Interweave of Culture and Ecology

Ken Wilson and Caron Atlas talk about cultural context and creative philanthropy.

By Caron Atlas

"In Africa, the river was a life force, which drove the economy and the culture. In the colonized world it became a colonial frontier and so a boundary. What used to unite people was used to divide them."

"What kinds of intentional and fundamental changes are needed to create a system of support that reflects and furthers cultural equity and social justice?"

Dr. Kenneth Wilson is the executive director of the Christensen Fund, a foundation based in San Francisco that works internationally to sustain cultural and biological diversity. Born in Malawi, Wilson studied in the UK and joined the Ford Foundation in 1993. He established Christensen’s new mission and operations in 2002.

Caron Atlas, project director and editor for the Bridge Conversations, works to support and stimulate arts and culture as an integral part of social justice. She currently directs the Arts & Democracy Project and codirects the New York Naturally Occurring Cultural District Working Group.

THE CHRISTENSEN FUND believes in the power of biological and cultural diversity to sustain and enrich a world faced with great change and uncertainty. It focuses on the ‘bio-cultural’—the rich but neglected adaptive interweave of people and place, culture and ecology. The Fund’s mission is to buttress the efforts of people and institutions who believe in a biodiverse world infused with artistic expression and work to secure ways of life and landscapes that are beautiful, bountiful, and resilient. The Fund pursues this mission through place-based work in regions chosen for their potential to withstand and recover from the global erosion of diversity. It focuses on backing the efforts of locally recognized community custodians of this heritage, and their alliances with scholars, artists, advocates, and others. It also funds international efforts to build global understanding of these issues. It seeks out imaginative, thoughtful, and occasionally odd partners to learn with. The Fund works primarily through grantmaking, as well as through capacity and network building, knowledge generation, collaboration, and mission-related investments.

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It was my experience of working with Ken Wilson and the Environmental Grantmakers Association on a cultural plenary for their 2007 fall retreat that sparked this Bridge Conversations project. While I grappled with assumptions and language, Ken easily engaged the environmental funders about the fundamental value of arts and culture in their work. I sensed that this ability to bridge sectors was key to making social change, and I wanted to learn how to do this with the grace and integrity that Ken had demonstrated.

When I spoke with Ken a few months later, he immediately complicated my premise about bridging. He described how in the Middle Ages the bridges across the great rivers in Paris and London had become much more than simply ways of getting from one side of the river to the other. Instead they transformed themselves from a span between two disparate places into lively and interactive places unto themselves, with markets, stores, and public spaces. Bridges became destinations. “Indeed, in the 13th century, London Bridge was so busy with visitors that people took to using riverboat taxis if they actually wanted to get to the other side quickly.” He encouraged me to transform my thinking as well by considering more holistic approaches.

“Let’s get squarely into the topic, and not live in a bifurcated world. In other words, instead of thinking of a world in which topics are siloed, with occasional linking bridges, let’s move to a world where we recognize that the richest things happen in the connections.”

This, in fact, is the essence of the Christensen Fund’s ‘bio-cultural’ approach: a focus on “the interweave of humankind and nature, cultural pluralism, and ecological integrity,” mixed with the core values of “respect, diversity, learning, (traditional and scientific), interdependency, creativity, and innovation.”

It’s not easy for a foundation to have this integrated vision. Ken evoked the following image to describe the challenge.

“In Africa, the river was a life force, which drove the economy and the culture. In the colonized world it became a colonial frontier and so a boundary. What used to unite people was used to divide them. The idea of some boundary between culture and nature—between a natural pristine world and a human sociopolitical world—is firmly rooted in particular patterns of western Cartesian thought. It runs very deep in Western society and is very hard to get rid of, even when people recognize that it is an artificial boundary.”

