Change the Process

Change the Process

Marked by huge challenges, 2020 was landmark year for community investment

As we enter the new year, the inevitable reflection articles and yearly round-ups seem simultaneously invaluable and deeply futile. Mining for “learnings” and “highlights” in these extraordinary times takes on a different sense of meaning when we know that the 2020 calendar year was neither the beginning nor the end of the challenges and issues that this sector faces.

The circumstances have changed, but in many ways our work remains the same.

However, 2020 has brought into focus some shifts in our work as a funder that have been developing over the past few years. We have stated a goal to move away from the expectation of funding as a transaction, towards one of relationships. In these globally challenging times, the question “what does a relational approach ask of us?” takes a starkly personal turn. At the risk of speaking on behalf of my colleagues, not only are we having hard conversations from our bedrooms and living rooms, but the ability to respectfully compartmentalize the inherent emotion of relational work decreases with each passing day of crisis.

My team comes to work every day with a compassion and empathy for our community that is astonishing.

They read hundreds of applications, respond to hundreds of emails, phone calls, and meetings which run the spectrum of every possible emotion. They work to build relationships every day while carrying with them the knowledge that as a funder, we can’t support everyone, we can’t make everyone happy, and at least for right now, will be sending far more rejection letters than acceptance. The sting of that fact becomes even more pronounced in times of stress.

I share this not to garner sympathy or validation but to offer that the scarcity model, and efforts to re-imagine and re-define it, has taken on an element of emotionality that previously could be put aside. That funding decisions create real consequences to people’s identities, work and livelihoods as artists and arts workers was never forgotten—but could be detached and accepted as an immovable aspect of the funding cycle. While there are many ways to consider and contextualize abundance, the sense that there will never be enough money, enough time, enough space, enough opportunity is both a matter of perception and also very, very real.

The devastating impacts of the pandemic have been felt so sharply in the arts, and cannot be extricated from the Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements which have elevated the platform for communities to speak even more publicly and frankly about the racism and injustices they have experienced.

The heightened emotion and sense of urgency embedded in grant applications, funding requests, and feedback conversations can be overwhelming, and carries weight and a sense of responsibility. Staff and assessors read hundreds of applications in 2020, each one describing in detail the pain felt at a sectoral and personal level. Asking assessment committees to make funding decisions in times of crisis feels like an affront to the deep empathy and compassion each of them carries for the community.

In many cases personal traumas and experiences are laid bare in ways that the assessment processes were never built to responsibly and ethically create space for. And the response to this is not to ask applicants to smooth the edges, to tone-police, or to dictate what is or isn’t relevant to their story. The response is to change the process.

Traditional assessment processes were created with the intention to determine the potential return on investment for artistic work based on nebulous words like quality, impact, reach, public good, and to navigate competition within a scarce pool of funding. Assessors were given the impossible task of remaining objective and unbiased in evaluating applications in a one size fits all system.

These are processes that we now know are inherently inequitable, biased, subjective and in many ways, opaque, both to applicants and the broader public.

In my six years with Calgary Arts Development I have seen the work begin of naming and addressing these inequities in our programs, processes, and policies, with the leadership and guidance of past staff members Jordan Baylon and Emiko Muraki, and with the ongoing support and commitment of our staff, consultants, advisory groups, and most importantly, individuals within the arts community itself.

2020 was a landmark year for the community investment team. Collectively, we reviewed over 1,000 applications, proposals, and reports. We made over $15,000,000 in grants across 10 programs and approximately 850 grant payments. These are incredible numbers, but the volume comes at a cost to our capacities as staff and the level of support we can offer to our community.

I hope what I have shared here contextualizes our design approach for the slate of 2021 programs. By offering fewer programs throughout the year, we intend to create space for conversations, for dialogue, and for relationship building. We intend to take the time needed to listen and evaluate, so that the programs we offer reflect the needs of our sector as we continue to navigate this “new normal.” Most importantly, we intend to step back from our laptops every so often, breathe, and take care of ourselves so that we can continue working to care for you.

We have much more work to do, but I am hopeful that the changes we have implemented and built upon each year have set us on a path towards a system of funding that is equitable, transparent, and can hold space for the emotions, feelings, and humanness behind the work that we do in the arts.

Melissa Tuplin has been a member of the community investment team at Calgary Arts Development since 2014, working as community investment assistant and community investment officer before becoming the community investments and capacity manager in 2019.

She is focused on the design and evaluation of the grant investment programs, the development of capacity building opportunities for artists and arts organizations, and supports the program specialists in the implementation and administration of investment programs.

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