Life is Living

A Case Study in Resourcing Collaboration and Creative Ecosystems

Marc Bamuthi Joseph

This essay is the keynote address delivered at the GIA 2010 Conference, October 19, 2011.
I believe that this cause and its implementation has a worldwide application; for as our cultural life is enhanced and strengthened, so does it project itself into the world beyond our shores. Let us apply renewed energies to the very concept we seek to advance: a true renaissance — the reawakening, the quickening, and above all, the unstunted growth of our cultural vitality.
This is at best a modest acknowledgement . . . that the arts have a significant place in our lives, and I can think of no better time to place some primary emphasis on it than in this day and age when most people live in constant fear of the weapons of destruction which cloud man’s mind and his spirit and really pose an atmosphere of hopelessness for millions and millions of people . . . The arts seldom make the headlines. We are always talking about a bigger bomb . . . I wonder if we would be willing to put as much money in the arts and the preservation of what has made mankind and civilization as we are in . . . the lack of civilization, namely, war.

Once upon a time, amidst a once-in-a-generation sweep of civil and human rights activity in America, an act of Congress initiated the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts. Alleluia!

Once upon a time, resourcing the economies of art and ideas was a matter of national priority. In 1978, the NEA’s annual budget was $124 million, which is about $400 million in today’s economy . . . and then . . . Mo(u)rning in America.

In the midst of deficits and high unemployment, Ronald Reagan sought to impel Congress to completely phase out funding for the NEA over a three-year period. Though he was not successful, Reagan’s signal served as a harbinger of the further attack on cultural funding that has played out over the past thirty years. Against the backdrop of culture war and xenophobia, private cultural philanthropy has served as a tool of resistance and sustainability for the arts sector in America. I personally have benefited from my relationship with several grantmakers in the arts. I am a grantmaker; I give and receive. I sustain culture. I am an artist; I give and receive. I sustain culture.

I am also an arts presenter, and one of my heroes and mentors in this profession is the executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Ken Foster. In his book, Performing Arts Presenting: From Theory to Practice, Foster discusses the contraction of the NEA, its procedural and infrastructural impact on the business of making and presenting art, the correlation between the conservative rhetoric and action of the culture war, and the conservative lean away from risk taking by arts presenters in America. He dubs the latest era of adaptation an “age of collaboration,” “an ecological way that many of us now view the arts.”

In framing cultural production in this environmental way, Foster talks about the performance experience as an equilateral relationship between the artist, the art, and the audience and further articulates that inside this relationship we have a “collective responsibility” to the greater good of the arts matrix. I want to use these ideas to talk about philanthropists’ role in relationship to the sustainability of creativity in America, and use my personal experience to answer a number of questions relative to philanthropists’ responsibility in desperate times. Among many currently permeating the field, I’d like to use this forum and frame to address a few big questions:

  1. What is the twenty-first-century response to Pell’s notion of “unstunted growth of our cultural vitality”?
  2. What does collaboration inside the arts ecology look like?
  3. What is the artist’s role, and very specifically the theater company’s function in the twenty-first-century arts matrix?
  4. How does a theater company function in the twenty-first century?

In responding to these questions, we necessarily take a path through the modal principles of hybridity, cultural innovation, and social accountability. I initiate this conversation knowing that Grantmakers in the Arts is currently contemplating the velocity of change. My primary suggestion to you is that there’s no use trying to keep up with change — you can’t outrun it. You can anticipate its direction and in a future-thinking way — get out in front of it before it leaves you behind altogether.

A Survey

Youth Speaks creates safe spaces to empower the next generation of leaders, self-defined artists, and visionary activists through written and oral literacies. We challenge youth to find, develop, publicly present, and apply their voices as creators of social change. The Living Word Project (LWP) is the resident theater company of Youth Speaks, committed to producing literary performance in the verse of our time. Aesthetically urban, pedagogically Freirean, LWP derives personal performed narratives out of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Let’s begin with a quick survey of a fairly ordinary theater company in the Bay Area: the Living Word Project. Although our methodology and mission statement fall out of familiar norms for American theater companies, our modalities and presentations do not. Our current season includes:

