Kindle Project in the Media: Arts and Philanthropy Interview
New Formula: Arts philanthropy goes grassroots
Article originally published in the Santa Fe Reporter on October 19, 2011
Editor’s note: Ellen Berkovitch publishes the arts and culture website adobeairstream.com.
Long ago, “friend” was a noun and “city” was a location: Santa Fe, at the weary end of the Santa Fe Trail, from which dusty travelers launched the ambitious start of cultural tourism some 75 years ago.
Then, last decade, new monikers began cropping up concerning cities. Who’s Your City?, a book written by socio-urbanist Richard Florida (of Toronto), unpacked his thesis of a “creative class” dominating global cities—workers in so-called creative professions, from art to film to physics, localizing effects of tolerance and self-expression to seed new-society economies.
The thinking that places characterized by creativity and tolerance also have futurist economies isn’t new. Even a decade ago, this proposition felt palpable compared, say, to the plight of Rust Belt factory workers selling backyard “pets or meat” in Michael Moore movies.
Then the recession came. Today, to pessimists, it may seem that “creative city,” “creative class” and “cultural entrepreneur” are just slogans. (In a controversial Oct. 1 essay for Salon, Scott Timberg goes a step further, arguing that the creative class is, in fact, “a lie.”) However, in the arena of federal arts policy, these terms embody platforms that marry new action to newspeak.
“Creative placemaking,” the latest coinage to emerge, is described as animating and rejuvenating existing neighborhoods, celebrating diversity and cultivating inspiration. It’s a new concept of civics, which puts arts at the nexus of social and economic development in cities—a civics that relies increasingly on grassroots creativity, mobilization and funding.
It should come as no surprise that the old days, in which federal funders and brand-name philanthropy got behind art and built it into cities, are over; that shade was half-drawn even before the recession.
The National Endowment for the Arts is a shadow of its once-self, running off a puny $155 million annual budget (with a $20 million additional cut recently proposed). Between 2009 and 2010, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada slashed their arts funding respectively by 34, 25 and 36 percent. In New Mexico, the decrease was 11 percent, to $1.96 million (this after 42,000 New Mexico jobs were lost in the third quarter of 2009, the worst year here since 1942).
Former Museum of New Mexico Foundation Director Tom Aageson, who runs a nonprofit, the Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship, calls Gov. Susana Martinez’ proposal of a formal merger between the $42 million-a-year Department of Cultural Affairs and the $14 million-a-year Tourism Department “a mistake.”
Foundations have taken a licking, too—and not just over the past three years. As long ago as 2002, the Getty Research Institute reported foundation endowments were in even worse shape than after the 1929 stock market crash.
Since 2010, however, two distinct arts funding initiatives have marched off the federal and private-sector collaborative fields: respectively Our Town and ArtPlaceAmerica. These exemplify the latest linguistic leaps in turning “creative” into a verb: “creative placemaking.”
Just as at the beginning of any new movement, much effort goes to understanding beyond the slogans and into the meaning.
In a June blog post, “Postcard from the Future of the City,” NEA Senior Deputy Director Joan Shigekawa reported on a global city symposium in Chicago.
Shigekawa culled out points made by the keynote speaker, UK researcher John Holden. Holden critiqued American cultural policy as being myopic and offered that the view needed expansion into “three spheres where culture happens”: the funded, the commercial and the “homemade.”
“He believes that, if you don’t look at all three spheres, you’re missing a lot,” Shigekawa wrote.
NEA spokeswoman Victoria Hutter was also present, and amplifies: “One of the ideas woven through creative placemaking is you’re leveraging local assets, taking a look at what’s around you and building from there. It’s not finding some empty land, putting a performing arts center on it and calling it ‘creative placemaking.’ It’s more organic than that.”
Only a decade ago, viral urban ethos was that global cities needed to invest in creative infrastructure, meaning new museums and symphony halls, to run in the cultural stakes. (Denver will open a new one, the Clyfford Still Museum, Nov. 18.)
But consider what’s happened since: The latest cultural participation numbers describe only 22.7 percent of Americans going to museums in 2008, and only 9 percent to classical music performances or plays.
On Oct. 10, a Huffington Post headline, “Arts Funding Is Supporting a Wealthy, White Audience,” scooped a report by the Washington, DC-based watchdog group National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. The report says foundations are serving a “shrinking” but mostly “white, wealthy” audience while overlooking poorer, ethnically diverse communities.
The NCRP in essence takes umbrage with the word “institutions” when it says, per Huffington’s article, “Current arts funding patterns have roots that date back to the 19th century…Early cultural philanthropists focused on building institutions to preserve the Western European high arts to validate America’s position as a world power and serve an elite audience.” In other words, what’s wrong with old models is that the concept of “audience” has changed dramatically.
