Open Letter from the President: Jerome Foundation Strategic Planning Progress: January 2017 Update

Well, we’re getting closer, but we’re still not quite there yet.

The December board meeting included the Board’s third long-range planning discussion to date and built on a number of issues that they had previously affirmed: that we will continue to support emerging artists working in New York City and Minnesota (including but not limited to the Twin Cities) and organizations who help/serve them; that our support will focus on “generative” artists rather than “interpretive” artists or administrators (e.g. choreographers rather than dancers, playwrights rather than actors, film directors rather than producers, etc.); that the artists/organizations we fund will be vocational ones (rather than targeting support at educational programs, hobby-oriented arts or amateur groups, however valuable all of these things may be); and that the primary (but perhaps not exclusive) intent of grants will be to help those vocational, generative, emerging artists make new work.

The devil of course is in the details. Should grants be restricted entirely to new work projects? Should grants be offered in multi-year increments or only in single years? What is the proper balance between grants directly to artists vs. to organizations? And how do we reconcile our aspirations with our own organizational capacity at Jerome?

The bulk of the long-range planning conversations revolved around four issues:

First, the value in grantmaking of “buying grants” vs. “building grants”—terminology often heard in grantmaking circles but one, we realize, that can be difficult for artists in particular to embrace.

“Buying” grants offer financial support to execute a specific project—perhaps a new dance piece, or a residency at a center, or the launch of a commissioning program. In buying grants, the expected result is clearly defined, and the time frame to measure success is relatively short term. It’s generally easy to measure—“did that dance piece get made?” for example—and within a relatively brief period of 1-3 years (for many or most artists).

“Building” grants, however, take a longer-term view: how might a grant help build the ongoing capacity of a grantee artist or organization, irrespective of a particular project? We all know that typical project grants often do not pay for research of reflective time between projects; they often do not help an artist think about how to enhance her/his technical and media skills, how to secure work/live space, or how to develop additional fundraising skills. Similarly, organizational grants targeted at producing a season of work do not help build long term cash reserves or endowment or support staff training to enhance skill set. Building grants by their very nature are harder to measure in the short term: if the goal is to help an artist embark on a successful career, this is unlikely to be known in a 1-3 year time frame.

As our board realized, artists and not for profits need both kinds of support: they need audiences to buy tickets (a kind of funding) and grantmakers to “buy” productions to help artists make work, for example. At the same time, they need longer term building grants that help them live beyond one grant check to another.

Different foundations prioritize these roles differently. Some only buy; others often build. Where in this spectrum does Jerome wish to operate? Is it possible to do both, either within a single grant (e.g. to offer a combination of restricted and more flexible funds within the same commitment) or through separate grants initiatives? Does the focus on emerging artists incline the Foundation to emphasize one of these choices over the other?

Second, the opportunity for individual artists to appeal directly to Jerome for support. All disciplines (except artists who actually define themselves as “multidiscipline”) can currently apply for funds in our Travel and Study Program, but opportunities beyond this program vary according to discipline. Individuals can directly make appeals directly to Jerome in either music (through our Composer/Sound Artist Fellowships) or film/media, where individuals are in fact the primary focus. Dance and theatre artists can use fiscal agents to apply for grants, but opportunities for artists to apply directly to Jerome in literature and visual arts (apart from Travel and Study) do not exist at all. What is the proper balance for the foundation in support for organizations vs. individuals? Especially in this shifting climate where emerging artists may be interested in working outside the traditional not for profit sector, how can we best accommodate their growing artistic energy? Do our grants to organizations and even through fiscal sponsors confine them to a specific kind of context that may not ideally serve them?

Third, the value of multi-year grants as a dominant grantmaking mode. Multi-year grants are of value both to grantees (whose assurance of support beyond a first year promotes both greater confidence in planning and more efficient use of time) and to the grantor, whose review process and whose board meetings can go into greater depth. In the last year, Jerome has expanded its use of multi-year grants. Should this be an exclusive strategy, a dominant strategy, or an occasional strategy going forward, if indeed it should be a strategy at all?

Fourth, the value of set deadlines and alternating grants cycles. Jerome historically has avoided set deadlines, giving us a kind of flexibility to respond to needs and opportunities as they arise. At the same time, an absence of deadlines makes it difficult to predict appropriate allocation of resources and to make comparative judgments or “curate” a strategic portfolio of grants for a given year. The Jerome staff—a lean unit of 6 people in total—has been overstretched in trying to offer all programs in every single year for all eligible disciplines in all geographic areas (Minnesota and New York City). This workload both limits the ability of staff to connect more deeply with grantees, and to be at the forefront exploring organizations and artists beyond the grantee roster. Would it make sense to create structures that offer grants programs in alternating years—Minnesota one year, perhaps, and New York City another; or organizations one year, and artists another; or performing arts one year and visual arts another, as examples—structures that could increase Jerome’s ability to serve deeply (not merely broadly) but one to be considered only if it does not harm the emerging artist community.

Reaching closure on these four issues in March will be the last piece in articulating and announcing our framework for grantmaking going forward. Our strong hope continues to be that we will announce a new grantmaking design in April, and begin accepting applications in this new frame during the summer months. Please stay tuned for that announcement—and feel free to weigh in on any (or all) of the issues on this or any previous post.


With all best wishes.


Ben Cameron

President, Jerome Foundation

Published January 18, 2017

by Andrea Brown

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