We had an opportunity to chat with Lina Alfonso (ARAD ’15) and hear how the ARAD program shaped her career journey and the wonderful work she does at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Lina shared what she has learned about working closely with communities, emphasizing the importance of relationship-building, empathy, and communication.
Could you share a bit about your background? What was your undergraduate degree?
I started the ARAD program in 2013 and graduated in 2015. Before I came to New York to complete my Masters in Arts Administration, I lived in Colombia. I lived in Bogotá for many years. In Colombia, I studied visual arts and economics. So, my background really comes from two different places. The ARAD master’s program was great because it helped me unify my two academic interests.
I was studying visual arts and was so excited and thrilled to be able to express myself through art and experience the work of my fellow classmates. I really enjoyed being a practicing artist. But then I saw this kind of unique field within a city’s dynamics and economics and arts as a profession that needs support beyond the academic world. I see myself as being a logical thinker as well as being creative. I studied economics because I was interested in the different pieces of the socio-economic side of a city or nation moving forward. I started making the connection of how cultural workers and arts workers at the time in Colombia were lacking support and weren’t seen as contributors to the local economy and the social dynamics of the city.
I finished my programs and I knew that I didn’t want to be an artist full-time and I knew I didn’t want to go into economics because I felt that the arts were so important and so relevant. So that’s what led me to come to New York and pursue this program. I felt that there is more to do, that there are more strategies and ways to offer support to artists after they finish their studies so they can grow more in their practice and have a sustained livelihood from being an artist. Many people I went to school with ended up stalling their artistic practice or moving to completely different fields because they just couldn’t sustain themselves as artists. So, I came from a place where I saw the potential of learning something I couldn’t in Colombia and that’s why I came to New York to pursue this program.
Could you speak a bit more about what attracted you to the ARAD program?
There are many programs in the U.S. and in Europe for Arts Administration. When I was looking, I felt really strongly about this program mostly because it was very well aligned with where I was coming from and the type of support that I was seeking.
I wanted to join a program that had that connection of arts with a little bit of business and infrastructure, and more of that organizational side of the arts. Not just curatorial work or arts as an independent practice, which I had already experienced. I was seeking something that was a marriage of the two backgrounds I was bringing. I felt that Teachers College offers a strong academic program and so much context and background to things that were very new to me. I didn’t know anything about fundraising, I didn’t know anything about the non-profit structure and marketing in the arts. All of these things were very new to me and I saw that the program offered flexibility in terms of seeking which path you wanted to pursue within arts administration.
It also offered access to other arts classes and more arts-driven courses within Teachers College and even a little bit with the greater Columbia University network. It was nice to still have a connection of the two of those and lean towards a stronger arts admin background and knowledge. Also, the program is in New York, which is an iconic city for arts and culture in the world. So it was a perfect triangle of elements that really made it an easy decision for me to come to Columbia.
Where do you currently work and what is your role?
Right now, I am the Program Manager of Grants and Services at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, also known as LMCC. I have been here for just a little bit over four years now.
After graduating, I followed the non-profit path. Right before joining LMCC, I worked at another non-profit organization called Art in General, which was an organization focused on providing financial resources as well as space for artists to create works. It was commission-based work and we would present it in the organization’s gallery space – first in Manhattan, and then in Brooklyn. I was at this organization for about three years including my internship time, which I did while finishing the ARAD program.
In my second year in the program, I became really interested in fundraising in non-profits, which led me to join Art in General, where I was a Development Associate. I was supporting the fundraising efforts of the organization. From grantwriting for government and federal grants, private foundations, to supporting other efforts around private donors, such as the gala and membership events, annual campaigns. All of the different components of non-profit work. I was able to gain a lot of experience because this organization was very tiny – only five staff members. It was great – it gave me a sense of the structure of a nonprofit and also an idea of what it takes to fundraise.
