Janet Brown in Conversation with Douglas McLennan

Janet Brown and Douglas McLennan

At the end of this year, Janet Brown will step down as president and CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts. She has led GIA for nine years, and under her leadership, membership in the organization has grown 34 percent, and its budget has nearly doubled. GIA’s influence has grown enormously in the field, and the organization has greatly expanded its programs, introducing webinars, research workshops, and forums on a wide variety of issues, including arts education, capitalization, cross-sector collaborations, racial equity, and support for individual artists. The annual GIA conferences have also grown, and the 2016 conference was the largest in the organization’s thirty-two-year history.

We sat down to talk about a wide range of issues — change, equity, capitalization, funding models, and arts participation.

Douglas McLennan So nine years, eh? This has been a highly turbulent period across all creative sectors. Change everywhere — so what a time to be doing this job. But your background before GIA was not in funding. What first attracted you to the organization, to the job?

Janet Brown Association work is kind of an offshoot of community organizing, how you bring people together, how they share information, how they learn together as peers, and I’d been doing that in South Dakota with an organization that I helped to grow. I was not a funder. I’ve been a grant seeker all of my life. I’d never worked for a philanthropist or a grant-making organization, and so I entered with a healthy skepticism.

DM As the world is changing, it’s been tough for some associations to keep their focus — representing members — but also shifting with changing business models and market realities. Do you think there’s still a place for associations?

JB I think there is power in the knowledge of others and that’s never out of fashion. We’re here to see the field, we’re here to coordinate how the field learns from each other, and where new folks can learn from folks who have done the work for a while.

DM So what’s the biggest challenge to doing that? It’s often hard in professional associations to get people to think about the bigger picture and the larger ecosystem when they’re so fixated on solving immediate problems.

JB And that’s really the challenge. I think the challenge is that you have to be patient. I think at GIA we’ve taken on issues that have been relevant and systemic throughout the nonprofit arts sector. Trying to change systemic issues is something that you can’t do with a few conferences and a few articles. So this idea of creating change over time is one that tries your patience, but that’s the challenge. The challenge is to know you can’t change a sector in probably any one leader’s term. So how do you take those incremental steps toward change? That’s hard for people who don’t have a lot of patience, like me.

DM If there’s one defining characteristic of the time we’re in, it might be constant change. We used to think about change as going from one thing to another and that there was some sense of arrival when the change was complete. Now it’s a constant state of change — no arrival. So how do you approach changing a field or thinking about an issue when it’s constantly evolving and people need to have a vision of what it is that they’re changing to be able to say clearly where they think they’re going and why?

JB And then you add the complexity of dealing with a field that is all about money and values. I like to say that “philanthropy is created out of love and is administered out of fear.” This is not scientific, and I don’t know this for sure, but my instincts tell me that we are most conservative around finances, even as we’re dealing with the creative risk taking of arts organizations and artists.

So it takes a long time for funders to think about change, and I think that’s where we are right now. What we see within the membership of GIA is an incredible thirst for knowledge about where to change, how to change, a reevaluation, maybe, of the last fifty years of what has been done, what sort of behaviors have been set in stone that say “this is how we all operate,” and looking at what needs to change.

But the biggest problem is not knowing how any philanthropic change might impact the arts sector, particularly the change of institutional funders who have decades of legacy funding where patterns of funding have been the same.

To be president of a large institutional private foundation has to be one of the greatest challenges in the world for somebody who really wants to make change. I’ve seen people come into those jobs and decide to make sweeping change, at great detriment to grantees, to organizations, to staff, to the stability that the foundation has had in their community. My recommendation would be to find the patience to make change wisely and thoughtfully because you’re dealing with people’s lives and the influence that money buys you.

DM Do you think that the funders have kept up vis-à-vis how arts and the culture are changing?

JB I think they’re trying. I honestly think they’re trying. I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I know that there are really innovative funding programs going on. There are a lot of things we’ve embraced that even fifteen years ago someone would have said, “Well, that’s not art,” and arts funders are now funding those things. But then there’s a next level of saying how do we do this collectively so that we have a greater collective impact. Oftentimes funders see themselves as a lone wolf, and there are a lot of lone wolves out there.

It’s interesting to look at communities where funders meet regularly to discuss programs and impact. I’ve seen a higher level of best practices and more impact in areas like racial equity and support for small and midsized organizations. I’ve also observed that funders don’t really need to create joint programs or funding pools to accomplish goals, but they do need to understand how their portfolio fits into the ecosystem for the nonprofit sector they are serving. Truly no one organization can make an impact that is sustainable and long lasting. So collectively how do we work together?

