Thursday, 03 September 2015 10:44

Trusting What We Don't Know: Lessons from an Experiment in Art, Environment and Philanthropy in California’s East Bay by Maribel L. Alvarez, PhD

Introduction: Rethinking the Bottom Line

When Art and Intention mix, marvelous results can be expected: mechanical shops lined up along an ugly boulevard can transform into baroque gates giving access to a world of beautiful craftsmanship; a laundromat that up to now only served as the gathering place for displaced magicians of the verbal arts can suddenly shift into a new landscape of cheerful expectations. If you take artists seriously, as intellectual forces to be reckoned with, a new consciousness takes over.  And yet, at the heart of this ideal a great American dilemma rears its troubled head: our aspirations for Art and Social Change swing in a perpetual pendulum between creativity and capacity. That is, caught in a pointless tug of war between what Art can [potentially] do for us and what can [actually] be done. Our paradox derives from knowing too much about what we cannot change, all the while working for “change” remains the artist’s highest call. On the one hand, our aspirations for justice evoke the dreamy power of artistic solutions. On the other hand, intractable conditions of cultural production outside of our control are always doing their thing, despite our best intentions. The philanthropic subsidy of creative endeavors has become a permanent fixture of how artists get by. Working artists whisper to each other words like sustainability and capacity-building while tethering on the edge of their next part-time gig.

 

In the mythical land we generally designate as “the Art World,” every grant ever made to an artist, art ensemble or nonprofit organization is awarded in the name of the yearning that seeks to resolve this dilemma. The quest for consequential actions that would last more than a project timeline is often disguised in the jargon of evaluation metrics, but we know that what truly matters is more than a bottom line: it is the primal desire of philanthropy to know that it can be relevant.

 

Without the promise of change, grantmaking would be nothing but an instrumental trade-off aimed to keep things in the order they should be (somewhere between unmet needs and surplus value). If this were the case, each actor in the transaction would be confined to the coldness of their predictable roles as giver and taker and nothing beyond that could be imagined.

 

We believe this is not the whole story.

Experience (a closet filled with anecdotes of good outcomes) has taught us that things far more interesting and challenging than a mere calculus among interested wagers take place each time a patron and an artist come together through a gift or a grant. Yet, aside from the occasional grand pronouncements or the rare well-publicized biographies of select idiosyncratic barons of American industrialism (the Carnegies, Fords or Rockefellers), little has been written about the microphysics of human exchange that are activated with each philanthropic gift.

 

To be sure, students of philanthropy are certain to find a stack of data, opinions and studies concerning the psychology of gift-giving and the core characteristics, such as voluntarism, altruism and reciprocity that make it stand out as a social practice. Even the classic “corporate donation,” the textbook example of the quid pro quo business transaction, has been recently reconsidered as containing more “gifting” dynamics than previously thought. Nonetheless, despite the abundance of expert knowledge, insights are especially lacking when the subject turns to philanthropic efforts at the scale of neighborhoods and in the field generally known as “community arts.”

 

In-depth accounts about the dynamics of investment in the “low” end of philanthropy – approximately the $1 million mark – are hard to come by, partly because the professionalization of the fundraising field has made the large gift the crown jewel of philanthropy. Even though for the average person $1 million represents a lot of money, the competition for donations and the intense efforts put into obtaining them have made the “smaller” donors less salient in the overall giving strategies of art institutions. A quick search for media announcements about philanthropic gifts to universities, museums and health care centers confirms this trend. Only the “biggies” are reported and celebrated.

 

At stake in these trends is a potential retreat from the principles that undergird a generalized culture of generosity.

In a democratic society, the growing tendency to favor strategic hyper-efficiency in wealth management can be detrimental. As gifting becomes confined to the super-rich, the craft of philanthropy gravitates away from bothering with anything that the system considers “small potatoes.” Yet, smaller donors and their gifting practices can teach us a great deal about the mechanics by which funders can become co-learning partners with grantees. Researchers have determined that the emotional investments of donors in the projects they give to contributes in the long run to more funding and greater levels of awareness, attitudinal change and even social policy redirections. In essence, donor involvement and practices of giving that make room for dialogic cross-learning between givers and takers go a long way towards igniting a reimagined ethics of social generosity

This essay documents the intentions and textures of grantmaking as practiced by the Open Circle Foundation, a philanthropic project housed at the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF) in Oakland, California since 2000. Set up as a $1 million fund intended to be spent down over the approximate time span of a decade, or, as it actually turned out, fifteen years, Open Circle has invested in local projects and artists dedicated to exploring the interaction between art and the environment. Open Circle’s expansive definition of “environment” has included both the natural and built urban landscapes of the major cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and San Pablo as well as smaller municipalities and neighborhoods in a designated region of Northern California.

 

“By environment we mean where people live,” said Diane Sanchez, who served as Program Officer for Open Circle from 2003 through her retirement in 2014, when Nicole Kyauk assumed that role.

 

This essay aims to capture the technologies of engagement and participation that have distinguished the Open Circle approach to art funding by highlighting some of the artists and projects funded over the last fifteen years. The philanthropic practices enacted by Open Circle could be instructive to other funding entities seeking to balance the pressures between wanting to make a lasting impact with a finite pool of resources. Specifically, this case study provides useful insights into the possibilities of crafting giving initiatives that consider the competing agendas of:

 

spreading funds widely

offering multi-year funding for singularly successful programs

providing both seed funds for incipient ideas as well as more substantive funding for mature art endeavors

 

The Open Circle grantmaking process modeled a co-learning approach. The practices of this small foundation can help inspire a whole new cohort of emerging philanthropists who, with relatively modest fortunes, can come to see charitable giving as a tool for fostering radical imagination and shared accountability in intimate, localized settings.

 

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