Posted May 2nd 2018 at 10:42 am by
in Seeing from the Field

Invest in Artists as the Agents of Change

This series, Seeing from the Field, is based on interviews conducted with community development practitioners about the values, goals, and premises underlying their work as well as the contours and directions of their ongoing practice. Conducted by graduate students of urban planning, public health, international affairs, and education programs in the Boston area as part of Dr. Lily Song’s Spring 2018 course, “Community Development: Past, Present, and Future,” at the Harvard Graduate School, the interviews highlight the possibilities and dilemmas of operationalizing theories of change in set institutional, spatial, and cultural contexts that are complex, contentious, and shifting. 

Through an interview with Laura Callanan, the founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab, I was able to gather helpful information about the vital issues Callanan believes her company is addressing, as well as her theory of change. UpStart Co-Lab catalyzes change by connecting artists, social entrepreneurs, impact investors, social enterprises and sustainable companies. Ultimately, the company brings together creativity and investment to deliver social impact.

After the interview, I am left continually curious of the difference between social-impact artists and the workers of the creative economy (both broadly differentiated, and as Callanan’s company distinguishes them), as well as the kind of change we might experience if Upstart Co-Lab is successful in their mission. Will it create a more just and equitable society? Will it create a more vibrant, wholly-engaged society? What is the long-term impact of the Upstart Co-Lab model?

I selected Callanan as an interviewee, because I believe that economic empowerment is a vital element of justice and central to community development. Similarly, I understand art to be a tool that can catalyze cultural shifts and deepen impact. Callanan is exploring leveraging the two together: art as a method to achieve social impact. She is doing this through impact investing, which is different from more common models of private philanthropy or government grants.

An eclectic background of theater, urban planning and an MBA have prompted in Callanan both an appreciation for the power of art and artists, as well a deep knowledge of the financial landscape. Callanan’s late husband was a playwright and introduced her to many artists while she was working in social impact investing. Eventually, it hit her one day that art and artists were already making impact and addressing the issues of our time. She committed to convincing artists that they ought to seek impact investment, and impact investors that artists have creative solutions.

After this revelation that she should bring arts directly into her world of impact investing, Laura spent a year at UC Berkeley Haas researching 3 social impact artists already operating at high capacity. This same year, 2014, she edited the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Community Development Review on the topic of creative placemaking. The edition of the Review has proven to be an important text for those work on place-based social impact arts, and directly placed Callanan in the limelight as a community development thinker.

Despite my impression from reading Callanan’s previous writing, and the artists her company supports, I was surprised to hear very little mention of values such as “justice”, “equity”, “power”, or even “race”, “gender”, “class”, etc. Frankly, I anticipated that Upstart Co-Lab’s language and theory of change would be built around equity and justice, that it would be front and center. It wasn’t, and I had to piece together bits and pieces to make sense of how my interviewee understands justice in her theory of change. I also recognize that I’m asserting into this assessment my own opinions and understandings about what community development is, and the kind of work I believe has healthy impact.

Within my interview Callanan may have been oscillating between different vocabularies because as a student interviewer, I don’t fall into a typical stakeholder category. As someone who is similarly operating at the intersection of multiple disciplines, I wonder about these challenges of language. I imagine Laura Callanan is often code-switching between talking to artists, then to investors, then to media, then to prodding students like me. How do you continue to steer the ship on seas that are choppy because they have never been traveled, but also master with eloquence the conversation happening on multiple channels? You have to stay relevant to each stakeholder, you have to understand their ultimate goals and desires, and then you have to weave that all into the same space, reminding them that they want to achieve the same kind of impact that together and that together, their impact can be more profound. I’m impressed by the sheer ability to successfully blend worlds or industries.

Philanthropic pillars like the Kresge Foundation—who have been central to powering community development initiatives—have similarly begun to explore the ways that impact investing can create more integrated and sustainable solutions that are not perennially reliant on grant funding but that can become more autonomous. The Foundation has already begun to invest in communities through their Arts & Culture office, first to New Jersey Community Capital’s (a CDFI) New Jersey Creative Placemaking Fund in 2015. According to the website, “the fund will support catalytic projects that integrate arts and culture with broad-based neighborhood development strategies, and that generate significant community impacts.” ( Clearly, Callanan’s vision is not simply her emphatically expounding in an echo chamber. This power of arts in impact investing is catching on.

I believe a challenge that still lies ahead for Callanan and other visionaries is how to leverage the arts and artists as creative problem solvers that are different from the ‘creative economy’ and that will not catalyze displacement or economic imbalance. When we consider the potential spatial effects of social impact investing in arts initiatives, I am not sure that this always yields greater justice. I would be encouraged to see a clearer position from Upstart Co-Lab on the types of artists and issues they are committed to, as well as a robust partnership between the company and arts training initiatives that are preparing artists to be justice-oriented, innovative problems solvers within their communities. These types of partnerships could become great pipelines from justice-oriented artists to social impact investments and then back into more equitable development communities. However, this type of selectivity requires both vigilance and would require the company to impose limits on which artists are fundable based on more justice-oriented criteria. I’m not sure Upstart Co-Lab considers itself in a position to be particularly judicious. Nevertheless, the pulse change Callanan has initiated within the impact investing world will reap benefits for creative solutions to community challenges for years. I look forward to deepening the cause and encouraging a more solid commitment to equity within the field.



