Fund Inclusive Imagination

CEO Maureen Fan and the Baobab Studios Team
Tuesday, April 3 | By KAMAL SINCLAIR

One of the critical interventions interviewees identified to increase equity and inclusion for artists in emerging media was expanding ownership of production and technology companies, especially from traditionally marginalized artists. The emerging media industries are young enough that the opportunity to put a stake in the ground is still plentiful, with the right focus and seed resources.

“It’s not just about getting people into the pipeline to be producers of the content,” says Joshua Breitbart, Senior Advisor for Broadband in the Office of the Mayor of New York City, “but having people there at the point of that initial commercialization of the new technology, so that even if you’re creating some stratification within the medium, in terms of higher- and lower-resourced projects, at least you’ve tried to keep all the historic race, gender inequities at bay.”

Loira Limbal, Vice President of Firelight Media agrees, “We [people of color] have to be central at every stage, in every phase, in every facet. That’s the only way that there could be any hope of [emerging media] being inclusive. It just cannot be well-meaning white folks in the majority of everything. They are the archetype of leadership, they’re what we are all comfortable with. We have a joke here at Firelight Media: Because we are all people of color, we needed to bring in at least one white person to be, like, the finance person. Bring the white finance person to the meetings with the funders and the investors to make them feel comfortable that we’re not going to squander the money away and buy Cadillacs. At some base level, it’s drilled into our heads that [white people] are the leaders of everything and they’re the only ones that are fit to be leaders. [But what if we started] investing in diverse storytellers at the same rate that Silicon Valley invests in white storytellers and male storytellers? That is an interesting intervention.”

In order to reverse this trend, “we really need to empower artists to become sustainable and better understand what it means to deal with business and finance,” says Moira Griffin, who was the Senior Manager of Diversity at Sundance Institute at the time of her interview. “We really need to educate the finance community — the VC community, the people who are investing in these projects, who are investing in these early stage companies — about why it is important to fund diverse creative entrepreneurs. That is truly critical. It’s something that didn’t happen in film and television until much later, after the prime real estate was claimed.”

Robert Wong, VP of Google Creative Lab, calls for artists, designers, and storytellers to have impact through more than their creative work. He wants them also to have power in terms of ownership, so they can affect the design of our future.

Establishing a discovery and investment vetting process that aims to support traditionally underrepresented creative entrepreneurship in emerging media may be critical to changing many of the diversity and wealth gaps described above. This includes funding, as well as incubator and accelerator programs that could support entrepreneurs with mentorship, coaching, and connections to resources. Not only would this create greater equality and parity, it would pollinate new innovations in media.

“I think that the idea of an incubator — really multiple incubators in multiple spots, where there’s a real diversity of thought and a diversity of background — would be amazing. That, to me, would be the ultimate thing,” says film/VR producer and artist Kel O’Neill.

Structurally, the creative entrepreneurs could be artists themselves (i.e., Chris Milk launching Within and Here Be Dragons or Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael launching Felix & Paul Studios) or people who are creating organizations that are artist-centric and maintain robust inclusion of artists in high-level leadership positions.

Evolution of Verse by Chris Milk

Maureen Fan talked about the importance of investing in diverse creative entrepreneurs, because change doesn’t happen unless the leadership understands, cares, or comes from diverse communities, in terms of both identity and expertise. “You need the top down, because people hire people like themselves. This is not only in terms of racial diversity, but discipline diversity. The reason why people in each company are biased is the people who have power are biased. Whatever the CEO cares about gets resourced. ”

A film studio executive gave insights into a process that proves Fan’s point. The executive described the number one success factor in creating diverse and positive characters in their films — having diverse people at the very top of the decision hierarchy within the company, as well as a number of diversity-inclined white men:

Something happens when you have a woman or person of color at the top of the hierarchy, in terms of inclusion, at least in my experience. They more easily hire other women and people of color, almost unconsciously. I’ve had other experiences, when I was in a places with mostly white men, and they don’t think that way. They’re just thinking, “another white guy, not a big deal.” They’re not intentionally thinking, “How do I surround myself with a lot of people who look like me or remind me of me?” It’s just what is normal to them.