That’s something that Grantmakers in the Arts can help our sector to do, talk about community sustainability of the creative sector and what the funders’ role is in assuring that sustainability.

DM And yet, there is a bit of a feeling in the arts sector that funders’ agendas can be coercive, that funders get together and decide the issues they’re interested in and then prescribe what everyone should do about it. A few years later when they’ve lost interest or decide they need a new focus, the landscape changes again.

JB Funders have an incredible influence on nonprofit organizational behavior even if the dollar amounts are not significant. They can change a sector’s behavior. I first noticed this in 1995 when the NEA lost half of its funding and they put more of a focus on arts education in their grantmaking. It was a successful strategy, and it exploded into the private foundation world. All of a sudden, arts organizations that never had an education director before now had an education director. Now organizational education offices are the norm, even though the organization’s mission is to actually produce art, not to teach, not to educate. So I think that this idea of the ever-changing focus of philanthropy is a double-edged sword, stimulating programs but sometimes detrimental to the stability of the field, there’s no question. It has also led to a level of mistrust between grantors and grantees.

My take on it is, and I hope this isn’t too cynical, that in reality you have to answer to a board of directors who will say, what are we doing now that’s innovative? And if we haven’t funded anything that’s new or different from what we funded ten years ago, then why are you even here as a staff person? Sometimes it comes down to how you keep your job.

DM Do you think that arts funders have kept up with the arts economy? It seems like the arts have lost some big national funders. Do the arts still win their share of attention among philanthropists?

JB Our last study with the Foundation Center reported that we’ve lost four share points in the private foundation giving world in the time I’ve been at GIA. When I first started nine years ago, 12 percent of all private foundation funding went to arts and culture, and now it’s 8 percent. That number is from their subset of one thousand private foundations that we’ve been tracking over twenty-five years. It doesn’t include public funders or grants under $10,000.

DM Do you have a sense of whether there are fewer dollars or less share?

JB It’s less share. But the funding has also changed. So much of that private foundation money is capital money, is building money. And so when we started taking out that money and saying this is what foundations are giving in terms of real operating support, and this other is capital money, it made a big difference in how we looked at those numbers.

DM Do you have a sense that the mix of that has changed?

JB My sense is that after the recession, there was this huge decline supporting buildings and that’s now come back.

DM It seems to me that thinking about the arts as a category is perhaps problematic. We, in the arts, kind of sort of know what that means, but when you start to talk for the arts as a category, it’s a whole bunch of different communities and interests but not a cohesive thing, no matter how hard we try to make it one. And we’re now living in an age where all sorts of creative fields are colliding with one another, and where there are interesting sorts of collaborative things going on. I wonder, particularly when you think about the arts politically and about public funding, if the idea of the arts as a category is difficult.

JB I have a million emotions about this question because the first phase of my life was in rural America. I think the biggest challenge that we have now is that we have boxed ourselves into a professional sector that has become highly specialized. That’s been great for individual artists who have fit into it, but it has also defined us as a field and an economic model that is not sustainable. Unlike most other professions where you could professionalize and insert yourself into a model that would sustain you, the arts don’t work that way, because the nonprofit model is always in chaos.

We’ve gone from this broad understanding of “everybody’s an artist,” and they can sing in a choir and do all of these other things, to “well, I’m not an artist even though I do sing in a choir” or even “though I do write poetry, I never consider myself an artist,” because there is this perception that to be an artist, you have to be paid for it. So we’ve separated the general population from what it is that they’re passionate about instead of bringing them along with us.

All my life I have fought this argument between product and process, the process of making art and the product of the art itself, and which is more important, and which is the “community arts versus the professional arts.” This is the high arts versus the low arts, right? Which I’ve always thought was a waste of energy and a waste of time. Except that we’ve separated them so much now that the people who were not doing what we think of as the fine arts, they’re just not involved in our world.

Ninety percent of the people you ask on the street “are you involved in the arts?” they’ll say no. Even though they download more music today, they make and post videos, they do all of these creative artistic things . . . it’s just that they’re not involved in that “art” world. We’ve never disconnected the fact that a child playing soccer or baseball or football is probably not going to be a professional player. Why do we do so in the arts?

DM And now the economic models supporting professional artists are collapsing — or at least evolving in significant ways that make it hard to make a living as an artist in traditional ways. Do you think the nonprofit model is sustainable or viable for arts anymore?

