The Harmony Project is the latest initiative in WomenArts’ ongoing effort to bring the full power of women’s artistic creativity to the struggle for women’s rights and social justice. We are deeply grateful to the Arts and Culture Program of the Nathan Cummings Foundation for funding this project.
To create lasting social change, we believe the women’s movement needs to shift firmly entrenched attitudes that are not entirely rational. Facts and figures are not enough to win the battles for equal pay, reproductive rights, more education, political power, or an end to violence. We need to engage people’s hearts as well as their minds. Artists know how to do this, but their skills are not being used.
For the first year of the Harmony Project, we had two main goals:
- To Explore the factors that encourage and inhibit partnerships between women artists and women’s organizations; and
- To Recommend ways to build more partnerships between women artists and women’s organizations who share the same goals.
In our conversations with the artists, many common threads emerged about the factors that promote successful community partnerships – time, shared values, an entrepreneurial spirit, community-building skills, and a clear understanding of all aspects of the project.
It was not surprising that the artists’ perceptions of the obstacles focused mainly on the lack of available funding. We have done additional research which confirms their insights, and our report outlines some specific funding issues that are especially challenging for feminist arts partnerships. It was also clear that the artists felt a lack of time (“it takes a long time to develop trust”) and a shift in consumer attitudes (“people don’t want to pay for this kind of work anymore”).
When we talked to women’s organizations about their outreach and engagement strategies, almost all of them talked about two things – their efforts to increase their presence in the mainstream media and their use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The arts were not really on their radar.
Since our premise is that women’s organizations can advance their causes faster by using the arts in their outreach and engagement efforts, we took a closer look at their media strategies and realized that the non-profits are trying to promote their messages through a communications system that is designed to serve antithetical goals.
More and more women’s organizations are struggling to reach and engage new constituents with media tools that are controlled by huge multi-national corporations, designed to increase consumerism, and fraught with gender, race and class stereotypes.
The solution is not to ignore or discard these tools, since they can be very effective for specific tasks such as scheduling meetings, making announcements, or even getting out the vote sometimes. But we are concerned that mainstream and social media will ultimately impede an organization’s ability to offer visions of deep social change to diverse audiences.
The arts offer far better tools for that, and we need to train feminist leaders to use them. As described in the Harmony Project interviews, arts collaborations can put a human face on issues; help people see their personal connections to issues; create opportunities for public dialogue; and help build movements by stimulating activism.
Since the obstacles to building partnerships between women artists and women’s organizations are part of larger socio-economic trends, our recommendations for change stress the importance of building alliances with other social movements, as well as specific ideas about training programs for women artists and staff members of women’s organizations.
Since WomenArts is an arts service organization, we embarked on this project with a wealth of information gleaned from sixteen years of direct one-on-one interactions with thousands of women artists all over the world. Artists contact us when they are facing challenges, and they rejoice with us when they succeed. We use this rich ongoing dialogue to inform and shape all of our work. We often find that the questions and concerns raised in these ongoing discussions reveal underlying issues and trends that we would not have discovered any other way.
For the Harmony Project, we used three research strategies designed to build on our accumulated wisdom by providing opportunities for candid in-depth discussions with artists, activists, and funders about community arts partnerships.
- Interviews – We identified ten women artists who had built successful community partnerships and did hour-long interviews with each one. Arlene Goldbard wrote a series of essays based on these interviews which we published as e-newsletters. They have now been archived in the WomenArts Blog. You can find links to each newsletter on the Harmony Project Overview Page or you can search the WomenArts Blog using the keyword Harmony.
- Sample Projects – We identified three current arts partnership projects in the San Francisco Bay Area and worked with the artists so that we could get a first-hand experience of the challenges they are facing. There are links to descriptions of these partnerships on the Harmony Projects Overview page.
- Presentations – WomenArts Executive Director Martha Richards did additional research and got feedback on her analysis of economic and other environmental factors by doing presentations at three major gatherings of donors to women’s organizations – the Women’s Funding Network, the Women Donors Network, and Women Moving Millions.
