“Foundations” is an occasional 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.
Marc Vogl is an officer with the Foundation’s Performing Arts Program. Before joining the Foundation, he co-founded the San Francisco sketch comedy group Killing My Lobster and the Hi/Lo Film Festival. He also served as executive director of Lobster Theater Project, a multidisciplinary nonprofit arts organization in San Francisco.
Vogl has acted in and written, directed, and produced award-winning comedy shows and plays; made short films; programmed film festivals; and represented small arts organizations on the San Francisco Arts Task Force. He has B.A. degrees in American history and English literature from Brown University and a Master in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
To start, can you tell us about the overarching goals of the Performing Arts Program and where it fits among arts funders in the Bay Area?
We’re one of the largest philanthropic supporters of the arts in California, and certainly in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we support more than 200 arts organizations. But what may make us unique is our particular focus on general operating support for these organizations. Cultural life has changed a lot since the Hewlett Foundation started making grants to the arts in the 1960s, but that support has always been a constant. We believe that to make great art that enriches people’s lives you need healthy organizations, and that means making sure they have long-term support they can count on.
The funding focuses on performing arts groups, and historically that has meant music, dance, and theater groups. But as the Program has evolved, it has embraced film and media arts organizations, as well as many that provide arts education in school and after school.
What are the largest obstacles to success for a Bay Area arts group, and how does the Performing Arts Program try to address them in its grantmaking?
There are certain obstacles that any arts organization would face anywhere in the country and ones that are more specific to the Bay Area. Here the biggest single issue may be economic. It costs a lot to live here, to work here, to rent or own performance and rehearsal space. So the financial challenges are formidable. You have to have good leadership, a solid financial model, and an audience for which you are relevant.
But there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some groups have the capacity to generate a lot of earned income. Others don’t-because of the kind of work they are producing or the audiences they have-so they are more reliant on contributions. A good example is the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival: 30,000 people see its productions every year. That’s a huge audience. That should be a great base from which to raise money. But most of those people see the plays for free. The Festival’s reason for being is to make high-quality performances accessible in this particular tradition. And one of the reasons we support it is because it makes performances free. There are a lot of other organizations offering experiences for free too. Many grantees present work and arts classes in mental health institutions or correctional facilities, and those aren’t places that will pay for tickets.
We also try to help with one of the most difficult economic issues by supporting the creation of new performing space. One of the big ones is ODC/Dance, the dance company in San Francisco, which just created a new multimillion-dollar performance and rehearsal space that we helped underwrite. An exciting project in the works is the renovation of the East Bay Center for Performing Arts in Richmond, a vital, multicultural space for many local communities. It’s embarking on a $10 million capital campaign to upgrade its building, and we helping.
Of course, the criterion for support can’t simply be popularity, or you would eliminate experimental and avant-garde work.
Right. We recognize that in making grants in the arts there will be subjective assessments. There’s no way around it. There’s no machine or equation into which we could put all the variables and automatically receive an answer: support this group for this amount. Given that, we try our best to be consistent in applying our standards.
With work like this, we try to be a reality check on an organization’s own goals and its abilities and plans to reach them. And whether those goals are substantial and strike the right balance between ambition and realism. And the groups teach us what size audience is right to expect for the work they are doing.
How is the cultural landscape changing in the Bay Area, and what are the main factors driving that change? Is it technology? Or demographics?
One key factor is demographics-changes both in Bay Area residents’ ethnicity and age. The latter will affect two trends. Over the next ten to twenty years, as the baby boomers age, programming will need to shift to material that is relevant to them. And that’s an opportunity. But the challenge is that as this generation moves out of the top positions in arts organizations, we will need to find and cultivate the next generation of leaders.
There also is an exciting wave of new audiences. Learning what young people are interested in, given that they haven’t necessarily had exposure to arts in California schools, is a challenge for arts organizations.
What you can do is look at how younger people are using technology to make art. What kind of art forms are they pioneering? Digital art? Or a fusion of different cultural traditions? In contrast to the art forms traditionally funded by this Program, almost everything is in some way interdisciplinary now.
Tell us about your work to attract and retain the next generation of leaders in arts organizations. What are the issues?
You need great artists, you need a support structure for them, you need audiences that are interested, but you also need organizations that are well run. There’s a correlation, not often remarked upon, between that great thing you saw on stage and the organization that helped get it there.
One challenge is to attract people to run good organizations, and that includes attracting artists themselves to consider this work.
We recently began a research project on generational succession in arts organizations to learn how to address the challenge. Now we’re talking to administrators at various points in their careers at fifty to sixty local arts organizations in the Bay Area to ask them what must change to encourage careers in arts administration. The point is to ask the bright and talented leaders of tomorrow who want to do arts administration for a career, “What’s stopping you?” And then try to lower that barrier.
Is there a talent drain from the Bay Area to New York and Los Angeles? Is it possible to have a career in the arts here and never move to those cities?
I think many artists in many disciplines sense that you can really bump your head up against a ceiling here. And that it is hard to make a living as an artist in the Bay Area. There are some major arts organizations that are major arts employers. There is great work that is done here that you can’t see anywhere else. But, in theater, for example, there are less than a handful of companies that can pay actors enough to make a living.
We support 200 organizations, but we get letters of inquiry all the time from dozens more organizations in the region. So, despite how wonderfully vital the cultural scene is here, there is perhaps a question of supply and demand. It creates challenges. Local groups are all competing for an audience on a given day. And they’re competing for funding all year long. On the other hand, maybe these downsides are outweighed by the opportunities for collaboration.
But we do need more mid-sized companies. We have a handful of very big arts organizations in the Bay Area and scores of small organizations. The mid-sized ones are few. And those are the ones where people can make careers. Part of the reason this is so challenging, of course, goes back to the high infrastructure costs in the Bay Area.
What is cultural asset mapping, and how are y0u going about it?
One of the exciting things about the Bay Area is that there is so much going on. One of the challenging things about the Bay Area is that there is so much going on. The idea of producing a cultural asset map is that we will survey who is creating and participating in Bay Area art and graphically report the results so we can get a sense of what’s going on culturally and we need to do to support healthy arts ecology.
Thanks to the U.S. Census and other data-gathering efforts, we already know a lot. But we’re still in the process of exploring what we want to include in such a map and learn about similar ones that have been tried around the country. The Bay Area’s cultural landscape is beautiful and dense and we want to reflect all of it — the people, the organizations, the performance spaces — and not just for the nonprofit sector. Needless to say, it will be a daunting task and one that will evolve and improve over time.
I view it as a work of art. Right now we’re trying to understand what we need to do to create the map we want. By fall, we’re hoping to have a map to the map, so to speak. We hope that the ultimate result will be a living document worth sharing with the public.