Make It Work: Arts Funders Forum

An illustration of a hand putting money into a laptop.

Arts Funders Forum cofounder Sean McManus and director Melissa Cowley Wolf discuss their new, virtual arts funding initiative, Remake the Model

By Corinna Burford Tue, July 14, 2020

When Sean McManus and Melissa Cowley Wolf helped launch the Arts Funders Forum in 2018, they wanted to connect and inspire the next generation of cultural donors through research, content and, most importantly, a series of live events. After getting the project off the ground, they launched their first large-scale event during Art Basel Miami in December 2019, with more than 225 attendees from the arts, culture and financial sectors.

By February, though, as COVID-19 spread across the US, McManus and Cowley Wolf realised that they had to rework their approach. Not only had the live events industry begun to shift dramatically, but so had the issues facing the art world. Their new virtual series, Remake the Model, which launched in April, aims to tackle both of these concerns, using regular online workshops and discussions, as well as editorial content, to help rethink and sustain arts funding through the current financial crisis. 

Here, they discuss launching the Remake the Model series earlier this year and what the future holds for the Arts Funders Forum.

Life in ‘the before’
SM: ‘For a bit of background, I’m the co-founder of an agency called M+D, which works on designing conferences and developing editorial franchises around them. Melissa has her own company, too, called MCW Projects, which is a consulting firm that focuses on expanding the next generation of arts and culture philanthropists. Together, Melissa and I, with a group of colleagues, launched the Arts Funders Forum in 2018 and held our first annual conference at Art Basel in Miami last year.’

The big idea
MCW: ‘At the end of February, coronavirus was becoming a reality for the States. And from my side, the financial institutions, and then those involved in live programming, conferences and events were the first to really pull back. So, we had a sense then that our plans for the in-person convenings would have to change.

‘We knew that for our community, meeting and sharing stories was really important. So, instead of cancelling that part of our plans altogether, we saw an opportunity for hosting virtual conversations. 

‘After also noticing that some of the trends that had already been developing within the cultural philanthropy world were being accelerated by the events of 2020, we decided to curate the programming around that. We knew we needed to shake things up, so we called our series “Remake the Model”. We recognised that what’s happening now isn’t necessarily working. In order to bring in the next generation of arts funders, we have to take a new kind of approach.’

We’re looking to bring the next generation of donors and high net worth individuals into cultural philanthropy, and this new, virtual environment allows us to meet them where they are

Taking the leap
MCW: ‘We’re particularly looking to bring the next generation of donors and high net worth individuals into cultural philanthropy, and this new, virtual environment allows us to meet them where they are. Not that those under 50 years old are less likely to show up for an event, but I think that there is a familiarity with this technology and way of communicating that there isn’t with older, traditional philanthropists. 

‘In terms of subject matter, with Remake the Model, we’re aiming to explore things like how arts can be a driver of social justice, as well as techniques to keep arts funding alive during these intersecting crises of 2020. And we want to continue to advocate for its growth and its expansion in this very unique scenario.’

SM: ‘Transitioning to the virtual environment has actually allowed us some flexibility and provided opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. You can sometimes aim higher, and as people are just going to be in their house anyway, they might be more willing to jump on a virtual conversation with you.’ 

The response
MCW: ‘The response to the series has been really good so far. Our latest virtual event, for instance, was called “Ethics and Equity in Cultural Philanthropy”. It was with Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, and David Callahan, author and editor and founder of Inside Philanthropy, and it had more than 600 participants. 

‘The goal is to really engage the 360 of cultural philanthropy and the arts community. We see our audience as the whole cultural ecosystem: directors of museums, board members, philanthropists, art collectors, those working in fundraising, patrons, influencers and journalists. And so far, we’ve been really happy with both the quantity and the types of people who are joining in and engaging with the issues. We’ve had directors of some of the biggest museums in the United States join the call. We’ve had some of the most prominent art collectors and philanthropists not only join, but be in the call.’

Life in the ‘after’ 
MCW: ‘I think the last few months have shown us the power of these virtual conversations. Going forward, we will always have a virtual component, and not just in programming. Our plans for expanding are also in digital content, creating a newsletter and developing a very strong mechanism for storytelling and narrative. 

‘We’re also thinking about developing a plan for what our in-person annual event could be in Miami this year, because we don’t want to miss the opportunity to connect with the community. We want that annual event to include a lot of workshops and discussions, so that people can roll up their sleeves and develop solutions to a lot of the problems that arts funding is facing. Nothing can really replace doing that in person, but we are also thinking if that needs to happen virtually, what would it look like?’ 

SM: ‘If there’s a live Art Basel in Miami Beach, we’ll certainly be hosting our AFF event there. At the same time, any media company that has traditionally been hosting live experiences is discovering that there’s a new opportunity to reach and engage people in these virtual environments. Adding this virtual component to the mix offers another way to engage with communities and to build content that can be super valuable. Hopefully, it’ll become something really good that comes out of this challenging time.’
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