JB I think it is for a certain level of organization. I’m not so sure it is the larger you get. We know that small organizations are healthier and more nimble, and midsize organizations are better off than most large organizations, and organizations with facilities have a harder time than organizations without facilities. If you’re talking about artists and how art is being made, the struggle is really hard.

DM Another struggle is attracting more diverse communities into participating in the arts. One issue you’ve been very involved in is racial equity.

JB Racial equity in arts philanthropy has been a focus area for GIA for many years. I am extremely proud of our statement of purpose and our actions to support change. Philanthropy, in general, is well established in the white dominant culture, and how we support ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) organizations and artists is a challenge because past inequities and policies have to be overcome in order for change to occur.

You have these arts organizations who are — many of them — working very hard to try to figure out how to reflect their community more, and some being somewhat successful but most generally not, I think it’s fair to say. There is a dual struggle to make white organizations more diverse and at the same time make funding to ALAANA organizations more equitable. This is almost a battle with history.

I think this is the most difficult challenge of our time, really, in terms of the values and operations of major arts institutions and for funders. We’ve been through multiculturalism, we’ve been through the diversity thing, inclusion thing, now we’re talking about social justice and racial equity, and I think that we are finally, now, having the most honest conversation about this in my lifetime.

Organizations really need to take a look at what is motivating them to change. For the longest time it was a carrot from funders, a feeling that there was an audience base that arts organizations should attract that they weren’t and they could. More butts in seats. There really wasn’t the idea that this was motivated by a real need to reach out to the whole community, that the whole community should be involved in this art form.

But there’s nothing wrong with being a culturally specific organization. If you are an African American theater company devoted to supporting African American playwrights, the depiction of that culture, of that ethnicity, of that history, employing those artists, then that’s what you should be. If you’re a symphony orchestra and you are dedicated to preserving the Western canon, the sound of that canon, the composers that wrote for that canon, then that’s what you should be.

Decades and millions and millions of dollars have been spent attempting to diversify audiences, boards, and artists, but we have not been successful. Whatever we’ve been doing, statistics tell us it hasn’t worked.

I think we’re misidentifying the problem here. It’s become a racial divide because past policies have created situations where race defines the economic divide or an educational divide. It’s overwhelming the void of arts programs in inner cities — any schools that are impoverished — but particularly schools that have brown and black kids as the primary students. Those stats are awful. So we haven’t invested in Latinx or African American or Native American or Asian art forms that have come from those cultures in any kind of shape, way, or form compared to what we’ve invested in sort of the white traditional European model of theater, orchestra, and dance.

DM The NEA reports that participation in “the arts” has been declining for some time. So maybe the failure to get minority communities to participate in the arts is related?

JB That’s what makes me crazy, because I refuse to believe that participation in the arts is down. But our world has defined the arts as this industry, this nonprofit arts, fine arts, whatever you want to call it. I think people make more art today and we have more young artists and arts appreciators than ever before. We’re just asking the wrong people the wrong questions.

DM So what are you most proud of in your time at GIA?

JB I think that the two things that I’m most proud of, aside from things like we have more members, we have more money, we have more programs, is our racial equity in arts philanthropy and capitalization work. Our capitalization (or financial health) workshops have taken us to a lot of cities across the country, both for funders and for grantees. Like equity, this is an issue that has been systemic throughout my career. Why is the nonprofit sector so undercapitalized? The problems are funder and nonprofit management driven.

It’s all about sustainability. Most institutions aren’t sustainable. Many institutions in this country have negative liquidity, meaning if you don’t consider their endowments, they’re in debt. They don’t have any cash in the bank — I think the average for most institutions over 25 million or 20 million dollars is three or four months of operating cash in the bank. If you were a for-profit business and you only had a half a percent of your budget available to you, people would say you’re a badly managed organization.

In our membership there’s a whole new attitude about cash reserves. So I’m really proud of that capitalization work. Along with the racial equity work, these are really the two things I’m most proud of.

DM Any last thoughts?

JB What I was most impressed with when I started this job, and continue to be impressed with, is the devotion of the program officers and staff of GIA members who work every day advocating, sometimes even within their own organizations, for more money for artists and arts organizations. They are often as understaffed as the organizations that they serve. I mean, some of them give out $25 million a year and there are three people on their team. These are all people who have run arts organizations, they worked within arts organizations, they understand organizations, and many are artists. They’ve devoted a life to the arts too, and they are inspiring to me.