Rise Wilson, Director of Philanthropy, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Rise Wilson

Like all great artists, Robert Rauschenberg had an uncanny ability to see and shape the future. In a world that was growing smaller and in which creative technologies were more widely disseminated than ever before, he realized that the line between art and life, meaning and interpretation, high and low were increasingly arbitrary and personal.

Rauschenberg also viewed his art as a vehicle for social change and, as he grew older, actively supported people and issues that moved him. In 1990, he established the foundation that bears his name to benefit and promote awareness of the causes and groups close to his heart, which included arts education, environmental causes, and artistic collaborations of various kinds.

Rauschenberg died in 2008 at the age of 82, and today his foundation, led by its board and staff, is in the process of redefining the scope of its activities and transitioning from "a model that was artist-led toward one that serves the public good."

Recently, PND chatted via e-mail with Rise Wilson, who joined RRF as its first director of philanthropy in August, about the foundation's SEED program, which provides unrestricted operating capital to "boundary-pushing" arts organizations in their earliest stages, allowing them to build the capacity and programming that ensure growth and longevity.

Philanthropy News Digest: You and your colleagues have just announced a second round of SEED grants -- $30,000 in unrestricted operating capital to start-up arts organizations around the country. Why start-up organizations?

Rise Wilson: Before I speak to the choice to focus on start-ups, I should clarify that these particular early stage organizations were selected because they were choosing different operating models, pushing the boundaries of their medium, working in an interdisciplinary way, or in some other fashion "nurturing the new." Nominators were encouraged to identify organizations who were exemplary in their efforts to experiment, take risks, and support emerging artists. So the program is not just about start-ups for start-ups' sake but the importance of investing in new and untested models.

What we know from the legacy of our founder, Robert Rauschenberg, who invested in artists at the earliest stages of their careers, is how catalyzing this kind of support can be. Early investment validates that artists -- and, in the case of the SEED program, organizations -- are on the right path. It shores up their financial and logistical capacity to pursue their vision, and it can provide more space to test out ideas -- rather than choosing the safest, most "fund-able" projects to develop.

There is a marked absence of risk capital in arts and culture. Traditional philanthropy still seems to be operating with the tacit expectation that organizations should have at least three years of bootstrapping before receiving institutional support. Though there is wisdom in assessing a potential grantee's capacity to carry out its vision, there are a great many flaws in this metric of grant-worthiness. The ability to bootstrap is often tied to access to wealth, which is not evenly distributed -- geographically, demographically, or culturally. So there is a justice component that is available in the decision to invest in early stage work. To be clear, this justice element was not a core feature in the design of the SEED program, but it's available -- and in my new post at the foundation, it's one I plan to underline.

So there is a justice component, and on a really basic and fundamental level, there is the the fact that we need to figure out how to fund good ideas. Our sector is literally filled with creative thinkers. We are in the business of creativity and creative problem-solving, yet early stage funding is so tenuous it can kill great ideas, through neglect, before they've had a chance to take root. How do you prototype and pilot when funds are only available to proven, tested programs? We have an opportunity to apply lessons and strategies from the social-enterprise sector and impact philanthropy -- to encourage innovation, which by its nature often involves untested ideas, uncertain models, and starting from scratch.

As a foundation, risk-taking is one of our core values, so it is not only the kind of work we support but the way we approach our own. We want to remove barriers for creative thinkers to do good work, even when that means they are new, working with a fiscal sponsor, or have selected a for-profit structure as a way to advance their creative endeavors.

PND: The grants are awarded to arts groups in “underfunded” regions and in clusters – that is, grants are awarded to multiple groups in a target region. How do you determine whether a region is underfunded, and what is theory of change behind the "cluster" approach?

RW: I would be overstating the foundation's methodology to say there was a scientific study that generated a calculator that was then applied to specific zip codes in the country. What I can offer is that the "flyover zone" is a challenge in cultural philanthropy, with significant cultural investment happening along the coasts of this country, while organizations working in the South, Southwest, and the middle of the country in general struggle to find resources. This is also true in terms of disproportionate investment in urban centers versus rural communities. I'm not sure that the annual snapshot of arts funding produced by Grantmakers in the Arts -- using Foundation Center data -- has continued to include a section on funding by region in recent years, but an example of data that bears this out a bit is their 2006 report, which noted that foundations in the Northeast provide a larger share of their overall giving for arts and culture than foundations in other regions.

Here's the real bottom line for RRF: Our aspiration is to be an important lever in the growth of our grantees and to invest where we can have the greatest impact. Contributing to areas that are culturally rich but whose cultural philanthropy is contingent on fewer actors than large metropolises like New York and Los Angeles makes good sense from our vantage point. Our grantees include mainstream, big-name institutions in equally big cities, but also small-scale efforts in rural communities.

The value of resourcing a cluster of organizations from the same region is manifold. One of the benefits of participating in a national grant program is getting connected to peers across the country and expanding horizons with respect to how work similar to your own is being approached in other communities. The downside is that you take all that information home and your local peers may not share this same knowledge base or vocabulary, which can inhibit collaboration rather than fuel it.  Keeping the learning going between national peers can also be challenging as folks then have to figure out travel monies to sustain their relationships. Receiving support as part of a national and local cohort means you have a greater opportunity for building lasting relationships, knowledge exchange, and ongoing collaboration that does not have to be brokered by a third party.

PND: The first round of SEED grants were awarded to groups in Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, and Portland, Oregon. Have you made any adjustments to the program based on that first round of grants?

RW: As we plan the next wave of the SEED program, one of my tasks is to assess the results of its first two cycles. You'll have to stay tuned on what those adjustments may be in terms of shifts in eligibility requirements and the selection process. But what we have seen so far is how significant it has been for organizations to be identified through local nominations rather than national curation. Having partners on the ground who nominate organizations for support allows the foundation to benefit from the insights they bring about why a particular approach is significant in their local context.

What I can say for sure is that at the top of my list for deepening the program's impact is to convene SEED grantees so that they can gain access to important skills and information relative to their operations, become resources for each other as part of a learning community, and help the foundation understand how best it can be a resource for their growth over the length of their three-year support.

PND: As I understand it, you intend to support your SEED grantees for up to three years, allowing them to work toward sustainability along with their artistic goals. What do you plan to do if they fail to gain traction toward sustainability over that period?

RW: The word "fail" sounds like there are rigid criteria that define success. Each group has to define their own growth trajectory, and our job is really to learn from working together how we can be most effective in helping them reach those self-defined goals. Key in that process is helping grantees develop a reflective practice that allows them to build learning into their organizational cultures from the very beginning. Innovation is about iterative learning.

PND: Do you have any plans to expand the program? And what would you tell start-up groups in other parts of the country that would like to apply for a SEED grant?

RW: Our current focus is on deepening our relationships with the first wave of grantees -- both to ensure that our support is meaningful and effective, as well as to assess what adjustments to the program should be made in future cycles. To date grantees have been identified by nomination, not application. At this time we are not planning to change that structure.

-- Mitch Nauffts