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CultureBank: A new investment paradigm for art & culture

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Deborah Cullinan, CEO, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

YBCA is a pioneering institution that is transforming the role cultural centers can play as citizen institutions – places that gather creative people together to make change in their communities. While social impact artists are doing some of the most important work in our sector, it’s been hard to scale their work and to evolve arts funding strategies to meet 21st Century needs and demands.

While traditional philanthropy continues to increase investment in creative placemaking and community engagement efforts, we have not evolved our capital streams to support a new paradigm that puts artists at the center of social change. At the same time, most private art investors are looking for a guaranteed “return” on their investments; usually in the form of financial gain. YBCA believes that the flow of capital should not solely depend on the promise of financial returns and should emphasize impact investment strategies for arts and culture. If we can reinvent the investment model, we can bring more social impact art projects to scale, and help more communities create lasting social and economic change.

This is why YBCA is creating a radically different funding model for social practice art and artists. We call it CultureBank ™.

Drawing on the best attributes of community banks, social financiers, community development finance institutions, and placemaking organizations, CultureBank makes investments in social impact artists and their enterprises. In exchange for these investments, we make art and community impact a key form of ROI (return on investment).

The creation of Culture Bank has required YBCA to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders from the arts, civic impact, and financial sectors. Together, they are designing a financial model that leverages art and community assets along with financial investments and that will be sustainable, adaptable and replicable by others.

CultureBank is seed funded by key foundations and led through unlikely partnership between YBCA, RSF Social Finance, and the San Francisco Federal Reserve, among others.

Good morning. You know what, I think you all are a little tired. Is this good? Yes? Let’s have another round of applause, not for me, but for all of you, get a little rowdy.

So, thank you for the introduction. I am here from Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts, and I’m very, very happy to be with all of you, here in Rotterdam. I was just telling Jasper that my son, Hayden, is with me, he’s turned 15 on Monday, and we got to celebrate it in Amsterdam, he will never forget that.

So, I’m going to talk to you about the radical reinvention of our institution. I have been with YBCA, for a little bit more than four years and, in that time, we have really thought about what it can mean for arts centres of all kinds, to think of themselves as citizen institutions, as public assets, as outward facing citizens in their own communities.

I want to talk with you about, what it would be like if we could imagine all of our art centres as cultural incubators. As places where we, not only present the greatest art in the world, but we also invite people, creative people, of all kinds, to gather with us, around the most intractable questions, to land their own life experiences, their own creativity, to answering those questions. I believe that this is how we will break through, and I believe that it is our art centres that can drive the way.

It starts like this. We need a new paradigm. I believe we need a new paradigm for the role of art centres in public life. I also believe we need a new paradigm in general, across this world, a paradigm that is about equity. We know the consequences of the current state of the world, we have a rising wealth gap and, in a few minutes, everything in this world will be owned by a couple of people. This is something that we need to address.

We also know that communities across this world have value, that there are hidden and underutilised assets everywhere, all around us. Assets like language skills, assets like art, assets like cultural knowledge. But, still in this world, it’s money that is the most important asset, or the thing that we value the most, and we want to change that.

We also know that investors, and people who are making philanthropic contributions to art centres, and to social services organisations, have yet to build their own capacity to see the assets in our community.   To see language skills, and cultural knowledge, and cross generational exchange and diversity, and art and culture, as equally valuable to money.

And, we also know that we’ve missed the opportunity to enable artists, entrepreneurs, and artistic ventures, across the planet, to really do their thing. We know that artists, one at a time, one person, one block, one neighbourhood, one community, one city, artists on the ground can transform lives. And, we know that those artists have yet to be properly capitalised.

So, what happens, what happens if we can figure out a new model, where we release the potential of these artist entrepreneurs, all over the world, where we invest productively and imaginatively, and where we produce something that’s compelling, and that can be replicated all over the world? I’m going to tell you how we can do it.   Are you guys ready?

I mean, I think this artist, here on the streets of San Francisco, is articulating what we mean. The quote here says, ‘every roof or sunny spot is a potential kitchen.’   Every roof or sunny spot is a potential kitchen. So, what can happen when we start to see all of this value all around us?

