Investing in the Arts–in Chicago and Beyond

The International Council of the Museum of Modern Art

Prepared Remarks
The Arts Club, Chicago, IL, April 2023

  1. Introduction
    It is a great privilege to welcome you all to Chicago. Many of you have traveled great distances overseas to join us here, and it is my hope that you come to appreciate the vibrancy of the city as much as I do. Let me first acknowledge that this land is Indigenous, home to the Potawatomi people and other Native tribes, including the Odawa and Ojibwe.

I too have called Chicago home for nearly four years now, since I was appointed President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. While MacArthur is rooted in our hometown, Chicago, we are proud of our global connections and partnerships. Our Staff at our offices in India and Nigeria lead important work and drive collaboration on the ground in the areas of climate change and anti-corruption. I believe that truly creative, world-changing ideas can come out of global partnerships.

Our institution has grown out of the MacArthur family’s generosity. This has been through the work of many people—our Staff and Board members, grantees, and partners—for more than 40 years.

There is much to be proud of in MacArthur’s history. And there are many possibilities yet to be achieved. We still have much to learn.

One thing we have learned is that everything we do at scale requires collaboration, along with the firm belief that we can imagine and create a better a better future—a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.

Philanthropic collaborations allow us to level up and usher in a new world of possibility.

My topic today is how we can reshape our communities at this moment in history. Now is the time for collaborative action to address our urgent goals and pursue bold thinking for a better future.

I believe we can learn, and realize what’s possible, through trust-based partnerships. Partnerships that share power with the communities we serve.

There are many models for this. I want to touch on a few ways we build trusting partnerships, to support creativity and foster the art of possibility.

There are four different ways of working I want to highlight that I think are illustrative of these themes. And they importantly show that there are MANY ways to partner with the people who are doing the work.
• First, our partnerships in our hometown, Chicago.
• Next, the MacArthur Fellows Program;
• Third, our Big Bets that strive for transformative progress in areas of profound concern; and finally,
• 100&Change, our global competition to solve a critical problem of our time.

  1. Chicago, Trust, and Philanthropy
    Please allow me to begin with our work here in Chicago. While MacArthur is part of the Chicago community, we also recognize there are many neighborhoods within this city–77 by one count–many of which are excluded from the decisions that affect their lives, due to a history of oppression, exclusion, and systemic racism.

Historically, philanthropy, including MacArthur, has taken a top-down approach to local “charity.” We all too often think this is how it works: We identify a problem, we know how to fix it, we dictate how to fix it, and with how much money. As you may guess, I do not think this is the right approach.

Again, we do NOT have all the answers. This top-down process empirically does not work.

So, at MacArthur, we partner with our community foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, whom we trust implicitly—it’s built into their name. As we work to tackle BIG challenges in our community—like racial equity, wealth gaps, gun violence and public safety—we trust the communities and organizations who are closest to these challenges and know best how to deploy resources.

Chicago is exceptional and well-known for many wonderful things—arts, music, theater, architecture, fostering leaders and activist organizations, and bringing people together from all walks of life—but it is also exceptional for its segregation and inequality.

We recently joined The Harris Poll to survey residents on their perceptions about of Chicago’s racial health and wealth gap. Our survey showed that residents see widening gaps, exacerbated by the unequal distribution of resources.

Residents also see challenges in public safety, healthcare access, food deserts, housing, and schools. Yet we also see opportunity—opportunity to address these concerns. Chicagoans believe that, with the right resources and investment, these challenges can be solved.

The series of polls supported our decision to make deeper investments in people, places, and partnerships to advance racial equity and build a more inclusive Chicago.

For more than 40 years, MacArthur has supported Chicago-based arts and culture organizations. While the city’s vibrant creativity was and is worth celebrating, we came to understand that our support had not been distributed equitably across Chicago’s geographies or populations. Before my time at MacArthur, the Chicago Commitment team found its arts grantmaking was concentrated in majority-White communities, funding organizations that themselves have a history of exclusion.

And so, in 2017, the Foundation began to reassess our approach to arts and culture grantmaking. How could we better support creative people and networks that actually reflect our city’s diversity?

