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Expanding Engagement in the Arts: A Conversation with Josephine Ramirez

BY Ray Delgado
Ray Delgado
Ray Delgado was with The James Irvine Foundation from 2006 to 2013, last serving
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| Oct 01, 2011

To say Josephine Ramirez hit the ground running when she joined the Irvine Foundation would be an understatement. Hired as Arts program director in January 2010, Josephine was immediately tasked with refining Irvine’s Arts grantmaking strategy to respond to major shifts affecting California’s arts sector.

Along with her Arts program colleagues, Josephine spent the better part of her first year surveying the broader arts field, talking to grantees and field leaders, and analyzing the major issues that arts organizations were grappling with. As their work developed, Josephine and her Arts team focused on the concept of promoting engagement as the most effective way of helping arts nonprofits adapt to a challenging environment and provide more enriching arts experiences for Californians.

The idea is one that Josephine has had a lot of experience with. As vice president for programming at the Music Center in Los Angeles, she helped create the center’s Active Arts program, which has drawn thousands of Angelenos with outdoor, participatory arts events over the last eight years and helped boost the civic vitality of downtown Los Angeles.

Prior to the Music Center, Josephine served as a research associate at the Getty Research Institute investigating the connection between art-making and civic participation. And as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, she explored the relationship between nonprofessional art-making and individual and community vitality.

Irvine Quarterly recently talked with Josephine about Irvine’s new grantmaking strategy in the Arts, the ongoing work of developing new grantmaking funds as part of the new strategy and where she sees the arts field going in the years ahead.

Irvine Quarterly: What were some of the biggest considerations as you and your team were developing the new arts strategy?

Ramirez: First and foremost, our focus was on the individual people of California and promoting arts engagement for them, which was closely tied to the overall mission of the Foundation. We also tried to be as thoughtful and responsible as we could about how to support our longtime partners even as we transition out of the current strategy and into the new. We also explored how best to maintain our commitment to our priority geographic regions of the San Joaquin Valley and the Inland Empire.

Overall, we wanted to establish a framework that was sophisticated and nuanced enough to address the complex issues we face in the field, but that also had a strong, unifying concept.

IQ: Was the notion of promoting engagement a central component of the new strategy from the beginning or were other ideas considered by your team?

Ramirez: We were talking about engagement from the very beginning because promoting engagement is so deeply connected to Irvine’s mission of expanding opportunity. We discussed other ideas and concepts but we just kept coming back to that notion of expanding engagement because it’s so rooted in what Irvine’s all about.

IQ: Are other arts funders also transitioning to this kind of grantmaking?

Ramirez: Many, if not most, arts funders share the same desire for greater engagement, especially for people who have not typically been in the audience or participated at arts events. There are a handful of peer funders, who historically have focused their support on organizational innovation in the field, who are also asking similar questions about arts engagement and how it relates to demographic and technological shifts.

Others are experimenting, like us, with expanding the idea of where engagement takes place. So, they’re supporting arts events presented in atypical venues like shopping malls or public plazas. I won’t predict whether this is where other funders are going, but we have some excellent company among our peers in the field who are pursuing a similar focus on active engagement.

IQ: Tell us about the Exploring Engagement Fund that Irvine recently announced.

Ramirez: The Exploring Engagement Fund is open to all arts organizations in the state with annual budgets between $100,000 and $5 million. We’ll use a competitive selection process to review proposals. By supplying risk capital, the fund will encourage organizations to try out some new project ideas, whether that means engaging people who are unfamiliar with the organization, experimenting with active participation or engaging the public in a non-traditional venue or public space.

We’ve scheduled a webinar in November to further explain the Exploring Engagement Fund and answer questions. And as we roll it out further, we’ll be exploring new ways for us to think about how we measure effectiveness.

IQ: What kind of arts nonprofits do you see as being the most competitive for funding under the Exploring Engagement Fund?

Ramirez: The most competitive organizations will be forward-thinking. They’re interested in rethinking assumptions about what they do as arts providers and how they do it, so that we can build a more robust, participatory and active arts ecosystem.

