"Beyond Dated Assumptions." What's Next for This Influential Regional Arts Funder?

 This mural in San Francisco's fast gentrifying mission district has since been painted over. Photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

This mural in San Francisco's fast gentrifying mission district has since been painted over. Photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

The reports of the death of the Bay Area's arts ecosystem, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated.

The region's arts funders are pushing back against the forces of gentrification, soaring housing prices, and an uninterested tech demographic. Is it an uphill battle given the prodigious market forces at play? Certainly. Are there reasons for optimism? Absolutely.

Recent examples of institutional largesse include the William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation's $46.4 million gift to support the expansion of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Koret Foundation's new $10 million arts and culture commitment, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions. Even a tech couple—Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and his wife Akiko Yamazaki—made a big arts donation not too long ago. 

With so much money flowing throughout the Bay Area, funders don't want to duplicate efforts and dilute impact. Gaps must be identified and filled. Self-examination is critical. Which brings me to news of a strategic reset from one of the region's most forward-looking arts funders, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation.

The foundation has been ahead of the curve when it comes to providing Bay Area artists organizations with affordable spaces through its support for the Community Art Stabilization Trust. Through its work with the city of Oakland, it's at the forefront in supporting traditionally underfunded arts organizations of color. And its Open Spaces program has astutely framed public art as a medium through which audiences can engage with work addressing issues like gentrification and poverty.

Rainin, in other words, is deftly aligned with the complex and charged dynamics of the Bay Area's arts ecosystem. What's there to change, really?

For answers, we turn to this blog post by Shelley Trott, director, arts strategy & ventures, laying out the results of a two-year strategic review of Rainin's role in the Bay Area arts landscape.

"Over the next three years," Trott writes, "the foundation will play to our strengths to ensure that artists are thriving in the Bay Area by supporting artists that push boundaries and working collaboratively with artists, arts organizations and funders to achieve systemic change together." Rainin’s tactics will include: 

  • Funding Bay Area contemporary artists working in dance, theater, public space and film. 
  • Investigating artists’ changing practices and organizational models that will improve systems and unleash creativity. 
  • Collaborating with others and leveraging resources to achieve maximum impact. 
  • Prioritizing research, reflection and learning to inform its strategies. 
  • Taking a laboratory approach to new initiatives by testing and sharing what it discovers.

Good News for Bay Area Artists

By doubling down on its support for artists operating in the historically underfunded fields of dance, theater, and film, Rainin is, once again, dialed into the arts philanthropy zeitgeist.

In a recent post looking at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's Artist Awards, I called attention to a lack of support for individual artists. This disparity has many root causes. One is an issue of supply and demand. With so many artists and organizations vying for arts funding, there simply isn't enough money to go around. Another is control. Funders are typically reluctant to provide unrestricted grants to individual artists. There's a limited number of places like Doris Duke and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which offer financial lifelines to artists. 

Such support is especially important in expensive coastal cities where artists are barely hanging on. Despite the cheery opening paragraph of this post and the obligatory shout-out to Mark Twain, the Bay Area—spoiler alert!—is far from an artist's paradise. In a piece in Bold Italic last year, Jason Ditzian wrote, "The energy and vibrancy of full-time, noncommercial working artists living and working in San Francisco is an important thing. And it’s a thing that is going to be extinct in the near future."

Ditzian's prediction may very well come to pass. If so, Rainin's Trott articulated two primary causes for this extinction. In what is arguably the most trenchant sentence in her blog post, she wrote:

A number of critical Bay Area funders have directed resources away from the arts while the philanthropic direction of our region’s new wealth remains uncertain.

To Trott's former point, some regional funders, swept up in the anti-inequality headwinds of the past few years, have shifted gears and placed the arts on the back burner.

Most notably, the San Francisco-based James Irvine Foundation pivoted toward expanding economic and political opportunity for families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty. "In the future, arts nonprofits would be considered only for grants that fit our initiatives to expand economic and political opportunity," said Josephine Ramirez, Irvine's portfolio director, said at the time. 