Through our work in identifying the sample projects, we talked to a number of artists and administrators to determine their level of interest in creating community arts partnerships. Here are the patterns we found:
- Among Artists – There was a high level of interest among the artists in forming partnerships with women’s organizations. Almost every artist that we spoke to about this project thought it was a great idea and said they would be very interested in building more partnerships with women’s organizations, but they were not sure how to do it.
- Among Women’s Organizations – When we approached women’s organizations about building arts partnerships, the most common response was, “We would love to be involved, but we can’t . . .“We were surprised that it was so difficult to persuade women’s organizations to participate in arts partnerships, because many women’s organizations have staff or board members with strong interests in the arts. In fact, many women’s organizations have board members who also sit on the boards of local arts organizations.Although these women’s organizations would not participate in arts partnerships this year, their responses indicated that they were actually very interested, but they perceived large obstacles. We describe these obstacles and recommend ways of overcoming them later in this report.
- Lack of Awareness of Each Other – When we asked artists to name local women’s organizations, they often had difficulty coming up with more than one or two. The artists did not seem to be aware of the range of women’s organizations that they could approach, and in particular they seemed unaware of the women’s funding movement and the foundations dedicated to women and girls in their communities. In the same way that the artists could not name the women’s organizations in their community, the staff members of women’s organizations struggled to name local women artists.They were most aware of artists they had seen at conferences. Eve Ensler is the one playwright who seems to have a lot of name recognition among staff of women’s organizations, probably because many of them have seen or participated in productions of the Vagina Monologues for celebrations of V-Day, a holiday which is now 14 years old.
- Lots of Time To Develop Trust and Understanding – Without exception, the artists said that their deepest work came after a sustained period of getting to know their collaborators and building mutual confidence. The artists and the organizational staffers don’t usually work in the same ways, their perspectives are different, and their skill-sets are different. We heard over and over again that the best projects emerged when the artists had time to learn about an organization’s culture and modes of leadership.Trust is especially important for women’s projects since so many women’s issues involve topics that are private or embarrassing, such as domestic violence, reproductive rights, or job discrimination. For instance, Pangea World Theatre developed a play based on the stories of immigrant women who had experienced domestic violence and who could not get services from the U.S. health and legal systems.It took over a year for these women to develop enough trust to tell their stories, but once they did, Pangea was able to develop a play which has had a powerful transformative effect on the legal and medical people who see it.
If the artists are working with non-profit partners who are not accustomed to arts projects, it may take several months to generate interest among the staff members who will be directly involved, and then several more months to get approval from higher level managers or board members.Since the artists usually need a commitment from the partners before they can go for funding, and the funding process can take six months or more, it is not unusual for projects to take a year or longer from the initial contact to the start of the arts activities.However, once the trust and relationships are built, they often generate several projects. One play or film or mural leads to another and another, creating a powerful body of work that nourishes both the artists and the organizers.
- Shared Values – When artists are seeking an organizational partner, it is essential to pay attention to the core goals of the group. What are they trying to accomplish? How can the artist’s skills and knowledge increase their ability to reach their goals? It is not enough for the artist to feel passionate about the issue, she must be in tune with the potential partner’s values, aims, and ways of working. There must be a sense of shared purpose.The artist needs to be realistic about whether she is a good fit for the organization. For instance, if an artist wants to work with an immigrant population but she does not speak their language, it is doubtful that the project can move forward since most groups cannot afford additional translators.When the artist is in tune with the organization, she can sometimes persuade them to try something they would not have considered otherwise.For instance, Marty Pottenger persuaded policemen and policewomen in Maine to write poetry. The police department was surprised that their poetry readings were popular events that raised the morale of the members of the police force and also helped them develop better relationships with the public. Inner city youth in particular responded better to officers who had shared their feelings through poetry.Finally, the organizations need to be realistic about the value of the artist’s time. Most projects cannot reach their full potential unless the artist is paid – either by the organization or through a grant that the organization and the artist work on together.
