Funders and Museums: A New Form of Partnership
This article is a conversation between a funder and a museum practitioner, exploring a new form of partnership.
How do funders support important changes in the museum field? How do museums work collaboratively with funders, while maintaining vision and integrity?
Brittany Vernon, Director of Awards & Cohorts, Evaluation and Learning & Engagement at Art Bridges has been working closely with a number of museum partners and with Judith Koke, Deputy Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, to explore the needs of museums and museum educators and in particular to develop ways that foundations like Art Bridges might meet those needs and create new ways for funders and museums to work together to achieve common goals.
Judy Koke (JK): Art Bridges is a rather new foundation, with a specific agenda – can you tell us the core purpose of Art Bridges (AB)?
Brittany Vernon (BV): Our mission at Art Bridges is to expand access to American art. We hope to energize the art museum field in exciting and innovative ways and to support our partners in deepening their connection with their local communities, by finding new ways to share important works of art.
JK: Those of us who work in art museums have a deep commitment to the power of art to move us, to help us understand ourselves and our world, and to open a dialogue about what it means to be human. Yet, that is not true of most members of the general public. In addition to helping to travel and display art how does AB contribute to building access to art and creating opportunities for even more members of our society to understand the role art can play in their lives and community?
BV: We begin with physical access to art. To date we have shared our collection of around 100 works of art and supported traveling exhibitions for over 100 museum partners. But, beyond the more transactional funding or logistics of creating access to art – we are responsive to the field and work collaboratively to shape how art is connected to audiences in transformative and multidisciplinary ways, with a particular emphasis on reaching new audiences. That is the focus of the Learning & Engagement department that I lead. We ask our partners tough questions and consider the best approaches towards activating art for new audiences and making connections between what is displayed and the diverse daily lived experiences of visitors.
JK: In my decades of working in this field – there is often a strange relationship between funders and practitioners. Museums define partnerships with funders as transactional, but perhaps this isn’t in the best interest of the communities they serve. As practitioners, we are often frustrated that funding cycles are shorter than what is required to make significant changes within communities and organizations and that we have to work so hard to fit what our communities need into frameworks the funder develops. The funders I’ve spoken to often feel undervalued – and treated as solely a money source, rather than as a partner. They’ll ask why grantees always ask for money after a plan is already developed and with no room for input. How do you work differently?
BV: At Art Bridges rather than using the term “grantees” every museum we work with is considered a partner because we collaborate so closely. Without minimizing the importance of funding projects – yes the money matters – we also work to connect partners to each other so they may share resources. We work with our partners to explore ways of aligning proposals with our goals of funding projects that are transformative, multidisciplinary and/or community building through reaching new audiences. We work to find additional opportunities for AB support, continually identify learning opportunities, and find ways to build capacity by leveraging external experts and partners’ strengths. We do this work while honoring a deep commitment to issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and working hard to be responsive to our partners’ needs and the art museum field as a whole.
JK: Being flexible and responsive to the challenges faced by your partners seems integral to the work that Art Bridges does. Why is that so important to you as funders, and how do you incorporate flexibility and responsiveness into the way you work?
BV: Just as museums are shifting their approaches to community engagement, we too are working with and not for museums. In listening to their needs and goals we are able to improve our operations, create programs, and facilitate professional development opportunities to help our partners build their capacity to create lasting impact in their communities. We regularly hold partner convenings and focus groups, utilize surveys and ask for informal feedback as we think strategically about how to be the best resource for them. In our latest round of focus groups many of our partners expressed similar challenges and needs they anticipate in the years ahead. Issues like virtual program engagement, reaching new audiences and sustaining those relationships, and evaluating impact are just some of the things our partners are thinking about. Art Bridges will use this information to determine how we can expand the focus of our projects, alleviate some of the pressures, and encourage our partners to think beyond their limitations.
JK: How do you start these conversations with potential partners? Please share your approach.
