Josephine Ramirez: Sowing Engagement in the Arts

Josephine Ramirez (LF ‘00) wants to make it clear that, while raising money is definitely much harder than giving it away, it's nonetheless difficult to give it away well---with measurable impact that's sustainable. That is the mission for the arts program director at the California-based Irvine Foundation: to promote inclusive engagement in the arts through impactful and strategic financial support. “We think there is very specific change that needs to happen in the world to make it a better place, and having a strong, relevant and responsive arts field is key---we want to partner with organizations who can model what it looks like to truly provide the benefit of the arts to everyone."

Ramirez has been spearheading the arts program of the Irvine Foundation since 2010. The other two priorities of the organization are youth and democracy. This triad advances the greater mission of expanding opportunity for the people of California, through fostering “vibrant and inclusive communities.”

During Ramirez’s year as a Loeb Fellow between 2002 and 2003, she began to develop a theoretical framework for arts engagement as it related to her work in Los Angeles. Following her year at Harvard, she became vice president of programming and planning at the Music Center of Los Angeles County, where she established a participatory arts initiative called Active Arts. It's a national model for cultural engagement programming and just one of the many arts engagement initiatives that have blossomed through Ramirez’s work.

I met with Ramirez in downtown LA--a city that illustrates how diverse the California public is. It was here, on the east side of the city, that Ramirez became hooked on the idea of anyone making art. Working with the Getty Research Institute in the early 2000s, she and colleagues conducted a charette and asked people if they were artists. “It was astounding how the youngest ones, from 4 to 10 had no problem. ‘I’m an artist’...no hesitation. But, when they were a little older, they started looking to someone else for the answer. That always stuck with me.”

Ramirez’s research as a Loeb Fellow into a framework for her Active Arts program was founded on the same underlying belief: that the creative capacity allows for communities to live better together. “It is an essential part of what makes a healthy society, so we want it for everyone, because it doesn’t necessarily work unless everyone has access to it.” Likewise, the Irvine Foundation is aimed at changing the nonprofit art world itself, through helping it adapt to a changing public and a changing culture of art making. Irvine’s arts programming under Ramirez’s leadership focuses on three main priorities: piloting, strengthening, and field building.

The first two strategies have to do with grant-making itself. Piloting includes the dissemination of project-based risk capital through the Exploring Engagement Fund, which is offered to California-based nonprofit arts organizations that have an annual operating budget between $100,000 and $5 million.   Applicants can request up to 10% of their operating budget and at most would receive $125,000 per year, for up to two years. These one-time grants are meant to seed the field with new ideas. By way of example, if a local theatre is a little afraid to stage an indoor show outdoors in a park but is willing to try it, the foundation can provide the financial stability to test that model. The theatre group would be engaging more and different types of people than they have before.

A recent recipient of risk capital from the Exploring Engagement Fund is Street Poet’s Poetry in Motion Van, a mobile venue meant to inspire creativity in any place through poetry and sound recording. The Irvine Foundation documents lessons from all the arts engagement experiments and shares them with the field.

The New California Arts Fund launched in January embodies the strengthening strategy, supporting the adaptation of organizations and their structures to new ways of working to emphasize engagement. There are ten organizations in Southern California that are representative of different types of arts nonprofits, and all are interested in expanding the types of people they serve. They are partnering with Irvine to make larger decisions. “They’re writing their script with us, which is pretty exciting for the philanthropic field,” says Ramirez. Funding in this phase ranges from $320,000 to $1.2 million. The organizations currently funded include Cornerstone Theater Company, the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana de San Jose, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Ramirez says that over the next three years of the grant period, these organizations will be a part of a peer learning community. They will receive coaching along with technical support to take a closer look at staff, board members, volunteers, artists and communities, along with their fundraising and communication strategies. Ramirez says that these grantee-partners are embracing the idea of serving a diverse public and are adapting the core of their work---both their programming and their organizational structures---so that it fully reflects that commitment.

Lastly, there is the field building strategy, which Ramirez describes as a way to develop a strong field of leaders and organizations working together, in a sustained way, to increase arts engagement and the relevance of the nonprofit arts.  Field building will generate “a conversation about shared identity, best practices and policy-relevant arts issues. We’re starting a dialogue with the field to get some more air into these ideas, form a little combustibility and generate heat for field change.”

Having spent years entrenched in the arts, and having had the time and opportunity to develop strategic thinking about arts engagement as a Loeb Fellow, Ramirez is thrilled to explore through her work at the Irvine Foundation how to cultivate greater creative capacity by, with and for everyone. . That means that in ten years, the young middle schooler who sings aloud in her bedroom might smoothly transition to singing with a neighborhood choir made up of people from very different backgrounds. . Or the middle-aged man who writes poetry for himself might easily join a group of writers who publish and share their work across a robust, diverse network. . It might mean that currently problematic Pershing Square, in downtown LA, will hold daily conga lessons, piano lessons, and ukulele lessons that make the square come alive. And perhaps, in 100 years, every Californian will consider herself or himself a creative being, ready to innovate and contribute. These dreams are all possible through the encouraging work of Josephine Ramirez and the Irvine Foundation.

All images courtesy of the James Irvine Foundation.

 

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