People have asked me about our diverse casting and willingness to create films with strong female leads, and it really wasn’t part of an agenda. The scripts that had female leads authentically excited us, and the actors who had the best performance for the role just happen to be diverse.

It was interesting to see that the initial storyboards and mockups by our production design staff had the characters visualized as white. It was their default. After we told them the likely cast, they switched all their art to visualizing specific characters as people of color. They were immediately on board with the change, but it shows you how easily we all slip into the assumption of whiteness being the norm. — Anonymous Studio Executive

Where will the money come from?

Nonny de la Peña takes this notion a step further and calls for more women and people of color to be on the board of directors for companies engaged in emerging media. Fan calls for better representation at the VC level (i.e., Circular Board, lead by Carolyn Rodz). There are many studies to support their claims that real change will not happen unless there is diversity at the top.

“The top of the food chain is very much venture capitalist, so can we get more women VCs or women angel investors?” she asks. “Because money seems to make the world go round, and there aren’t that many female VCs. I’m very happy that Sequoia brought on Jess [Lee], and Cowboy Ventures is female-run, and there’s Theresia [Gouw], but there are only a few. It’s funny how many of these VC meetings I go into, and I’m like, ‘Let me guess, there’s going to be one black person, there’s going to be one woman,’ and it ends up being one or the other, not both.”

Can philanthropic institutions and nonprofits play a role in the for-profit arena of tech and media? According to Scatter, one of the leading entrepreneurial companies in the VR and volumetric capture space, “Sundance and Fractured Atlas actually play a critical role” as gatekeepers that legitimize voices within creative communities traditionally ignored by Silicon Valley. He is referring to Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program and a Fractured Atlas initiative that invests in creative sector entrepreneurs.

Fractured Atlas is a nonprofit technology company that supports more than 500,000 artists and organizations across North America, and it just launched a for-profit subsidiary called Exponential Creativity Ventures that makes early-stage investments in entrepreneurs using technology to empower or enhance human creativity. The fund is still in the early stages of development, but it has started reaching out to potential investors and is building a network of “curatorial partners” who can connect it to innovators and entrepreneurs emerging from the grassroots. The Exponential Creativity Fund would invest exclusively in infrastructure (not content), with an emphasis on: 1) technology that is artist-centered and humanistic and 2) entrepreneurs who might otherwise have difficulty attracting capital for demographic or other reasons unrelated to the economic or social impact potential of the work.

There is this perverse obligation to invest in things that are going to make the most money regardless of moral value or lack thereof… I’m oversimplifying, of course, but fundamentally that’s what we’ve been told capitalism means, and that’s a real problem. I think there are opportunities to harmonize capitalist principles with socially conscious values that meaningfully strive for social justice. And I think social entrepreneurship is the beginning of it … There are plenty of smart entrepreneurs who are realizing that what this really means is there are very large markets that are being underserved and have not been saturated because everybody is chasing the “white guy” dollars. I’m optimistic that it’s sort of self-correcting in the long run, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense to nudge it along in the short run.” — Adam Huttler, CEO, Fractured Atlas

Move38 — Portfolio company of Exponential Creativity Ventures

Making a New Reality interviewees expressed a significant amount of support for the idea of an impact-investing fund aimed at supporting intersectional artists and creatives who want to be social entrepreneurs.

Creating such a fund will require some reframing.“There are similar stigmas that go both ways and are counterproductive in this field. Artists reject business and capitalism, and venture capitalists don’t take people who are creative as serious and accountable. Those stigmas need to be torn down, and institutional partners are the ones who have credibility on both sides,” say executives from Scatter

“A lot of women, especially in the doc world, get funded by foundations in a kind of hand-to-mouth, not-for-profit environment. What’s great about a social entrepreneurship model is they get investment to create a viable company. It seems like some kind of an impact fund or a startup fund can help get these ventures off the ground and not relegate them to having to constantly be reliant on 501c3 funding. They can get to commercial viability and trade in a real market, like other companies and other content makers,” suggests Gigi Pritzker, the Founder of Madison Wells Media. Pritzker suggests that while it might make sense in some cases to train the makers themselves to be more business-minded, a model that pairs female makers with a business advisor might work better. I don’t know that you always want to make someone into something they aren’t,” she says.