BV: In each instance, we start by listening to the needs of our partners. Who is coming to their museum and who isn’t? Why might this be so? How does a loan or exhibition fit their museum goals and what are they hoping to accomplish with it? What do programs typically look like at their institution? What is a dream program they’ve always wanted to do and never had the support to execute? How can Art Bridges help them achieve their goals? We then collaborate through a series of conversations and build from there. Our discussions usually lead to a combination of support that funds programming and community outreach.
JK: Brittany – can you offer an example of how this worked with a partner?
BV: A recent example of this is evident in our work with a mid-size museum in the Northeast. Our partner mentioned that they were interested in exploring the idea of a virtual artist residency, a program they had never done before. They also mentioned some past success with performance art in their galleries and a desire to build on that impact. Our conversations eventually led to the museum proposing a choreographer in “virtual” residence program that would speak to their loan of Southern Souvenir No. II, ca. 1948, by Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015) from the Art Bridges collection. While Cortor was known for his often celebratory depictions of Black women and the female nude, this work also depicts a darker reality of Black life in the American South during the 1940s.This combination of celebration and destruction lent itself to a dynamic response.The final project included an evocative series of virtual dance workshops, an artist talk and an original full length dance performance in front of the Cortor. Although we worked closely together in the proposal phase, we left the details of how the program would be executed for the partner to decide.
JK: So, I’m curious – this is a new way of working with museums. Do partners ever push back? Do they feel you’re getting into their business?
BV: I am not aware of any partners being unhappy with their projects because they are the ones who drive the final product. They choose the programs they think will create the most impact for their community and that will meet their goals. We also encourage them to be realistic about what they can handle from a capacity standpoint to ensure success. Art Bridges serves in an advisory capacity to brainstorm with them about ways to think bigger and deeper. Again, we want to be the sounding board for our partners to consider other perspectives and question the status quo. We don’t require any partner to do a program they don’t want to do. Further, many of our partners use other funders for program ideas that fall outside of Art Bridges’ focus for funding, which we encourage
JK: I know you bring potential projects to a Board to approve – what are they looking for in a project?
BV: A successful Art Bridges Learning & Engagement project meets one or more of the following criteria: Transformative, Multidisciplinary and Community Building. The project described above met all three components and exemplifies the type of work that can transform the art museum field. Because the virtual component was something the museum had never tried before, this program served as a low risk pilot for a transformative way of thinking about engagement in the future. Combining dance, music and movement with the visual arts was a naturally multidisciplinary approach. And finally, by intentionally choosing a local professor and choreographer to engage their local community, new audiences were cultivated and support was built around the larger vision of the museum to install more artwork by Black artists.
JK: It is so interesting to me, that just as art museums have moved beyond thinking of their work as acquiring and presenting the best possible art to creating new ways for communities to engage with the art on their terms, Art Bridges is also moving beyond the traditional way of thinking of foundation work as more than funding and art – but as redefining partnerships. Museums are changing as society changes – and so are funders.
BV: Yes, we’re very eager to further develop our process and work with more partners. I’d encourage any art museum interested in transforming the way that they relate to and connect with existing and new audiences to contact us to start a conversation.
ABOUT ART BRIDGES
Art Bridges is the vision of philanthropist and arts patron Alice Walton and is dedicated to expanding access to American art in all regions across the United States. Since 2017, Art Bridges has been creating and supporting programs that bring outstanding works of American art out of storage and into communities. Art Bridges partners with a growing network of nearly 150 museums of all sizes and locations to provide financial and strategic support for exhibition development, collection loans from Art Bridges and other museums, and programs designed to educate, inspire and deepen engagement with local audiences. The Art Bridges Collection features American masterworks of historic American art to the present day and encompasses painting, sculpture, photography, among other mediums. For more information on who we reach and how to partner with us, visit www.ArtBridgesFoundation.org and follow us @ArtBridgesFoundation.
Posted Nov 2, 2021