John E. McGuirk, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

TITLE: Program Director, Performing Arts Program

FUNDING AREAS: Performing arts and arts education

CONTACT:, 650-234-4500

IP TAKE: McGuirk believes in the arts. Childhood music lessons, family theater outings, and public school art classes shaped the person he is today. He sees the arts as a means to engage the whole person, stimulating our various intelligences and building confidence.

PROFILE: What makes John McGuirk passionate about art? A performance he caught at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1987. The play—Larry Kramer's A Normal Heart—was a transformative experience for a young man with a conservative upbringing. He was confronted with the tragedy and stigma of AIDS through an intimate and human story. That experience remains with him to this day, driving his desire to make similar experiences available to others. As one of 2012's Fifty Most Powerful and Influential People in the Nonprofit Arts, he is poised to realize his vision.

McGuirk recognizes that there is a huge gulf in access to the arts: Income, school district, and various cultural barriers affect whether or not a child will receive the valuable lessons that he did. Performing arts organizations that prioritize educational outreach, such as artist and teacher partnerships, after-school workshops, summer camps, or teaching artist development, will likely get a second look from McGuirk.

McGuirk worked at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as a program officer from 2002 to 2006. He then spent three years as director of the Arts Program for the James Irvine Foundation. In 2009, he returned to Hewlett to take his current director post, overseeing more than 200 regional grantees. The mandate of the Performing Arts Program is to "sustain artistic expression and encourage public engagement in the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area."

While Hewlett's other funding areas are national and global in reach, Performing Arts specifically seeks to foster a stronger arts community in San Francisco. This is because, as McGuirk says,

Theatre professionals gain strong experience in the Bay Area and then move to a larger market like New York, Los Angeles, or London. We're competing with other regions that have a much larger infrastructure around theater that includes commercial for-profit opportunities.

McGuirk is also Hewlett's liaison to the Community Leadership Project, which focuses on growing low-income, multicultural non-profit organizations. This is a niche role for him, and a topic he thinks and cares about deeply. He spoke at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations 2010 conference on "Foundations and Communities of Color: A Conversation About What's Working and What We Can Do Better." That's a conversation your organization better be involved in if you hope to pass McGuirk's litmus test.

Although McGuirk is an advocate for all the performing arts, his heart belongs to music. In the past, McGuirk has served at the Community School of Music and Arts, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Opera. You might be surprised to learn that he did not major in music or start out as an orchestra musician. He studied business and finance, honing in on arts management in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University.

McGuirk is acutely aware of the financial setbacks affecting arts organizations in general and patron-driven performing arts organizations in particular. Hewlett's own grantmaking budgets were slashed after the foundation's assets declined in 2008. A near 40 percent coffers cut significantly altered McGuirk's grantmaking strategies, but he has tried not to alter the goals of the Performing Arts Program, remaining committed to what matters: Seeing excellent works of art developed and performed, and increasing opportunities for the public to participate. To realize these goals, he's targeting "artistically and financially healthy organizations."

In 2011, after then-National Endowment of the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman declared the current state of theater oversaturated and unsustainable, McGuirk spoke at the 2011 Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference in a session titled "Supply and Demand." His advice to arts organizations—which was met with some controversy—was to fund fewer projects with the same budget and emphasize public participation. Delivering fewer, higher-quality performances will drive up public demand, McGuirk believes. This, in a nutshell, is McGuirk's perspective on the performing: Quality trumps quantity.

In a 2012 interview on the foundation's own website, McGuirk bullet-points three trends he sees moving forward: The Bay Area's changing demographics, technology's role in artistic consumption, and consumer behavior. Potential grantees best be mindful of the roadmap McGuirk sees in light of these trends.

If you belong to a Bay Area performing arts organization, investigate Hewlett's three areas of grantmaking: Continuity and Engagement, Arts Education, and Infrastructure. And remember to think like McGuirk, with an eye for audience diversity, financial sustainability, educational outreach, and exceptional programming.