Open Letter from the President: Jerome Foundation Strategic Planning Progress: October 2016 Update

Long-range planning efforts at Jerome continue, even while many decisions still lie ahead. Earlier posts on this website described earlier decisions reached in planning, including a continued focus on emerging, vocational “generative” artists at the center of our grantmaking.

At the September meeting, Directors were asked to consider the environment in which the arts now operate, potential goals for the foundation and the values that we hold and hope to model in both our grantmaking and in our organizational behavior.

THE ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH THE ARTS OPERATE

In advance of the meeting, Directors were asked to read a variety of articles describing the world in which artists and arts organizations must function.

The issues are far too numerous and complex to outline in detail, but perhaps can be at least suggested in the following “big headlines.”  The number of nonprofit arts groups in this country has exploded and now number (in some sources) more than 105,000 groups, the vast majority of which are under-resourced and fragile.  The work force in the arts grows annually, amplified by as many as 120,000 new people graduating from training and university programs with arts degrees every year (a number growing at 30% per decade), many of whom carry massive student loan debt even as they try to move into a field where low compensation can be the norm. Costs of live and workspace for artists are rising annually, leading to displacement of artists from areas they have helped revitalize. Young artists are increasingly “sector agnostic,” moving happily between for-profit and not-for-profit projects, and have little or no interest in organizing as nonprofit entities.  Vital new artistic forms and vocabularies are emerging.  There is particular new energy around the intersection of arts and social justice, the environment, and education, even while a strong “art for arts sake” movement continues to find new energy and adherents.  Artists frequently feel isolated from their colleagues, even in urban settings; and continue to need financial resources to do work, validation for the work they do, networks of other artists and colleagues; and access to intellectual, as well as financial and human, capital.

All of this, of course, is happening within a much larger context—shifts in social behavior; enormous demographic change; growing awareness of institutional racism and cultural inequity; the emergence of new technologies that redefine delivery systems, consumer patterns and economics; globalization; changes in regulation, compliance and the nonprofit model; civic polarization; climate change; and increased threats to public safety, all of which have enormous implications for the arts.

In such a complex moment, where might the Foundation best place its energies and resources?  

TOWARDS DEFINING CLEAR GOALS

Especially for a Foundation with modest resources and a limited staff, the advantages to having a limited number of issues/goals are clear: with the addition of any single issue, the ability to significantly impact other issues is tempered, and the ability to manage programs effectively is weakened.  Precisely because foundations care so much about their constituents, it can be tempting to take on too much and over-reach, either through the addition of multiple programs or by offering numerous unconnected initiatives, resulting in diminished foundation impact and/or a confusing public profile.

As Jerome reflects on where it wishes to place its energies, three particular areas have stood out in discussion to date:

Issue #1:  Helping Emerging Artists Make New Work

The clearest message from the artists’ survey conducted in February (and referred to in earlier posts) was the urgent need for resources (including money, materials and time) to help artists make new work—and this need for artists who are in the early stages of their career/emerging is especially acute.  This—more than any other issue—is what the Foundation has been known and valued for.  The openness to supporting artists at various stages of creation—not merely at the full production/publication/exhibition stage—is deeply valued.  It is a legacy to be embraced and treasured, and arguably is the clearest link to Jerome Hill’s own philanthropic practices in his lifetime.

Issue #2: Helping Emerging Artists Find a Viable Path for the future

Originally, we framed this question as “How does a foundation not only help an artist make a work but also make a career?”—a question that artists on our own board heard as a desire to make artists more commercially palatable or mainstream.  This had not been our intention at all: what we had really meant was the issue of how an artist is able to create a path that will allow her/him to do the work she/he feels called to do throughout a lifetime, with adequate resources (financial, physical and intellectual) and ongoing opportunities to do this work.

As we all know, the potential career arc for an artist has changed radically since Jerome declared its focus on the arts in the late 1970’s.  The former path—a few local grants leading to ongoing support from the NEA and major national foundations, the move from small galleries to major museums, or from nonprofit publishers to major commercial houses—has radically changed. Artists now face far higher competition (not only from the sheer number of fellow artists but from the explosion of competing entertainment options—home movie center, cable television, internet, streaming, etc.) and operate in a landscape where philanthropic resources for the arts are shrinking.