Below is a transcript of my interview with Laura Callanan, conducted on March 28, 2018.

MN: Why did you start Upstart Co-Lab? What wasn’t happening, or what is the problem you are trying to fix?

LC: There are two things that initiated my work on Upstart Co-Lab.

  1. I have been lucky enough to work at the Rockefeller Foundation, the United Nations, McKinsey & Company’s Social Sector Office, and other organizations that provide social impact. I was working with really smart people who wanted to make world better. These folks are MBAs, doctors, scientists, investors, etc. We would spend time in these private rooms asking “How can we find more creative solutions to the most pressing problems of our time?” There seemed to be a disconnect between the goals we were hoping to achieve and who was actually in the room working on these goals.At the same time, my late husband introduced me to artists. I am one of those folks who has an MBA, but I spent all this time with artists understand how they see the world and solve problems. I saw that artists thought differently and wanted to push the envelope. The people at foundations and government institutions, they didn’t have a way to reach out to artists & creative entrepreneurs, but I saw that they’d really need their creative perspective in order to address some of these plaguing challenges. We could keep trying the same old thing, and the same old coalitions we were forming were not getting us anywhere.
  2. In one of my talks presented at SOCAP (the Social Capital Markets Conference) I share this story about Jim Houghton. He’s an actor and director who started New York City’s Signature Theater. I was always interested in what Jim was doing with the theater, but it finally dawned on my that Jim was doing something different. They were raising money, building a new building, expanding programming, creating a program to keep ticket pricing at $25 to ensure affordability and access, they were intentionally seeking out diverse audiences. At this time I was working as a consultant for Skoll Foundation focused on social entrepreneurship and as I listened to Jim, I said to him, “you’re a social entrepreneur. You don’t call yourself that and no one does because you are an ‘artist’.”

I thought there have to be others; Jim can’t be the only one. These folks don’t get invited to the Skoll World Forum. They don’t get featured in Fast Company Magazine.

After this realization with Jim, I spent a year at Berkeley Haas where I completed three case studies on artists whom I considered to be working or beginning to work as social entrepreneurs: Jim, Theaster Gates and Deborah Cullinan. Through talking to them it became clear that they all really wanted to start social impact companies, but they were having a hard time connecting up to investors.

Social impact investors aren’t thinking directly about the issues these creative folks want to address through the businesses they want to create. I needed to find a way to connect artists to investors, and to change how social impact investors thought about the impact artists could have on the pressing issues of our time. This launched Upstart Co-Lab.


Image credit: Upstart Co-Lab

MN: So you’re creating interest via impact investors, and you’re helping to organize, embolden and channel the demand from artists on the other hand? If it’s sort of supply and demand, how are you creating that sea-change?

LC: So far I’ve found the greatest traction connecting impact investors with creative companies by taking a leaf from the book of gender lens investing. Gender lens investing has really tackled what you need to do to create a cultural shift in thinking about gender in investing, and I thought we could extend this to the creative economy.

This comes through three steps:

  1. Make the case — make your argument and socialize this as much as you can.
  2. Build a coalition — create a coalition amongst impact investors, organizations building the impact investing ecosystem, and build the creative entrepreneurs to be ready for investing.
  3. Help bring investable deals to the marketplace — We did a pilot with the Calvert Foundation, and we are now working with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) on a $5 million projects in New York. This funding is going into creative community funds, which are being deployed in notes. We also recognize that in New York there are too many white people in these jobs in creative economy and that number does not reflect the makeup of New York City. Then we (Upstart Co-Lab) will be documenting this pipeline of investible opportunity.

MN: What is your theory of change?

LC: Creative people solve problems. Artists care about the human condition. They are a very ripe set of entrepreneurs starting social purpose businesses who want to be funded by impact capital. If we want new solutions, we need creative people who don’t think about of things like people before them have thought. Great solutions can come from all kinds of places. All entrepreneurs can’t be white men. We can’t have a homogenous group of problem solvers. We want racial, ethnic, gender and cognitive diversity amongst our leading problem solvers.

MN: What are the major hurdles in your work?

LC: This is new and unpredictable. I meet a lot of people who say, “I see the creative economy everywhere! It’s all over Fast Company.” Yet others reveal that they have “never heard of the term creative economy.” We are ping-ponging between these two extremes all the time.

We have the same issues with impact investing. There are people whose lives revolve around impact investing, and arts people who have no knowledge of this sector.

There is so much field-building and time necessary to build this work.

Another hurdle is that philanthropy has been so incredibly important—it has enabled impact investing (22% of investing is deployed to social impact), yet the arts managers at these organizations are not as financially literate as they need to be. They are not demanding that more funding be focused on the impact in arts can have. Arts people are not invited into a lot of these conversations even at the non-profit level & they’re not elbowing their way in. Philanthropy in arts has stagnated to 5% of total philanthropic giving.

MN: If Upstart Co-Lab is successful, what does this better world look like?

LC: The more diverse eyeballs on our problems are likely to yield the highest, best solutions to our problems. We don’t want solutions that are similar to what we’ve already tried, or that come from a particularly dominant ethos.

About UpStart CoLab

Upstart Co-Lab is a national collaboration connecting artists with social entrepreneurs, impact investors, social enterprises, and sustainable companies. We nurture connections, align systems, and jump-start solutions. Healthier eating, stronger communities, a better criminal justice system, and a more resilient environment are some of the issues our artists are working on.

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