E. Herr (Jim), Program Officer at Annenberg Foundation, and Vijay Gupta, Founder and Artistic Director at Street Symphony, an organization working with communities affected by homelessness and incarceration in LA County through performances, workshops, and musical artistry. Together, they explored the vital role the arts play in today’s world and how a new wave of investment could accelerate underserved communities’ participation in the creative economy. 

After the panel, we sat with Jim and Vijay to dig deeper into the importance of art as the lifeblood of social justice movements and key opportunities for funders looking to strengthen their impact and collaboration with artists on the ground. 


What is the function of art in a social justice movement?

VG: I believe that a lot of what we consider to be social justice work is instinctive for artists. In my mind, the artist is very much the modern-day shaman: we’re boundary crossers and cultural translators who are able to occupy the in-between, relational areas where we can share the stories of our hearts. Artists intuitively create spaces for cultural and human exchange.

You see this best when you’re making art in communities — especially communities that we are quick to throw away, disregard, or ignore — where the art is in the process of cultivating relationships. When I go to make music in a county jail or in Skid Row, I'm fully aware that I’m a guest in that community and that it’s not my job to fix or rehabilitate anyone. I'm there to be present with them and to sit with their stories. Listening is restorative, not only for the person telling the story, but also for the person receiving it. When we begin to understand that the stories of our hearts — the stories of communities — don't often come from a place of success, but from places of brokenness, that’s when healing begins. When we talk about the arts and social change, we're really talking about coming together to deal with our painful experiences. Art happens when we tend to the things that make us the most fragile, the most vulnerable, the most human. Our job as artists is to create conditions where exchange can happen, where these rough narratives can provoke conversations and lead us into a space of healing. 

JH: Art is the fuel that drives social justice and it does that by achieving empathy. The funding framework that I developed plugs art into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the very bottom you have the basic needs, which for art, I consider to be the level of voice because the first innate need of any human is to have a voice, an outlet for expression. Next, is the level of hearing because once you've found your voice, it doesn't do you any good if you can't express your needs to another person. But just because someone hears you doesn’t mean they understand what you’re trying to say, so next is the level of understanding, which simply means that others comprehend your message. Finally, you get to the top level — the level of self-actualization — which is empathy. The goal of empathy is to get someone to feel what you’re feeling, what the community is feeling — and to achieve that you must succeed at all the previous levels. For me, the goal of the artist is to guide us through all these levels until we reach that place of empathy. 


What are the opportunities for artists and funders to strengthen their collaboration? 

VG: I would like for us to move away from the historic, hierarchical relationship that has existed between funders and artists. Examples of this include philanthropy’s emphasis on organizations to produce an end product, to meet a set of metrics, or to adopt a traditional, top-down model. There are certain foundations that'll never work with me unless I’ve hired a full-time executive director and submitted my organization to internal restructuring. Instead of falling into this dynamic, let’s work collaboratively to reimagine the nature of capacity-building in a way that centers the artist's vision and that adapts to the needs of a developing organization. This could result in redefining how we think about the "right way to build an organization” and how we evaluate successful engagement in our communities. 

I would also say that some funders are incredibly focused on conventional ideas of success. And I say that very pointedly because success in my community almost always refers to someone leaving Skid Row. Success means that my organization doesn't have to exist anymore. That somehow the work of a funder and an artist will someday be done. And what I've learned from running a nonprofit and being an artist is that the work is never done. That is why when a funder asks for a demographic assessment or for hard metrics, it’s difficult to find a number that evaluates this success. It is challenging to numerically capture the quality of the connection we are working to build over the course of one of our engagements. This is fundamentally about the ways in which funding systems continue to be isolated and dissociated from the artistic product and from the communities they’re supposed to be engaging in. 

To lessen this distance between philanthropy and communities, I would like to see funders get more involved in the artist's process by showing up and serving in the same ways that artists are serving. For example, I’ve begun inviting funders to attend our events in Skid Row and have asked them to participate by doing things like assembling the hygiene kits that will then be donated to the community. When this happens, the fact that they give money becomes incidental to the fact that they showed up. This involvement is so meaningful to me and the communities I serve. I sincerely believe that our funders can benefit from the same thing that our audiences crave, which is real human connection. I want to create an organizational system where the funders are acknowledged for their humanity first and their capacity to give second.


