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"Foundations" - A Q&A with John E. McGuirk, Performing Arts Program Director

Feb 01, 2010


John E. McGuirk photo

"Foundations" is an occasional series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work. John E. McGuirk is the new director of the Foundation's Performing Arts Program, which makes grants to support artistic expression and encourage public participation in the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area.

For McGuirk, assuming leadership of the Program marks a homecoming. He served as an officer at the Hewlett Foundation from July 2002 until October 2006. For the past three years, he directed the Arts Program of the James Irvine Foundation.

Earlier in his career, McGuirk was director of grants programs for Arts Council Silicon Valley, one of the largest local arts agencies in California. Before that, he worked for seven years at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, California, and held positions at both the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Opera.

McGuirk is a graduate of Grove City College in Pennsylvania and earned his master's degree in public management at Carnegie Mellon University, with a concentration in arts management.

Here, he shares his thoughts on assuming leadership of the largest funder of performing arts organizations in the Bay Area at a time of significant cultural change and economic upheaval.

How is the performing arts scene in the San Francisco Bay Area different today from when you left Hewlett in 2006?

I'd have to say looming above all else is the economic environment. Arts organizations that historically have operated with very small profit margins are even more stretched and stressed. Many organizations are teetering on the edge of financial collapse, and some have gone out of business or merged. There are fewer products for audiences, as these organizations cut performances or defer major productions to another year to save costs.

All that said, it's important to maintain some perspective. We have to remember that this remains one of the most vibrant arts scenes in the nation with a lot of wonderful work going on, and that is going to remain true for a very long time. Prudent organizations are rapidly adapting to this changing environment.

Is there a shakeout as a result of the hard times?

As Hewlett grantees already are well aware, the grantmaking budgets for all programs have been reduced substantially as a result of the sharp decline in the Foundation's assets since 2008. The Performing Arts 2010 grantmaking budget has been reduced by forty percent over this period. With the economy still in flux, we expect to operate at this budget for several years. Given that, we've put together strategies designed to make sure that the goals of our program – to ensure that exceptional works of art are created, performed, and preserved; and to provide more opportunity for participation in arts experiences – move forward by supporting artistically and financially healthy organizations.

We continue to review our portfolio and to refine the criteria by which we select grantees. We understand that these strategic decisions will mean reduced grants to some excellent organizations and final grants to others. We held workshops in January for grantseekers, and this spring we plan to hold another set of workshops for organizations with grants expiring in 2010. We'll be in touch soon with more information about that.

Beyond the immediate economic pain, what do you see as the key challenges and strengths of the performing arts scene in the region?

One key challenge we are witnessing is a slow decline in the ticket-buying audience for the performing arts in the region and across the nation. This is a long-term trend separate from the current economic difficulties.

But, at the same time, individual participation in the arts has doubled in the last six years. The percentage of the region's population practicing some form of art at home has increased from 1.6% to 3%. It's an entirely new phenomenon, and arts organizations need to ask themselves how they are addressing it. For example, can a symphony find some way to support people who are studying music at home and, in the process, create some relationship with its organization and what it does?

That's the big question. It's both a challenge and an opportunity.

Beyond that, I think technology continues to be integrated into arts organizations in ways we never expected. It's being used by individual artists to create and disseminate new works that we never would have dreamt of ten years ago. Arts organizations are using social networking technology to engage audiences far beyond the concert hall. 

In addition, people have a much higher propensity to go online and buy a CD or listen to classical music or watch a video of classical music than to go to the concert hall.

How are changing demographics in the region changing your work?

The Hewlett Foundation's contributions to the arts are rooted in Western classical art forms, like the symphony and the opera. Over the past decade or so, the portfolio of grants has greatly diversified in its aesthetic to increasingly capture the diverse audiences of the Bay Area. So, for example, we provide general operating support to Frameline, a premier presenter and distributor of gay and lesbian films, and Youth Speaks, which features spoken word performances.

I think we'll continue to diversify and look for ways to serve the region's different communities. We aren't just concerned with geographic communities, but also ones defined by a wide range of factors, like age or socioeconomics.

How will grantees be affected by your taking over the Program?

We've had a very smooth transition. The thinking that underlies our grantmaking remains in place and there's a continuity of ideas. There's a lot of continuity of ideas.  We have articulated our criteria for selecting grants that we will use in 2010 and 2011. They include such considerations as how well an organization fits with Hewlett's goals, the artistic quality of the work, whether they are meeting the needs of a target audience important to the Bay Area, and the strength of the organization's leadership, including its fiscal management.