One Year In, We’re as AmbitioUS as Ever
AmbitioUS is a new initiative of the Center for Cultural Innovation to act as an experimental arm of the artist-support sector. Throughout the initiative’s launch, Angie Kim, President and CEO, will share her observations and reflections related to this cross-sector, experimental, and systems level work.
2019 was the launch year of Center for Cultural Innovation’s AmbitioUS initiative. This initiative is about sharing what we learn and being transparent about what we are doing and where we are going.
In our first year, AmbitioUS realized the following activities:
- Operationalized. CCI hired a dedicated Program Director and converted a part-time Program Assistant to a full-time position to help with AmbitioUS. We also retained the legal services of Jason Wiener, p.c. which specializes in social enterprise formation, cooperative development, tax law, and financing and capitalization.
- Invested in Alternative Economy Trailblazers and Artists’ Ownership of Assets. In 2019, CCI distributed $ 644,000 in ways that experimentally go beyond restrictive, short-term focused project funding to behave more like investment and “believe in you” money. We also prioritized African American and Native American economic trailblazers as it is these communities who need to be influential in defining a different economic paradigm.
- Shared Knowledge. I used this Medium platform to share my reflections as we learned along the way. We launched a dedicated program website with a literature review and information on investees of AmbitioUS, www.ambitio-US.org. This site was designed by a worker-owned cooperative design team, Story 2 Designs, who do beautiful work and are super values aligned. AmbitioUS staff also disseminated information weekly on Facebook, every other week on Instagram and Twitter, and bi-monthly through an e-newsletter. If you’d like to receive these updates, sign up, friend us, email us, or follow #CCIAmbitioUS on social media. We also contracted with Next City, an online magazine with a mission to inspire social, economic, and environmental change, to publish 12 articles in 2020 about how economic justice issues intersect with arts and culture. Next City will spotlight the work of AmbitioUS and those we support. Finally, as yet another way to share what we learn as we go, we hosted a public webinar on December 5, 2019, “Technology and Art Business, from Blockchain to Smart Contracts,” led by attorney Sarah Conley Odenkirk to explore how smart contracts may support artist-run platform businesses. A recording of the webinar is available here.
- Built Connections and Shared Learnings Through a Network. We invited Allies (listed on our website) whose diverse range of expertise is useful to our work. In addition, AmbitioUS held our inaugural convening October 20–23, 2019 in Oakland, CA. This convening included grantees/investees, Allies, funders, and partners (such as legal counsel and Next City journalists). The convening was in collaboration with the community wealth-building annual convening, CoCap, which was in partnership with Common Future (formerly BALLE).
Here’s what we learned this year:
I would say that what we learned can be organized into three major areas, and what we learned is definitely shaping our approach to 2020.
(1) We now have a stronger point of view about the economic paradigm we seek to support. We see an increasing amount of activity and interest in an economic paradigm that is based on local, or identity-based, culturally connected communities owning and governing their own financial institutions and infrastructure. This vision is exciting as it better reflects the diversity of the U.S. and shifts control to people at community levels, many of whom have been exploited or extracted from by unrealistic economic growth and profit at all costs. Moreover, this alternative vision holds the greatest structural potential to close racial wealth gaps.
(2) We were surprised to find artists nearly everywhere we turned. The majority of economic trailblazers we are supporting are non-professional artists. They are teaching us that their iconoclastic thinking and ability to mobilize their communities (whether it’s starting a bank or a real estate cooperative) is rooted in their artistic practices, humanities training, and culturally specific identities. They have also been teaching us that experimenting with developing a new economic system in their communities cannot happen, and will be doomed to fail, if their work overlooks building cultural connections (i.e., shared identity, practices of exchange, trust, and outward expressions of who they are collectively). In short, we’re learning the best economic trailblazing work is cultural work.
(3) We have found that existing regulations and conventional capital products (grants, loans, investments) do not support shifting the dominant economic paradigm. The structures that keep the status quo in place are resilient against change; this is by design and is a good thing when things are working well, but absolutely frustrating when trying to go against the norm. The alternative paradigm we are seeing in experimental forms are collective, cooperatively owned, commonly shared, and de-risked for community members and workers. We found that our best creative partner to go outside the proverbial “box” is our legal counsel. We are always thinking about how AmbitioUS’s capital can act as leverage, so we are having to learn about SEC restrictions, the many ways that cooperative ventures cannot access funding or financing, and the overall ways that existing markets and systems suppress supporting low-profit or low-growth community-based businesses (from bookstores to nonprofit arts collectives). In order for us to recommend better philanthropic practices, we have been diving deeply into structural hurdles that fall outside our 501(c)3-based expertise.
(4) Everything in this space is new! This means there are often not solutions to the questions we are asking. What can be done to help mission-based enterprises access the kind of capital they need from unaccredited investors who are limited by a ceiling of $1,000 investments? What kind of infrastructure is needed for individuals to invest in local businesses? What is the best kind of non-equity capital that start-up cooperatives should raise that enables them to keep ownership and governance control over the long term? What possibilities are there to collectivize independent workers to confer them with protections and benefits? Who is leading on an environmentally sounder blockchain? What might culturally specific reparations support look like?
Summarizing Our Inaugural Year
Overall, this has been an incredibly productive inaugural year for AmbitioUS. Although we are finding that there are many intermediaries and leaders working toward alternative economic paradigms, we are still finding ourselves to be unique and much-needed in our ability to be highly experimental, focused on upstream outcomes, and sector agnostic. We are also appreciating how our focus on artists’ financial well-being and cultural work are a sound “north star” ensuring that we identify and support efforts that are authentic, empowering, and transformational.
For 2020, we will continue to support economic trailblazers of communities who have the most at stake in getting a new economic paradigm “right.” We also feel more ready to support artist-owned cooperatives and platform cooperatives in an intentional way. And, we are excited to watch investees of our inaugural year’s funding progress on their goals and projects. More to come…