Funding Rural | Episode #16: Roots and Shoots with Jamie Bennett

Jamie Bennett is a force to be reckoned with in the art world. He is currently co-CEO of Americans for the Arts and has served at the helm of ArtPlace America, United States Artists, and National Endowment for the Arts. All of these opportunities have helped him understand and encourage the importance of artists and culture bearers in all communities. Creatives are leaders, problem solvers, and models for improving relationships with one self and the community at large — which boosts mental health and prosperity. Yet so few Americans identify as an artist that Jamie asks the question – who gets to call themselves an artist?

“I think much of national philanthropy knows that they should do better by rural America.” —Jamie Bennett

Listen today where ever you get your podcasts.

Apple |  Spotify |  Amazon & Audible | iHeart | Google

More about Jamie Bennett


Jamie Bennett [he/him] is the interim co-CEO of Americans for the Arts, working alongside Suzy Delvalle.

Through a partnership with Lord Cultural Resources, Jamie consults with nonprofits, philanthropy, and governments across rural, suburban, Tribal, and urban geographies.

Recent clients include the American Museum of Natural History, Barr Foundation The BIG We, Design Studio for Social Intervention, Greater Columbus Arts Council, MacArthur Foundation, Museum Trustee Association, National Endowment for the Arts, PolicyLink, Starfish Accelerator, One Beat, and Walk with Amal.

Previously, Jamie was the Executive Director of ArtPlace America, a ten-year, $150 million fund that supported artists working as allies in equitable community development.

He served as interim CEO of United States Artists and as Chief of Staff at the National Endowment for the Arts in President Obama’s administration and at the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. Jamie worked at the Agnes Gund Foundation, New York Philharmonic, The Museum of Modern Art, and Columbia University.

Jamie’s volunteer service include the David Rockefeller Fund, the HERE Arts Center, The Heritage Center (Itówapi Owápazo) of the Red Cloud Indian School (Maȟpíya Lúta Owáyawa), the Make Music Alliance, the NeuroArts Blueprint, NEW INC, the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, and Weeksville Heritage Center.

Jamie lives, works, worships, and plays in Brooklyn, NY and Toronto, Canada and has been sober since 2009.

“If we really do care about tending the entire ecosystem, we have to understand where the roots are —not just where the shoots are.” —Jamie Bennett

Discussion Questions

  • Jamie talks about the ease with which people identify as golfers or tennis players, and yet they don’t identify as an artist, even if they have an active creative practice. Do you see this in yourself or others in your community? How can we encourage the idea of embracing our inner artist and inherent artistry and normalize talking about it?
  • Jamie brings up this idea of nurturing the roots as well as the shoots of culture, whereas metropolises often become hubs of arts and culture, but the people contributing are drawn there from many non-metro areas. How can philanthropists find and recognize the ‘hidden’ roots of America’s rich arts and culture in rural spaces? In what ways can your organization learn to recognize and support arts in rural communities so there are more conditions for arts to thrive in rural and Indigenous spaces?
  • Jamie references the Urban Institute study that found that 98% of Americans value the role of art in their lives, but only  27% value the role of artists. And now there is a movement afoot to demystify the process of creating art: the time, research, design and additional skills that it takes to produce. How can your organization support artists and the conversation that art comes from artists?
  • Power dynamics between philanthropists and grantees is a challenge, but as Jamie discusses, reframing the relationship to be a partnership can help both be more successful and achieve their desired outcomes. How do you think about your grantees today and how can your organization reframe their role to mitigate the power dynamics at play?



“I’m a big believer that the question you ask limits the solutions that you’re going to explore. And so if your question is, ‘Why don’t these people in this community have more of a voice?’ I’m going to focus on what’s wrong with them. But if instead you say, ‘Why aren’t those who hold power and resources, more responsive to the lived experience of folks in that community...’ Then you begin to sort of look and say, ‘Oh, we actually need to change some of the systems that are in place…’” —Jamie Bennett