Correspondingly, the new language of funders redresses a void in cultural “vibrancy”—the cultural qualities embedded in neighborhoods and cities. So by applying “intensity”—a synonym for deep, targeted investment—to creative pockets within neighborhoods and depressed cities, funders seek to oxygenate local fires and stoke vibrant culture from within.
Carol Coletta is president of ArtPlace America, an initiative of foundations, banks and federal agencies. Her thesis sounds like Florida’s: “ArtPlace is operating off a theory of change that goes like this: To succeed economically, communities need human capital. To attract human capital is important, but if you don’t retain it, you don’t reap the benefit of your investment.”
“Quality of place” is the key component of that success—and, she says, can be retrofitted, provided there’s potential for vibrancy. Coletta cites Detroit as a case in point, where evidence of “momentum” (in the direction of vibrancy) finds a three-block part of that economically harrowed city an arena of “intensity” for ArtPlace America.
“We didn’t just invest [in Detroit]; we invested three times there, in three different initiatives, all within three blocks of one another,” Coletta says.
While ArtPlace allows that “there are possibly 1,000 different ways to produce [vibrancy] outcomes,” one thing is nonnegotiable, Coletta says: “Art and artists cannot be secondary or ancillary or brought to the table later. We expect them to be there from the first.”
In Our Town grants administered by the NEA (which is a partner in ArtPlace, but not a funder), Fort Collins, Colo.—a city investing in a “Rocky Mountain Regional Arts Incubator to assist professional artists and students as they develop their careers”—won $100,000 this July. Fort Collins asserts it’s the first city in the interior West to do such a thing.
The internet’s evolution into a largely social space has empowered people to prioritize their values in the philanthropic dollars they give directly. More and more, we the people are expressing that clout: Giving USA found that, of $291 billion in total philanthropy in 2010, individuals gave 71 percent of philanthropic dollars and foundations just 14 percent. (Arts-related giving accounted for an estimated 11 percent share of the total.)
Even as the new cultural economy moves toward downsizing (if not eliminating) the institutional middleman, nonprofits continue to proliferate: Some 3,000 new arts nonprofits were created from 2007-2009, according to Americans for the Arts USA’s National Arts Index page.
They’re all competing for scarcer money. Crowdsourced, online microfunding (crowdfunding, for short) includes Kickstarter, the “largest funding platform for creative projects in the world,” and the up-and-coming United States Artists. Kickstarter—which deals exclusively in projects that are “the independent creation of someone like you”—has exceeded $20 million in creative project support; creators keep 100 percent ownership and control of their projects.
Kickstarter and US Artists are both all-or-nothing deals; you only cash out if you meet or exceed 100 percent of a funding goal. Kickstarter founder Perry Chen attributes this to certain basics in which creating “mini-economies around project ideas” also forces artists to offer concrete deliverables—from “cool stuff” to “experiences.”
Locally, these ideas have crystallized into projects. Kickstarter has helped fund, among others, the Santa Fe Reporter AHA Festival and Progressive Arts Fair, a community music and art blast at the Railyard in September; SFR columnist Dani Katz’ book; and Albuquerque artist Naomi Natale’s One Million Bones, which had a goal of $25,000.
Artists’ resourcefulness may be the one historical factor amid all this “new.” In 2004, research by Grantmakers in the Arts found that 63 percent of artists in the US earned less than $7,000 a year from their art, so even a few thousand dollars can be terrifically meaningful.
Those dollars are “sacred,” Joel Fleishman, co-author of Give Smart, a new book on philanthropy, avers—and as such, Fleishman told PBS in September, reflect Americans’ personal human values more than ever.
In effect, that involvement confers expertise on all of us—not only in terms of choosing which projects to support, but also in choosing organizations through which we allow our dollars to flow.
But the newly fragmented philanthropic model also presents a problem: “In any typical city, there are 50 organizations trying to do the same thing,” Fleishman told PBS.
That duplication of effort is especially pronounced here. Jan Brooks, a longtime consultant to organized philanthropy and a mentor connecting artists to money around the country, takes a historical view of what she considers embedded impediments to a thriving, grounds-up cultural practice: Santa Fe has too many institutions, and many of them are out of sync with the zeitgeist.
“We have a geezer problem,” Brooks states, bluntly.
As a result, Brooks says, Santa Fe has continually missed the ferry on seeding grassroots culture.
While nobody imagines that Santa Fe’s present or future assets would exclude art galleries, museums and destination events such as the Santa Fe Opera, Brooks says the city’s reluctance to confer priority of place on “makers”—those whose creative activities are the cultural assets—is a missed opportunity.