What opportunities are available to philanthropy in arts funding?

JH: Currently, there’s a trend to fund social justice movements and organizations from the advocacy side, but not from the art side. This is one factor that has eroded a lot of today’s art funding. But you can’t separate the arts from social justice movements. My hope moving forward is that we reframe art and access to the arts as a social justice issue. 

I would also like to see more momentum around the issue of school districts not providing arts education the way they should be. The California state education code mandates that students from K-12 have arts education every single day. The reality is that less than 40% of the schools even offer it once a week. How many hundreds of thousands of students are not getting what they are legally entitled to? This lack of access disproportionately affects students of color in underserved communities more than it does affluent white communities. Arts education then becomes a social justice issue because we’re exacerbating inequity by not giving all kids equal opportunities. We need to continue funding arts education programs in K-12 in order to provide our students with lifelong opportunities for expression.  And not only is it important for personal development but 21st Century workforce skills require abilities that an education rooted in the arts can provide, namely: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. We’ve seen some success even though it often feels like we’re pushing this rock uphill to get districts to implement arts programs. With that in mind, it might be time we pursued other policy options to make this happen. I think funders should be leading and supporting these efforts. 

VG: Funders should also pay attention to policies that restrict charitable giving. This is a huge concern for us right now. Aspirationally, I'd also like us to radically reconceptualize what the arts could look like if we adopted funding models similar to the unrestricted funds we provide for venture capital investments in the tech industry. We're willing to invest $20 million on an app that might be bought by Facebook tomorrow, but we're not willing to invest that same money in artists who've been working in their community for 30 years. I'm personally very committed to pushing policy changes that will  cultivate and support these artists.


How can artists leverage technology in their efforts?

JH: I think social media is a place where people are finding their voice. And to be clear, by voice, I do not necessarily mean physical voice.  Technology is playing an important role in giving voice to artists and voice to movements. I’m inspired by the artists who have integrated technology into their practice to amplify their message and experiences. The better you are able to use these tools to communicate, the louder your message will become.

VG: That’s absolutely true. Every year I host a Facebook fundraiser for Street Symphony and it turns out to be one of our most fruitful fundraisers of the year. Of course, part of it is my own visibility, but the rest is the amplification I get from my fellow artists all over the country. Technology helps us decentralize the way we think about distance and allows us to build coalitions a little easier. We need to embrace technologies that allow us to create, to track, and to bolster our daily artistic practice. 


What aspirations do you have for the future of art funding?

JH: I would like funders to understand that the arts are not superfluous. Art is in everything we do. Art is present every single moment of the day. Everything around you right now is the end product of a creative process. We must keep providing opportunities for expression. It's an essential part of finding our voice and moving all of us to a place of empathy.  

VG: I want to paint a picture of what looks like to me. Every year, Street Symphony presents a sing along of George Fredric Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” in Skid Row, where many of our performers are either currently experiencing homelessness or have experienced it previously. This experience is significant because when “Messiah” premiered in Dublin in 1742, it raised enough money to release 142 men from prison. Later, when similar concerts were held in hospitals in London, it is said that they were so successful as fundraisers that the hospitals wanted to patent this piece of music. 

What’s striking is that when it comes to funding classical music, there's actually a long history of individual patrons, like King George II, who came to “Messiah” concerts in the 1740s and helped raise funds for communities. Seeing the funder in the room weeping collectively with the musicians and community members, that’s the vital connection we should be aspiring to create. “Messiah” and all the greatest pieces of music came from the intersection of support, inspiration, and practice. I would love for funders to shift from the idea of using funding  to build a product toward seeing themselves as vital parts of the community, 

Other Back to the Future Blogs: 

"Nothing Without Us": SCG's Journey to Inclusive Design

Trends in Education Philanthropy: A Q&A with Celine Coggins

What is the Future of Work?: A Conversation with Tracie Neuhaus and Michele Prichard

Designing the Future of Health: Blue Shield of California Foundation’s Strategic Foresight

Trista Harris' 2020 Philanthropy Predictions

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