Transcript: Episode #16 | Roots and Shoots with Jamie Bennett

Erin Borla:  0:10  

This is Funding Rural, I’m Erin Borla. With the Roundhouse Foundation in Central Oregon. Rural spaces are alive with art and culture if we’re open to recognizing them as such. The beautiful iron work on a ranch gate, the ornate tooling on a handmade saddle, the orderly rows of crops that form a tapestry of color in the spring. Or the band playing at the local watering hole on a Friday night. But rural people don’t often consider themselves artists, the narrative is part of the problem. And we as funders don’t have a great track record of recognizing the arts as a baseline of Culture, Education and Economics in rural communities. I wanted to talk with Jamie Bennett. He’s a lifelong lover and champion of the arts in both urban and rural America. He spent his career working at the intersection of nonprofit arts and culture organizations, policy and philanthropy. He’s worked at the New York Philharmonic, the Museum of Modern Art, and later led organizations like United States Artists and Art Place America. Jamie grew up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania and it wasn’t until much later that he realized art was all around him there.

Jamie Bennett:  1:12  

I think back about sort of my own life and sort of that notion of, of, you know, baby Jamie thinking that he had to go to New York City, because that’s where the artists were and not sort of recognizing that my grandmother painted every week that my mother was a spinner and a weaver. That my father shared an office with a comic book illustrator, right. So all of this stuff was happening all around me. And yet, somehow I didn’t recognize it as art. And I sort of thought that I had to go to New York City, because that’s where the art was. And a lot of my career, particularly once I started working at national organizations was unlearning that. And sort of understanding how important the stuff that I grew up doing was as part of a continuum that also included New York City. But that New York City was not the goal of it, New York City was not the epitome of it. It was just one of the pieces of the spectrum that make up arts and culture in the United States. And there was a I think I was at like an Aspen Institute Festival, on a panel with some really great people, including a person called Dennis Sholl, who at that time, was the vice president at the Knight Foundation, funding arts and culture things. And he turned to the audience. And, you know, for folks who sort of have a sense of what Aspen is, it was exactly that audience, right? It was a bunch of largely elderly well heeled folks who sort of have lots of leisure time to sit around and think about ideas. And, you know, Dennis turned to the audience. And he said, who here is a tennis player, and sort of all the hands went up, and he said, you know, who here’s a golfer, and all the hands went up, and he said, who’s here an artist, and no one’s hand went up. And then, you know, Dennis, sort of cheeky Dennis turned to the audience and said, listen, I’ve golfed and played tennis with most of you and I’m willing to bet you’re all better artists than you are golfers or tennis players. And it’s, you know, it’s interesting, because there’s something about the way we use that word artist. That’s different than the way we use golfer or tennis player. And if I were to say to you, I’m a golfer, you would assume I was somewhere on the spectrum from whoever the most extraordinary golfer is, at the moment, I’ve lost a little track of the PGA. But if I were to say I’m a singer, you would sort of hear in that, that I thought I was the next Beyonce, and wouldn’t necessarily include in that word, singer, that I also sang in my church choir that I sing in a chorus, that I sing for fun. And so there’s something in our language around arts that doesn’t recognize, I think, always the full continuum of that activity in a way that we do for other places. And so, you know, I’m the, I’m the son of an English teacher and librarian. So I think a lot about words. And it’s always been interesting to me that we always talk about the arts, right? The arts, but we would never talk about the sports, right? It’s just sports, right? We do it with our kids in the backyard. Sometimes we do it in little leagues, we do it at high school, we do it in college, we do it in the minors, we do it in the majors, all of that can be sports. But somehow the arts, there’s sort of an elevation of separation, that I think that sometimes happens when we talk about it, that isn’t reflected in how we live our lives. And so that disconnect, I think is, is worth spending some time on. 

Erin Borla:  4:47  

Yeah,I think we talked a lot about philanthropic dollars, where they’re based, right. A lot of the big philanthropy is based in big urban Metro spaces. That’s just where more of the money happens to be or if it was, even if the wealth was a massed and a rural space, the second generation, third generation, fourth generation have now moved to those cities. So a lot of those, we tend to fund what we know, right? We fund where we are. And there’s nothing wrong with that to some degree, because but there is this moment of like, if we want to be issue based funders or fix a problem. It’s hard to do that when we don’t see the remainder of the space. And so how do we how do we talk to funders? Or how can funders do some introspection on well, I want to fund arts and culture, and I’ve given to the ballet and I’ve given to the theater, but then what? Arts don’t exist in rural space. 


