Illuminating Philanthropy: Data, Art, and Transparency
When I enter the Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s offices most mornings, natural light streams in through a skylight to illuminate Spectra: A Counting — the Fund’s recently commissioned artwork by Taraneh Hemami. In this early light, through this piece of art, one can see a wash of color and the 320,000 glass segments from which it is composed.
Spectra: A Counting is a curtain of beads. In this curtain, each individual bead represents $10,000 of the Fund’s grantmaking. Taken together, they visually encapsulate the past 30 years of Fund grantmaking. Spectra, in the language of art, reveals the complex story of a foundation responding to changing times while maintaining its core values.
Insightful evaluation of grantmaking requires both stories and data. When I approached Taraneh Hemami about becoming the sixth artist commissioned to create a work for our office’s large west wall, I was thinking of the power of her story-gathering projects. West Wall commissions are offered to select Creative Work Fund grantees (Hemami’s Creative Work Fund grant was awarded in 2000). For that project she collected stories, letters, and images from Iranians who had left their homeland for the United States. She etched their personal stories onto mirrored mosaic bricks. The work was exhibited in several venues and installed as a permanent piece, Hall of Reflections, in the Persian Center in Berkeley.
The events of September 11, 2001 occurred just as Hemami was beginning to collect materials for that piece. She gathered most of its content over the following twelve months. Hall of Reflections was selected for the 2003 International Sharjah Biennial and that spring, as Hemami was in the United Arab Emirates installing the show, the Iraq war broke out. The United States-led coalition began bombing Baghdad as Hemami exhibited her etched and broken mirrors in one of their most dramatic forms: heaped as a mound of rubble.
Her West Wall proposal to the Walter & Elise Haas Fund was to tell a different kind of history — one based on the Fund’s grantmaking data. The philanthropy field is responding to the challenge of becoming more transparent about its processes and its effectiveness. The Fund specifically has been actively seeking ways to better share information about its grantmaking.
This made her proposal even more intriguing. What might we learn when an artist like Taraneh Hemami used creative data visualization to aid us in increased transparency?
The Walter & Elise Haas Fund is 64 years old, but its accessible data only ranges back 30 years (since 1984). Hemami compiled, analyzed, and shuffled that grant information. From the beginning, she sought to literally illuminate the data. Her first idea was to create a lightbox, with the data mapped in concentric circles, like rings in an old growth tree. The weight of that model made it impractical, however.
She then turned to colored glass beads, chosen for their reflective beauty and because she often combines old and new art making techniques in her work. In Spectra, each strand of beads represents $400,000. Each section of the finished work represents a type of organization or grant. Because the Fund’s grantmaking has shifted over the decades, Hemami and the Fund’s staff had to combine some types of organizations and themes for Spectra or she would have run out of available colors and textures of beads.
These facts about the content of the work gloss over the labor of making it. Spectra: A Counting required a deep commitment to craft. Painstakingly counting, threading, and knotting each strand took many hours of labor.
Hemami notes, “I think the patterns and colors created from the data are similar to carpet mapping processes. The beading is very aligned with rosary beads and counting the beads over and over, similar to rituals of prayer.” She sees the reflective beauty of light and colors standing for hope.
At a time when dashboards and pie charts abound, I propose that the Walter & Elise Haas Fund has the most beautiful data visualization in philanthropy. It reflects the Fund’s belief in transparency. And in art.
Images by Shadi Yousefian