Artist As Citizen: Blending Art and Journalism to Promote the Critical Thinking Necessary to Democracy: Q+A with Richard Reiss ’81, Executive Director
Q: What is your mission?
Artist As Citizen is an arts nonprofit that connects top emerging talent with minigrants for the creation of work on social issues. Our goal is to bring information to the public in fresh ways, in order to promote the critical thinking necessary to a democracy.
Our current project is City Atlas, developed with our first foundation support (from the Rockefeller Foundation) and in partnership with the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities (CISC). City Atlas launched the year before Hurricane Sandy as a new way to educate about climate change, by blending ideas about the future into the activities of daily life.
Our science partner, CISC, was founded by William Solecki, co-chair of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, the group of scientists that provided the projections for Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for rebuilding after the storm.
City Atlas seeks to engage broader communities around New York in open conversation about the future of the city; the project is researched and written largely by interns, and has had many contributors from Yale, as well as Columbia, CUNY, Princeton, MIT, NYU, SVA, Parsons and Cooper Union.
Q: What prompted you to found (or join) the organization?
I was standing on the street next to a bus shelter ad for a Hummer just before the US invaded Iraq in 2003. It was a funny and well-designed ad, and it occurred to me that that kind of creativity could be put to use. (I happened to be in front of the School of Visual Arts at the time.)
Q: How did you set goals for the organization when you founded (or joined) it?
Each of our projects is a stand-alone production, and the first ones were really experiments to see if the system would work. The early goal was to see the kind of product that a system of talent-hunting for undergrads and grad students would produce.
Q: How do you measure the impact of programs?
Our first objective is to make work that we like, and that our collaborators like. Keeping the level of our work high ensures our continued credibility with top talent, and we think ultimately the shift among people of top talent will change the center of gravity on many issues. There is also a Trojan Horse aspect to Artist As Citizen, because as we corner more young top talent, if they do go on to commercial projects, they carry the experience of working on a real issue first.
Beyond that, we want to make projects that reach the public in relevant numbers. That’s a much bigger step and involves partnerships and chemistry that’s hard to predict. We’re ready to experiment with any methods that might work.
Q: What have been the greatest challenges?
One challenge: We were a self-funded start-up, and our creative reach has consistently exceeded our funding grasp. Now we’re working on building a board and finding a development professional to help us grow. A second challenge: We conceived of Artist As Citizen as a concept that could grow into an efficient tool for engaging the public across a range of issues. As it happens, our first project was on climate and the discourse around it; after that, we worked on various topics, including Israel and Palestine and microfinance.
But it’s increasingly evident that climate — essentially, the way we learn to fit our civilization on one planet — is going to be the main challenge in our lives from here on out. It’s going to be like trying to redesign an airplane while it’s in the air. The solutions are probably going to transform political science and economics, as well as the approach to social justice.
We made the connection with CISC after being invited to a remarkable two day conference in December, 2009 called Tipping Point, which was hosted by Columbia University, the British Council, and CUNY. The goal was to come up with new ways to explain the risks of climate change. Then we partnered with CISC on the proposal for City Atlas, which received a Rockefeller award in 2010, and we launched the site, in 2011. But we didn’t design the project for breaking news. So when a heatwave came in summer 2012, and Sandy hit in the fall, we learned on our feet. And now the city itself has a far-reaching plan for coming decades (some would say, not far-reaching enough). Events have overtaken us, and everyone, really.
Meanwhile, the public is still not up to speed on the future. At this point, it would probably help us to be larger.
Q: What’s your top fundraising tip?
Building in fundraising from the start would be good, if you can make that work with a new nonprofit (unfortunately, that’s often a question of family and contacts).
Q: What’s the most critical lesson you’ve learned about nonprofit management?
People’s attention comes in thin slices. Also, in my experience a nonprofit is basically a ship built out of emails: if you stop writing emails for a day or two, the ship slowly starts to sink until you begin writing again. Devising a system where other people can write some of these emails, and successfully stay on message, is crucial to growth.
Q: What changes do you anticipate in the nonprofit landscape over the next five to 10 years?
Be aware of where we are in history. The world is changing rapidly, and the nonprofit sector will be changing rapidly too. For instance, governments and foundations are recognizing the challenge of sustainability on a finite planet (for which so far there really isn’t a plan A, much less a plan B). More grant programs will be diverted to response in these urgent areas, as impacts are increasingly felt.
Q: How can others help support your organization’s mission?
If you like what we do, we are seeking both supporting board members and advisors with a background in development. (Please contact email@example.com.)
Contact information for Richard: firstname.lastname@example.org
Artist as Citizen website: http://artistascitizen.org/#/home/
City Atlas New York: http://newyork.thecityatlas.org/
City Atlas New Haven: http://newhaven.thecityatlas.org/
Sponsor an AAC project: http://artistascitizen.org/#/sponsor_a_project/
Donate to AAC: http://artistascitizen.org/donations/
Contact AAC: email@example.com
For an inside look at our latest process, you can read our wrap-up narrative report to Rockefeller on City Atlas. Please skip to page 4 of the pdf for lessons learned. For a parallel discussion of strategy, see also this report about climate education from Amy Luers, of Skoll.
The science around climate change is covered in our review here, or you can watch videos here. (The very first video, from statistician Hans Rosling, is only three minutes long and explains everything about everything.)
Here is a set of readings that are valuable critiques of the nonprofit universe:
- Philip Gourevitch, on aid. Marc DuBois, Yale ’81, director of MSF/UK, in his personal blog. The question of simplification in NGO marketing is touched on in one of his references. Marc has a piercing quote (in another post) that I’m going to steal and re-apply to things I’ve seen: Sometimes, “the fig-leaf of activity [hides] the ineffectiveness of the model.”
- Diane Ravitch and Joanne Barkan on public education, charter schools, and the reform movement. Johann Hari, in The Nation, on environmental groups, their effectiveness, and their corporate donors. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, speaking at the Yale School of Forestry, on the limits of the environmental nonprofits in tackling climate change. New Scientist on Al Gore’s current methods.
- There are many well-meaning art nonprofits, including museums, and I’m sure similar critiques exist. One that I think is essential for anyone intersecting with the world of art: Sarah Thornton’s book, Seven Days in the Art World. I’m also a fan of a classic by John Berger, Ways of Seeing — not a critique of nonprofits per se, but an examination of the relationship of art and society that helps to illuminate motive.
- Remember that idealism and pragmatism work best in combination, as is beautifully explained here in an archival clip of Viktor Frankl.