After that, I ended up landing at LMCC, where I do the opposite. Instead of asking for grants, I give out grants, which is the amazing thing about my work. At LMCC, we have three re-granting programs that are funded by city and state agencies, which are the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. These agencies give block funds to LMCC and we regrant them to artists, collectives, and organizations based in Manhattan, which are presenting programs to the public in Manhattan. In a way, we are making these public funds accessible to individuals and entities that otherwise would not have the opportunity to go to these funding agencies directly. LMCC has been in this role for over 30 years. So I am just a small part of this history and legacy. My role is to manage those three regrant programs.
We also offer professional development opportunities for artists, primarily in the form of workshops for artists to develop skills, such as financial skills. That includes opportunities to learn about budgeting and the steps of grantwriting for individuals who are new to that process. I also support part of that work.
The last piece of what I do at LMCC is serving as the primary contact for people who prefer to communicate in Spanish. As a Colombian and as an immigrant that is something very important to me. I hold my language very close and dear to myself. I love walking around the city hearing Spanish being spoken. The reality is that many people cannot access resources available to them because they do not speak English and really prefer to communicate in their native language. I am really proud and thrilled to serve as that contact and offer support and assistance with information throughout the application process in Spanish. So that’s a little bit about all the different hats I wear at LMCC.
Are there any courses at TC that you feel were particularly helpful for your career journey?
I remember, it all started with some of the core classes – understanding the different income structures that a non-profit organization can explore. It was an introduction to fundraising, and I remember that in that class we would see the different ways of supporting an institution. So this idea of earned income as well as contributed income and in-kind contributions. I remember asking during that class about in-kind contributions because I had no idea what that was!
That class, I believe, was in the second semester of the first year. It gave me a baseline of how the non-profits work and how they structure their financial plans. This idea that you not only have your expenses but you need to map out your income and there are many different avenues for fundraising. Then it comes down to what is best aligned with you, the capacity, what is available, all of these different things. This class was a good first snippet of that.
I also took classes at the school of continuing education (Columbia School of Professional Studies). They have great classes in fundraising – I remember taking two or three classes there. This allowed me to continue developing my fundraising skills. We would take a case study of an organization and prepare a fundraising plan and a financial projection, so I think that really gave me a lot of preparation and skills that I applied when I went to work in my first position at Art in General. These skills allowed me to help the organization with financial planning, even going beyond just applying for grants. Having those classes not only gave me the basics but this idea of putting skills to practice in a theoretical way, which was really helpful once I started working.
Could you speak a bit more about the history of LMCC?
LMCC was founded in 1973 with the opening of the World Trade Center with the idea of bringing arts programming and activities to the Financial District. Throughout the years, LMCC has grown into the cultural council of Manhattan. There are five borough arts councils in New York City and LMCC is the arts council for the borough of Manhattan.
Today, LMCC has a mission of serving, connecting, and making space for artists and communities in Manhattan. We do that through a wide range of offerings. We have grant programs, which is very much what I do. We also have artist residencies in the Arts Center at Governors Island as well as other satellite spaces in the Financial District, which are for artists across stages of their careers to develop work or immerse themselves in their creative practice.
Those are the primary services for artists but then the organization also offers a lot of programming for the public. We have our annual festival “River to River,” which has site-specific performances in Lower Manhattan and Governors Island, as well as exhibitions at our gallery in the Arts Center at Governors Island. So we provide a wide range of activities and programs both for the public as well as for artists directly. That is roughly the scope of LMCC.
What are some of the challenges you face in your role?
It comes down to the idea that this grant program is the first grant that many artists receive. We see people who are very new to grant writing or have tried to figure it out on their own and have lost interest because they weren’t funded in a particular year. There is a lot of skepticism around preparing an application and how this process works at funding institutions.
One of the most interesting challenges I face in my work is trying to expand the reach of our programs every year. They are annual programs, which open in June and applications are due in September with projects happening in the next calendar year. Because this is public funding, contributed by taxpayers, it should be going back to people in Manhattan.
