Arts Funder Virtual Roundtable: Erika Nesholm

Erika J. Nesholm, Nesholm Family Foundation

Title: Executive Director
Geographic scope: Seattle
2015 arts funding: $750,000
Staffing: .5 FTE

How has your career prepared you for your current role?

Before working for the foundation, I was a classics professor and taught at several colleges around the country. Though my current job is quite different, it's a continuation of my lifelong professional and personal commitment to the humanities and the arts. I believe the arts are essential to making us more thoughtful and engaged people, connecting us to what makes us human as individuals and what unites us as a community. Having lived in places that do not have as active an arts scene as Seattle does makes me newly appreciate the rich and vibrant arts scene in Seattle and the way that energizes the city. 

What are the most important arts and culture challenges you see in your geographic funding area?

Sustainable funding of the arts is a constant challenge. Philanthropic giving is shifting away from the arts and the major cultural institutions. Philanthropic support for the arts is essential to sustaining the vibrancy and culture that make the city a desirable place to live, work and visit. 

There is also longstanding racial inequity in the arts. With the City of Seattle’s initiative to increase awareness and move toward racial equity in the arts, many in the city are moving racial equity to the forefront of the conversation about the arts in our community. Finding strategies to promote equitable access to opportunities in the arts continues to be a challenge for arts institutions, funders, community partners and the community at large.

The decline in arts education in the schools is another critical challenge. There is growing consensus that the arts contribute to academic achievement across all subject areas and promote the development of skills such as creativity, collaboration and perseverance, in addition to being important in their own right as a mode of expression, fostering new ways of understanding, increasing intellectual joy and engagement. It is crucial that a comprehensive arts education be an integral part of every school’s curriculum.

What are your core strategies for funding arts and culture?

We believe that the performing arts are a primary force in shaping our cultural heritage and in contributing to the vitality of our society. Guided by this belief, we prioritize projects that encourage the highest professional performance standards, improve the availability and accessibility of the arts and support artistic and organizational development. Our grants have included production support, arts education programs, support to provide more affordable tickets especially to students and teens, and support for the arts infrastructure in Seattle. Ultimately, we support the work that organizations do best — putting performances on stage and making them more accessible to all audiences.    

With equity in grantmaking as context, how are you working to support more diverse arts and culture organizations?

We believe that the vibrancy and sustainability of the arts and culture scene in Seattle depends upon a broad range of artistic voices, and supporting that has always been a priority for us. This includes different art forms — music, theater, dance, opera — and different types of arts organizations, from major cultural institutions in the city to smaller neighborhood community organizations. We believe the arts should be available and accessible to all and are committed to supporting a variety of avenues to accessing the arts for all communities. 

One of the key factors in promoting equity in the arts is education. We continue to support arts education programs, particularly for underserved communities and programs that make the arts available to students and youth. The affordability of the arts is a constant challenge, putting the arts out of reach for too many. Supporting innovative approaches to providing more affordable tickets and lowering the barriers to entry is a priority for us.

The Nesholm Family Foundation's arts and culture portfolio includes the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

What’s been a big success in the arts and culture space for your organization?

We see our role as supporting the arts and cultural institutions that make the city what it is. Being part of a community that values and prioritizes the arts as central to the civic and intellectual life of the city is our success. It is exciting to see so many arts organizations producing high-quality, innovative, provocative work. We appreciate that new leadership in the arts is building on the successes of the past and taking us to new levels of excellence. Seeing the continued growth and development of arts organizations, innovations and risk-taking in programming is inspiring.    

What’s the biggest arts and culture opportunity or challenge your organization is tackling right now?

We continue to focus on the sustainability of and access to the arts in Seattle. 

What’s one more question we should ask you, and how would you answer it?

Q. Why are the arts important to us?
A. For us the arts are at the center of the life of the mind. They expand, enrich, and deepen our understanding of life. The arts provide a window into the soul and a glimpse of the transcendental.

Erika Nesholm is executive director of the Nesholm Family Foundation, joining us this month for our virtual roundtable with arts funders.