Challenging The Boundaries of Arts Funding

A tour guest poses by a HiFi Jeepney. Photo by Public Matters, 2015.








In June 2015, the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) awarded $100,000 in grants to eight Los Angeles-based creative businesses, from a pool of 90 applicants, through its Creative Economic Development Fund (CEDF). Among the grantees, Public Matters, LLC was awarded $12,500.

Public Matters’ work in Hi Fi fits squarely in that quixotic intersection of culture and economic development work which CCI is exploring through the five projects of the Creative Industries Incentive Network (CIIN) fund. The priorities of CCI’s Los Angeles project are to: “recognize and support revenue-generating creative enterprises; contribute positively to the economic development of Los Angeles; and make a positive social impact on a community that may be defined by a socio-cultural group or a place-based neighborhood.” In partnership with the Pilipino Workers Center (PWC), Public Matters used their funds to launch an Urban Futures Lab and employed their first young adult Fellow to lead historical-cultural tours of the Filipinotown neighborhood called “Hi Fi,” conducted by traditional jeepney. In other words, Public Matters is using arts and culture as interventions to effecting stronger communities.

As Public Matters Creative Director Reanne Estrada described, “Public Matters came about, in part, because we recognize that artists are really greatly underutilized as agents of social change.” In addition to providing the seed funding to launch Hidden Hi Fi, bring on a Fellow, and expand the Urban Futures Lab concept, Estrada credits the CEDF grant with being “porous enough to accommodate the types of projects that we’re interested in taking on–which tend to be ambitious in scale, multi-disciplinary, long-term, and difficult to quantify by traditional metrics. We’ve developed really sound methodology over the years, but multidisciplinary proposals still create a challenging context to secure funding.”

Hidden Hi Fi is a direct response to the current environment in the Hi Fi neighborhood of Central L.A. This small, southwest section of Echo Park has long been the cultural heart of the estimated 600,000 Filipino residents of L.A. (the largest Asian population in the City) although the district, itself, has a relatively new majority population of Mexicans and Central Americans. Created by then-City Councilmember (currently Mayor) Eric Garcetti in 2002, Hi Fi was also recognized in 2011 with national designation as a Preserve America community. Despite this recognition, Hi Fi has very few cultural or physical markers of its identity as a cultural nexus, and competes for municipal attention from the larger–and rapidly gentrifying–communities of greater Echo Park and Silver Lake.

Hidden Hi Fi has been, by all accounts, a terrific success: over 200 ticketed attendees; a line of related paper goods developed and sold through new bookstore retail partners; local, national, and international press coverage in Backyard Destinations, Balitang America, Kababayan Today, LA Weekly, Vice MUNCHIES, and the ArtPlace America 2015 annual roundup. The project has had secondary impacts, too. New local business partners and in-kind supporters report positive ripple effects from their new relationships, and Hidden Hi Fi was selected as the featured project of PolicyLink’s 2015 Equity Summit in October 2015. This honor turned a national spotlight on the entire neighborhood, as over 100 conference attendees from around the country participated in a day-long workshop, jeepney tours, and a traditional Filipino kamayan feast.

Project Matters continues to discover new, associated opportunities, even after the initial phase of CEDF grant activities. One such development is their new relationship with local FilAm craft “startender” Darwin Manahan, who was named one of Zagat’s 2015 “30 Under 30.” A chance meeting with Manahan during a Hidden Hi Fi event led to a promising new collaboration focused on the intersection of L.A. and Filipino food and drink culture, which is already attracting positive new attention from near and far.

This is not to say that Public Matters’s undertaking was easy, or an unqualified success. Building any new venture requires significant amounts of time and capital. The team relied heavily on in-kind investments from staff at both PWC and Public Matters, as well as the goodwill and labor of local supporters. Estrada emphasizes that cultivating and supporting these networked sponsorship and partnership structures “required intensely time-consuming courtship and a deep understanding of the culture of each potential sponsor. But partnerships with individuals and organizations with this local knowledge are essential for this work.”

There is clear value in Hidden Hi Fi as a project, and Urban Futures Lab as a fellowship, training, and employment model. The problem of scale and measurement looms large, however: how to replicate the many successes of this experiment in a manner that can impact on the scale of thousands of new cultural exchanges, versus hundreds? Dozens, or hundreds, of Fellows versus one? Estrada is pleased with their progress but noted that, “it’s complicated because we’re deeply invested in both artistic practice and economic development. There are more opportunities to support the culture aspect, but all of the threads of the project require further investment and work to become self-sufficient as a sustainable revenue and employment model.” This need presents a call to action for funders seeking ways to broaden their funding criteria and evaluation methodologies in ways that reflect the lived experience of modern arts and culture practitioners.

Public Matters work in Hi Fi challenges the conventional definitions of “art”—and by extension, challenges the boundaries of “arts funding.” They push at definitions and expectations, while demonstrating that supporting projects like this is both a) complex, as it doesn’t fit into any single sector or funding category, and b) a tremendous opportunity for supporting community-based change by strengthening cultural connections through artistic practice. This kind of investing specifically targets the nascent movement of cultural practitioners who develop and advocate for activities that blur the lines between economic development, community development, workforce development, heritage preservation, cultural identity, and art.