Jamie Bennett:  5:44  

Yeah. And you know, it’s so interesting that you led into the question with that, and I think, if you understand that much of philanthropy is an extraction industry. Right? The Rockefeller family got their wealth from oil, which existed in many of our rural communities, they extracted that wealth, they took it to New York City, and distribute their wealth from there.  Timber, right, most of the big American philanthropies were extraction industries from rural America. There’s a way in which we can also read much of arts and culture as also being an extraction industry, right, these artists were raised all over the country. And yet, we only create the conditions to support them at scale, in what tend to be urban metropolises. And there’s a really interesting group in the Bronx called Webco, which is a Economic Development Corporation that sort of talked about this, they said, so much of hip hop grew up in the Bronx, but it was sort of extracted moved to bigger, bigger parts of the city. And then you know, and so if we really do care about tending the entire ecosystem, we have to understand where the roots are, not just where the shoots are, and need to sort of think about that entire tending and watering that entire ecosystem. And what does it look like to move to some regenerative models in both philanthropy, and in the sort of support systems for arts and culture. There’s a really wonderful organization called the Worm Farm Institute in Sauk, County, Wisconsin, and they talk about the notion of a culture shed as sort of an analogue to a watershed. And so that if you actually want to understand the culture of a place like Chicago, you have to sort of draw a catchment area that’s big enough that it captures Sauk, County, Wisconsin, and you understand that all of the cultures of that place, sort of our tributaries that feed into each other and sort of create the culture of it. And so I love that notion of sort of all of this informs.

Erin Borla:  7:53  

 Yeah, that’s, I think it’s really interesting. And I think it’s something that we want to challenge philanthropic institutions to look at, you know, we talk a lot throughout this series about what is the true meaning of philanthropy. And what do we see in community. You know, it doesn’t necessarily, we think of it now as cash, right, straight cash. So how do we, how do we shift that mindset and encourage communities to recognize their philanthropic within themselves, whether it’s with time, energy, effort, experience, and cash? And then showcase that and what exists in those places. And so how do we help sort of shift that mindset in philanthropy to what’s the first step? Like how do people, how do they find these institutions, organizations? Is there a list?

Jamie Bennett:  8:47  

Right, I always get nervous about lists both because as soon as you make a list, it’s out of date. And also, you know, I don’t know if you’ll have a chance to talk with anyone from Worm Farm. But you know, they’re an interesting case, because they were top of the list for national arts funding, who cared about rural America. And they got, there’s a world in which you could read their history as they got too much money in too short a time. And it wasn’t helpful, right. They needed sort of less money spread out over more years, in order to really be sustainable. But there was this sort of, I think much of national philanthropy knows that it should do better by rural America. And so if they’re presented with an easy button right. Here are two extraordinary leaders with an extraordinary organization, doing extraordinary work, great, just write them a check. I’m done with that rural thing. Because many of them aren’t staffed to get to know rural communities. And you know, there are hundreds, thousands of worm farms all across this country, and it takes a fair amount of travel dollars to get to know all of those in order to do the grantmaking in order to sustain them. But you know, I’m a, I’m essentially a big fan of respondent driven sampling, to use this sort of fancy University thing. Which is cool if you’ve got the easy but right, if you know that extraordinary work is happening at Worm Farm Institute, First Peoples fund in on Pine Ridge in South Dakota, and at, you know, Roundhouses RAM. Cool, why don’t I ask the three of you to each tell me three other folks that are doing similarly important work in a similarly important space. And then I can ask three of them, and then I can ask three of them. So there’s a way that you can use that sort of snowballing. That is a formal sociological way of gathering stuff that they sometimes talk about as being a way to, language is hugely problematic, but discover hidden communities and doing air quotes, which is not helpful on a podcast. But you know, if there’s a community that doesn’t have a direct connection to a source of funding, you can use respondent driven sampling to you know, it’s sort of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you sort of know, someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who’s connected to the community. So I think just this sort of, you know, what’s the Arthur Ashe quote, you know, “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”. Start with the three rural folks you do know, ask them to help you identify for more, and build your network that way, and it will, you know, it will sort of start building itself and sort of refreshing,

Erin Borla:  11:39  

You know, philanthropy is, it makes me laugh sometimes where we always think we are the most important in our own circle. And so, how do we how do we really build on that collaborative effort, sort of take the ego off the table, and say, what’s really best for community? People have heard me say before that our job in philanthropy is really easy. We have a very easy job, we sit behind a computer and we write a check. The people that are doing the hard work, are those that are on the ground. And so, how do we, how do we recognize our own easy button within our own work and say, okay, maybe we maybe we can work just a little bit harder to build those relationships. 

