Within the past few weeks, I have read with interest the observations of a number of active bloggers in the arts field whom I have come to respect and admire: Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, Clay Lord, and Barry Hessenius. Each of them has blogged on aspects of the Irvine Foundation’s new arts strategy and, in doing so, has contributed to a robust dialogue that has played out on their respective blogs as well as on Twitter.
And that’s what prompts my contribution to this discussion: I will comment only lightly on the substantive issues they have raised related to our Arts strategy as my colleague, Josephine Ramirez, who directs our Arts program, plans to post a more substantive comment on those issues in the next week or so. There is another aspect of this discussion that I do want to comment upon and invite others to engage on with me and my colleagues in philanthropy.
From my early days as Irvine’s CEO, and with great support from our Board of Directors, I have placed a premium on transparency, both with regard to our work at Irvine and for the broader field of philanthropy. I have certainly not been alone in this quest (Brad Smith at the Foundation Center is probably our field’s leading champion), and I think it’s a fair observation to say that the field has come a long way in the past decade.
At the same time, I would characterize much of the progress under the headline of “Transparency 1.0”: creating useful and information-rich websites; describing in detail the strategic priorities of the foundation; sharing results of evaluations and learning; posting results of surveys that offer feedback, such as the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report. All of these have been positive developments, aimed toward shedding more light on what is often an opaque and impenetrable field. At the same time, these efforts at transparency are primarily one-way, aimed at information transmission. In “Transparency 1.0,” we decide what to be transparent about and then put it out there for you to digest.
Today, the advent of social media, to which philanthropy is still a bit of a newcomer, combined with the recognition that foundations certainly do not have all of the answers, offers opportunities for the field to embrace and practice what I will call “Transparency 2.0,” oriented toward dialogue, debate and shared learning.
And that’s what has struck me about this recent dialogue related to Irvine’s Arts strategy. Whether people agree or disagree with the choices we have made, we are now discussing it, publicly, intelligently and forthrightly. I admire those who have stepped forward to criticize aspects of our strategy, whether they believe it is wrong on its merits or they view it as yet another example of “strategic philanthropy” gone awry, where we are dictating and imposing our solutions upon the field.
That is certainly not our intention. What is different for us in our new Arts strategy is that rather than continuing with a broad-based approach that funded projects across multiple objectives, we made the strategic decision to direct our finite resources in a way that, in our view, will best position the arts field for future viability and success. In doing so, we are openly expressing a point of view about how we think the field must evolve to ensure its dynamism and relevance. Yet, we are very clear about our willingness to learn with our partners in this effort, to refine our approach accordingly, and to help to advance the field’s understanding of the many ways to engage a broader cross-section of Californians (in our case) in the arts.
To draw from Diane Ragsdale’s very thoughtful analysis, I suppose one person’s coaxing might be another person’s coercion, but I hope what we will be able to do via this work is to co-create. In the end, we care about impact. And we believe that to maximize our ability to have impact requires a clear, focused and coherent strategic direction. That’s what we are aiming for in the Arts, similar to what we have already been committed to in our other core program areas of Youth and California Democracy.
Just as we lament the fact that the arts are too often (and wrongly) viewed by funders as discretionary or recreational, so must we demand that arts grantmaking be guided by the same level of rigor and strategic direction as other program areas. That’s what we are striving for at Irvine, and we know that we have much to learn along this journey. And that’s why I have been inspired and pleased by the active engagement from others, demonstrative of the evolution of transparency in philanthropy. So, please keep the ideas, observations and critiques coming. It’s the best way to ensure we can achieve the end we all agree upon: a vibrant, relevant and successful arts field. And in doing so, we might just model new ways for foundations and their partners to engage, debate, discuss and learn together.
James E. Canales
President and CEO