Thursday, February 6, 2014

"to fail and fail big" In Action: The Funders’ Edition (Who is at the table and how did they get invited?)

by Jennifer Wright Cook

In late September we co-hosted a rabble rousing Funders’ Edition of “to fail and fail big” for 30+ lead arts funders at Mertz Gilmore with our colleagues from Booth Ferris, Lambent Foundation and the New York Community Trust.  All the heavy hitters were there.  It was intense and thrilling.

We asked two artists and two presenters to participate as well: choreographer Yanira Castro, art-maker Miguel Gutierrez, Chocolate Factory Artistic Director Brian Rogers and 651 Artistic Director Shay Wafer.  These four folks were amazingly courageous, honest and generous.  I don’t think they knew how intense it was going to be.  But it was.  And they were stunning.  I am honored by their forthrightness.  (Just imagine that you are sitting at one big 10’x15’ table with all the big arts funders.  What would you say? How would you behave?  What would you be afraid of?)

Thomas Cott, of You’ve Cott Mail, facilitated the conversation.   Funders in attendance included: Ben Cameron (Doris Duke Charitable Trust), Moira Brennan (MAP Fund), Lisa Robb (NYSCA), DCA, New Music USA, Andrew W. Mellon, LMCC and more and more.

Did I say it was intense?

I realized quickly that, ironically enough, The Field and I were poised on a risky ledge. The event itself aimed to challenge the system.  But we are beholden to this system too.  Many of these folks at the event fund us or we want them to fund us.  So if our event “failed” then these gatekeepers had the power to lock us out of potential funds in the future.

Or just ignore us. And we could wither away.

But we have to push against that fear of failure.  We have to step into our vulnerable spot and act out of integrity, courage and transparency.

So, as counseled by Thomas Cott, we asked this intimate group to tackle three core recommendations from “to fail and fail big” specifically related to the funding community.  (see pages 24 -25 of “to fail and fail big”):

  • Invest in the Artist: multi-year artist-specific funding
  • Transparency and Privilege
  • Failure

There were so many huge moments for me but one of my favorite takeaway issues grappled with Transparency and Privilege. Essentially it asked WHO IS AT THE TABLE AND HOW DID THEY GET INVITED?

This is an ongoing question.  Who adjudicates grant panels? Who gets invited to curate? Who speaks on panels? Who gets the shows and the awards?

It often feels like the same ten people.  And whoever is hot at the moment – is everywhere.

Why them?

So who was at our Funders’ Edition table and why? Miguel is in “to fail” and it’s important to us to have at least one study member at every event as appropriate.  Brian was on the Advisory Council for our study and his provocative quote led to the title “to fail and fail big”.  We asked Shay to be on the Advisory Council but she was very busy; so we asked her to be at the Funders’ Edition.  Plus we are committed to gender and racial diversity.  Our 4th participant was Yanira Castro.

Yanira, for me, is one of the smartest, most resilient, savviest and ambitious NY artists.  Her body of work pushes her artistically, she takes risks, she pushes against failure.  She is articulate, generous and rigorous.  She is a mom in a city and a sector that makes parenting challenging.  She’s been a member of The Field for eons and done many events with and for us.

For sure, Yanira gets some decent funding, residencies, gigs and press. For sure.  But I think she should be getting more resources, and more folks should know her work.  So we asked her to participate in the Funders’ Edition to get her in front of more powerbrokers who could move her resources up a notch.

Part of our actionable work with “to fail and fail big” is specifically to push for more equitable distribution of resources. Part of how we can do that is to have a “less visible” artist present at every “to fail” event that we host.  This is one of our “to fail” action items: to give opportunities to artists who don’t get them, to give the non-it kids a chance.

Now we are not naively suggesting that you just ask whomever, whenever, however to do your grant panel or show or whatever.  For sure we have an agenda and we act strategically – but we do it with transparency.  We tell you why we chose someone and how we did it.

When you know how something happens for someone, then you can work to make it happen for yourself too.

When you don’t know how something happens (e.g., “Why did she get that grant?” How did he get on that panel?” “Why did she get that teaching gig?”) you are left to devise your own self-abusing, inflammatory, defensive reasons.

And you may get really bitter really fast.

Oh but folks will say, “Finding new, non-it kids is too hard, it takes too much time! And if an artist is so hot it’s for a reason!  They must be the best!  I don’t have time to explain things to folks.”

Yes, it’s harder and yes it takes more time.  Yes, it involves stretching yourself and your organization farther and harder.  It’s risky to work with folks who aren’t hot.  It involves working with the unknown.  It involves taking a stand and saying “this is why we chose this person.  This is why it’s important.”

It’s so much easier to go with the herd.  And pick the same ten folks.

It’s even more limited with diversity.  It’s as if the sector suddenly decides that this one Asian-American playwright is the one for 2014.  And this one black choreographer is the one for this year.  And this one xyz artist fills this check box and this one….…… And as long as we have one of every “kind” of person then we are good to go.  We are done with diversity.


Who is at the table changes the nature of the room and the work of the world.

Who is at the table changes us.  For the better.

Yes, we have to start somewhere. So here some things you can experiment with: allocate more time to find panelists and staff members. Yes, you can, if it’s important to you, you can. Cast a wider net.  Use all your social networks and search more broadly.  Clarify the “why” underneath your actions and your choices.  Be prepared to say “why” you chose someone.  Be transparent about it.

And then keep going.  Push harder.

At The Field we try in fits and starts to do these things. We make mistakes for sure.  We try again.  It’s ongoing work. We keep trying.

Our question to you dear reader: How do you cast a wider net? Where do you stretch yourself to include folks who aren’t part of your usual table?  And if not, why?

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