Jamie Bennett:  12:18  

Yeah. And you know, there are two things I just want to underline in what you said. And the first is, really what philanthropy does is outsource its mission. Right? I’m a big, well endowed foundation, I care a lot about climate change. I can’t do anything about it directly so I’m going to give money to the folks who can. Right. So you’re essentially offshoring your mission. And I think if we think of that, if we sort of changed that grantor grantee relationship to I cannot fulfill my mission as a philanthropy without my partners. That they are actually an extension of staff who are achieving the mission, which is why we exist. I think that changes a lot of that sort of power dynamic, not entirely, right. It’s still a sort of contractor model rather than a grantee model. But it does get to sort of we’re in, we’re in partnership together. And the other thing, you know, you sort of zipped by this quickly. But if I had one wish for anyone who was starting in philanthropy, it would be some sort of bootcamp with getting comfortable saying the word no. Because so many of us hate saying the word no, we hate disappointing people that I know that when I’ve been in situations where I’ve been able to have a voice and giving away some money, I find myself avoiding getting into conversations with folks, I don’t know, because I don’t want to have to say no to them down the road. Which is terrible. It doesn’t allow me to do my job well, it doesn’t allow them to do their job well. And so if we can get comfortable with saying no, that means that we’re open to hearing new ideas. Many of which, too many of which, we’re going to have to say no to. But you know, if you’re not willing to say no, you’re not willing to learn, because you’re going to sort of avoid those situations and only give to the folks that, you know will fit squarely in your portfolio, largely because they’re already in your portfolio. So I just think that notion of yeah, how do we get really comfortable with sometimes having to say no, because that’s for many folks on plans, because it’s more than 50% of their job. Right? If you look at sort of funding rates, there are a lot more nos and there are yeses.

Erin Borla:  14:41  

You know, you mentioned in some of your other work around the statistics about people and Americans how they value the art, but then not necessarily valuing those that are the artists. {Yeah} Can you talk more about that? 

Jamie Bennett:  14:54  

Yeah.So there was a study commissioned by the Urban Institute and, and it found that I think it was something like 98% of Americans value the role of art in their lives, 27% value the role of artists. And so that study actually led to the creation of the United States Artists, which had as its first sort of tagline, art comes from artists, right. And it sort of seems a little too goofy and obvious by half. But I know that sort of growing up, I didn’t understand where art came from, in the same way I didn’t understand where food came from, right. Even though I was in a small town, mine was a sort of former mining and railroad town, not typically a farming town. So I thought steak came from the A&P, I didn’t really understand that steak came from a cow. And in the same way, I think many of us think that Beyonce sort of sprung fully formed from Miss Tina’s forehead. And we didn’t understand that there was a whole, you know, she was once a little girl, she probably took a ballet class, she probably took some music classes, she discovered she had to, you know, there’s this sort of whole thing. So United States Artists is sort of trying to do that, their version of that farm to table movement in the food space. And sort of understanding that art is actually a process, there are a set of skills that you can learn, there are a set of steps that you can do to begin to make things. And yes, there are elements where genius attach and inspiration attaches. And not all of us are going to be as good as as each other in that. But there is this continuum. And I realized that in the same way that much, many of the spaces where our food is produced, is created, aren’t always, were at least historically not able to be easily visited by folks. And they were sort of cloistered off. In the same way, many of the spaces where art is created are kept sort of hidden from the public. Right. Many members of public don’t get to peek inside a rehearsal room for a theatre company, don’t get to peek inside an actual artist’s studio. So we don’t quite understand what it is that those folks are doing. And we think those pictures just showed up, you know, in a truck to be hung on the museum’s wall and sort of don’t understand that whole process. So I think the more we can do to sort of demystify what is, what is sort of the journey that results in a work of art? How do we understand those sort of art creation spaces as research and design spaces? And how do we sort of be as excited about them as we are about a lab at a chemical company or, you know, the sandbox at a technology company or, you know, whatever the other analogs are, so that we really do understand that there’s a thing that can be done.