- Strong Arts Allies on the Partner’s Staff – A key factor in launching most arts partnerships is the presence of at least one strong arts ally on the staff of the organizational partner. If the artists can identify a staff member who understands the potential of the arts, that person can champion their project through many organizational obstacles. If there is no internal champion, it is unlikely that the project will get off the ground.Even promising projects can be derailed by a change in organizational leadership. Several artists told us about investing time and effort in identifying and educating an internal ally, but when that person left (often due to budget cuts), they had to start all over again.The artists advised being aware of this potential problem at the outset, and to look for ways to build commitment to the project from as many people in the organization as possible.
- An Entrepreneurial Spirit – Sometimes artists bring ideas and proposals to potential partners and sometimes the partners initiate the project. Creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit are needed on both sides. The artists stressed that especially when starting out, both the artists and their partners need a spirit of openness, generosity, and a willingness to learn by doing. Most of the artists we interviewed had learned how to identify good (and bad) potential partners and how to pitch partnership ideas through trial and error. Mentorships or training programs might help artists learn these skills faster.
- Skills In Entering, Building, and Exiting Communities – In essence, every project creates its own community, whether temporary and situational or a lasting set of relationships. Artists collaborating with activists need to learn the skills of entering, building, and exiting a community. They need to recognize that they are learners and partners, rather than the center of attention.These skills are not part of conventional artistic training, but must be acquired and practiced through encounters with experienced collaborators. We learned that many potential projects have floundered because the artist entered the community as if they were walking onto a stage in front of an audience instead of into a classroom with other learners. In the most powerful artist/activist collaborations, the artists leave a legacy of expanded awareness and capacity in the community that lasts long after their departure.
- Understanding All Parts of the Whole – Some veteran artist-collaborators pointed out that even the parts of a project that might feel daunting, such as fundraising, have potential benefits to the project beyond their obvious functions. For example, fundraising is a powerful tool for involving more people in a project, giving them concrete ways to share their passions with others.The artists stressed the importance of staying involved in every aspect of the partnership – research, planning, execution, outreach – all are essential to the project’s ultimate success in reaching and engaging people.
- Lack of Funds – By far the largest factor inhibiting feminist cultural partnerships is lack of funding. Although this is a problem that beleaguers the entire non-profit world, there are some particular aspects of the funding environment that make it especially difficult to develop partnerships between women artists and women’s organizations.
a) Very Few Funders Support Developmental Time or General Operating Support
Most funders favor grants for projects with well-defined goals and time-frames. It is extremely difficult to get funding for the kind of developmental time that these projects need.
In the projects we have studied, the partners often use general operating funds to support the developmental phases of the projects, i.e. they assign salaried staff members to work on the project. If an artist is not on salary with a non-profit organization, she is often forced to donate her time in the early phases in order to get the project off the ground.
Since many non-profit organizations are working with very lean staffs these days, it is much harder for them to allocate salaried staff time for developmental work. The situation is even worse for independent artists. Unless they have a supportive spouse or other income source, they are often juggling several jobs and many of them literally cannot afford to volunteer their time for developmental work.
b) Most Non-Profits Do Not Have Adequate Cash Reserves
It is well recognized in the for-profit world that businesses need substantial cash reserves so that they can take advantage of unusual opportunities, do research and development, and get through lean times. Since the arts and non-profit sectors have been under attack for several decades, most non-profits (especially smaller arts organizations and women’s organizations) do not have adequate cash reserves.
This means that they do not have the flexibility to experiment with arts partnerships or any other research and development projects, no matter how helpful those projects might be in the long run.
c) Arts and Women’s Organizations Are Especially Under-funded
Although the entire non-profit sector is suffering from reduced funding, arts organizations and women’s organizations are especially challenged, and this makes it much harder to build partnerships between them.
Although all ten of the women artists we interviewed for this project are strongly involved in issues of equality for women, all of them told us that there were fewer opportunities to collaborate with organizations specifically dedicated to women, and that most of their work had been with groups involving both men and women.
The artists’ experiences are confirmed by a recent study by the Foundation Center and the Women’s Funding Network, Accelerating Change for Women and Girls: The Role of Women’s Funds (2009). The study found that although the 145 member funds of the Women’s Funding Network disburse $60 million a year, the foundation community as a whole has given less than 7½ percent of its total annual funding to organizations dedicated to women and girls for the past decade and a half.
