A Conversation with Philanthropic Giants

March 12, 2023—I recently had the opportunity to view the videocast, FLOW with Dr. Durrell Cooper, which featured an interview with two giants of the world of philanthropy—Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, and Sharnita C. Johnson, Vice President of Strategy, Impact and Communication at the Victoria Foundation. Ms. Johnson also is chair of the Board of Directors Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA).

I urge you to make the time to watch this illuminating discussion, which is less than 30 minutes in length. Dr. Cooper is the founder of the Cultural Innovation Group, LLC, and a prominent cultural strategist specializing in systems change and collaborative thought leadership. He also is an adjunct professor at both New York University and the City College of New York. His co-producer of this segment, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), is a national network of private, public, and corporate arts funders offering leadership and service to advance the use of philanthropic and governmental resources to support the growth of the arts and culture.

During the interview, Dr. Cooper dialogued with Mr. Walker and Ms. Johnson about justice, equity, and the important role of the arts and artists. There were several key points for me:

  • There are harmful narratives that artists are supposed to be poor and not expect a living wage or a livelihood with dignity. It has huge repercussions for the field as well as for individual artists. Creatives should not have to be poor, especially when they do so much more to uplift the community.
  • Culture workers are a vulnerable class, which we especially witnessed during the pandemic—they didn’t get the same attention as other members of the workforce, and they don’t have reserves to rebound; especially those serving communities of color. Being a culture worker is a job, it is a career. They should be entitled to healthcare or paid vacation like the rest of us. That is an important body of work that GIA is getting behind and trying to educate the field about this need.
  • The growing numbers of leaders of color in the field of philanthropy is making a difference; they are working through the lens of equity and are working to address issues of underfunding in communities of color and other marginalized communities. Not only must we work to bring them in, it’s also important that we provide the support to retain them in the field.
  • It’s important to also address the underrepresentation in curatorial positions, museum administration, and inequity in funding of arts organizations that work in communities of color or marginalized communities.
  • It is easy to espouse Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). To implement it requires concrete, long-term, multi-year and focused infrastructure for community arts organizations and arts institutions. The work of GIA is going to be more essential than ever before in its history.
  • We live in a time when there doesn’t seem to be sufficient empathy and respect for the dignity of people within our communities. The arts provide a pathway out of this. The arts build the muscles of empathy and the ability to see other people; allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of others. It comes from the engagement with the arts. We can’t get to justice; the road to justice leads through art and empathy.

Dr. Cooper also asked about the Ford Foundation-backed Creatives Rebuild New York, which last year began the distribution of $43-million  to provide artists with a guaranteed monthly income for 18-months.

Mr. Walker described the initiative as an artist-led idea. He went on to say: “Whenever you turn the development, rebirth, and renewal over to artists, big things will happen. What artists need are the luxury and resources that everyone else has to do their work. Artists and arts organizations will deliver when they have the resources. Through the arts, the program is helping the city of New York rebuild by helping the people who are most vulnerable to have the opportunity to produce, make and exhibit work. Creatives can rebuild anything, and they will deliver.”

One of the closing questions that Dr. Cooper asked was: “What would you say to your younger self to give them encouragement to make it to tomorrow?”

“You are absolutely your ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Ms. Johnson said.

“Lean into your dreams,” Mr. Walker said.

They both expounded on the reasons for their answer, and I encourage you to check it out at this link.

I believe the points made during the interview, along with the encouragement to their “younger selves,” are principles to ponder as we all continue to work to advance Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Access in our respective corners of the world of the arts and arts administration.

As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below.

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