The San Francisco Foundation also revamped its grantmaking to focus on inequality, especially in terms of race and wealth.

Institutional Funders Carry the Weight

We've talked extensively in the past about how the region's new wealth hasn't made its way into the coffers of Bay Area arts organizations. The narrative here hasn't changed all that much. While techies and tech companies are swimming in cash, their philanthropy is often tilted toward the principles of "effective altruism," which asks, "how many lives does the opera save?" This puts arts organizations at an inherent disadvantage. Cut-and-dry metrics measuring a return on investment in the "arts experience" remains, relatively speaking, hard to come by. 

A couple of years back, the Silicon Valley Ballet shuttered its doors. And while it would be overly simplistic to blame ambivalent techies for its demise, some folks weren't letting them off the hook. Attorney David Lindsay Barch, in a Facebook post reprinted by the SF Gate, said, "The stinginess of corporate philanthropy in Silicon Valley is a disgrace to the region and its residents. Even the robber barons of old did more for the arts and culture of their time than the penurious gorgons that reign today. Just shameful." 

To be fair, entities like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation support the arts. The only problem is that the support is proportionately inadequate given the obstacles facing the region's artists and organizations.

The foundation's Donor Circle for the Arts, for instance, has granted more than $688,500 to emerging arts organizations in the region since its inception in 2008. That comes out to a paltry $70,000 a year. This isn't to say the money won't go a long way to help a small nonprofit based in Sunnyvale or Milpitas, but this is Silicon Valley, people. The median income in Santa Clara County is $93,500, consistently ranked as one of the highest in the nation. 

Jason Ditzian picked up on this thread in his Bold Italic piece. The Bay Area's arts ecosystem will go the way of the dinosaurs "unless the unthinkable happens, and dot-com companies follow the lead of granddaddy Hewlett and toss a few crumbs to us starving artists."

I'd politely encourage the region's starving artists not to hold their breath and to stockpile what remaining crumbs they have.

With a few exceptions, like Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki's $25 million gift to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the region's tech elite just aren't that into the arts, leaving institutional funders to shoulder the burden.

Compound this reality with Trott's comment that "the high cost of living continues to threaten Bay Area artists and arts organizations with displacement," and you can see why the folks at Rainin felt compelled to undertake a thorough strategic reevaluation.

New Models for the "Modern Arts Economy"

So what tangible changes to Rainin's grantmaking can we expect moving forward?

Again, Bay Area artists are in luck. According to Trotter, Rainin is "researching fellowship models that align with our priorities and provide significant direct support to individual artists." Similarly, Rainin modified its New & Experimental Works and Open Spaces programs to "elevate the artist’s role and vision in supported projects." 

Rainin also remains committed to helping organizations navigate the region's operational and financial minefields. Its RENEW and Impact programs remain suspended as it embarks on a "rigorous investigation of existing and alternative organizational models and support systems."

The former program provides multi-year support to ongoing programs that support multiple artists such as festivals, residencies, new play development programs, and space-sharing initiatives. The last one provides multi-year capacity building support to small and mid-size dance, theater, and multidisciplinary arts organizations that have received funding through the Foundation’s NEW Program, formerly the Visibility Awards.

Rainin's reassessment of these two programs is, according to Trott, "a direct outgrowth of our work with our Impact grantees around the challenges of sustaining current operating models." 

To Trott's point, while the Bay Area is known for its relentless and unwavering focus on the future, many of its arts organizations, squeezed by the dual threats of lagging support and displacement, still cling to antiquated modes of thinking, operation and management. Looking ahead, it will be Rainin's job to help them adapt to what it calls the "modern arts economy."

"As funders," Trott wrote, "we have an obligation to think beyond dated assumptions and best practices designed for another time."

RelatedAverting Extinction: Can Institutional Funders Save the Arts in the Bay Area?