However, Ken prefers to talk about possibilities rather than obstacles. He describes how most of the organizations the Christensen Fund supports have historically recognized the link between environment and society; it is just when they have to deal with government funding that they present the artificial divisions. Even in the case of the university, NGO, and government agency grantees that have long divided themselves, there are staff members who want to work in a more integrated fashion. They are interested in those ‘on the other side of the river’—connecting cultural and environmental or academic and community-based Indigenous knowledge and vision.

I asked him how the Christensen Fund integrates its mission throughout its organization. He responded: “We have built a team at the foundation that has very deep experience working across boundaries. They are good listeners. They spend a lot of time in the field listening and being in the landscape with people, understanding subtle relationships. Institutions have different ways of working. The Christensen Fund board didn’t want to start with a mission statement; it wanted to explore through grantmaking and see through its practice. It would then follow up with drawing up a mission statement built bottom-up from practical experience. It enabled grantmaking and strategic thinking to follow the contour of unknown reality. It was important to go forward with an inquiry frame of mind, [including] at the board level.”

That may be the case for the Christenson Fund, but, I wondered, what about other foundations that haven’t had the opportunity to recreate themselves? And while an interwoven program might be an ideal for the Fund, in other instances (like our work together with the Environmental Grantmakers Association) bridging is still necessary.

Ken responded that every funder is different, but “the majority of people working in foundations realize there is a disconnect between the world and the categories [they use for their programs] and find ways to bridge them.” An integrated geographic approach provides opportunities to see linkages, as does the problem-solving approach of community-based grantees who draw on their natural local connections. Even funders who start out with a strictly conservationist or academic approach may come to value arts and culture. Ken noted that while they may initially engage arts and culture in an instrumental manner, over time this could lead to more subtle and nuanced work.

“I have great faith in human beings—as we interact we usually realize things are more complicated. People innovate and learn. We also learn through failure—that we can live in a world that’s less linear, that we can co-create a different vision around a problem through more open-ended creativity. When people tell their stories they use a form of communication that can convey that complexity. It’s a learning process that leads people to transform a priori and bureaucratic ideas.”

How do you get the boards and senior management of foundations to respect this open-ended exploration and storytelling, I asked.

Ken recognizes that it can be hard for board members to hear these stories, a form of knowledge that is still very much at the margins. But, he adds, board members won’t be able to understand the on-the-ground experience without hearing these stories. “In the governance process it’s hard to have enough of a funnel to gather that experience. It’s easier to deal with simpler categories like numbers or financials. It’s more difficult to understand intangible learning processes and the invention of new knowledge and practices.”


“Most scientists, after receiving the Nobel Prize, will talk about their exploratory creative process, not their deductive method. They use deduction to test creative theories. Scientists have human brains and interpret complex ideas in a human way.”

One of the ways foundations can integrate their work is through open-ended grantmaking. Ken gives an example of a grant the Christensen Fund gave in the Bay Area: “To support New Music Works in an exploration of new and traditional music making and the landscape that a botanical garden could make to show plant diversity.” When New Music Works and the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum realized that they had a lot in common, including several members of their boards of directors, they began to work together. Illustrating how “plants and music are part of the same beautiful diverse world,” they held an event in the Arboretum, which is renowned for its collections of New Zealand plants, together with Maori and other musicians who explored the soundscapes of nature and that particular culture. Meanwhile “they celebrated the plants by cooking them (and with them) in Maori custom.”


Ken has found that foundations are good at organizing collaborations among their grantees by deploying financial support. When organizations are open to collaboration, share goals, and engage in the right kind of collaborative process, there is often success. However, he notes that collaboration inside foundations has “a much less glorious history,” given their tendency to silo over time, and the high transaction costs of collaboration between institutions that typically guard their independence and often have quite idiosyncratic governance.

“It is ironic that some of the main institutional change agents in Western democracies are some of those most resistant to their own change. They are more likely to solve problems in the world without solving them in themselves. The same is true with universities. The accountability is so diffuse.”

