Ted Russell, The James Irvine Foundation

TITLE: Senior Program Officer for the Arts

FUNDING AREAS: Arts

CONTACT: trussell@irvine.org, 415-777-2244

IP TAKE: A recent pool of applicants to the Irvine Foundation’s Arts program "disappointed" Russell. You hear that? That's good news for future applicants, who can wow him if they can learn from others'—or their own—mistakes.

PROFILE: Before offending anyone, let's put Ted Russell's words in context. In 2012, The James Irvine Foundation unveiled a new strategy focusing on active audience participation in California arts organizations: the Exploring Engagement Fund. Recent applicants are responding to a call to engage "traditionally underserved" populations, "utilize active participation in the arts," and "experiment with the use of non-traditional venues."

Russell and many others in the arts grantmaking world may recognize that this is a tall order for the typical grant-seeking arts organization, which may face significant challenges to doing any of the above. Yet The James Irvine Foundation is still finding the market for its special brand of grants, and Russell seems to be looking for risk-takers who are willing to be as forward thinking as the Arts program expects its grantees to be. The Irvine's new approach to arts funding has stirred a dialogue throughout the field, and the chorus of opinions was getting so loud that their then-president, Jim Canales, responded in a blog post on the foundation's website.

Russell is the gatekeeper of this sometimes controversial fund.   — is Russell, who is a Senior Program Officer in the arts division. For Russell, this new strategy is exciting, and as he described the grantmaking process for the Exploring Engagement Fund in a blog post, "Think of it as venture capital for arts engagement. But instead of capital returns, our expected payoffs are organizational transformation and expanding arts engagement to new audiences across California."

The Exploring Engagement Fund supports programming throughout California and has several funding tiers. One is specifically for large organizations with operating budgets over $5 million. Speaking to leaders of select large organizations, Russell "encouraged them to explore new partnerships, hire new staff with expertise in [engagement] or learn from others." The Engagement Fund is explicitly intended for learning, with the emphasis on big ideas rather than proven track records. Russell hopes these grants will lead to "lasting institutional changes" that might help not only low-income and minority audiences experience art, but the organizations themselves become sustainable in the new century.

Russell hails from Oakland, California. He has watched his hometown gain recognition as an arts capital, with cultural leaders helping to bring change to difficult community issues. Oakland is incredibly diverse, though it has lived in the shadow of San Francisco for many years. Its recent transformation into one of America's Top 12 ArtPlaces is a tremendous inspiration to Russell. He recalls the words of one Oakland arts leader: "The creative capital is here already, there's just a lack of resources, a lack of connection." Here as in other California cities, Russell has his eye out for existing creative community capital that he can give a funding boost.

Russell joined the Irvine Foundation in 2005, after serving as Director of Marketing at Montalvo Arts Center. His marketing strategies were incredibly lucrative for the multidisciplinary arts space. Previously, he worked in audience development at the San Francisco Symphony, and several other music, dance, and theater organizations throughout California. He also proven his skills in online marketing at Listen.com and SFGate.com. He is on the Board of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Joe Goode Performance Group, Independent Television Service, and the Children's Arts Guild. Given all of that, you might never guess he started out in mechanical engineering at Yale (before earning his MBA in arts management at UCLA).

Russell helped organize the 2011 Grantmakers in the Arts Annual Conference in San Francisco. The conference was titled "Embracing the Velocity of Change" and was intended to generate dialogue around arts, technology, and social change. It included one pre-conference session on Arts and Technology and another on Individual Artists and Social Justice. The organizers hoped to reach out to artists engaged in environmental, immigrant, racial, indigenous, and food justice. 

The 2011 conference was aimed at drawing community-minded, grassroots arts makers out of the woodwork. Similarly, the Exploring Engagement Fund is trying to reach previously ineligible arts organizations with "risk capital." In February 2013, an arts journalist questioned the Irvine's methods, noting that trying to "coax" grantees into new audience engagement ventures is dangerously similar to "coercing" them into a set of prescribed behaviors. Russell did not shy away from this tough conversation, tweeting at the journalist, "We're coaxing. But when is that coercive?"