The Head of Bloomberg Philanthropies' Arts Program on Harnessing the "Power of the Creative Sector"

Kate d. Levin

Kate d. Levin

It’s been an eventful six months for Kate D. Levin, the woman who oversees Bloomberg Philanthropies' Arts program.

Earlier this year, the funder launched its 2018 Public Art Challenge. In mid-May, it announced it would invest $43 million to expand its Arts Innovation and Management program, which has funded over 500 small and mid-sized cultural institutions since 2011.

And around the same time, Bloomberg released its Arts Investments and Impacts report, which illustrated how its programs "harness the power of the creative sector to improve communities by supporting artists, investing in cultural organizations, and improving audience experience to strengthen the creative landscape that is critical to social and economic vibrancy in cities."

Bloomberg has proven to be well ahead of the curve in an arts funding landscape that finds donors increasingly concerned about engaging diverse audiences, supporting smaller cash-strapped organizations and articulating the value of the "arts experience."

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Levin about her work, the promise of public art, and what she called the growing appreciation among urban stakeholders of "the creative sector’s ability to address pressing civic issues." Here is a recap of the interview.

Expanding the Creative Sector's Role in Cities

Levin has an extensive background in both the public and nonprofit sectors, having served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), from 2002-2013. It was during her tenure here, she said, that she "saw the enormous beneficial impact of artists and cultural organizations on the city and its neighborhoods."

To that end, under Levin's leadership, the DCLA expanded its charter, incorporating "creative sector participation in economic development, tourism, human service and education initiatives," thereby making the arts and culture "a core civic priority."

These experiences shaped the way she approaches arts funding at Bloomberg Philanthropies and how she advises cities on managing their cultural assets through Bloomberg Associates, the philanthropic consulting agency for cities where she serves as principal. 

Public Art as a "Virtuous Cycle"

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Public Art Challenge also reflects larger thinking about bolstering civic life in America's cities. 

Of course, Bloomberg isn’t alone in embracing public art and its potential to meaningfully engage citizens. Players in the space include the Knight Foundation, the William Penn Foundation and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which announced the winners of its 2018 Open Spaces program back in February.

But it's especially important to keep an eye on Bloomberg in the space for two reasons. First, its first Public Art Challenge debuted way back in 2014—it has some valuable experience under its belt. And second, Levin, in particular, has been refreshingly incisive in articulating the value of public art and linking it to measurable and impactful outcomes. For instance, when announcing the second challenge in February, Levin alluded to "a virtuous cycle that public art tends to trigger" by sparking "beneficial cross-sector dialogue and work that couldn’t happen in other ways."

I asked her to further expound on this idea. 

"Public art projects often reflect vision and aspiration that bring together people from different communities, interests and backgrounds," she said. "Because a successful public art project often gets people to see themselves or their city differently, along the way, it can shake up normal protocols a bit to get things done. Practically speaking, these kinds of projects tend to straddle a number of different areas, both physically and in terms of community engagement, so they drive the building of new collaborations.

"For example, a project may need permits from a number of different regulatory agencies, who may or may not have worked together before. In the course of getting behind a creative idea, local governments end up working closely with nonprofits, community boards partner together on programmatic activities, and individuals travel to parts of town that are new to them.” 

So how does this “cross-sector dialogue” play out in the practical sense? For an answer, Levin referenced one of the inaugural Public Art Challenge winners, a project called Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light, which aimed to improve community-police relations and strengthen public spaces in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Artist Erwin Redl collaborated with the city’s police and fire departments, along with neighborhood associations, on light and media art installations that involved 10 neighborhoods across the city.

Levin said that the Chapman Cultural Center, which oversaw the project, "met the challenge of creating and managing a series of collaborations among local civic associations, public safety agencies, city service providers, local businesses and Spartanburg’s creative sector that simply would not have happened otherwise." One element of the project was a video installation that featured police and residents talking candidly about experiences in a high-crime neighborhood. The video is now used by the Spartanburg Police Department in training officers and administrative staff. 

Levin said that the new connections catalyzed by public art project can "linger long after a project ends, creating a unique local capacity for innovation, consensus-building, and problem solving well into the future."

Addressing "Pressing Civic Issues"

Readers of Inside Philanthropy's arts coverage know that funders are bullish on the arts as a means to drive meaningful social change. And while no one will confuse Bloomberg's brand of technocratic giving with the activism of say, the Ford Foundation, Levin underscored that Bloomberg's cumulative work has cultivated a "growing appreciation among city leadership of the creative sector’s ability to address pressing civic issues and bring a range of positive benefits to communities." 

Inaugural Public Art Challenge winner ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen in Gary, Indiana, for instance, spurred positive change in the context of Gary’s larger economic development efforts.

"Both the mayor and the city’s leading philanthropic foundation said that ArtHouse has been a catalyst for change in downtown Gary, where key revitalization projects have since kicked off, such as the transformation of the City Methodist Church ruins into a garden and the launch of Steel City Salvage's reclaimed building material warehouse."   

Levin pointed to another case study, out of Reading, Pennsylvania, in which the city hosted a multimedia installation by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage called This is Reading. 

"Aimed at addressing racial and economic inequities in one of the poorest cities in America, the piece transformed the long-vacant historic Franklin Street Railroad Station through a series of multimedia performances in July 2017." The show drew over 3,000 people, with a majority coming from outside the city, and was entirely sold out during its run.   

In addition, Levin said that This is Reading "sparked much-needed dialogue about critical revitalization projects. Immediately following the installation, the Berks Area Regional Transportation Authority entered into talks with the City of Reading about the future of historic Franklin Street Railroad Station. 

"Nearly 85 stakeholders and community members convened at a town hall to discuss next steps for the station, signaling renewed citizen engagement around community assets in a city that had become emblematic of industrial decline."

As far as Bloomberg's second Public Art Challenge is concerned, Levin said there will be no significant structural challenges to the program.

"We anticipate seeing some of the same benefits we saw during the first round, including economic impact, relationship building, and rich programming for communities." She also looks forward “to having the terrific colleagues and participants from the first round available to advise and guide the new cities."