Laura Poppiti

M.A., Exhibition & Museum Studies, San Francisco Art Institute, 2009
Program Director, Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI), San Francisco, CA

Laura is the Program Director at the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI), which is headquartered in Los Angeles with offices in the Bay Area, where she is based.  CCI is a grantmaking intermediary (i.e., not a private foundation, but a “pass-through” organization), as well as a service provider to artists and arts workers by way of offering business trainings, thematic workshops, and commissioned research.

Laura says: “In my role, I oversee our portfolio of California grant programs and lead or support special projects, including CCI’s national initiative, AmbitioUS (shameless plug).  We’re unique in the field for our exclusive focus on individuals in the arts and culture sector, and moreover, for our efforts to support these individuals in realizing financial self-determination.  This means that we’re looking at artists and arts workers as ‘whole persons’.  When I talk about the whole person, I’m referring to arts workers beyond their role as producers of an object, a work, a project.  These are individuals with needs for better living and working conditions that must be met if they are to realize their full creative potential.  Attending to the needs of arts workers as a whole person requires CCI to make a difference in the conditions of artists’ lives, which for us, means addressing broader economic trends in common cause with other sectors that share artists’ issues of low wages, lack of worker protections, high debt, and few assets.”

She notes that a highlight of her career came in 2020.  “CCI had the privileged position of administering seven COVID-19 relief programs in California that together distributed over six million dollars to more than 3,000 arts and culture workers.  True to our ethos of supporting the ‘whole person’, our relief fund grants were unrestricted (i.e., not tied to a proposed outcome as so many grants are) and were awarded on the premise of supporting those communities most disproportionally affected by the pandemic including freelance/independent workers without access to State unemployment insurance.”

Laura describes the path she took from her lifelong interests, through her time as a History major at Catholic University and graduate school to her professional career: “My adolescence was spent immersed in the performing and visual arts.  I took singing, dance, acting, and art lessons; visited museums and galleries; and attended musicals, operas, plays, concerts.  I also acted in community theatre and sang with various choruses.  When entering undergrad, I thought that the only career pathway available to me in the arts was to be an artist.  I felt this was too risky, and so, given my love of storytelling, history was a natural fit, as well as being a subject that I enjoyed and in which I excelled.

“My first job out of undergrad was with the U.S. Capitol as a tour guide.  This teed me up for a two-year run working for a Senator on the Hill.  Turns out, policy wasn’t the place for me.  I turned at this point back to my passion for arts and culture.  I was hired to work in the development department at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., during which time I applied to graduate programs in art history and museum studies.  I was accepted to the San Francisco Arts Institute’s Museum & Exhibition Studies program and for two magical years, was deeply consumed by my own professional, creative, and personal development.  When I graduated in 2009, curatorial jobs weren’t exactly aplenty, so I returned to development – focusing on grant writing at a photography gallery, then an arts education nonprofit, and finally, at a theatre company.  Honing my writing practice during these years, and being firmly embedded in the trenches of nonprofit arts and culture, positioned me for my current work in philanthropy.”

When asked to think about the way her experiences as a History major at Catholic University influenced her later academic and career paths, Laura instantly recalls Junior Seminar.   “I remember a senior at the time calling these ‘boot camp for History majors.’ For a 19-to-20-year-old, these seminars were boot camp indeed. The pace of reading, analysis, discussion, and written review was a nightmare at the time (LOL), but for sure set me up for the rigor of academic scholarship at the graduate level, and frankly, the demands of full-time work.  For example, as Program Director my time is split into roughly two areas: operational tasks and being knowledgeable in the field.  To the latter, I am forever reading commissioned reports, writing briefs, attending endless webinars on data and trends, and researching, always researching.  Funders are pattern recognizers. We are disciplined to constantly gather/listen for information; to analyze/critique it; and to make informed recommendations or theories of change as a result.  These same practices were introduced to me in our Junior year seminars, and then fine-tuned through the preparation of our Senior thesis.

“I’m in the transferable skills camp on this one. The study of history, for me, was an exercise in honing my research and writing skills. It was also an introduction to critical thinking that really isn’t offered in high school, but it absolutely necessary in graduate studies, and of course, one’s professional career.”