Erin Borla:  17:49  

Yeah, I think you bring up a couple of things for me. One is this, the steps that it takes, we live in this mass produced society, right, we everything is produced quickly, you can, you know, we have an eight second memory, we want to see things and get them fast. And so to recognize that sometimes, there’s a method to getting to those those projects is important. I think the other piece that is interesting is, is again, how we’re thinking of art, right? I know, my mom has talked frequently about architectural elements as art, and you know, recognizing the blacksmiths, and the carpenters and the those custom home builders as artists, and then we can step back and really see the process because each thing takes so long to come together. And I think, you know, you, you cued up the conversation that we had with Cher Jackson in DC around? How do we infuse art into what we would call infrastructure? And what does that look like? And are there other opportunities? And are there opportunities for philanthropy to come in the middle of market and government to showcase those projects, and then highlight them in all of these broader aspects?

Jamie Bennett:  19:03  

Yeah, there was an early design director at the National Endowment for the Arts, Adele Chatfield Taylor. Would often talk about the fact that design was the one art form you could never escape, right. Because people were involved in making the shirt I’m wearing. Making these windows that I’m sitting in front of. Making the chair that I’m sitting on. And I don’t think there’s very little design education that happens in the United States, particularly at the K-12 level, to actually understand that a human being sat down and made a series of choices. We don’t always teach folks that the built environment, the objects that we inhabit, the clothes that we put on, are all active choice, someone made a choice to make it look that way. And many of those choices were culturally informed. So I think that your mom’s notion of noticing and recognizing the eye and the hands that went into the creation and the objects that surround us is exactly right.

Erin Borla:  20:04  

Well, so talking specifically about philanthropy and partnerships within, within the arts, have you seen you mentioned Worm Farm, are there other projects that you see that are really successful that are like, oh, this would be a great thing, if we could replicate that in other places?

Jamie Bennett:  20:22  

I am a big fan of stealing other people’s ideas. So love the notion of replication. I sometimes think that we don’t always pay attention to what the thing is that needs to be replicated. And so for instance, I don’t know if you know, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. So this is a summer residency program for artists in rural Maine, it’s fabulous, on every level. One of the things I find most fabulous about it is one of the CO directors Sarah Workneh, said to herself, oh, one of the things we do as a school of painting, and sculpture is feed our faculty and students three meals a day for three months of summer. And she realized that she could actually go and work with a local farmer who wasn’t quite yet skilled to do that, and say, hey, if I give you a contract, to provide our food, our produce and whatnot for the summer, are you willing to commit to doing that? And not only did the farmer say yes, she was then able to actually leverage that into financing to begin to scale her operation, right. That sort of that baseline contract, gave her the security to be able to grow her business, and be an even more vibrant, thriving business. So I wouldn’t necessarily want someone to cut and paste the School of Painting and Sculpture if what I cared about was sort of rural redevelopment, rural regeneration. But I would want them to think about how they’re procuring goods and services. And are they doing that a local partnership way. So you know, that’s one that sort of pops to the front of my mind as being a super interesting one. Another one that I got to know was the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, which was actually a project on the Zuni Pueblo that grew out of the health care system, and sort of said, so many of our young people are so cut off from their cultural heritage, because of genocide, because of colonialism. Is it no wonder that they grew up and have health problems over the course of their life. So let’s start investing in the kids. And let’s start investing in the sort of arts and culture that are a part of who they are. And that’s a really amazing bit of it. So when you’re talking about replication, I want folks to think about, oh, we actually want to invest in young people and sort of their cultural roots as a building block of lifelong wellness, not just we should build a rec center next to the hospital, right? And so I think, understanding what’s the intention of the pieces of those projects, is really important when we’re trying to decide what we want to replicate. You know, and I can keep ticking through a list of extraordinary folks doing extraordinary work in all sorts of areas. 