For instance, portions of the Railyard shine with Santa Fe’s “homemade” treasures: urban farming, an artists market, live music and transportation, as well as galleries and SITE Santa Fe. Still, pockets of vacant land remain. Brooks says those properties (managed by the city-contracted Railyard Community Corporation) haven’t fallen far enough in price to provide a real opportunity to retrofit grassroots creativity. Instead, the city found $100,000 to support the nonprofit Creative Santa Fe, which in Brooks’ view has accomplished zero—and is a case in point for the drawbacks of putting “creative” into institutional hands.
“Imagine that they’d spent that $100,000 in 10, $10,000 grants to artists—what new things we might be seeing,” Brooks says.
For instance, one of Creative Santa Fe’s 2011 actions includes becoming a fiscal sponsor for the Santa Fe Artists’ Studio Tour—which already existed. Further, on Oct. 6, Creative Santa Fe previewed a “major new initiative” that, according to a news release, “is envisioned as a world-class conference and arts and cultural festival to be held annually in the fall in Santa Fe.”
The festival has been rumored to resemble a think tank, along the lines of Colorado’s Aspen Institute. Whether this amounts to duplication, albeit on a richer scale, is hard to predict until a formal announcement is made, but culture watchers like Brooks stress that, in general, top-down approaches, even in programmatic terms, are increasingly outmoded.
As funding and creative models become increasingly democratized, traditional categories of business can also innovate creative placemaking.
Twelve miles outside the city, Destiny Allison is a working artist and real estate entrepreneur—co-owner, with Steve Ewers, of La Tienda at Eldorado, where they’ve built “access” into the business plan to seed creative economy at the shopping center.
It emerged out of patently hostile ground: The shopping center “was a hated project,” Allison notes, smiling, when she and Ewers bought it in 2008 for “cents on the dollar.”
Applying the ideal of “empowering artists” to the reasoning of real estate based in community, Allison opened a permanent exhibit gallery, La Tienda Exhibit Space), at the shopping center (tagline: “Where Community Happens”).
It’s a 2,000-square-foot space with an approximately $54,000 annual market value (which she and Ewers donate) and is located right across the hall from Destiny Allison Fine Art, the center’s anchor tenant. Artists apply to exhibit at the community gallery (now taking applications for 2013). The exhibitors keep 100 percent of their sales, and Allison mentors them in goal-setting, publicity, hanging shows, etc.
Allison explains that artists show in groups 90 percent of the time. Because the crowdsourcing model also pertains to pulling in a crowd, 500-600 people regularly show up for openings—and work has sold every time.
It’s not a model built on jurying “quality” in, and Allison admits that some shows have been “uneven.” But creative community making has proved a boon to business, too: Six months after the gallery opened, in mid-2010, the center had 16 tenants and just 4 vacancies. The School of the Aspen-Santa Fe Ballet recently signed a five-year lease at La Tienda.
“The Exhibit Space has done nothing but good for the businesses—and the artists,” Allison says. “It’s a never-done-before business model. I’ve searched.”
La Tienda has also become a patron of the arts, buying a work out of every show in order to build a collection.This leads back to a creative placemaking project that was an invited, first-cycle grantee of ArtPlace America: a Lakota gift shop in Pine Ridge, SD, which not only exhibits Lakota art, but buys up to $100,000 of it each year.
We don’t need the elderly, which includes me, teaching people who make things ‘entrepreneurialism,’” longtime art consultant Jan Brooks says, “Entrepreneurialism has been taught to us, as exemplified by the DIY movement and Kickstarter.”
In other corners of the city’s creative landscape, DIY-style arts funding is thriving.
In 2009, MIX Santa Fewas born. The monthly networking event eventually acquired a definitive purpose: crowdsourcing in order to add diverse voices to the city’s cultural, economic and policy Babel. From the first, city Economic Development Specialist Kate Noble says, MIX’s goal was “to bring up community assets” and to attract the younger talent to articulate and personify them.
With that in mind, in early 2010, attendees were handed rainbow-colored Post-its and markers with which to answer a single question: “What’s the F@&king Problem?”
The best answer, veteran MIXmaster (and SFR columnist) Zane Fischer says, came from After Hours Alliance coordinator Shannon Murphy—who in turn used Kickstarter to raise money for the AHA Festival.
Last October, Kickstarter founder Perry Chen told The Economist, “We focus on a middle ground between patronage and commerce.”
MIX now happens every third Thursday, February through November. Last month, in a principle that has persisted since the beginning (answer questions; get a drink), MIXers visionized the future of Santa Fe’s arts scene. Attendees’ ideas sound a lot like what national funders are putting into words: They want a city that’s more “diverse” and “urban,” with “more variety, less ‘old-people’ music”; artists empowered to monetize via new vehicles, not just commercial galleries; and a nightlife scene, replete with a live music venue, which extends past 9:30 pm, at the Railyard.
