Public Matters, HiFI Jeepney Tour. Photo by Public Matters.

A “Triple Bottom Line” for Arts & Culture

The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) generates and supports high quality arts and cultural experiences for Los Angeles’s 4 million residents and 40 million annual visitors. DCA advances the social and economic impact of the arts and ensures access to diverse and enriching cultural activities through: grantmaking, marketing, development, public art, community arts programming, arts education, and building partnerships with artists and arts and cultural organizations in neighborhoods throughout the City of Los Angeles.

Surdna Foundation’s CIIN funding led to the DCA and CCI creating a new joint program in 2015 called the Creative Economic Development Fund (CEDF). CEDF provides funding for projects that help launch startup ventures, enable pop-ups, and expand micro-sized creative enterprises with five or fewer employees. CEDF is entity-agnostic—unusual in the grantmaking field—and supports a range of independent creative businesses, self-employed artists or cultural producers, artist collectives, and nonprofit arts organizations with earned income activities. The unifying criteria are applicants’ use of commercial strategies in pursuit of an arts or cultural practice that is motivated to have a positive social (cause) or community (place) impact. The funding partners consider CEDF to be the arts field’s equivalent of supporting “triple bottom line” entities: rather than people/planet/profit, CEDF supports artists/social impact/earned income strategies.

The program was motivated by a desire to learn about L.A. artists who are using business strategies to pursue their practices and to collect enough examples to make a case for the value of these kinds of activities. Until CEDF launched, cause-related art businesses went unnoticed by both commercial and nonprofit sectors and were underserved. As City of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stated in the press release announcing the 2015 grantees: “Many of today’s entrepreneurs not only want to make a profit, but also want to do something good for their communities. Artists, cultural producers, and independent designers are no different, and the Creative Economic Development Fund will invest in the startup and expansion of arts businesses so that these entities can play a stronger and more visible role in the City’s economic future.”

In June 2015, from a pool of 90 applicants, CEDF awarded $100,000 in grants to the following eight creative businesses and convened them in order to spark new professional networks:

This is an experimental effort on several levels, and each one reveals an opportunity, tension, or challenge:

  1. General Manager Danielle Brazell noted that DCA’s trust and pre-existing relationship with CCI was helpful to developing a brand new program so immediately following her appointment in 2014: “Knowing that CCI would run the program allowed us to say ‘yes’ because we simply don’t have the program staff capacity to run [a new, operationally heavy program] in-house.” In addition, the funding of arts businesses (versus an arts nonprofit) was different enough that it was easy to make the case for contracting this program to CCI rather than keeping it in house, which allowed the CEDF program to be truly agnostic in the types of entities it served.
  2. The downside of outsourcing such a unique program was the possibility of it being perceived as a “boutique effort” that may prove difficult to scale across LA’s 15 extensive Council districts.
  3. And finally, CEDF’s future rests on stakeholders believing that the arts and artists can contribute to the economy. As Brazell stated: “We still have the problem of defining ‘creative economy’ at all—the Americans for the Arts guidelines are ok, but we don’t have national definitions.” Making stakeholders believers in the creative economy rests, in this case, on CEDF grantees being able to demonstrate measurable economic impacts. The final reports of the first year’s grants (which ask grantees to describe economic impacts) have not been submitted yet, but it may be challenging to deliver the kind of results that could sway those outside the arts, particularly given the relatively small size of the grants and the possibly limited scale of these grantees’ micro-sized businesses.