Josephine Ramirez, The James Irvine Foundation

TITLE: Program Director

FUNDING AREAS: Performing, classical and visual arts, music, and audience engagement

CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)

IP TAKE: Ramirez is concerned that nonprofessional and participatory art-making is often framed as "second rate" within current curatorial conventions. The Exploring Engagement Fund she oversees seeks California arts organizations that want to be part of this "different equilibrium."

PROFILE: Josephine Ramirez's leadership is informed by an interest in the informal art world and people's diverse creative impulses. As a 2003 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, Ramirez studied the role of nonprofessional art making in both private and community life. Years later, she recalled her fellowship in the midst of a significant redefinition of the Arts Program at The James Irvine Foundation; Ramirez was preparing to make decisions that would "reposition" the foundation's $20 million in annual grantmaking. She brought the following reflections to bear on her decision making:

It would be ridiculous to ignore…how the people inside our organizations don't resemble the ones outside....The fact that everyone has the ability to generate content offers the nonprofits arts a valuable inflection point. The new "leaders" in this two-way landscape will be those who are successful at facilitating creative, immersive, active arts experiences alongside our "traditional" expertise of creating something and presenting it whole and complete for a more observational experience....This kind of service to the public means we may need to strengthen muscles we haven't used in a while, like listening to nonexpert opinion and drawing on volunteer resources in new ways.

Published in Arts Journal under the title "Change We Must (As We Lead)," Ramirez's words created a stir among arts and cultural leaders who look to her for wisdom.

Prior to her work in foundations and grants management, Ramirez was a performing arts consultant and producer. She worked with organizations big and small and gained invaluable insight into the varied needs, strengths, and challenges of art makers and audiences nationwide. When she reached Los Angeles, she worked with the Mark Taper Forum/Center Theatre Group, filling roles from director of education to producer of the Latino Theater Initiative. She hails from the University of Texas at Austin and completed her MFA in theater from the University of Washington.

Ramirez has earned her role as arts leadership guru. She served as community arts coordinator for the King County Arts Commission, vice president of programming and planning for the Music Center in Los Angeles, and program officer and research associate at the Getty Foundation. She took the helm at The James Irvine Foundation's Arts program in 2010 and simultaneously served as vice president of the city of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission (she stepped down from her commission role in 2013). Both she and the then-commission president, York Chang, cited "personal and career reasons" for leaving the essentially voluntary position.

At the Getty, Ramirez implemented a civic arts research initiative, overseeing several years of investigation into community participation at Los Angeles cultural organizations. She went on to launch the Music Center's unique participatory arts program, Active Arts, and received a Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence for her leadership.

In 2012, as promised, Ramirez announced a new arts strategy for The Irvine. The new strategy elevates arts engagement as the number-one funding priority, and ever since, her blog posts on the foundation's own website are abuzz with use of that "engagement" word. Back in 2012 when the announcement was made, her words in Arts Journal paved the way for the restructuring to come. Phrased like a manifesto, Ramirez declared, "We need to prepare and train professional artists and administrators differently....We probably need to rethink how to structure business in our organizations, too, finding a different equilibrium than the one we're used to....We have to figure out how our work can also be about strengthening the creative capacity of people in the communities we serve."

On the foundation's own website, Ramirez defends her program's grants. For the 2013 group, she noted that its 52 arts engagement grantees were partnering with non-arts-specific spaces, providing participatory experiences, strengthening ties to their local communities, and learning how to evolve their practices along with technological and societal changes. She also explained that The Irvine's current funding priority is innovation, experimentation, and risk for the sake of discovering "what engagement practices are most effective and why." In a more recent discussion, Ramirez has used different terms to say the same thing, articulating The Irvine's priorities as "piloting," "strengthening," and "field building."