If MIX has been a “grassroots effort,” it has also been an incubator, orchestrating not only friendships and hookups (which, face it, Noble says, help make Santa Fe a lovable city for young people) but also business opportunities.
MIX is now collaborating with the city and other groups to make St. Michael’s Drive the next laboratory for grassroots arts as a fulcrum of social and economic development.
Draft design guidelines have emerged from the city’s Land Use Department and are being shopped to business owners along the St. Michael’s Drive commercial corridor [SFReporter.com, Aug. 11: “Open House Shows St. Mike’s Vision”]. Later this month, the Long-Range Planning Division (part of the city’s Housing and Community Development Department) will host an invite-only meeting with those landowners. Fischer says lessons learned at the Railyard about barriers between public space and neighborhoods might, in this next instance, have an opportunity to evolve further.
“It’s not going to happen perfectly,” he says, “but it can happen better.”
Other small-scale, local microfunding projects are also at work in Santa Fe—in part because, when Chief Curator Irene Hofmann arrived for her new job at SITE Santa Fe last year, supporting artists directly was firmly on her mind.
“I recognized a need for SITE to be more involved in the creative community here, and more supportive,” Hofmann explains.
SPREAD, the outgrowth of that support, is a local tentacle of a national octopus: community dinners with one-syllable names like FEAST, STOCK or STEW, which fund art out of a micro-pot gathered over a meal.
Here, the community dinner is promoted and run by SITE, which puts together a panel to preselect eight artist contestants for each SPREAD; $15-$20 tickets at the door create a purse. At the end of the night—and the dinner (involving presentations by the artists)—a popular vote (an in-person crowdsourcing) decides the winner.
In April, at the first SPREAD, arts collective Meow Wolf took home the $7,700 moneybags—and finished work on The Due Return, popularly known as “the ship,” which became an art installation-cum-lounge for a huge variety of community activities at the Center for Contemporary Arts from May through August. (Meow Wolf also conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign.) The second SPREAD occurs Oct. 28.
Unlike its peers, the key to SPREAD is that it’s the product of a cultural institution like SITE (in effect, a national anchor privileging local innovation). SITE, in the last six months, also created a SPREAD website (design and development by local firm Anagr.am), which serves as both application process and archive of past projects.
And the crowd fund? “If we’re able to fund two artists’ projects a year at $7,000-$8,000, that’s huge,” Hofmann says.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the creative markers of a place, the pressure cuff is building for us to sort out our homegrown “assets” and make more of them—a task that Santa Fe cannot afford not to do.
I end this story with a few words about me: I am a writer, a journalist and a creative entrepreneur with a three-year-old new media company and a daily online art magazine: adobeairstream.com.
I’ve been here 19 years. I was paying attention when Richard Florida not all that long ago postulated we could become a creative “super-region.” I believed it, and I bought in. Hopefully, you will too. SFR
Sadaf Rassoul Cameron comes at philanthropy from having started as an artist, and her focus is on connecting innovators in art and social/economic justice with money—without the cumbersome reporting requirements of yore.
Cameron, the young executive director of Kindle Projects (launched in 2008 in Santa Fe) earned her BFA in photography from the College of Santa Fe (now the Santa Fe University of Art and Design). After photo-documenting Afghan refugee camps for her thesis, Cameron began “thinking about arts from a social justice framework.”
Kindle Projects, which is funded by a single anonymous donor, gave away some $500,000 this year. And what is totally unusual, possibly even revolutionary about Kindle, is not the part that there’s no formal application (many philanthropies identify their projects privately), but that there’s no onerous reporting required.
Kindle gives artists flat $13,000 gifts, Cameron explains. “Our approach is, ‘Here’s the money; we want to empower and uplift you in your work, and this is the mechanism.’”
Cameron cites the example of Eliza Naranjo-Morse, who used her $13,000 gift to put a shipping container on her northern New Mexico land as a permanent art studio. “If artists today are ‘starving artists,’ it’s because they’re willing to be—to farm the land, to grow their food,” Cameron says.
A Kindle seed-sovereignty grantee in Taos used the money to buy a computer, video camera and audio gear—all long-term assets with which to communicate.
“How to give assets that lend to sustainability is something that funders [across the country] are not really looking at,” Cameron says. “Artists should shine in their resourcefulness, imagination and creativity—in thinking outside the box, even in fundraising,” she explains. “We live in such a time of need and global collapse. Systems are changing. Everything is changing.”