Erin Borla:  23:19  

For me, my favorite thing that I’ve ever heard you say, you say a lot of great things, is, you know, we talk about being the voice for the voiceless, of like, that’s why we’re here, we want to elevate and tell people these great things. As if those communities don’t have a voice. And so what is our role as philanthropy to no longer be the voice for the voiceless, but to be the ears for the earless? Can you delve into that a little bit?

Jamie Bennett:  23:45  

Yeah. And I think, you know, it’s, I’m a big believer that the question you ask sort of limits, the solutions that you’re going to explore, right. And so if your question is, why don’t these people in this community have more of a voice? I’m going to sort of focus on what’s wrong with them. But if instead you say, why aren’t those who hold power and resources, more responsive to the lived experience of folks in that community who are telling them what they need.Then you begin to sort of look and say, oh, we actually need to change some of the systems that are in place, the structures that hold power and resources, the on ramps to engage with them. So I’m, you know, and again, work needs to happen on both ends, right? We do need to invest in communities, and we do need to change folks who hold power and resources. But if we do sort of go back to that bridge metaphor and understand that it’s all a two way street, there’s almost no situation in which one side is perfect, and it’s the other side that needs all the fixing. But if we do go back to your notion of interdependence that you know that we all need each other, we all can learn from each other. It’s hugely important. And, you know, part of that is I’ve seen a big divide among people who value expertise, right? Who are the folks who have studied things in a book and gotten some letters after their name, that usually mean you got a degree that you have a credential, that you know a thing in an academic sense. So expertise. And contrast that with experience that I’ve lived this on the ground, I know what it feels like, I know what it looks like, I know what it is, I struggle with that. And too many folks then say expertise knows nothing, we just need experience. And so that pendulum swing, I think is wrong, and that we need to be at that equilibrium, where expertise and experience are equally valued. So that only when you sort of both understand the thing in its complexity, and you’ve studied it formally, and you’ve lived it, and you’re able to have both of those ways of knowing come to bear on the same opportunity. That’s when we’ll get real solutions.

Erin Borla:  26:05  

Well, oh my goodness, it’s been just lovely. It’s been so great to get to know you. And so thank you for taking some time today and for elevating the work that you do and that it has been done through arts and culture and across America has just been so wonderful to be here. Thanks. 

Jamie Bennett: 26:21  

Thanks so much Erin. Can’t wait for our next conversation.

Erin Borla:  26:32  

It’s so interesting throughout this whole series, how we keep hearing valuing experience over expertise. And just even hearing Jamie talk about those different pieces within creatives and within artists and within community reminds me so much of the guest earlier in the show CeCe Gardner Glaser, when she was talking about her first job in philanthropy. Sitting around a table talking about supporting teen mothers, and the the board not fully understanding or wanting to invest in another project. And she said, hey, can you raise your hand if you’ve been a teen mom? Just me, okay. So having that full experience and lived experience can bring so much value to a problem. It doesn’t have to be around the philanthropic table or the funding table, but even in the community, ensuring that those voices are being heard, and lifted up. I think we also heard a lot from Jamie about the intersection of the arts, and all the other work that we talked about. Funders really like to silo themselves, right. I’m an arts funder I’m a climate funder, I’m a environmental funder. But the reality is, all of those pieces work at the intersection. That’s really where the magic happens. So making sure that if you want to support the arts, you recognize that it’s interconnected with other things you may already be funding. I think that’s really critical. The last thing I really want to highlight with Jamie is about saying, No, we have this fear of getting close, funders have a fear I have it. To have to make a hard phone call if like, you work really hard on this application. It’s a no. And that is something that is we just need to embrace having those harder conversations. And I know it is uncomfortable, but the reality is, it’s, it’s a yes and, or a no but. It’s, it’s, you know, this one’s not really the right fit for us. But I’d love to stay connected and hear what you’re working on in the future, or continue to send us projects we work with other funders or I’m gonna continue to send you applications that come across my desk that I think might be a better fit. I think the more we can be open and honest and authentic with our partners on the ground, the stronger the relationship. Thanks so much for listening. You can head to for show notes, a transcript of the episode, links to Art Place America and all the other projects that Jamie has worked on in the past for great information.

Transcribed by A.I. Please forgive any errors.

Published On: June 7th, 2024 / Categories: Funding Rural Podcast /