So we reimagined the program. We structured it based on conversations with artists, creatives, leaders from arts organizations, arts advocates, and administrators in the nonprofit and for-profit spaces. Our approach was also informed by MacArthur’s participation in Enrich Chicago—an arts-led movement to undo racism—and a Foundation-wide effort called the Just Imperative, to reflect on how our decisions and actions enhance the conditions in which justice can thrive.

The Culture, Equity, and the Arts program, which we call “CEA,” uses a participatory grantmaking model—taking direction from arts, culture, and community leaders embedded in their communities. We have taken a heuristic approach to this work; we know that we will be learning and growing as we go. Participatory grantmaking values the lived experience and wisdom that non-grantmakers can bring to a deliberative process.

Our participatory grantmakers look a lot like Chicago. They represent a range of racial and ethnic groups, life experiences, and careers in a variety of sectors. They review our slate of grant applicants and recommend organizations to our Board for approval. Removing most of the decision-making from us and shifting power back into community.

Today, I am happy to say, there are a range of efforts that are providing greater access to arts programming for communities that have been excluded in the past.

We support organizations whose primary intentions, practices, and mission are by, for, and about a more diverse set of artists, cultures, and communities, including Chicago institutions like the Chicago Sinfonietta, Little Black Pearl Workshop, and Chicago Latino Theater Alliance.

Another great example of partnership in the arts is our $5 million investment in the America’s Cultural Treasures initiative. Chicago’s Cultural Treasures is part of the national initiative seeded by the Ford Foundation, which is focused on supporting the city’s arts and cultural organizations, led by, and serving people of color. At the heart of this program is the question of who gets to decide what Cultural Treasures are. This initiative invites a selection committee to help determine what the residents of Chicago believe are the cultural treasures that serve them best, and to co-create the grantmaking process from start to finish with a strong focus on equity.

In our CEA grantmaking, this process has also resulted in traditional, legacy organizations engaging in more inclusive work. For example, Joffrey Ballet, Chicago’s largest dance organization, offers community engagement programs, full scholarships to diverse students in its Academy of Dance, and supports emerging choreographers of color. And the Newberry Library has made great efforts digitizing its collections and reaching more people online, and in partnering with local Native American tribes to improve access to their archive of Indigenous materials.

Our aim is to advance the sector in three ways: first, by applying new equity-focused guidelines; second, we no longer base funding amounts on the size of organizations’ budgets; and third, we shift power outside of philanthropic institutions, relying instead on the advice of voices from outside the Foundation in making grant decisions. In this way, we (I hope):

• Amplify voices and leadership in communities;
• Strengthen trust and transparency; and
• Make better decisions by bringing a diversity of perspectives and experiences to the table.

While these fundamental changes have thus far only applied to MacArthur’s direct grants to large organizations, just this month we were proud to launch our regranting partnership with the Field Foundation. We’re calling it A Road Together—or ART for short.

Over the next five years, through ART, Field will regrant MacArthur funds to offer general operating support to small and mid-sized arts organizations with a strong commitment to equity.

Through this regranting partnership, we hope to see a more equitable distribution of resources across the city’s neighborhoods and communities. And we are looking for more diversity in the organizations that we support.

  1. MacArthur Fellows Program
    Of course, you may know MacArthur best for the Fellows program—now in its fifth decade of honoring and supporting creative individuals. It may seem odd to focus on a program so intent on individual creativity, when my topic is community partnership and the possibility of collaboration! While it supports individuals, the Fellows program is, in fact, one of our most collaborative programs.

Fellows can work in any field, in any medium, with any institutional affiliation or lack thereof. Because we, as a Foundation, are unrestricted by area, and the Fellows are unrestricted in how they can use the award, I believe the Fellowship expands the art of the possible.

In the 40-plus years since the first class was announced, Fellows have launched and led movements to combat inequality and unjust working conditions, made scientific breakthroughs, created astonishing works of visual, literary, and performance-based art, and offered new frameworks for understanding our society and its complex history.

Just imagine what it must be like to get one of these surprise phone calls in the fall from a 312-area code—offering a no-strings-attached five-year grant, for which you did not apply or even know you were a candidate, to keep doing the great things that you are doing? That may be the START of something for the Fellow, but it is the LAST thing in our own process.

When a Fellow gets that call, that moment is the most we demand of them. There is no reporting. The funds are unrestricted. Fellows have used it to buy homes, they have established organizations, they have paid off student loan debt–or enabling others to pay off student debt. And all of those uses are fine! Even encouraged!

