“Dependency and capacity to generate capital”

The day before I arrived in Vancouver to visit Gallery Gachet, I learnt that the organisation had just had their core funding cut from their twenty-one year contract with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

Image by Bruce Ray for Gallery Gachet's exhibition 'Voices of the Corridors: Repression of the Self, Repression of a Movement, Oppression of a People'

“It felt like somebody had reached in and pulled out my guts” says Zola, one of  Gallery Gachet’ members when she heard that the organisation’s core funding had been cut. “My anxiety shot up through the roof and I cried and I raged and felt mourning and I tried to bargain and all those things you know you go through when somebody dies and that’s what it feels because I love this place, I’ve always loved this place and the people and just everything.”

This core funding amounted to over half of the organisation’s overall budget and with only ninety days’ notice the staff and artists were in turmoil as they came to terms with the fact that this family-like programme was suddenly placed in severe jeopardy.

Cecily Nicolson, Gallery Gachet Finance Administrator, described the “cruel” move as a “deliberate attempt to undermine the organisation…an eye opening moment about dependency and capacity to generate capital” she says.

The authorities backed up their decision by claiming that Gallery Gachet’s alternative programme did not fit the ‘clinical’ mental health model that they wanted to follow in order to “revitalise” the Downtown Eastside.

Pierre Leichner, one of Gallery Gachet’s Collective members who previously worked in the Canadian healthcare system, explains how a lack of “prevention or anything that is informal or might actually provide alternatives” is not a funding priority within the mental healthcare system. Yet programmes such as Gallery Gachet provide a unique opportunity to access a safe and familiar community, which in turn offers stability and an alternative to medication that can deeply benefit participants’ mental health and overall well being.

Interview with Pierre Leichner

Nicolson explains how the funding cut is “a nasty thing for a social service space…geared towards creativity and art to have to be so constantly concerned about capital…[but] it seems to be the way and it is pretty devastating…how does one function and grow in a truly grassroots way?”

So how does one function and grow in a truly grassroots way?

I talked to Director John Malpede from the Los Angeles Poverty Department about how his organisation has managed to remain independent from state funding. He explained that the LAPD structure their funding by applying for a combination of smaller grants from a variety of different sources. This has meant that the organisation has been able to retain its freedom to make politically focussed, radical work that often criticises government policies, which is ultimately a fundamental aim of the project.

Yet this has also meant that the LAPD has had to remain relatively small, which was partly possible because the organisation until recently did not have to pay rent for a space.

“I was once at a panel…with people from a lot of bigger organisations…and the question was: ‘what happens if you irritate one of your funders?’ And this was taken pretty seriously by everyone else but I didn’t actually take it very seriously because there’s nobody that we’re really beholden to in that sense.”
– Interview with John Malpede, Director of the Los Angeles Poverty Department

What happens to a small grassroots organisation when it develops into a large company?

In terms of benefits for participants, it is clear from looking at both of the larger organisations, Creativity Explored and Hospitality House, that being in a comfortable financial position has meant that they have unsurprisingly been able to offer a variety of alternative ways to support participants and create new opportunities for artists to benefit. Importantly, I felt that these organisations retained much of their initial founding ethos – their soul – in spite of their increased scale and funding structure.

Yet unquestionably the largest benefit that financial success gives to Creativity Explored and Hospitality House is that the staff and participants feel secure about the future of the respective organisations. I got the impression that Gallery Gachet had been fighting an uphill battle against the Vancouver Coastal Association for some time. From witnessing how devastated participants at Gallery Gachet were when the core funding was cut, it really hit home just how difficult it can be to establish a secure future for programmes that support people who may be vulnerable.

In this current climate of financial insecurity, where the availability of funding is growing scarcer, it is critical for any organisation to work to ensure that it is diversifying its funding from a variety of sources. It is clearly preferable to be working with fund providers who are supportive of and on board with the organisations methodology and practices, however, as can be seen in the case of Gallery Gachet, this is by no means an easy or straightforward feat. A further step which can be taken to improve fiscal strength is to focus on ploughing money back into improving the company’s own profit making schemes a methodology which Creativity Explored has been developing in recent years.

Profit Making Schemes: Licensing and Renting Artwork

Recchiuti Confections Burnt Caramel Truffles Cakes by Camille Holvoet © 2011 Creativity Explored Licensing, LLC

Creativity Explored is currently in a strong financial position. For the last 15+ years, the organisation has focused on diversifying funding by piloting new profit making schemes that are focused on building revenue for the future – “our whole philosophy is to be really innovative and ahead of the game” says Executive Director, Amy Taub.