And with that idea, we really try to ensure that our programs represent the makeup of Manhattan and the rich diversity of the city. Not only in terms of geographical locations, which means that we want to fund people from Inwood all the way to Battery, but also a wide range of artistic disciplines – music, theatre, dance, visual arts, media, literary projects, interdisciplinary projects. From more traditional art forms to contemporary, from small events to big events. We also place a lot of emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity. Although the city is very diverse, it is known in the fundraising world that the largest percentage of available money goes to white-identifying individuals and white-led organizations. This is something that happens and is a criticism of this field. A big challenge and something we strive for from year to year is to make sure that those who have been underrepresented by the programs know about them. Every year we are trying to increase access to our programs and reach out to those who haven’t heard about them or are skeptical.
It involves a lot of relationship building and going to the communities we want to reach, and establishing partnerships with key local stakeholders or with artists who have come to us to understand how the process works. We want to demystify this notion that it’s difficult to get a grant or that there are many hoops that you have to jump through.
Ultimately, the programs are competitive. We do get over 500 applications a year and get to award around 50-60% of that. Every year we change the people who make decisions. It isn’t staff that makes decisions, those are other artists and professionals in the field who make decisions.
We really try to ensure people that they can still come back year after year, even if they don’t get a grant on their first try. We are here to help people to strengthen their applications, answer questions about the process and help people put their best foot forward, but doing that takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. Being on the ground, being on the phone, and meeting people where they are and their comfort level in terms of writing a grant. Language, of course, is a big part of it. To me, these are some of the biggest challenges but also rewards of my work. Being able to meet new people every year and see that the makeup of our applicants and grantees continues to become more and more diverse.
How is LMCC funded?
We receive money from all sides. We receive money from city agencies, state agencies, federal agencies as well as private foundations, and individual donors. That is to support the whole organization. When it comes to the grant money that we give out, those grants really come just from NYSCA, DCLA, and UMEZ, which is an economic empowerment corporation in Upper Manhattan.
What is the most exciting part about your role?
There are so many things! I enjoy my job at LMCC quite a lot. One of them is that every year I try to push the needle more and more to ensure that we connect with more people and have more diversity in our programs.
Through my work, I have come to appreciate and know many neighborhoods of the city that I previously didn’t know. The pandemic has made us shift our practices but before the pandemic, we were always on the ground doing information sessions during the summer in different neighborhoods in the borough. We were also going to grantee events to experience the work that we were funding. That helped me expand my awareness of artistic disciplines because I come from a visual arts background, a very narrow view of the art world. Through LMCC, I have been experiencing music events, theatre, dance, projects in many different disciplines, and people approaching the artforms in different ways. This work at LMCC has really helped me to expand my own vision of the art world and also of Manhattan – getting to explore new areas that I otherwise would not have explored, perhaps. Also having a pulse on community arts in the city, which previously I didn’t have so much access to.
The other part is that component of language. It is very special to me to have a job, where my language is a key part of my work. It helps me reinforce my identity. Being able to speak Spanish in my work is something I so appreciate and getting to see more people who come to us seeking Spanish language communications is something that I feel so proud and excited about. When I get an email or a call in Spanish- that’s a joy for me.
Finally, I would say that LMCC as an organization has such a strong legacy and it is so remarkable to be able to be part of that history in a small way.
How did the pandemic affect your work?
The pandemic has been a hard situation for many of us. When it comes to our work, it definitely made us shift a lot of our practices. It made us adapt a lot. Before the pandemic, we were always on the ground. That is how we built trust and relationships. By showing up. Even if people were not expecting us. Just showing up or hosting events in different neighborhoods in the city and inviting people so that they know about us. That has been a very key component of our work – being on the ground or welcoming people to our offices for consultations and encouraging them to call us at any time.
