Artists and Cultural Institutions Take Stage in Disaster Planning and Response

I’ve just returned from a two-day trip to Philadelphia where I attended the Grantmakers in the Arts conference and served on a panel entitled “What Will Your Sandy be? Using Disaster-Related Philanthropy to Strengthen Communities.”
My fellow panelists included Felicia Shaw, Director of  Arts and Culture Analysis and Strategy at the San Diego Foundation; and Kerry McCarthy a Program Officer for Arts and Historic Preservation at the New York Community Trust. Our aim was clear – encourage session participants to realize that it isn’t “IF” a disaster will happen in their community, but rather, “WHEN” it will take place.
Our goal was to elevate the discussion among arts funders in attendance at this national conference. As stated in our session flyer:The scope and frequency of large-scale disasters and emergencies suggests that our sector must newly embrace preparedness as a basic competency of management, and that funders should examine ways to adapt programs and services to promote preparedness.
Other than several pre-conference planning meetings with my fellow presenters, I had no idea what to expect, and I admit I entered with a very basic concept regarding  the connection between disasters and the arts. You know….the one that thinks that the role of the arts community is to to help raise funds through concerts and auctions, or maybe to create a memorial or a piece of public art at a disaster site. Boy, oh boy, did this session enlighten!
Felicia did a tremendous job of teeing up the conversation. She spoke about the devastating wildfires that hit San Diego several years ago, and about how her organization responded to the wildfire needs, and then worked to prepare for future catastrophies.
Kerry told compelling stories of how artists’ spaces, galleries, studios, and personal homes were destroyed following Hurricane Sandy.  She explained how the New York Community Trust responded to 9/11 and then to Sandy, and how grants were allocated, and how preparedness and recovery efforts are prioritized alongside immediate needs.
I spoke about disaster trends, philanthropy trends, and what Center for Disaster Philanthropy saw following Hurricane Sandy.  At every turn, Felicia, our moderator, encouraged us to look for very specific ways that grantmakers could integrate readiness, preparedness, and good strategic thinking into the audience’s grants and programs.
Given the stiff lineup of competing sessions, turnout was small for our panel.  Small in a way that proved to be perfect. It allowed for incredible conversation and connection to all in the room.  Small in the way that meant everyone spoke, shared, questioned, laughed, and learned.
These are the items I walked away with:

  1. Arts organizations and artists are highly vulnerable to disasters. (I only have to look to the Nashville Floods of 2010 to see the devastation that was wrought on the Schemerhorn Symphony’s building and brand new organ that was ruined ). And yet arts organizations and artists are often the first called upon to assist with the recovery process through the concerts and public art projects that I just mentioned.
  2. Arts organizations must be a part of community rebuilding strategies –my community, my parent’s community, the Sandy-affected Northeast, and most across the country are enriched by the presence of the arts. So while it might not be in a traditional social service model, the demonstrated benefits of cultural organizations within a community is clear. Community engagement strategies, disaster planning and post-disaster recovery efforts would be ,enriched by including arts organizations at the table.
  3. The arts community, and funders to the arts are highly organized, and many are already thinking about disasters and how to incorporate them into their programs and grantmaking. A few of the funders that were in attendance at our session included theHouston Arts Alliance; Merril G. and Emita e. Hastings Foundation; Joan Mitchell Foundation; South Arts; The Actors Fund; Rockefeller Foundation; and many others.
  4. The so-called “Ingredient Strategy” is wildly exciting to funders to the arts. Karen Saverino, CDP’s own Director of Communications, taught me about the Ingredient Strategy. The idea that you don’t buy Intel, you buy a computer with Intel Inside ™.  Same thing with GoreTex.  You don’t go to a store to buy GoreTex, you go to a store to buy a jacket made with GoreTex.  How does this related to disasters you ask?  Many funders are not in a position (by mission or by mandate) to fund disaster preparedness, response, or recovery directly. But they may be in a position to fund preparedness, response or recovery efforts indirectly.  For instance, a funder can designate a portion of a grant toward creating an operational continuity plan for an arts organization. Or, it could support a single artist’s efforts to get its data and information safely in the “cloud.” Our session was ecstatic about this Ingredient Strategy and was able to talk about the carrots and sticks it has or plans to use to encourage preparedness activities going forward.

I am so thankful to Mary Margaret Schoenfield and Cornelia Carey for bringing me into this arts fold – I am inspired and ready to learn and do more.
As always, I want to hear your feedback.  I’d be pleased to hear from you at

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