Over the last ten years Creativity Explored has seen significant growth “Our growth has been very planned and calculated” says Taub, “when I got here in ‘99 there had been a lot of administrative problems and the organisation did not have a solid infrastructure and was literally funded on a shoestring. The rates we were getting from the State were horribly insufficient. I was able to work with our primary funder and in 2005 our fee-for-service rates that we were paid by the State increased and that resulted in a new influx of money”.

Taub explains that Creativity Explored was able to increase staff, place a significant emphasis on marketing (including implementing a licensing programme), and develop a robust website with an online store. In 2001, the organisation had opened an onsite gallery that Taub says, “generated a whole new relationship with the local community”. The website resulted in providing a better “ability to promote the artists nationally and internationally in a different way”.

COMMES des GARÇONS Autumn/Winter 2013-14 collection  My God We Have Needles and Pens by Dan Michiels © 2009 Creativity Explored Licensing, LLC

The Creativity Explored licensing programme has already secured long-term partnerships with commercial retailers, CB2, Crate and Barrell and initiated collaborations between Creativity Explored artists, Dan Michiels, Evelyn Reyes and Charlie Barthelet with Japanese designers, Comme De Garcons. However the programme has yet to fulfil it’s original aim of generating significant revenue for the organisation.


Instead the greatest impact of the initiative so far has been the exposure it has given to artists. Director of Marketing and Licensing, Ann Kappes explains, “we haven’t earned huge amounts of money…[but] it’s promoting our artists in avenues that we could never do on our own”.

CB2 Releases Above: Set of four framed digital prints by Keenan Dietiker; Left: Alan Ku's Hong Kong pillow; Right: Merna Lum's Two Birds pillow © Creativity Explored Licensing, LLC

Speaking to Kappes, it is clear that the programme has taken a lot of effort to establish. The organisation sourced an initial grant to help research the programme before they started, however Kappes tells me that the programme still needs more work to get fully off the ground and that is “a lot of investment in time and energy”.

More importantly, Taub reminded me that it’s only possible to embark on something like this when the organisation and the artists are ready. According to Taub “there are a lot of art centres opening up in the United States and I see their websites and they’re trying to promote artwork before it’s ready. And one of the things that we constantly fight is the image that people with disabilities are not good artists, that they’re lousy artists, that it looks like children’s art…so when they’re promoting artwork that’s not ready that just reinforces that whole stigma, that whole stereotype and it’s adversely hurting us because it reinforces people’s misconceptions.”

I can imagine that if Creativity Explored is able to form more prominent partnerships – perhaps with corporations in the area, the programme could receive huge benefits and significantly increase their income. Kappes agrees that the programme does appeal to corporations who “want to showcase the fact that they’re giving back” and rather than asking directly for money, Creativity Explored has astutely positioned the organisation to develop a unique product that they can offer corporations instead.

Forging Relationships with Corporations

One organisation that has been actively reaching out for support from corporations is San Francisco based Hospitality House. However, Allan Manalo, Development Director explains that although they have managed to receive contributions from tech companies such as Yammer, Zendesk and Twitter, their longstanding relationships have been “somewhat limited”. Manalo tells me “the sad thing is we want to take it beyond and develop a relationship and we’ve been trying that [but] that hasn’t really blossomed…into what we were hoping they would be.”

Manalo sees the largest issue that Hospitality House face when trying to fundraise from corporations is tackling a large proportion of San Francisco employees’ current attitudes towards the root causes and consequences of homelessness.

“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, worked hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”
‘Open letter to SF Mayor Ed Lee and Greg Suhr (police chief)’ by Justin Keller, an entrepreneur and tech developer in San Francisco

Manalo describes how non-profitmaking organisations in San Francisco were initially calling out for money from new tech companies moving into the area who were receiving large tax breaks for setting up shop in the Bay Area. However, he explains with a disheartened voice that these companies seem to desire partnerships with “slick charities” with “fancy websites” or build their own app or product rather than support established peer led community projects that have been working on the ground for years before they arrived.

Manalo says that when he’s fundraising for the Community Arts Program (CAP) in particular, funders often see art as a “luxury” for the homeless and are reluctant to provide funding for this specific programme. Therefore, the CAP benefits from being part of a larger organisation that offers a variety of support programmes.

