Engagement Not Optional: Another Grantmaker That's Jazzed About Public Art

In late 2015, Shelley Trott, the director of arts, strategies and ventures at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation spoke to IP about where the grantmaker was headed next in the Bay Area.

Two major themes emerged: art space and public art.

In a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco, the foundation, which has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, has proved to be a pivotal player in keeping artists in the city by providing affordable studio spaces. And now comes news that Rainin plans to expand its already impressive commitment to public art with its brand new Open Spaces program.

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The program will support temporary place-based public art projects in Oakland and San Francisco that "engage communities, showcase artistic experimentation, and energize public spaces." Letters of inquiry will be accepted online from May 16 to June 30, 2016 for "new visionary projects that demonstrate collaboration between artists and nonprofit organizations." Up to four grants will be awarded in the fall and funding will range from $50,000-$200,000 per project.

The foundation will consider submissions for visual, media and performing arts, as well as conceptual works. Potential projects will be evaluated on whether they significantly engage visitors and residents, and demonstrate a strong relationship to the site.

OK, so first off, you'll notice we emphasized the words "significantly engage." This will make sense to loyal readers of our recent arts coverage. We've been on a bit of an engagement bender lately. We guess it all began when the Wallace Foundation announced it was spending $52 million to look at innovative ways to engage audiences. It's snowballed since then.

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Our obsession is philosophical. After all, it seems like an inherently simple question: What's the best way to "engage" a community? But clearly it's far more complicated than that. As we noted in this recent rumination, no one can truly even agree on the definition of the word "engagement" itself. What's more, not all "engagement" is equal in terms of impact. Take something like engaging one's audience through e-mail—a frequently tracked metric. We asked:

What's more meaningful? Knowing that 20 people were emailed about an upcoming program—never mind that the message was immediately deleted—or knowing that three people read a Facebook post about a performance and two decided to attend?

So you can see why we're a bit existential.

This challenge simultaneously underscores an inherently intuitivecomponent to the idea of engagement. Sometimes you don't need to measure what's patently obvious. Engagement occurs when people are, well, engaged. It reminds us of when Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart's law clerk, Alan Novak, explained to his boss how he'd define obscenity: "Mr. Justice, you will know it when you see it."

And therein lies the allure of public art. When people come into direct contact with public art in a community, that is arguably "engagement" in its purest sense. You know it because you're seeing it.

Another major grantmaker who's keen on public art is Bloomberg Philanthropies. In 2014, the grantmaker announced its first-ever Public Art Challenge, in which it invited U.S. cities to develop "temporary public art projects that enhance cultural and economic activity" while establishing "robust public-private partnerships between local government and other funders." Last summer, it announced the inaugural winners. 

Related:Bloomberg Announces The Winners of Its Inaugural Public Art Challenge

Now is it a coincidence that Bloomberg Philanthropies, of all grantmakers, is so keen on public art? Not exactly. As previously noted, Bloomberg, perhaps more than any other arts-focused grantmaker, is fervently committed to quantifiably measuring audience engagement, further corroborating the old adage, "There are no coincidences in arts philanthropy."

Actually, there is no such adage. We just made it up. But why let that ruin a good framing device?

Anyway, our point, here, is simple. Beyond community enrichment, there's a reason that data-crunching grantmakers like Bloomberg are funding public art and, say, Herb "I don't know man, it's all feel" Albert isn't. (Not that there's anything wrong with "feel.")

Bottom line? Rainin's Shelley Trott told us what her foundation was going to do, and they delivered. The Bay Area—to quote our West Coast New Age friends—is very much "in transition," and the foundation is positioning itself as an arts-related bulwark against unaffordable rents, rapidly transforming neighborhoods, and the persnickety spending habits of the nouveau riche.

They're bringing the arts directly to the region's communities who, at least physiologically speaking, will have no choice but to "engage." 

So Bay Area organizations interested in this program should keep these two previously emphasized words in mind: "Potential projects will be evaluated on whether they significantly engage visitors and residents." Post the quote over your bed. Get old school and tape flash cards to your cubicle wall. Make them your North Star.

Grants will be announced in November 2016, with implementation expected in 2017. Click here for the complete application information and training workshop details.

See more articles by Mike Scutari.