In fact, the point is to identify people who are on the brink of discovery, and who, with the right support, can pursue high risk, high reward ideas. The award gives them the flexibility to pursue bolder goals. It gives Fellows the opportunity to pursue really creative ideas with a safety net, which may mean a new home, clearing debt, or supporting families.

This is the long game of philanthropy. Some of these people have students; they will collaborate with colleagues; they will build connections to other fields; they will pay it forward. These are grants for things that are hard to get grants for—be it new forms of poetry or neurological research.

Allowing for unrestricted creativity is just one way to construct possible futures. The Arts are and have always been a special focus of the Fellows program.

The press has often associated the award with the idea of the “solitary genius”. Yet, Fellows often demonstrate that the reach and impact of their work is extended and deepened when realized in collaboration with others.

I realize you all just had the good fortune to meet Amanda Williams, a Chicago-based MacArthur Fellow. Her work reimagines public space to expose the complex ways that cultural and economic value intersect with race in the built environment. But she does not do it in isolation. Her work is intimately tied to community and place and participation. Her Embodied Sensations installation at MoMA, in 2021 illustrates this perfectly. She reintroduced MoMA’s furniture—removed for COVID-19 protocols—stacked it into piles and engaged visitors in performance with the newly-arranged furniture. And just this spring, her “Redefining Redlining” project engaged community members in planting red tulips across Chicago’s landscape, making visible the history of redlining and its ongoing impact.

Our Fellows are finding new ways of working across disciplines. And they are forging forms of practice that deeply engage with communities.

We recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the program, with a multi-site exhibition called “Toward Common Cause”. Twenty-eight Fellows in the arts participated in installations across the city of Chicago, partnering with local organizations and sites, exploring the ideas of “the commons”, and how we use public space to exclude and include.

One of these installations was at Sweetwater Foundation, in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

Sweetwater Foundation was founded by a MacArthur Fellow—urban designer Emmanuel Pratt. Sweetwater has gardens and agriculture, community space, a “Think-Do” house for workshops, and solar powered art galleries.

Two MacArthur Fellows and artists, Mel Chin and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, partnered with Pratt and the community at Sweetwater. They co-created site-specific installations through a community input process. The resulting artwork was additive and interactive, and responsive to community needs.

Mel Chin’s “Safehouse temple door” framed an entry to the Civic Arts Church with a literal, functioning bank vault door serving as a symbol of value and protection. Ovalle’s “Hydrant” taps into the public water supply, feeding growing kale. The installation remarks on food apartheid, the persistence of food deserts in Chicago’s Black communities, and the unequal access to clean, lead-free water.

Thanks to the deep collaboration, the installations cultivated conversations about environmental justice, access to public space, and how we assign value. This is just one example of the results of our trust in the Fellows, our investment in the possibilities of their ideas. And the possibilities of creativity.

Some people criticize the program: some philanthropists often think it is a big waste of money—because they see no clear strategy, goals, or evidence. There is a point of view that philanthropy needs strategy, that we need to control how our money is spent, to see reports and evidence of its effectiveness.

But we believe that we can trust creative people—and innovative organizations for that matter—to accelerate ingenuity. That we should cede some decision-making power to others, so we can expand what can be imagined.

To some extent, it is not strategic: we don’t know what’s going to come. And while no one class has a theme, we do have a clear point of view. We think the world should be holding up people in a variety of areas of work and backgrounds. We think we should trust people closest to the work who know how to engage and collaborate with others.

  1. Big Bets: Climate
    We also seek to be very strategic in other areas of work. Our Fellows program is a sustained program with unrestricted support for an array of fields and themes. Our Big Bets are a very different mode of working. We strive toward transformative change, within a designated period of time, in areas of profound concern: reducing local jail use, tackling corruption in Nigeria, and addressing our climate crisis.

This last area is top of mind especially now. In the Climate Solutions program, we take a different approach to partnership. Our goals are first, to be part of the solution to mitigate climate change, and second, to have a more equitable approach in considering who is affected and at the table when it comes to identifying solutions. These goals require sharing power and collaboration—at local and global scales.