With the pandemic, we lost that ability to go to events and meet people face to face to build relationships. Connecting with other people and showing people that we were still there. Also getting to meet new people. That was a big challenge for us. We are now doing some hybrid events but most have remained virtual. Last summer, we tried doing some smaller events in Upper Manhattan and in Chinatown, but still trying to limit them in terms of capacity. Last summer we noticed there was still a lot of anxiety in the air in terms of doing in-person events. It was very hard to want to be out there but still not being able to. That was one of the biggest challenges for our team.
We are funding over 200 projects every year. The pandemic was very impactful for all of our grantees, both in 2020 and 2021. Still, we are helping people navigate through ways to do their projects. The first year was the hardest because no one knew what to do, no one knew how long this was going to go. We had people calling us and emailing us asking what they could do with the money. So, we were really able to adapt and offer support in any way we could. Assuring people that it was okay, that projects can be postponed and we can figure out ways for projects to happen and minimize that anxiety. A lot of it was trying to navigate and help people manage their own stress around these projects. That was a big challenge for us and also mostly for our grantees. Finally, trying to find ways to help people envision new ideas for their projects, new ways to still engage the public in a way that is safe for them and for the public.
Artists are incredible. Artists and organizations were very quickly coming up with ideas about how to do things virtually, how to do things remotely via phone if they were working with older adults or sending packets to participants because we also have an arts education grant program. It was interesting to see them developing ideas and adapting quickly but then experiencing and seeing all of the struggles that they were having – how can we support them in the best way we can, given what is going on?
Last year we saw that people were excited about the city opening up in the summer. We saw some grantees move to presenting projects in person in parks or smaller capacity venues. We saw excitement around everything opening up. But then, everything started shutting down again. So, once again, we were in a place of helping people navigate different situations in the best way possible.
Do you have any suggestions for current students who are looking to go into fundraising, grantmaking, or working with communities?
Something that really helped me was staying curious and open. I didn’t know that this was the path I wanted to pursue. Never would I have imagined that I would be working as a grantmaker. But it all started from a place of curiosity. Thinking about this thing that I wanted to know more about. How can I explore this regardless of whether it will lead to a job? Leaning into that curiosity is a big piece.
Explore all the different paths and options available at TC and at Columbia! That is something rich about the school, that it has such a rich diversity in course offerings and perspectives. There is so much knowledge you can get out of this program. Having that curiosity and exploring what gets you closer to answering the question that you have in your head and then going towards that.
Going into fundraising, if you have never done grants, try exploring that process. I remember that was one of the exercises in this first class that I mentioned. We were given one application that we had to write. I thought this exercise was so helpful for understanding what it takes to prepare a grant proposal. What are the elements of it? How can you come up with successful narratives? Either writing a grant for your personal practice or some artist or other purposes, or maybe just as a fictional exercise. A lot of that work was very helpful for me as I was starting to work in the fundraising world.
When it comes to working with the community, one of the biggest pieces that I have learned through my work at LMCC is that it is important to meet the community where they are. To show up, to be there, to build relationships and trust. And that it is something that only happens with time. It is something that you have to show up year after year for. You have to be present and listen to what people are interested in and if there are any needs, and what they are. If you are a person or an organization that can offer this support or fulfill that need or perhaps you just have to make space for other people to step in and provide that support. That idea of being at the same level and building relationships.
I have been able to build a lot of connections through my work. However, the most meaningful has been connecting with people, speaking with them year after year, hearing about how they are doing and the challenges they are having. As people get comfortable and they feel that they trust you and that you are really there to support them in a genuine way, they open up. Sometimes they have shared with me: “This is something that is very difficult right now.” It comes from a very friendly conversation. And then I’m like: “Oh, okay! Let me look into that and do something about it.” Some of the great feedback I have received from grantees and applicants has come from that open conversation that has only been possible after many years of building trust and relationships. I think that’s key when it comes to working with communities.
Lower Manhattan Cultural Council: lmcc.net