Artists wishing to establish careers (with the caveat about our intentions in this word) typically hunger, not only for funds to make work, but for predictable non-project based income (i.e. unrestricted grants), networks, practical business, communication and marketing skills (among others) and validation.  Focusing on helping artists make a long term path—not merely make an art work—could lead us to consider individualized, multi-year commitments to individuals.  It could potentially require the Foundation to broaden its lens from the exclusively not-for-profit to embrace the for-profit as well, (as indeed young artists today are already doing), and to support independent producers in different ways.  It could also open possibilities of how the Foundation can work with entire cohorts of artists, rather than having only one-on-one relationships with its grantees.  

But would trying to help artists make new work and find more viable paths stretch the foundation too thin, both in terms of grant dollars and staff capacity?

Issue #3: Helping Improve the Environment in which Emerging Artists Can Flourish

There are significant issues that impact the ability of artists to make work and establish careers.  Rising real estate costs in New York City and major urban areas—both for work and for living (especially as artists who revitalize a neighborhood are then displaced by gentrification)—lack of public appreciation for the role of the arts, and the perceived chasm that separates “artists” from “real people” are increasingly onerous for many artists.   The decline in coverage of the arts in newspapers and other media may be widening the gap between artists’ needs and goals and the public understanding of the arts.  How involved in these larger spheres—including the potential realm of policy—would Jerome wish to be?

Clearly these are three ambitious goals, and it is quite possible that pursuing all three of these would stretch Jerome too thinly to have impact, and that a better course might be to eliminate one of these goals.  That decision is among the next critical issues we hope to resolve in December, even as we recognize that further reflection might lead to the discovery of an additional goal that might displace one of these. 

That said we are currently thinking consciously defining one of these goals as a more opportunistic or periodic (rather than core or ongoing) goal that would likely be defined by short term, non-renewable grants.  This would allow us to keep one or two of the other goals constantly at the forefront of our grantmaking and to protect them in a time of market loss.  This "opportunistic" goal would therefore be a kind of “shock absorber” that would allow us to suspend the grants in this specific category without damaging the ongoing grants work in the other core goal(s), if we hit  a time of diminished resources.

The consequences of our decisions began to become clearer when we realized that pursuing a limited number of goals would inherently mean that there would be things we would not do.  Defining the “nots” in no way is intended to suggest that these are not important goals or issues: rather it is a way of recognizing the limits of the Foundation’s resources and a preference to affect a few things significantly, rather than affect many different things minimally, if at all.

Among the priorities that might fall outside of Jerome’s future plans are the following:

  • Arts Education Programs
  • Avocational Arts (e.g. amateur artists, student groups, etc.)
  • Endowments and/or cash reserves for organizations
  • Buildings and Capital for arts organizations
  • Training and Conservatory Programs
  • Documentation of Work as a discrete priority (although it might be an allowable project cost within a grant)
  • Marketing and Audience Development Grants for specific organizations
  • Fundraising and anniversary campaigns

TOWARDS CLARIFYING THE VALUES WE HOLD

While many plans focus on goals and mission alone, much disarray in organizations can be seen when, despite agreement around mission, there is lack of clear consensus on the ongoing organizational values.

Ronnie Brooks of the James Shannon Institute long ago impressed on me the importance of core values—those deeply held values that lie at the heart of an organization.  Consciously recognizing and articulating these valued can provide clarity and pervasive unity that makes decision making clearer at all levels.

Among many revelations from Ronnie, I remember particularly her charge that core values have a consciously rejected but equally viable opposite.  “Excellence,” for example, is not a useful core value, she said: who would consciously find mediocrity or bad work a viable and desirable path?  While the pursuit of excellence may be a given in any competitive landscape, it is not useful as a core value.

Defining values for Jerome ideally required celebrating the values, not only through grantmaking, but also through Jerome’s own ongoing practice. We believe that Jerome has not only an opportunity but also a responsibility to lead by modeling behavior rather than by fiat.  If integrity can be defined as the correspondence between rhetoric and behavior, Jerome directors agreed that the Foundation should aspire to be exemplars of integrity.

Directors considered the following values at their meeting.