Similarly in the arts sector, the National Endowment for the Arts budget for 2011 was $154.6 million, the same dollar amount as it was 30 years ago in 1980, but worth less than half as much in 2011 dollars. The arts have been under right-wing attack for so long that a whole generation of artists and managers does not realize that the arts enjoyed bi-partisan support prior to 1980 – in fact, the NEA’s greatest growth spurt was under the Republican administration of President Nixon.
The federal arts cuts have been echoed at the state level. In addition, Americans for the Arts has reported that private arts funding dropped by $1.2 billion between 2008 and 2010.
Arts organizations serving women and people of color have never received their fair share of funding, and they have been disproportionately affected by the funding cuts. We are only aware of a handful of arts organizations dedicated to women artists with annual operating budgets over $1 million, and most (including WomenArts) are well under $500,000. Even a group like Urban Bush Women, a 27-year-old dance company with a substantial body of critically-acclaimed work, has an annual budget under $1 million.
d) Managers Are More Conservative in Tough Times
When budgets are tight and jobs are scarce, it is much safer for a manager to stick to traditional ways of doing things. If she tries an experiment that fails, she is much more likely to be accused of wasting limited financial resources than if she continues with accepted practices in the field, even if those practices are not particularly effective for her organization. Arts experiments may seem especially prone to criticism if the manager reports to board or staff members who view the arts as “a frill.”
In addition to the fear of wasting limited financial resources, many non-profit managers have legitimate fears about overloading their staff members or volunteers. Demands on staff and volunteer time are already very high in many organizations. Since arts partnerships often require an ongoing time commitment — a workshop once a week, or a sequence of hands-on studio sessions or rehearsals — managers may question their capacity to sustain that level of involvement.
For instance, one manager told us that her organization had experimented once with a collaborative theater practice, and that the results were wonderful, but she could not justify all the staff time it took.
- Emphasis on Mainstream Media – Although it is hard to persuade women’s organizations to train their staff members to use the arts, we have noticed that they are putting an increasing emphasis on media training. For instance, the conferences for the Women’s Funding Network, Women Donors Network, and Women Moving Millions routinely include sessions on topics such as writing op-ed pieces, making effective television appearances, using social media, and increasing mainstream media coverage, and there have been special media training sessions with the Women’s Media Center.Obviously these organizations feel that their stories and messages do not receive adequate coverage from the mainstream media, and they are correct. But it takes a substantial investment of time and money to get even a few minutes of airtime or a brief mention in print media. Is it wise to spend such a high percentage of our outreach resources to achieve these fleeting victories?Although we understand the desire for a mainstream media presence, we question whether deep social change can actually be achieved through our current media system. First, the media industry consists mainly of huge unregulated multi-national corporations that profit from the status quo, and second, women’s messages are less likely to taken seriously when they are presented in a media context of pervasive and appalling gender discrimination. We will explore these two issues more in this section.
a. Dominance of Huge, Unregulated, For-Profit Media Businesses
Since 1975, two-thirds of independent newspaper owners and one-third
of independent TV owners have disappeared, and there has been an astonishing consolidation of control of the media, especially following the Telecommunications Act of 1996. We are now down to 6 multi-national corporations that control 90% of what we read, see and hear in mainstream newspapers, radio and TV.
Big media has one of the most powerful special interest lobbies in Washington – spending more on on lobbyists than any other industry, including the drug and oil companies. As a result, the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with regulating our media, has been extremely lax in recent decades.
In an effort to maximize their profits, the six media conglomerates have often cut the number of reporters in their news operations, and they have increased the number of advertisements per hour. The average television hour includes 16 or more minutes of advertising. In particular, many network news shows now have 18 minutes of advertising per hour according to studies by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
Women’s organizations are correct that it is harder for them to get coverage since there are fewer reporters and fewer minutes used for news. But even when the non-profits do get coverage, can a compelling vision of deep social change be squeezed between commercials that often reinforce gender, race, and class stereotypes for one minute out of every four?