  • Word Becomes Flesh, a dance theater work for six men, adapted from a solo work and supported by the National Performance Network. An anthologized and emergent canonical text, the piece is performed by alumni of the Brave New Voices youth poetry festival and is currently touring throughout the United States and Europe, including a run at New York’s Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival.
  • Left Coast Leaning, a three-day festival, held in San Francisco and focused on contemporary performance emerging from the corridor spanning north to Vancouver and as far south as San Diego. LCL is a curatorial exercise meant to codify an aesthetic, enhance audience understanding and appreciation for regional synergies, increase visibility for local and regional artists, and present the idea that aesthetic tastes reach beyond immediate aesthetic manifestations.
  • Reflections of Healing, a multi-site installation wherein we use a theatrical methodology, very similar to that of the Civilians or Anna Deavere Smith, which results in the placement of ten different murals by the artist Brett Cook throughout Oakland’s public library system. The end result is transitioning iconography of the local environment.
  • the break/s and red black & GREEN: a blues, two works produced in the past three years that are scheduled to tour for more than one hundred performances in more than fifteen US cities. the break/s was a featured element of the Spoleto USA festival in Charleston, and rbG:b will appear in the 2012 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
  • Mirrors in Every Corner and Tree City Legends, developed and produced in partnership with Intersection for the Arts. New works by emerging playwrights enjoy runs of five weeks or more in the new Intersection 5M space in the historic San Francisco Chronicle building.

In summary, we execute repertory work that pulls from a pipeline of artists in our young artists affiliate, maintain a robust curatorial practice, host a visual arts ethnography and iconography study, carry a national touring schedule, support a local development and production slate, persist with a pedagogical framework with internal and exported manifestations, and produce a visible and shifting online life. My questions for the philanthropic field are, Is this activity enough? Is it too much?


Belief in advance of any particular practice is the beginning of my practice. The material output is just a byproduct of belief. My investment in abandoned buildings, my investment in dancing or song, my investment in studio project or studio practice starts with believing that materials have redemptive quality, that poor places have redemptive qualities . . . that someone has to believe in the poor. So I’ve come to adopt a politic of staying. A politic of ‘like, ok, instead of moving when I could, when I make a little bit more money, what happens if I stay?’ And I use those extra resources to do something close for people not just like me class-wise. The people who were like my parents, who were also maids, who were also cab drivers, who were also factory workers . . . what happens if we all leave? This is an art practice about believing.

In answering the question of “enough,” the Living Word Project has distilled Theaster Gates’s comments in three significant ways. The first is in the emerging theory that intentional community design is arts practice. Second, we’ve adopted the developer’s strategy of constructing critical adjacencies to maximize revenue potential, and transitioned it to a cultural framework to maximize invested audience constituencies. We’ve melded these two philosophies into a theory of change, penned by Jeff Chang in a Doris Duke Charitable Foundation–commissioned essay under the idea of “the creative ecosystem” and lived by our theater company and more than two hundred partner organizations across the country, all working together in a performance structure cum civic engine resource called “Life is Living.”

Life is Living

Let’s take a step back and illustrate what we mean by critical adjacency. The retail model looks something like this: Developer A builds a Safeway on the corner of Fifty-First and Broadway in Oakland. The Safeway is at a great location and serves four neighborhoods with an aggregate of fifty thousand residents. However, the Safeway becomes an even more attractive destination when you put a Payless shoe store next to it. And then add a Bank of America next to that, and a Starbucks, and a CVS Drugs, et cetera, et cetera. In this way an artificial community is created based on diverse consumption and proximity. Among these entities, the shared value is the amassment of profit, though they have different methods of building wealth.

Life is Living applies similar logic, but instead of real estate, community is constructed on an art- and pedagogy-based cornerstone, and instead of financial profit at the center of these partnerships or adjacencies, the partners, led by the Living Word Project, place one critical issue at the center: “life.” We ask each partner, “What sustains life in your community”? The answers are sometimes rooted in environmental sustainability, but often veer toward the colloquial and the absurd: “Frenchy’s Chicken shack sustains life in Houston, just as Beyoncé does”; “City Slicker Farms sustains life in Oakland, just like Urban ReLeaf does”; “B-Boys [break boys] sustain life in New York City just like the Sustainable South Bronx does.” The composite responses that these partners and constituents elicit become the foundation for a single-day, eco-themed festival in an underresourced public space. The festival is called Life is Living, and like the retail model, it involves a shared value and a plurality of methodologies. This, however, is a model built on relationships.