So, this is about culture shift. We want to achieve lasting change. One of the key elements to CultureBank, is the idea that artists are the first investment. That we go to the people that can see a future, that can build a future, first, not last. And, this is why we created CultureBank, to shift culture.

So, I’m going to tell you a little bit about Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts, so you understand how this organisation can come up with this wild and whacky idea.   Our mission is to generate culture that moves people. And, by culture, we mean that thing, that set of things, stories, and traditions, and values, that make up a community.

We believe that it is culture that precedes change. Any seismic shift, any social shift, has always been preceded by culture. Think of, in the US, marriage equality, civil rights, reproductive rights, environmental rights, this the work of generations of cultural shift, changing hearts and minds. And, if we don’t start by changing hearts and minds, any change we make in the world can be easily overturned.

This is the value of our art centres. We can be the drivers of cultural shift, that leads to positive and lasting change. At YBCA, we don’t describe ourselves in terms of the disciplines, the artistic disciplines, that we work in. We are a theatre, we have multiple performing arts venues, we have multiple exhibition spaces, we have a film screening venue, we have multiple buildings at the centre of downtown San Francisco. But, rather than talk about ourselves as a multidisciplinary art centre, we talk about ourselves as an organisation that’s driving civic change through five key platforms.

The first, and most important, is art, art of all kinds. The second is enquiry, being a place where people can come together, around the pressing questions of our time, and where their perspective, their live experience, their creativity is valued.   The third is incubation. How do we then take the best ideas out of this enquiry, and put our creative resources into incubating them into being?

The fourth is convenings. We want to use our power to convene people, like this, like Museum Next, and really think about how convening people, across sector, and across difference, can be a key driver for an art centre, not just something we do for rental income. And then, the fifth that we do is civic coalition. Everything we do is cross sector. Everything we do is in partnership, we do not stand alone.

So, as a cultural incubator, we encourage enquiry. We do it this way, we start very year by naming the YBCA 100. This is the list of the 100 people who are most inspiring to us, as an institution. They are artists, they are change makers, they’re scientists, they are engineers, and they are people from all over the world. Some of them so famous, some of them you may have never heard of, but the list is 100.

We gather then as many of those list makers as possible, at the YBCA 100 Summit. At the summit, we ask the list makers to talk with us, about what are these questions that are keeping you up at night, what are the questions that are driving your work. And then, we take those questions and, with a community of stakeholders, we had about 400 people this year, we try to whittle those questions down into a few, that will drive the work of the institution.

Out of one YBCA 100 summit we had a couple of questions. One was, can we design freedom. Two was, why citizenship. And three was, what does equity look like. Out of the question, what does equity look like, we got a number of really interesting ideas. We did an open call for fellows, we had a cohort of people really thinking carefully about this question of equity, and what does it actually look like.

Out of this came CultureBank. And, this idea was so wild, and so interesting, that we decided that we were going to put our resources behind it. We want to incubate an idea, that could potentially change the world, and why not in an art centre.   So, we believe in having a point of view. We do not believe that any institution is neutral, and we are proud of that point of view.

So, CultureBank, this is a new investment paradigm. And, unlike traditional investment models, even in the social impact investment space, this puts culture first, this puts the idea of culture shift in front of any other investment. We want to create a systemic shift. As an art centre, we want to be able to say, this is what it can look like.

Because, we believe that the most important thing, to any change, is imagination and inspiration. If you cannot see the future, it isn’t yours to have. So, if we, as arts organisations, begin to think of ourselves as the places that can inspire people, no matter what their life circumstances, to see a better future for themselves, and their communities, then that future is more likely to be theirs.

So, our model draws from the best attributes of things that we know, social impact investment, community development finance, banks, creative place making. We’re looking at all of the models that we’re now experiencing, and trying to think about how to push them towards equity, towards that place where it is not just the money, it’s everything that we bring, that is valuable as human beings, to the table.

So, there are three innovations that make this distinct. The first is that, in the asset mix there is stuff that is not money. So, you can imagine, in a fund it’s all money, and anyone who is investing in that fund is concerned about the return on investment in dollars, and the time, the liquidity, how long will it take for me to regain my investment. Right.