Our grantees work in the U.S., India, where we have a presence, and with partners in China, the three largest emitters. And we collaboratively fund work to have a global impact beyond these three nations. It is through collaboration we have an opportunity to succeed.

A great example of this global collaboration is our work on methane emissions. We supported efforts by Earthworks to investigate methane in the Permian basin—in Texas and New Mexico. The visuals of methane leaks from their investigation are stunning—you may have seen them—they resulted in advocacy and regulatory action. That work had a global impact.

In addition to directly supporting this impactful research, we worked with partners in philanthropy to create a fund well over $320 million to reduce methane emissions globally. That fund contributed to the momentum of the Global Methane Pledge, aiming to limit methane emissions by 30 percent compared with 2020 levels, with more than 100 countries signed on.

Global, seemingly intractable, challenges like climate change, require this kind of global-local partnership to succeed. But by thinking creatively about how we approach them, I believe progress is possible.

  1. 100&Change
    I want to pivot to one final bold approach we take: our 100&Change global competition to fund a $100 million proposal that promises progress in solving a critical problem of our time. This approach is a radically open call, to identify something that we may not have prioritized or understood without someone telling us.Our Big Bets are very strategic, subject specific. We know there are urgent problems that lie beyond this scope. And communities, nonprofit organizations, and social enterprises engaged in this work know their own needs best and can make compelling cases for support. But many of those potential solutions may go unnoticed or under resourced, waiting to be brought to scale. So, we asked: how would you change the world with $100 million?
    100&Change is open to organizations and collaborations working in any field, anywhere in the world.

We took this approach because we believe that MacArthur does not know everything that we should be working on! We wanted to hear from organizations and partnerships to tell us what problems we should be working to solve.

By awarding a $100 million grant, far above what is typical in philanthropy, we seek to address problems and support solutions that are radically different in scale, scope, and complexity.

And our selection process is collaborative, from start to finish. Proposals are reviewed by peers and external judges before our Board selects the finalists. At each stage, we work to make sure applicants benefit from their engagement.

This process has brought us to TWO exciting $100 million grants. Since the inaugural 100&Change competition, other funders and philanthropists have committed an additional $728 million to date to support bold solutions by 100&Change applicants.

Our first award went to Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee to implement an evidence-based, early childhood development intervention designed to address the “toxic stress” experienced by children in the Syrian response region—Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.

The 2021 awardee is Community Solutions’ Built for Zero program, with an audacious goal to accelerate an end to homelessness.

“Built for Zero” partners with more than 105 communities in the United States working to reach what they call “functional zero”—an end state where homelessness is rare and brief. And in the process of selecting the award I was convinced that homelessness is, in fact, curable. For too long, homelessness has been viewed as intractable and pervasive rather than a crisis worth solving.

More than 568,000 people experienced homelessness on a given night in the United States, before the pandemic. Community Solutions, which happens to have been founded by MacArthur Fellow Roseanne Haggerty, has proven that people do not have to live this way. Its racially equitable response is primed for this moment.

What Community Solutions has found in its work, is that many towns and cities have a range of resources to address homelessness, but many of these resources are disconnected. It is very easy for people who are without a home, whether briefly or chronically, to fall through the cracks in these networks.

Community Solutions helps bridge these services, in ‘continuums of care’, and in work that ensures communities know each and every individual facing homelessness by name. The Built for Zero communities address specific needs, on an individual level, with community context and trust. And their work also takes systemic issues into consideration. The model is replicable at scale! But achieving this goal requires deep, hyper-local partnership and individualized work.

More than 15 communities have reached functional zero, demonstrating that homelessness is indeed curable. By showing that it is possible in these communities, the Built for Zero movement shows that it is possible in any community.

  1. Closing
    What all of these approaches have in common is trust. Trust in the people doing the work, in the people who are closest to the challenges we seek to solve, in the creativity it takes to see and create what is possible–in the artists who bring these visions to life every day, in Chicago and around the world.

As a global foundation, we trust partners on the ground to know what works better than we do. And in Chicago, we trust local leaders to know what works for their block and their neighborhood better than we do. That is true in the Arts as it is in other areas of grantmaking.

With trusting partnerships, philanthropy can take on the art of the possible and make it real. Together we can bring about a more creative, equitable, inclusive future in our own communities and in the world. Thank you.

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