Media strategiest Jennifer Arceneaux makes a similar point: investing in artists or creative entrepreneurs is important, but the vetting, cultivation, and overall support for that person might look very different than for someone coming out of an MBA program with a 100x return goal as the primary focus for their tech startup — especially if you are essentially asking the creatives to invest the majority of their time in business management rather than creating art.

“The idea of an artist-entrepreneur is a fantastic one but a rare one. I love my artist-entrepreneurs, and, as a business executive, we get on and can get things done very quickly. However, I would caution against building a model that relies exclusively on an artists’ entrepreneurial impulses or specific business expertise. Another possibility might be an agency or studio model, similar to an architecture firm or creative agency, anchored by the visionary artist as ‘artistic’ or ‘creative director’ but balanced by a ‘managing partner’ responsible for business development, operations, and management.”

“Let’s be frank,” she says. “Building in this way requires resources and is in many ways a luxury only afforded to established artists with large studios and a high level of commercial success. The innovation is in exploring how corporations, foundations, and cultural institutions can do more to support and incubate a flexible model that allows for both the traditional artist and artist-entrepreneur to thrive. I think we need to move beyond a focus on tactical and practical business training and support for artists. It’s a more complex issue.”

Brad Lichtenstein imagines a cooperative corporate model that is guided by multiple bottom-lines (creativity, profit, and social good) and supports people from the creative innovation space who have an entrepreneurial focus. The model would work to cultivate business skills and help the entrepreneurs build regional businesses that can compete for market share. He feels this is a ripe moment to build these models. “Everybody is sharing their code. Everybody is talking about problems on Facebook groups. It seems like a huge opportunity moment. Creating regional, triple-bottom-line businesses that are not in Silicon Valley could be an advantage. There is an echo chamber that develops at a company as large as Facebook or in an area, like Silicon Valley, and it’s really, really hard to find deviation.”

The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture (a nonprofit organization known as The Alliance) created its Cherry Red Ventures program to design and activate new storytelling technologies, with potential applications across multiple sectors. The program could, at some point, spin off a for-profit, subsidiary company, but at this point it is structured as a revenue-generating program within the nonprofit. It is a great example of the kind of creative entrepreneurship initiative that might fulfill a triple-bottom-line criteria.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jared Geller run a popular artist-centric website, HitRECORD, which is a triple-bottom-line business that prioritizes artistic integrity, social good, and profit-sharing. Their business model lowers the barriers to participation, breaks through traditional creative silos, creates equitable ROI for participating artists, and uses portions of the profits to invest in work that stakeholders deem crucial but not commercially viable.

“We try to make all those things coexist by making a return on investment and making things that have social good and creative integrity,” says Geller.” We have a pretty diverse community of artists. They’re not just writers, they’re not just musicians, and they’re not just animators. We have people who create characters out of yarn We have all sorts of artists. We are a for-profit entity, so after we pay the people who made the content, we set aside money that comes in [and allocate it] to a community fund that can be used for projects that don’t have to be commercially viable. It sustains the community. You could call that socialism, but in terms of creativity and ideas, it helps makes these other projects happen, which, from a creative standpoint, are just as relevant.”

Other interviewees discussed business models that avoid the traditional investment community altogether in order to avoid the strings that come with angel or VC financing. Some said they also wanted to avoid a heavy reliance on philanthropic support. Such funders have been supplementing social justice media work for decades, but have not extended their full support to emerging media platforms yet. In order to sustain their social justice projects, Lichtenstein and his partner Kelly Fitzsimmons are establishing a VR company that produces content for the museum industry and for the medical industry, which is projected to be a big consumer of therapeutic VR. This move will free them from the exponential growth and bottom line values that would burden their social justice practice if they were to accept equity-based, outside investments instead.

Barry Threw of Gray Area Foundation described the recommendations to support artist-entrepreneurs in order to bridge the gaps in representation and power in emerging media as “a reaction, because we don’t have any public funding for the arts.”

