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Navigating the Journey

Josephine Ramirez

Josephine Ramirez, Former Portfolio Director

Last week, The James Irvine Foundation announced an evolving focus based on the twin goals of expanding economic and political opportunity for California families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty. In a related email, I introduced aspects of our evolving Arts program. Today, I would like to provide additional context on our Arts strategy and future directions.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that Irvine is moving away from program areas — including the arts — as the Foundation focuses more on initiatives related to our new goals. As this transition takes place, we will fulfill our commitments to all current grantees and initiatives, in the arts as well as our other existing programs. Indeed, the majority of our 2016 grantmaking dollars will go towards our existing program commitments.

You’ll see below information about how we believe the arts and arts-related grantees can play an important role within our new focus and integrated into new initiatives that address challenges faced by Californians who are working but struggling with poverty. This is a change; in the future arts nonprofits would be considered only for grants that fit our initiatives to expand economic and political opportunity. The reality is that fewer organizations will receive arts-related grants from Irvine than in years past.

This shift included our own challenging conversations and decisions at Irvine, and we know that it is even more difficult to hear for many in the arts field. We will do our best to be clear with you about where the Foundation is going with this evolving focus and what that means for future grantmaking.

The evolution of our Arts program

Before I share more about how we are thinking about the arts as part of our evolving focus, allow me to provide a bit of context about the evolution of our Arts program. In 2011, we put forward an Irvine Arts program goal to promote engagement in the arts for all Californians. With our grantees and other partners, we have pursued this goal diligently.

Together, we are generating new awareness, research, models, and examples of ways that nonprofits can help realize greater public benefit through arts engagement. Last fall, as the contours of the evolving Irvine focus on expanding economic and political opportunity emerged, we began to examine the key components of our Arts program, which led to the following key observations and decisions:

New California Arts Fund (NCAF): Our overarching Arts program strategy was built on the belief that arts engagement strengthens communities by promoting increased social tolerance and civic participation. NCAF has served as the core grantmaking for this strategy; it supports organizations in building their capacity to sustain arts engagement for a diverse public. Through NCAF, we are currently providing multiyear grants to 16 arts nonprofits across the state. We look forward to continuing NCAF with these existing grantee partners to achieve the initiative’s important goals. Moving forward, we will not be adding new grantees to NCAF.

Field Building: Our core NCAF grantmaking connects to a larger interest in building the field of organizations that are making changes to bring about more substantive, sustainable arts engagement. Our intent in the next few years is to elevate all that is working and support NCAF and other leaders as they build what they need to grow and learn as a network of change-makers committed to expanding arts engagement with diverse and low-income Californians. For example, we expect to publish new research and evaluation on arts engagement, and to foster opportunities for practitioners to share their on-the-ground experiences and insights with others in the field.

Exploring Engagement Fund (EEF): The Exploring Engagement Fund was designed to provide risk capital for nonprofits ready to pilot arts engagement ideas. Since 2012, we have seeded more than 100 experiments that have fueled arts engagement with a diverse group of more than 800,000 Californians, including many low-income participants. Evaluation shows that many nonprofits have used EEF resources to take greater risks and conduct more ambitious experiments than would be typical in their respective organizational contexts; as a result they were able to engage more diverse participants.

We have mined a great deal of learning from these grantees and their pilot projects. In recent years, we have also shifted more of our resources to the core work of our Arts strategy: building the capacity of organizations embracing arts engagement through the New California Arts Fund. This year, we begin winding down the Exploring Engagement Fund. We are accepting applications through March 30, 2016, for a final round of Exploring Engagement Fund grants.

With feedback and advice over the years from many of our colleagues in the field, the Arts program team at Irvine built the engagement strategy, and we remain enthusiastic about it. We are extremely proud of our grantee partners’ work; they are leading the way into a more relevant future for nonprofit arts institutions.

At the same time, Irvine’s evolving focus provides potential for building on arts engagement work by allowing more opportunity for cross-disciplinary grantmaking — deeply embedding creative and artistic expression in potential solutions to the challenges faced by young adults and families in or near poverty.

The arts and our evolving focus

As we develop grantmaking initiatives, we are looking at the arts field more broadly, and at aspects of our Arts strategy that can help drive progress toward Irvine’s evolved goals in a more integrated way. One direct connection is creative expression.

We know that creative expression can be a powerful means of giving voice and visibility to the millions of Californians who are cut off from economic and political opportunity. We also know that the broad notion of “creative expression” calls for further definition.

We are exploring how to best draw upon our arts knowledge and networks to benefit working families and young adults who are struggling with poverty. We want to help them gain access to California’s economic and political systems and promote policies that can help them become more financially self-sufficient as well as more engaged and influential in civic life. With your help, we are excited about figuring out how the arts and creative expression can play a role in that endeavor.

We have much to think through in coming weeks and months, and we look forward to continued communication as we navigate this journey. We welcome your questions and comments along the way.

On that note, I invite you to join me in an online exchange today, Thursday, February 4. I will conduct a virtual office hour via Twitter beginning at 2 p.m. Pacific Time. You can chat with me, in a public forum, via #IrvineChat. You can also access this session via our Twitter account @IrvineFdn.

Thanks for all you do – and to ongoing dialogue.