We want to create a situation, where an investor may think, what else could I receive of value, or, how else can I define value in the world that I live in. So, we started with the idea of art, what if individual art collectors, across our country, were willing to pledge the value of a piece of art, or a percentage value of their collection, in order to mitigate some risk on a loan to an artist, who just needs a leg up to get a business going. What if that could happen. And then, from there, more things could be included in this fund.

The second innovation is, that the return on investment will include, over time, social impact, and I’ll talk to you about that in a minute. And then, the third is about this idea of radical collaboration. We can’t do this stuff alone, we have big problems in this world, and it’s going to take all of us. And, I’m here to say that, I think artists need to be in the lead. I think we need the people who see that future, to be helping us to move in a different direction.

So, art as an asset. Again, find an investor, maybe a mix of philanthropic contribution to a fund, and then also says, I’m going to pledge a per cent of my art collection, or a piece of art. That goes into a fund, makes a loan for an artist, and then, in return, the artist, potentially, puts a piece of art into the bank. Right. So, you’re starting to see that there’s value beyond things that are just monetary.

Exchange of value. I talked about language skills, I talked about cultural knowledge. If you can imagine a community, say, in Las Angeles, where the language skills are intense, people speak four, five, six, ten languages. And, there are communities in the United States, as I’m sure you’re all well aware, where we speak one language.

So, what happens if that language can be seen as a valuable asset? Maybe that language can be turned into, and leveraged into wealth for that community, that doesn’t currently exist. Maybe we can help start businesses, that combine art and creativity, with tutoring skills, or teaching skills, or translation services. Things that allow us to see that language skill, as equally valuable to money that could be put into a bank.

Are you all with me? Yes.   And, radical fellowship. As I said, artists in the lead, and really learning, honing our skills to work across sector, and to really work differently than we’re working today.

The principles of CultureBank. So, for us, this is very important, this is about cross and intergenerational perspectives, it’s about elevating the stories of success. Being able to tell stories about how assets of all kinds can be valued, and about how this can work financially, and otherwise, to fund artists all over the world.

It’s about building the investor capacity. So, think about the billions of dollars, that have been invested in communities, through community development finance. At least I know, in our country, I’m sure all over the world. And, you look at the places where those billions of dollars have been invested, and you can’t see anything.

And, you look at those places, and you do not see the children in those communities having better lives. You do not see a wealth gap, that’s diminishing, you see it expanding. In our country, your life expectancy is determined by your zip code. And, those zip codes are often the zip codes where millions of dollars have been invested.

And, what think is that, we aren’t investing properly. We have to start by investing in the assets in the community, and leveraging, understanding, making clear those assets. Building the runway, de-risking the community, making it investment ready. And, we believe that it is the arts that can help do that.

Design all of this with the people. Collaborative design, not top down but bottom up, and include artists in that process. And, as I also mentioned, we want this to be sustainable, and adaptable. We don’t imagine CultureBank as some big empire. YBCA is not going to become a big bank. What we imagine is, this is a practice, this is a practice that can be easily inserted into a community foundation, into a community development organisation, into a bank, into another kind of investment fund. But, if we create the right practice, it’s going to be relatively easy to just adapt it.

You know, for example, we are in conversation in the States with a very, very large healthcare organisation, that’s looking to deal with mental health issues, mental health crises. And, believes that, if we can incorporate art and creativity, into the early part of that intervention, that they will save billions of dollars, billions is what they think. So, they want to understand how they can be a partner in CultureBank, in order to invest in artists, and artist enterprises, who can work with people who are struggling with mental health issues.

And, we have to hold this vision, at this paradigm of equity. We have to hold the idea that we’re looking for an equitable future. Some would argue that the social impact investment trend that we’re seeing across the world, is still about the value of the money, it’s still concentrating on the return, and how long it’s going to take for you to get money back in your pocket. And, what we need is a paradigm where we all care about the other. Where we understand that, community wealth is personal wealth, that another person’s wealth is our wealth too. And, we really want to push that paradigm forward.

And, that, my friends, is CultureBank. What do you think?

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