Have an Impact on More Than One Initiative at Once

When we first produced this festival four years ago, the event itself was our focus, and we adopted the available language to describe our intentions. We called it a green festival, which was code for, “If we call it green, maybe participants will respond in an environmentally responsible way to the sight of Mos Def performing for free at a local park.” However, after we got scolded by folks who were doing critical environmental work about our use of their terminology, we conceded that we were excellent at drawing crowds and producing art, but it was disingenuous to claim to be an eco-agency, when that so clearly wasn’t our area of expertise. Instead we fell back on the two pillars of our mission statement. We create safe space, and we perform interdisciplinary collaboration. And so we shifted from placing the event at the center to placing the varied relationships at the center of our work. We concentrated on the event as an extension of our mission to make safe space, and engaged in sustained conversations with a plurality of groups, asking them each to consider the question of life. As Freirean pedagogues, this idea of inviting multiple constituents to develop language and participatory responses to one question is consistent and harmonious with our ultimate desire to impel radical change within our communities.

Very simply, in addition to local and touring repertory work, visual arts projects, educational programming, and online life, our theater company’s most successful modality is its function as the hub of a localized interdisciplinary network. The network meets monthly, shares ideas, builds community, and produces shared space in which to make collective ideas manifest. The Life is Living tree connects artists (Mos Def, Estria, Keith K-Dub Williams) to philanthropy (Houston Arts Alliance, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, East Bay Community Foundation) to academic institutions (University of Houston, Mills College, Cole Middle School) to community (West Oakland Senior Center, Young, Gifted and Black, Project Row Houses, Kuumba Lynx) to environment and health (diabetes screening, Yoga to the People, Urban ReLeaf, Grind for the Green, scraper bikes, Green for All).

This model presents a learning opportunity for both artmakers and grantmakers. For our theater company, in relationship to the question of enough, our primary lesson is that it is not enough to place art in community without community context.

In a mercurial way, there is an obvious truth to our efforts from an audience development perspective. On the one hand, we’ve built up a cache in our local community by hosting a free, popular public event every year. Not so coincidentally, we hosted this year’s Life is Living on Saturday, October 8, and we will premiere a new work ten miles or three BART stops away on Thursday, October 13. No amount of Facebooking or flyering can substitute for genuine public proximity and investment.

Second, by partnering with thirty different organizations over the course of several months, we’ve welcomed grassroots momentum into what Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center calls our “family,” broadening our own constituent circle by organizing safe space for other organizations to share resources, intellectual property, and audience exposure. Life is Living is a laboratory of crossover experiences wherein hip-hop-generation audiences are exposed to multiple platforms for relationship. Presumably this means the young man who came just to produce bicycle-powered energy for the dance stage will fall in love with Talib Kweli and will join us in the theater space because of an experiential trust, not just an aesthetic curiosity. Most important, this model reflects Theaster’s suggestion that art happens everywhere, and can happen for anyone, which partially means that more than exporting art into traditional performance spaces, we can import performance aesthetics into nontraditional public spaces.

The ultimate thesis for this particular model is that art is not object or outcome only, but art is a process and an opportunity for community as well. Correspondingly, grantmaking in the arts can’t solely be about objects and outcomes. Innovative grantmaking also anticipates process and encourages collective opportunities.

We have difficulty in the arts community of tracking the total civic stimulus of the arts economy because we tend to focus on objects such as plays, paintings, and CDs and their corresponding sales figures. The actual gross stimulus provided by the arts includes everything from clothes bought for a night at the ballet to the livelihoods of the substantial aggregate of arts professionals in America.

Similarly, the true measure of cultural stimulus cannot just be measured by the amassed dance works, compositions, and sculptures that are resourced either by philanthropic organizations or independently. The hidden metric of cultural stimulus in America is the scale and health of partnerships within our creative ecosystems: the degree to which all organizations or artists benefit from the success of others; the degree to which organizations or artists can tie their successes to the growth of others.