Yet he recognizes that opportunities for bridging exist, often involving staff members who get along together, and some kind of blessing from senior level, such as extra money or kudos.

When I asked Ken what the arts could learn from other fields, he spoke about applying a cultural lens. One of the challenges that the arts face is that art tends to be defined as creativity professionalized and separated from daily life. It is important to study the cultural dimension to arts funding, which includes …how people live with creativity and traditions in their daily life, as well as on an elitist level. When you understand the cultural life of the community, you understand what creativity and artistic expression mean in that community. (This includes) what people are actually participating in, not just what you are trying to get them to participate in.”

How do you apply a cultural lens in a foundation, I wondered.

“Staff skills and experience are crucial. There is the complex reality and the two dimensional pieces of paper. Get out of the office, not just going to arts events, but also engaging in the cultural context. Go within that society and understand. This approach needs to gain credibility in the art world; it isn’t seen as having rigor.

Whether it’s in development or in, say, health, you don’t get transformational results without engaging at the community level within the context in which things happen. It’s not enough to say, ‘Take this tablet to prevent disease’. Only through understanding deep context about how the dis0ease interacts with other factors can you have a successful intervention … you can’t do it by remote control. In the field of epidemiology, unless you understand the dynamics of the whole system you can’t control the outcome by intervening in one component. But given the way we finance health in the U.S., there is the privileging of the individual patient as the only point of intervention. Instead of dealing with the breeding of mosquitoes you simply resolve to treat more patients. The parallel here is with our tendency to focus on the proficiency and professionalism of the individual artist, production company, or venue, believing that this alone will have automatic transformatory impacts on the whole arts-culture ecosystem.”

Then Ken considered the financing of the arts, and its unequal distribution.

“Unfortunately, the underlying purpose of much arts funding is not to increase artists or creativity or maximize human engagement in the arts. Rather it is an area for the creation of social status for the funders themselves; and that is why in societies like the U.S. what tends to happen is a huge proportion of funding is concentrated in a few elite institutions that accumulate the highest standing. Rather than funding being distributed among many institutions and efforts where it might have much more impact, the opposite occurs, which is that the already wealthiest institutions attract even more money because of the associated prestige. That’s the problem we are dealing with: a perversely shaped ecosystem of funding and institutions. The question is whether, as foundation funders, we encourage that. I hope we don’t do that, but we know how arts funding is often a special category even for foundations. What may help us conceptually is to move from ideas of the arts that are about audiences consuming the highest possible level of professionalism in elite institutions towards notions of participation and creativity and resources reaching the artists themselves.”

I am struck by Ken’s question about whether foundation funders encourage an unbalanced arts ecosystem. It raises for me the question of what kinds of intentional and fundamental changes are needed to create a system of support that reflects and furthers cultural equity and social justice. Meanwhile, Ken looks ahead with hope at the ways that youth movements are transgressing categories and democratizing the arts.

“Over the last decade there has been a convergence between different forms of expression. This is due to the digital environment, but not only that. Young people are much more interested in thinking across the boundaries in the arts and in different spheres of human problems. The environment for baby boomers was a special interest—places you could go to or make suburbs on. The younger generation has a different experience of the environment—tied to economic development, equality, all aspects of life. Youth movements transgress boundaries and have different ideas about the creative process with more belief in co-creation in a digital age. Before, the right to create was highly limited, now there is more persistence of everyone’s creative expression. This is healthy for the arts.”

I leave the conversation considering when it is better to bridge what already exists and when it is better to create new hybrid and integrative structures and approaches. Is there a danger in the latter of losing depth of grounding or the power of creative tensions? On the other hand, is it possible to authentically engage another sector or culture without questioning your own assumptions and being willing to change and develop something new? Of course, it’s not an either/or proposition; that’s just another example of bifurcated thinking. Ultimately I find the river image most helpful: “a life force that unites people rather than divides them.”

Original CAN/API publication: April 2008