He went on to reflect on the tensions between systems that encourage artists to be entrepreneurs and systems that provide funding for artists to be artists. He is not against artist entrepreneurship but suggests it may be problematic if it forces artist to skew creative choices toward profitability and away from other important values, such as critical societal reflection and transcendence. “There has to be some sort of argument for social responsibility, that we invest in art without expecting a return in capital,” he says.

This gets even trickier when thinking of the disruption of the future of work by AI. Even the world’s top economists and business leaders are calling for public safety nets and shifts from work focused on “productivity,” that can be accomplished by automation, to creative and emotional labor.

Even when we do allocate public funding for the arts, it often excludes artists working in this tech and art convergence space. Golan Levin of Carnegie Mellon says there are huge gaps between public or philanthropic funding and emerging media. Although he’s seen some positive signs of change, such as the NEA hiring Jax Deluca into a position focused on new media funding, Levin laments that the NEA still suffers from inertia around digital art: “Broadly speaking, it seemed to me like what the NEA considered to be new media [was] actually new media in the 20th century. And that’s okay. It was film and television and video and things like that. I just felt like, in the same way that they have a category for traditional media at the NEA — such as crafts, Native American pottery, weaving, and other venerable traditions — they should be investing in media that haven’t yet been defined. They should fund the film industry as it exists in 2020, not 1920.”

He goes on to explain that “there are a half dozen places in the United States, like my lab, that fund weird, new work, regardless of whether it’s a commercial product. I’m thinking of my laboratory, Eyebeam, Gray Area, etc. There are a smattering of places, and we are all parts of nonprofits that need better-educated funders, frankly. So what you’re doing is really important because, my lab is where CLOUDS came from. It arose through a little conference and hackathon I put together to explore new aesthetic possibilities of [Microsoft] Kinect. In this case. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that CLOUDS had a huge impact in terms of visual culture. Nowadays, people who don’t know about CLOUDS have streamed the things that CLOUDS inspired. Generating awareness about labs like mine is really important.”

Levin sees this disconnect between the current beneficiaries of arts funding and future artists clearly through his observation of students. “I’m deep into the admissions process for our undergraduate program and the current high school seniors, who are applying to art schools, do not even identify emerging media as anything separate from the bread and butter of what it means to be working in creative expression today. Easily, 40 percent of the students applying to my undergraduate program want to work in computer animation, in virtual reality, in game design, and right there are three categories of things that I can’t get a grant for from the NEA. That, right there, is the proof of the cultural lag between the young creatives and the institutions.”

Wendy Levy, executive director of The Alliance, shared an intriguing idea for bridging the gap between arts, business, and technology by advocating for a legal Creative Workforce Development Act that would fund activities to deepen the arts in our business and technology infrastructure:

“The way [The Alliance] started to think about it — and this is something we’ve started to work on by hiring strategy advisors and lobbyists — is as a movement in creative workforce development. We’re working on this from both the federal and state government level. Eventually, a Creative Workforce Development Act would activate what we’re hoping will be a few billion dollars over a 10-year period to stream federal dollars from diverse federal and state agencies and workforce development programs into regional hubs, individual nonprofits, and artist-run companies and collectives that are actually doing job and entrepreneurship training, creative job development and placement, mentoring, and building capacity across sectors…So the idea that in a future administration we could actually identify lawmakers who would support this, sponsor this, is motivating. The Create Act is a start. The vision is to find diverse public-private revenue streams, pay people to train, pay companies — like Rada Films, Skylight, Firelight, and so many others who are already training and mentoring the next generation of producers — and build their capacity, so they can create new works of art and expand their social practice. We would work with employers who are not just wanting to put artists to work doing what they do, but really incorporating the creative process into what they’re doing. That’s when you start to see the change happening, and it’s valued. Kids who finish their first year of business school are making $100k a year at an internship. That’s wrong when artists are waiting tables for 35 years just to support their process. We are completely undervalued. So we have to take power and demonstrate the impact of our work in different sectors.”

“The Making a New Reality research project is authored by Kamal Sinclair with support from Ford Foundation JustFilms and supplemental support from the Sundance Institute. Learn more about the goals and methods of this research, who produced it, and the interviewees whose insights inform the analysis.”