Value #1: Diversity

While it might at first seem that this value—especially in today’s increasingly diverse world—is a given like “excellence” above, it would be possible for the Foundation to embrace homogeneity as a core operating value.  We could, for example, focus all resources on artists in a single discipline; focus only on larger organizations; embrace only artists working in Euro-centric traditions, etc.  Consciously embracing diversity as a core value affirms our intent to be inclusive in supporting a wide range of artistic disciplines, operating in and from a wide range of traditions, created in a wide variety of contexts and intended for different audiences.  It demands that we consciously monitor our grantmaking and insure that we are supporting artists from a wide range of cultures, races, sexual orientations and identifications, genders, generations, aesthetics, points of view, and goals (both those driven by goals of social change and those drive by “art for art’s sake.”).  It positions us proactively for relevance in an increasingly diverse world and acknowledges a core premise of innovation: that “break through” ideas are enabled by the participation of diverse groups of people.  Jerome Hill himself was a man inclined to diversity—in his own life being composer, performer, painter and filmmaker, collaborating with an international cohort of colleagues and working in multiple international contexts.

Beyond the roster of grantees, embracing diversity would invite us as a foundation to be conscious about the diversity of our work force, the composition of our grants panels, the composition of our candidates for Director positions, our choice of vendors and more.  As the honorable Elijah Cummings recently declared in a speech to symphony orchestras, “Diversity is not our problem; it is our promise.”  Jerome Foundation could aspire to be at the forefront of celebrating that promise.

Value #2: Innovation/Risk

The Foundation has always been celebrated for its support of artists who are taking risks and pushing an art form forward.  This has never been a Foundation known for supporting artists who work at the center of long-standing traditions (e.g. composers who work in standard tonal symphonic traditions) or those who fail to challenge themselves to move forward.  Arguably, Innovation and Risk are the values that Jerome Hill himself embodied in his own artistic work—moving from documentary to narrative to increasingly experimental film.  

For the Foundation, embracing innovation and risk would invite us to be bold in our choice of grantees, but also in the creation of initiatives and specific grant making structures.  It might prioritize learning over cosmetic “success” as an indicator of the worth of a grant and would inevitably mean that we would support some grants that would (by traditional standards) “fail.”  It might mean that we will choose at times to support organizations that might be financially tenuous, even while we would never be cavalier or irresponsible.  

Value #3:  Humility

This one may well be a surprise, but it would ask us to celebrate the personality of Jerome Hill, known for warmth, wit, and humility. It would ask us to at all times to take the position that we work for artists and the arts (rather than artists and the arts work for us), that we are driven by service rather than by expectation of or opportunity for recognition and visibility, and that we measure the impact of our procedures, applications, reporting processes, etc., on our applicants as we define them.

As a point of contrast (and with reference to the previous issue of “consciously rejected by equally viable opposite), I might that many of our colleagues in the Foundation world are viably organized and driven by an opposing set of values in this regard—especially in the corporate philanthropic sector.  They do incredibly valuable work, and their drive for visibility brings enormous benefit as they shine their light on their grantees in more public ways or forge bonds of association to their businesses.  They do great and important work—but in a way that might be out of character for Jerome to emulate. 

As I mentioned earlier, further reflection might lead us to discard one of these, or to identify a new value(s) that might displace one or more of the above.  Coming to clarity on both goals and values is our next step.

We have much work still ahead.  At our December board meeting, we will examine these goals through the lens of the move to racial equity, the value of health capitalization, and the principles of accountability that are at the center of conversations at Grantmakers for the Arts and our peer foundations.  Directors will also consider our organizational ability to pursue the goals and values articulated earlier and try to reconcile our aspirations with our capacity.  This ability to align these goals, values, larger grantmaking principles and our capacity will be the ultimate determinant of our future.  Frankly, these questions may well be significant enough that we will be unable to finish planning as we hoped in this calendar year.  Stay tuned for our next communiqué, whether it is the announcement of a new framework or another update.  In the meantime, we welcome as always, your reactions to any or all of the above, and thank you for your interest in Jerome—and your patience as we move forward. 

We wish you great success in your endeavors.

 

Ben Cameron

President, Jerome Foundation

Published October 10, 2016

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