Fund for the Arts is an important anchor in the Louisville arts community, with the goal to provide arts access, education, diversity, and ultimately to promote the city as a nationally recognized epicenter of the arts.
Being nearly 10 months into an unprecedented public health crisis with COVID, combined with social and civil situations that we’re all dealing with, we caught up with President and CEO Christen Boone to see how the Fund has adjusted so far, and how the organization intends to move forward.
Listen to the full interview for free below.
G. Douglas Dreisbach: Looking back over the past nine months, have the goals at Fund for the Arts changed? How has your team adjusted to the adversity?
Christen Boone: Well, in 2017, we launched a new cultural plan with the now-ironic name of Imagine 2020. Just to even say the name of that plan now kind of brings a smile because we could have never imagined what 2020 would bring. But despite all the challenges, I have just continued to be incredibly inspired by the work that our artists and organizations do, and the continued generosity of our community to support that work.
For us, a lot of goals center around contributed income and our annual campaign. The pandemic hit in March, and the campaign usually closes at the end of June. So, our board expanded that campaign, turned it into a recovery campaign, extended the timeline two months, and shifted to a focus on raising money that our community, our artists and our creative community needed to be able to really stabilize through this period.
With the help of donors that were able to un-restrict dollars, we were able to raise about $7 million this past year. That is less than the last few years, which we normally around $8 to $8.5 million, but it was incredibly generous during a really tough economic period, and a period of uncertainty for so many.
We invested those dollars in a variety of ways, including operating dollars for so many of our arts organizations, providing important stabilizing dollars for large, small, and emerging organizations to be able to continue to do their work and other areas of need. One of the things I am so proud of is that many communities around the country said, “We’re going to conserve cash. We’re going to come back when we can welcome you back in the way that we know how, in our theaters and in our concert halls.” So, neighboring cities like the orchestras in Indianapolis and Nashville didn’t run seasons, and theaters in Pennsylvania and southern California, they said, “We’ll come back when this is all over,” and they did that.
But in our community, our artists and organizations said, “Our community needs us more than ever,” so they found ways to show up in new and different ways to continue to help our community deal with the social disconnection that was happening. It helped to bring joy and bring comfort in periods of fear and uncertainty. They reached out to our healthcare environments, our senior living environments, to bring joy and comfort to them during the pandemic, as well.
We are also proud of the work that has happened after the death of Breonna Taylor and the racial justice movement that really came to light here in Louisville and across the country in June. We reached out and said, “How do we help elevate the voices of our Black neighbors, our Black artists, activists, to help make sure this community is really having important conversations about moving forward towards greater equity?” From this, we were able to make new investments in Black artists and Black-owned restaurants, and help to keep those conversations and voices heard that often go untold.
So, although this year did not look as we thought it would, I think the arts inspired us, comforted us, and challenged us in many ways.
GDD: Have you seen any strengths or weaknesses arise this year to inform the way the Fund is now doing things that it wasn’t before?
CB: Over the last several years, the Imagine 2020 cultural plan included five priorities. One of those priorities, and the one that I will say was the loudest and most urgent at the time, was the priority of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and that was created in 2017. Over the last few years, both our cultural community and the Fund for the Arts have been working closely together to achieve those priorities, so when this year landed with some if its challenges, it was not necessarily new work for the Fund, and it’s wasn’t new work for the cultural community overall. It is work that we had been taking steps toward, and had begun to address some of the historical inequities.
Some of the funding changes we had made over the last three years were in recognition of historical inequities. A lot of training of our executive arts leadership and our board focused on, “How do we make sure that our boards, our leadership, our staff, our audiences, represent the community and everyone in it?” So, for many of our artists and organizations, we were ready to be a part of those conversations, as opposed to being surprised by them.
Throughout history, the arts have helped people to better understand each other. Whether it is song, poetry, or visual art, it all helps us share our frustrations, anger, grief, or sadness, but it also helps to promote empathy and understanding, and ultimately the healing that will be needed for our community to really be a place where everyone can thrive.
GDD: When the board extended your fundraising campaign, did your pitch to donors change? How did the tone and sense of urgency affect how you approached donors?
CB: Yes, it had to change. If we went to the community and said, “We want to ask you for support for X,” it would not be relevant since our world was changed. Everything was flipped upside down on us, so we had to be relevant to that. So, we began to say, “Your support means access in public spaces, in our museums and more.” For a period of time, it meant that it would be online or virtual or perhaps in small audiences.
For many of us, we know the arts are so important to the education of our children, and the integration of the arts helps kids to learn better. Those who study heavily in the arts are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college, and there are great benefits that come along with that.
We knew that schools could not come to experience the arts through field trips, and we couldn’t have artists go into classrooms when children were going to school online. So, our teaching artists quickly pivoted and worked with the schoolteachers in saying, “How do we provide this kind of enriching experience to kids in a new, different way?” The resilience and the innovation that came out of our artist community was incredible, and that’s what we needed to talk to donors about, and is what was needed now for this community to continue to move forward.
Also, for nearly all our arts organizations, the earned income, whether it was ticket sales, subscriptions, admissions, sponsorships, class tuition, or other revenue streams, they all came to a screeching halt. So, we knew there was a big need for dollars to stabilize organizations so they could weather the storm of this pandemic and be ready to rebound and to be part of our community’s long-term economic recovery.
GDD: What do you think it will take for people to feel comfortable going downtown and feeling safe again? Not only because of COVID, but also with the misperception that it’s not safe to go downtown? When will people be comfortable watching a performance with an audience?
CB: First and foremost, we must follow the guidance of our public health officials, and as they determine that it’s safe for us to gather inside, as they determine what is the right number of people that can safely gather together, as the vaccine is distributed and more and more people have that immunity, I believe that part of it will be having a reason to come downtown and to come together. So, in the arts, we are going to be able to create that kind of energy and excitement with events and performances and productions and doing what the artists know best, which is to thrill and delight.
When our public health officials say it is safe to gather, I think you are going to see an explosion of creativity. You will see new projects and innovations that will bring people downtown because there will be so much excitement and so much to see.
I cannot wait for that day, and I know it will not take long for us to quickly forget these months of isolation. The moment when we are all in a concert hall together, and we feel the music in our bones again, will be an incredible moment for everyone to experience, and we will quickly forget these months of isolation.
GDD: What are the best ways for people to support the Fund for the Arts in 2021 and for years to come?
CB: There are a number of ways to support the Fund for the Arts and the creatives in our community. One is to simply go to FundForTheArts.org and make a gift. Our work is supported by nearly 20,000 donors who give anywhere from a dollar a week to $10 a month and more. So, by signing up to be a sustaining donor through the Fund for the Arts is critical to this work.
Another easy way to show support if by following us on social media. Whether it is through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, they are all a big part of our story and people can help by helping spread that story. And ultimately, they can support us by simply participating in all the arts, whether it’s buying your gifts from local artists or buying your season subscriptions in advance. Those are just a couple of ways to engage with and support our local arts community.
That really is going to be that key part of healing and rebuilding this community for the future.