We’re hoping to find organizations and leaders who have this abiding passion for serving Californians and for adapting the way they do things so that they can really engage Californians in the arts. It’s really more of a mindset and a willingness to take on the challenges that we think will lead us to the future.

IQ: A recently released report, commissioned by the Irvine Foundation, examines the California arts and culture ecology based on data from the California Cultural Data Project. What do you make of the findings?

Ramirez: The report by Markusen Economic Research is fascinating in terms of how the data was collected, organized and presented. It’s a very rich, thought-provoking snapshot of Californians and how they connect and participate with arts and culture. It shows how some parts of the state are privileged with access and resources, while other areas are profoundly under-resourced.

The research points to an intriguing interplay between the quality of life, particularly in more highly populated areas, and the presence of arts and cultural resources. It also points out the need for exploring new ways for us to understand and track how people engage in the arts of California, where the demographics are so incredibly diverse and dynamic. We’ve just got to figure out better ways of tracking how that actually happens. And this report is a good step in that direction.

IQ: Another Irvine-commissioned report examines participatory arts practices as a trend. What do you think of its findings?

Ramirez: The report by researchers at WolfBrown is another equally fascinating look — although this time with an international lens, not just in California — at how people are engaging in the arts. It unpacks, in a compelling way, this societal shift we’re in the midst of right now, moving from a “sit and be told” culture to a “making and doing” one, and how that’s being evidenced in changing arts practices.

IQ: Some nonprofit arts leaders are concerned that participatory art practices may not generate enough revenue. Given the economic challenges this sector faces, what would you say to those concerns?

Ramirez: Change has a way of provoking anxiety, particularly around the question, “How are we going to do this?” The challenge of financial stability is a pressing one for all arts nonprofits, so we can't ignore the very real needs of organizations for consistent earned income. At the same time, I don’t think that not responding is the answer. I think we have to respond. It's our time as a sector to figure out what we are doing — and what we should maybe not be doing anymore — and how we can sustain ourselves in new ways.

IQ: What are some next steps for implementing the new Arts strategy? What kind of new grantmaking initiatives is your team developing and how will you evaluate these programs?

Ramirez: In the next couple months, and also in 2012, we’ll be devoting a lot of our energy toward helping organizations make the transition from our previous strategy into the new. And we’ll be developing and launching a couple of other funds besides the Exploring Engagement Fund, designed for other organizations but that also use grantmaking characteristics tied to our “piloting change” priority.

Measurement and evaluation are going to be a really helpful way to understand which Exploring Engagement Fund projects work, so we’re really looking forward to learning alongside our grantees about successes and challenges. I suspect that success stories will come in many colors, but will center around a simple question like, “How did the project help the organization connect with new participants?”

IQ: When you look ahead five, 10 or 20 years, what will be the impact of this new grantmaking strategy on the California arts ecosystem?

Ramirez: If we’re successful, we will see organizations of all sizes taking on the challenges of adapting to their changing environment. We’ll see new partnership and collaborations among leaders and organizations that will strengthen the arts ecosystem as a whole.

I think we’ll see some fascinating new business models and new business practices. We have a real opportunity as a sector to show how we took on this challenge and pulled together to make an exemplary, groundbreaking collective change in California.

IQ: In looking at your career, it seems you’ve had a long-standing interest in active arts participation and its connection to stronger communities. Was there an experience in your past that ignited this passion?

Ramirez: I think that the rich cultural practices of my Mexican-American heritage, as well as those of my adopted heritage (because of my marriage to a Mexican immigrant) deeply inform my approach to my professional work, too.

The closest to an "aha" moment is really more of a collection of moments from many years experiencing and organizing a rich participatory, socially connecting informal Mexican tradition called Las Posadas (a nine-day community celebration and procession held in December). That experience exemplifies in so many ways how practicing the arts together connects to stronger communities.

I have an unrelenting conviction about the transformative power of the arts in the world. They are an amazing vehicle for learning and a time-worn tool for strengthening humanity in ways that enable us to survive and thrive together.

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Ray Delgado was with The James Irvine Foundation from 2006 to 2013, last serving as a Communications Officer and Assistant Corporate Secretary.


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