It should also be noted that television and radio stations are the main beneficiaries of the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case which struck down legislation that prohibited corporate spending for political advertising. As progressive funders struggle to match the spending of wealthy for-profit companies on political ad campaigns, the available funds for many non-profits are shrinking while the media giants get more and more money from both the left and the right.
Many people are advocating for campaign finance reform that would bring back limits on spending for political ad campaigns, but it is rarely mentioned that it would also be possible to level the playing field by regulating the media. The public owns the airwaves, and the FCC could limit the number of ads that television and radio stations can air, insist on better fact-checking before the ads are aired, or require the stations to provide more free air time or diverse staff to cover local and national issues and candidates.
b. Emphasis on Tightly Focused Messaging
Since it is so difficult to get media coverage, non-profits are often advised to adopt corporate branding strategies and to boil their goals down to tightly focused messages that can be repeated over and over. But are these strategies effective for activists?
Many cognitive scientists are pointing out the shortcomings of this model: people are often very good at tuning out messages that tell them what to do or think, and they are much more motivated to act when they feel something that stems from a fuller, richer engagement of emotions as well as intellect.
When asked to imagine their constituents engaged in creating art works that express their own feelings about an issue, some organizational staff expressed trepidation about getting too far off-message, but in fact, a multi-dimensional arts experience could help them engage people at much deeper levels.
c. Pervasive Gender Discrimination in the Mainstream Media
The Women’s Media Center has a page with links to studies* showing that women face substantial employment discrimination in all the major media – radio, television, print, and film. In particular, they point out that women hold less than 3% of decision-making “clout” positions in media, and they earned only 25% of all new media jobs created from 1990 -2005, despite constituting 65% of all undergraduate and graduate journalism and mass communications students. *This page has changed. For recent statistics and a link to this year’s WMC report with comprehensive references, click here.
WomenArts has a page with links to additional studies about gender discrimination in various arts forms. Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University produces annual reports on employment statistics for women in film and prime-time television. We were especially struck by her comment in Thumbs Down, her study about the lack of female film critics:
“Men dominate the reviewing process of films primarily made by men featuring mostly males intended for a largely male audience. The under-employment of women film reviewers, actors, and filmmakers perpetuates the nearly seamless dialogue among men in U.S. cinema.”
We applaud the efforts of the Women’s Media Center and others who are working for gender equality in the mainstream media. But until that is achieved, women’s organizations need to recognize that it will require substantial investments of time and money to get even a few minutes of airtime in the mainstream media, and even then, their messages may be distorted by male reporters, male editors, or by the overall context of gender, race, and class stereotypes.
- Ubiquitous Social Media Facebook and other social media programs have seen remarkable growth in recent years. In fact there are now over 800 million Facebook subscribers, and studies on Craig Newmark’s CraigConnects show that 92% of the top non-profits are using social media. It is easy to understand why people think that social media are more powerful than the arts. We live in a world where almost every arts event begins with a polite admonition to “Please turn off your cell phone.” No one ever has to tell us to turn on our cell phones – the assumption is that we are connected to our phones, emails, and text messages 24/7 unless we are asked to pause.There is no doubt that social media provide terrific tools for scheduling meetings, organizing rallies, or sending out short informational messages, but women’s organizations need to be clear about the hidden costs and limitations of these tools.
a. Hidden Costs – Many non-profit managers are drawn to social media because they are “free,” but there are actually two substantial hidden costs.
First, social media have substantial staff-time costs. It is time-consuming to generate a steady flow of social media content, and the CraigConnects study shows that an increasing number of larger non-profits now have one or more staff members who spend all of their time creating and tracking social media. Also, many staff hours are lost while employees check their personal Facebook pages or other feeds while they are at work.
Second, most social media services are making money by selling advertisements based on the user’s browsing habits. As users, we may not pay a fee for the service, but in the long-term, it can be very expensive to expose ourselves to so many carefully targeted ads that are designed to make us spend our money on things that we may not need.
b. Word Limitations – Messages for social media need to be even shorter than in the traditional media since there are often limitations on the number of words allowed. Many complex thoughts cannot be expressed at all within this limited structure.
