“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Julie Fry is a program officer with the Foundation’s Performing Arts Program. Before joining the Foundation in 2007, she was associate vice president for fund services at The San Diego Foundation. She also was the first director of its Arts & Culture Program, for which she developed strategies to engage more donors and community members to support the arts through research, community outreach, and funding partnerships. Before that, she was director of arts and business programs at the San Diego Performing Arts League, where, among other accomplishments, she established the program Lawyers for the Arts. Earlier in her career, she worked for the Business Arts Council in San Francisco and Business in the Arts: North West in Liverpool, England, where she helped build arts and business partnerships.

Fry received a B.A. in economics and French from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an M.B.A. from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

Supporting a healthy environment for the arts in the Bay Area entails more than funding performance groups. Tell us about the grants the Hewlett Foundation makes to arts councils and the thinking behind that.

Arts councils do a broad range of work that varies by organization and region. They organize open studio tours to bring the public in to see the work of individual visual artists. Some have really great Web sites that tell people about events. Others do arts education, putting individual artists in partnerships with schools. They also work with Chambers of Commerce to encourage cultural tourism.

We support four arts councils in the Bay Area: Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Napa, and Santa Clara. These Councils work every day with local arts organizations, helping us understand our current grantees and bringing to our attention potential grantees-good organizations that we don’t yet fund. As a result, they are some of our strongest partners in helping us identify economic and cultural issues specific to their regions. They’re another way for us to support the health of individual arts organizations.

In some cases, arts councils also re-grant money we give them. Our smallest grants typically are to organizations with budgets of at least $100,000, but there are great smaller organizations that do innovative and exceptional work. The councils keep us aware of these smaller arts groups, as well as individual artists, who are even harder for large foundation to track and support.  Lastly, councils also help us spread the word about things we want to publicize, like new initiatives we’re undertaking.

In addition to arts councils, we fund a variety of other organizations that support the arts, such as the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and the Creative Work Fund of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, which make grants to individual artists and small arts organizations. Later this year, we’re planning to review the work of these organizations in the hope it can make Hewlett even more effective in supporting the region’s artists and cultural organizations.

Hewlett’s Performing Arts and Education programs have teamed up to explore ways to improve arts education in California’s public schools. Why did you embark on that work?

In 2005, the Education and Performing Arts programs first started looking for ways to build future audiences for the arts, and one important element of that is ensuring today’s students learn about the arts. Students aren’t just future audiences. They’re future artists, arts leaders, patrons-and part of a creative workforce. And what we discovered, anecdotally at least, was that there wasn’t a lot going on in arts education in California’s public schools. Starting in the late 1970s, the state initiative Proposition 13 reduced funding available to schools by capping property taxes, and many school offerings, arts among them, began to be eliminated. Then in the 1990s, an emphasis on math and reading inadvertently pushed the arts further to the side.

Our first step was to get some hard data. We commissioned the research firm SRI International to identify exactly what kind of arts education was still being offered and to whom. And the findings, published in the 2007 report “An Unfinished Canvas – Arts Education in California: Taking Stock of Policies and Practices,” confirmed everyone’s fears. For example, 89 percent of California’s elementary schools weren’t offering arts education in the four disciplines called for in state guidelines introduced in 2000: visual arts, music, dance, and theater.

That research was just the start. We’ve commissioned more since then. We wanted to know what some of the barriers were to arts education so policymakers would know what is needed to overcome them. Some of the findings weren’t surprising. Funding is an issue. But so is the amount of time available in a school day. The time California students spend in the classroom each week is two hours less than the national average.

In light of the state’s continuing budget problems, what kind of progress is possible in the classroom on these issues?

One thing we’re concentrating on right now is technology, both to improve student learning in the arts and to offer some arts training for teachers. We could have kids in the classroom doing more with digital media. If there were software to teach a student how to write a song, for example, there are great economies in that. It doesn’t replace a teacher, but does more with less.

The second part is professional development. As budgets go down, there’s less money to train teachers in the arts. And that means that training in the arts for regular classroom teachers becomes more important.

What are the overall prospects for returning arts education to every public school classroom, given California’s current economic problems?

It’s a very difficult time. The education community in general is on tenterhooks-and arts educators perhaps even more so-because they stand to lose what gains they’ve made in the past two years, which include $150 million in funding for arts education in 2006, which since then has been renewed twice. Now we’re seeing reductions in money for education across the board, and arts education is no exception.

In working with policymakers in Sacramento, our grantees need to be talking to both sides of the aisle. It’s about building relationships and providing decisionmakers with solid information from research we’ve funded so they can act on arts education when better times return. Another piece of the puzzle is not directly about money. We’re trying to assure policymakers have information they need to be able to change how the educational day is organized so it affords time for arts education.

All this work is important not only because it provides kids with different tools for learning but because the arts are wonderful and bring children joy and increased self-esteem. We want every child in the state to have access to that joy and the sense of identity it entails.

But it’s going to come down to a grassroots effort. What we’ve found is that gains for arts education depend on leadership within schools, districts, and counties. We gave a planning grant to the California PTA to create a parents-for-the-arts program, so its 1 million members can become advocates for arts education in their children’s schools. We think this kind of bottom-up effort is going to be crucial.

And it’s going to take thinking outside the box. We recently gave a grant to Musician Corps, a sort of musical AmeriCorps to get conservatory graduates and professional musicians working in schools side-by-side with teachers to teach the next generation of musicians. Supporting pilot programs like this is going to continue to be important.

What is the California Cultural Data Project, and what is Hewlett’s role in it?

The California Cultural Data Project is a partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts, which created the Cultural Data Project four years ago in Pennsylvania. The idea is to collect standardized organizational and financial data about every cultural organization in a state. This enables organizations to learn how they are performing compared with their peers and gives state agencies and elected officials a better sense of the economic impact of the arts. The number of dollars that flow through a local economy because of the arts-for everything from tickets to baby sitters to dinner out-is very high. For the first time, we’ll have a very clear picture of the role the arts play in California and its footprint in the local and the state economy. As an added benefit, the standardization of the data will make it easier for arts organizations to submit this information to potential funders.

Five California funders came together to make the California Cultural Data Project happen: Hewlett, the Irvine Foundation, the California Arts Council, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and the Getty Foundation. Most funders now require participation in the project as part of their applications. We began requiring it of our grantees last year.

Our target is to gather profiles of 5,000 cultural organizations and sixty funders in three years. We’re about a year into it. Right now, we have 1,700 organizations and thirty-two funders. In the next  few months, Pew will start training arts groups on how to create customized reports with the data. We think we need the full three years of data for it to become useful for research purposes, but we’re on our way!