A partial flaw in our current system is that we can’t fund everyone. I’d be the first to tell you that not all applicants are competitive for all grants, and that’s fine. I don’t need to be on the same court with LeBron James just because I played a year of JV basketball, and I shouldn’t be on the same funders’ docket as John Santos just because my friends tell me they like my conga playing. What we can change in our structure is the disproportionate emphasis on object with a focused priority on interdependence — supplanting the idea of ego system with the radical notion of ecosystem.

This investment in networks has a storied history in both government and private philanthropy. My own professional trajectory would have been dead in the water without the National Performance Network, which continues to foster relationships among artists, partner organizations, and constituent communities. These networks serve disparate organizations that are generally spread out around a state if not the country.

What if we supported interdisciplinary networks within more finite geographical areas, presenting artists and arts organizations with infrastructure to properly contextualize their work within community, and nonprofits with more service- and policy-based agendas access to the creative problem solving and aesthetics skills of representative organizations?


Here’s where the rubber meets the road. In January 2010, Grantmakers in the Arts launched its National Capitalization Project, and at its October 2010 conference in Chicago, GIA released a summary document that stressed the importance of well-capitalized organizations and added: “We repeatedly came back to the fact that the most common source of capital is accumulated surpluses. We agreed that getting organizations to achieve a surplus would require encouraging a significant shift in nonprofit practice and culture, a challenge we thought well worth undertaking.”

In September 2010, the National Center for Charitable Statistics published a paper titled Operating Reserve Policy Toolkit for Nonprofit Organizations. The document was produced in partnership with the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute and United Way Worldwide. In this paper the conspiring groups recommended that nonprofits have 25 percent of annual operating budget on hand at any given time during the fiscal year, which is to say that nonprofits should have three months’ cash reserve on hand at any given time.

Now look at a chart published by the Nonprofit Finance Fund earlier this year. These numbers come from NFF’s third annual survey of over nineteen hundred nonprofit leaders, and they’re incredibly predictive in nature.

Nonprofit Finance Fund Annual Survey of Nonprofits 2011 (excerpted) All Non-profits Arts Non-profits
Organizations reporting break-even or deficit levels in 2010 56% 59%
Organizations expecting 2011 results at or below breakeven 70% 73%
Organizations closing the year within a 5 percent margin above or below breakeven 56% 59%
Organizations expecting 2011 results within the 5 percent margin 60% 66%
Organizations with three months or less of cash in reserve at the time of survey (early 2011) 60% 65%

Nearly three in four organizations expect to operate at or below breakeven in 2011. Two-thirds of nonprofits were in possession of less than recommended surplus levels at the time of the survey. Two-thirds of organizations expect to amass revenues within 5 percent above or below organizational operating costs. In simple terms, if we are waiting for the sector to build (or rebuild) balance sheets independent of new philanthropic dollars, it will take a minimum of five years for those functioning at the 5 percent surplus level to generate even the equivalent of three months of additional cash reserves. If arts organizations are functioning at these levels, you can only imagine what independent artists are facing.

So here we are, grantmakers. We’re facing two concurrent crises in our field: audience development and fiscal health. We need new invested constituents, and we need leveraged balanced sheets. We can pump new philanthropic dollars into the 33 percent of arts organizations that are operating with a slight surplus and ignore the sustainability of the rest of the field, in which case 66 percent of the field dies. We can spread our resources around to the organizations that are operating within the 5 percent break-even margin, and assume that they’ll innovate both their programming and fund-raising structures. Or we can change.

It will most likely take multiple strategies executed by multiple grantmakers to push our field toward more robust health. I’ve shared with you a model and a thesis that I believe stimulate local programmatic interdependence. The model has been both challenging and effective, and it’s fed my arts practice so much that my new performance work is based on the experience.

That said, I invite you to remember the thesis more than the model. Beginning with the contraction of the NEA in the early 1990s, the arts community has been in a consistent state of adaptation. On the spectrum of adaptation, we are currently moving through a state of aesthetic and infrastructural collaboration. For the majority of us to survive, it is not enough to simply make or fund art, we also have to make or fund art in community context.

How does an artist function in the twenty-first century? Through hybridity, cultural innovation, and social accountability.

This year, our field is focused on the velocity of change. My primary suggestion to you is that there’s no use trying to keep up with change — you can’t outrun it. You can anticipate its direction and in a future-thinking way — get out in front of it before it leaves you behind altogether.