- Skill-building for Artists – Most artists are developing partnerships through a time-consuming process of trial and error. In order to stimulate more effective partnerships between artists and women’s organizations, it would be helpful to train artists to identify good potential partners, to generate viable partnership projects, and to learn community building skills. It would also be helpful to make artists more aware of the range of women’s organizations in their communities, and to train artists to respond to the common objections that women’s organizations will raise when they are approached about arts partnerships.
- Arts Awareness Training for Women’s Organizations – Women’s organizations need to understand the potential of the arts as a tool for community engagement, and they need to be persuaded that it would be a wise investment to spend part of their outreach budget on arts activities. They also need to be more aware of the potential artist partners in their communities.
- Encourage Funders to Make More General Operating Grants –
All of the artists indicated that effective partnerships require a substantial amount of developmental time. Since it is nearly impossible for artists to predict the amount of time these projects will take, it is extremely difficult to develop realistic project budgets. The partnerships have a much better chance of growing if organizations have the freedom to allocate staff resources to the project as needed, instead of being restricted to a pre-established project budget.
- Amplify Occupy – In the same way that the Occupy Movement has highlighted the devastating effects of bank deregulation on the economy, artists and activists need to speak with a unified voice about the debilitating effects of unregulated multi-national media corporations on our cultural and political environment.In the same way that the Occupy movement is encouraging people to move money from the big banks to community-controlled credit unions, we need to encourage women’s organizations and other activists to move some of their outreach resources from the big media to community-controlled arts projects that can pull people into much deeper levels of engagement.
- Advocate for Arts Jobs – If the Occupy movement succeeds in pressuring the federal government to create a jobs program, we need to make sure that artists are included. Many baby-boomers (including WomenArts’ Executive Director) began their arts careers in jobs funded through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in the mid-1970s.It would be ideal if women artists could be hired by women’s organizations through a jobs program, because this would give the artists and staffs opportunities to work together in depth over a period of time.
- Encourage Media Holidays – In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that excessive exposure to the Internet has negative effects on our ability to think clearly or maintain face-to-face relationships. A number of other journalists are now writing about the joys of “media holidays” where they turn off all electronic devices and talk to their family members.Artists should take advantage of this trend by encouraging media holidays and by talking about their work as a respite from media. Perhaps theatres could take the lead by changing their opening message to, “Please turn off your cell phone during this performance and as often as possible.” Performances could be advertised as “media mini-vacations.”
- Continue to Build SWAN Day – The remarkable success of Eve Ensler’s V-Day proves the value of having a galvanizing annual celebration. In just 14 years there have been thousands of V-Day readings of The Vagina Monologues world-wide that have raised over $75 million to fight violence against women.V-Day is a shining example of the effectiveness of feminist arts partnerships that is almost universally recognized by the staff of women’s organizations.Support Women Artists Now Day/SWAN Day will celebrate its fifth year in 2012. On a shoestring budget we have recruited thousands of artists in 21 countries, and their SWAN events get more ambitious every year. While V-Day is focused exclusively on violence against women, we see the potential of creating SWAN events and SWAN partnerships on a wide range of women’s issues.SWAN Day is giving us a way to identify and build ongoing relationships with women artists who are dedicated to women’s issues. We have identified a dozen ambitious Super SWANs who are organizing substantial SWAN festivals every year, and we want to invest more energy in training them. Since these women have already demonstrated their commitment, they have tremendous potential to move women’s issues forward in exciting new ways.
7. Conclusion – We want to thank the Nathan Cummings Foundation for giving us the opportunity to do this exhilarating work. Although there are obstacles to partnerships between women artists and women’s organizations, we feel that many of them can be addressed, and that the potential is tremendous.
We have been deeply impressed by the enthusiasm, dedication and hard work of all of the women we interviewed – both artists and administrators. We are especially encouraged by the global success of Eve Ensler’s V-Day celebrations which grew from such humble beginnings.
We look forward to continuing our work and to building a movement of women artists that will advance the full spectrum of women’s issues around the world.