In order to change corporate attitudes towards homelessness, Hospitality House have been actively engaging with new tech companies. Manalo explains that “we have tried our best to take the approach to kind of integrate them and have them understand the situation rather than call them the evil ones who are not going to help us.”

This strategy led to a recent “non-profit day at Yammer to try and help introduce many of the non-profit organisations in the neighbourhood and Yammer. They had it in their kind of eatery area…where the workers get free food and you go into the bathrooms and there’s individual wrapped toothbrushes and toothpaste. We were trying to engage the employees when they were on their lunch break and I talked to maybe 50 employees and many of them had been living in San Francisco for less that 2 years and it was clear that they hadn’t really been exploring their neighbourhood.” In fact Manalo realised that the majority of employees he met were completely “oblivious to the San Francisco culture”.

Manalo’s comments sadly reflect the alarming growth of inequality across developed societies the world over. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that the UK is the third most unequal developed country in Europe.

Differing Attitudes

During this research, I noticed time and time again that there were stark differences between people’s attitudes towards homelessness, mental health and disability. And it soon became apparent that homelessness was the least understood of the three because it was viewed as self-inflicted.

Stefanie Nickel-Rather, Associate Director at Creativity Explored explains that “there’s a whole blaming culture…people with dual diagnosis, meaning mental health and substance abuse are seen as adults who are responsible for their problems…[and] making their own if not constructive decisions.”

Whereas, Nickel-Rather continues, “in the world of intellectual disabilities, there’s a whole different dynamic going on. A lot of people see people…as kids or as angels, so it’s a very overprotective, patronising, desexualising way at looking at people. At the same time they have a much more positive image.”

Outsider Art

Within contemporary art, the image of artists working outside of the mainstream art world has gained great interest and popularity in recent years. Yet it is now unclear how ‘outsider’ art can be defined. Indeed, when it comes to artists working within supported studios that offer teaching and opportunities to their artists, should they still be considered as “outsiders”? Amy Taub, Executive Director at Creativity Explored says, “I can’t really say that our artists are true ‘outsider artists’ in the way that it’s defined because we do provide instruction and people do benefit from that instruction and we’ve seen our teacher interaction really promote growth and to develop a meaningful art practice and technically that doesn’t meet the definition of ‘outsider art’.”

There is clearly an increasing dislike towards the term ‘outsider’ from Taub and her peers. She explains that “it was really a big bridge for me to cross but we now want to build our national and international collector base and there are a huge number of people who vary explicitly collect art by people who fall into this category”.

Yet Taub tells me that it is important for artists to be present at the Outsider Art Fair so that they have an opportunity to “have a voice in the market because of the collector base that it draws.”

Profit making schemes for participants

Image for rug by Ying Ge Zhou.

At Creative Growth, the programme has capitalised on this high demand for outsider art by offering artists in their programme an opportunity to receive hourly pay to create “limited edition rugs” for their onsite shop.

The rug workshop is integrated into the daily studio programme at Creative Growth. Participants can choose to select the medium they want to ‘specialise’ in, (drawing, painting, video production, ceramics, mosaics, wood, fibre arts, textiles, printmaking and photography) and are supported by professional artists to learn techniques and develop their individual styles. During my visit, I was extremely impressed by the way in which the artists in the rug workshop were working confidently with the weaving techniques and were in turn creating unique work that was highly marketable.

Dinah Shapiro working on a rug. Source image for rug by James Chilton.

Impact of quality on fundraising

It was evident that Creativity Explored and Creative Growth place great emphasis on challenging artists to develop their practice to produce artwork that is appealing within mainstream contemporary art. While the benefits to the participants on an individual basis were clear, the organisations were also able to use such improvements in their work as part of their marketing strategy to promote the organisation.

Although Creativity Explored clearly recognised that the process of making was the most beneficial factor that participants were gaining from making work, there was a common thread of thought between the staff that viewed the opportunities that can come out of recognition for work, such as exhibitions and sales also leading to benefits for participants.

Yet although further opportunities for artists can be valuable to some, arguably the most significant influence that the development of artists’ work has brought about is the programme establishing a desirable identity that has contributed to fundraising for the organisation’s expansion. This has meant that most significantly the programme has managed to reach a comfortable financial position that has initiated new opportunities for the artists to work.

Read the next article here: Teaching Methods at Creativity Explored