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"Foundations" - A Q&A with Ron Ragin, Performing Arts Associate Program Officer

Dec 01, 2009


Ron Ragin

“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. Ron Ragin is an associate officer with 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.

Before joining the Foundation, Ragin was a senior research analyst at the Center for Effective Philanthropy, conducting research on foundation strategy and working with U.S. foundations to help them define, assess, and improve their social impact. He started at the Hewlett Foundation working with its leadership on strategy, evaluation, and special initiatives.

Ragin graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in public policy and a concentration in social policy addressing discrimination, crime, and poverty. As an undergraduate, he was an African Service Fellow through Stanford's Haas Center for Public Service and worked at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town, South Africa, where he helped develop an arts program strategy and taught classes in music and performance studies in township schools.

Here, he discusses the Performing Arts Program's ground-breaking project to create an online, interactive map of the San Francisco Bay Area that will locate the region's many varied cultural assets.

What is a cultural asset map, and how would someone use one?

The map we're creating for the San Francisco Bay Area will be an online, interactive visualization of all the performing arts organizations, venues, and artists of various stripes who constitute the region's cultural ecosystem, as well as the connections among them. So, for example, a dancer could see all the performance and rehearsal spaces in a given neighborhood. A policymaker could view all the organizations in a neighborhood along with its demographics. The more information that's added, the more useful it will become.

And why is the Hewlett Foundation interested in creating this map?

For us, as grantmakers, it can be difficult to make consistent, informed decisions about what to fund without reliable, comprehensive information about what's out there. Being able to see where cultural amenities are – and aren't – will be an enormous help. For example, an overview of the demographics of a neighborhood could inform the best grant to make there. Amenities that are tracked could be anything from the locations of every playhouse in a given region to the locations of working artists.

How will the map be developed?

We plan to divide development into phases, concentrating first on the easy-to-get information, like the locations of nonprofit arts organizations and neighborhood demographics, and then the harder-to-get, under-the-radar information, like the locations of lesser known community art spaces, and those who regularly attend performances. If the process works as we envision it, the map will grow richer over time as more types of information are layered onto it. Different filters will allow the user to pick, view, and combine various slices of information.

One factor in the project's design is that we want it eventually to be self-sustaining. This means we need to create ways for users to add information to the map and ways for it to generate revenue to pay maintenance costs.

In light of all we want the map to do, keeping the design clean and uncluttered is going to be one of the big challenges.

Who are the expected users?

First, of course, are artists and arts organizations, which are the creative engine of the arts ecosystem. We hope the map may allow them a way to share information about their work, connect with audiences and other artists, and learn about available resources, like the location of a nearby performance space. Nonprofit arts organizations could use this tool to better understand whom they are serving, and for-profit entertainment venues could locate artists, book shows, and find ways to create connections across different sectors.

Next are funders: not just foundations like Hewlett, but grantmakers in government and other donors who could use the map to learn about the funding that organizations already are receiving and from whom. It also would help them determine which communities are not being supported.

Policymakers could use the map to get a handle on the role the arts are playing in a particular community and how that may be affecting the local economy.

Finally, of course, audiences could learn about performances and the locations of venues. Developing content for audiences will come later in the project. We're focusing first on uses for artists, funders, and policymakers, with arts organizations also coming later.

In the long term, we're also hoping the map can be an advocacy tool, not just for a policymaker working on legislation pertinent to the arts, but for arts advocacy groups. Let's say there's an apartment or condo building going up in a neighborhood that potentially could incorporate some art space. An advocacy group could use the map to show that the neighborhood has more artists in need of space than it has resources to accommodate them.

How might it affect Hewlett's grantmaking?

Hewlett's grantmaking in the performing arts focuses on the nine-county Bay Area and, to a lesser extent, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. The first obvious advantage will be having an actual picture of gaps in cultural resources in different parts of this region. Really, the possibilities are almost endless, depending on the types of information that are overlaid. For example, we're hoping to include sources of each organization's funding on the map. Information like that might help us consider potential partnerships with other funders or, conversely, guide a decision to invest elsewhere, if a neighborhood already has ample cultural funding. The map will make us smarter grantmakers.

What information will the map include?

In the first phase, for grantmakers, we plan to include the location, discipline, and budget size of an organization; some demographic data from the census to know who lives nearby; and basic information on the audience it serves. The user enters a zip code and a radius to search, and voilà! The data would be similar for policymakers, but the search locations would be built around local, state, and federal legislative districts.

For the artists themselves, the offering would be a bit different. The map will start by giving the locations of performance and rehearsal spaces, as well as much of the information available to the other types of users. And perhaps that inventory of available space could have a reservation system that might motivate people to revisit the site and keep the information up to date. We're still learning about what's possible.

What role will users play in the map's development?

We want to start with enough resources to attract the various users so they'll have incentive to participate by contributing more content. If they're already users, we're hoping "the ask" of helping maintain the site will be smaller. Ultimately, we hope other folks will take the ball and run with it, and we will have just built the platform for it to happen.

Much of the information could come from Bay Area arts organizations and from artists. We also know that there are local organizations, including some of our grantees, that have already developed online databases and mapping tools. We look forward to partnering with them to build on the resources they already have developed.