“The power of building community” — Welcome C.O.O. Sarah Burford

Gordon Haber

Sarah Burford in her studio. Photo: David Stuck

The CANVAS community is growing! What began with a small group of funders concerned for the future of Jewish arts and culture has blossomed into a constellation of foundations and individual donors, grant partners, and networks representing more than 3,000 creatives in visual arts, literature, film, theater, curation, journalism, and design.
We are excited to welcome one more creative professional to the community: Our new Chief Operating Officer, Sarah Burford.
Burford is a D.C.-based arts professional with a passion for creating an equitable future for the arts. After seven years at the National Endowment for the Arts, where she served artists and cultural organizations nationwide as a Program Specialist in Media Arts, she joins CANVAS with a vision to help us better serve our grantees and elevate the Jewish arts and culture community as a whole. She has held previous roles in grantmaking and curatorial work at the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and The Jewish Museum.
Burford is also an artist in her own right, working in mixed media and collage. We spoke recently about strategic approaches to funding the arts, her passion for building an inclusive community, her own practice, and balancing it all as a working parent.
Tell us about your work at the NEA.
I managed media arts grant portfolios, which represented hundreds of different arts organizations across the country with a really interesting range of media—including film, audio, video, broadcasting, immersive artworks, extended reality, and creative coding.
I also worked on field-building initiatives, including researching for reports on specific topics in the arts, as well as network-building. Throughout the grantmaking process, I worked closely with applicants and grantees to prepare and submit proposals, and managed the peer review process. It was very challenging and interesting work.
It seems like the connection between art and technology is really opening up.
Yes, there is an incredibly exciting growth of projects at the intersection of art and technology. So many artists are doing exciting and innovating work in this space. We’re seeing a lot of work happening in new ways in performance, music, design, interactive technologies—it’s just really exciting to see that growing and flourishing.
You’re going from a mainstream or secular arts funding organization to the world of Jewish arts and culture. What do you want to bring from one to the other?
Definitely the idea of transparency and accessibility throughout the grantmaking process. I’ve worked in arts nonprofits and in a public service space, and all that informs the work I want to do with CANVAS—how to think of oneself less as a gatekeeper, and more as a partner or a resource provider. I’ve always looked to have a positive impact on the arts and cultural space, and I want to take those values with me and keep them central to this work moving forward.
What are you looking forward to as COO?
I’m really looking forward to serving as a bridge, to connecting Jewish arts and culture with the broader arts community. I don’t think those connections are as well articulated as they could be, and I’m thinking how we can be more intentional about that as well.
In my experience in arts funding, I have found so many artists and organizations experiencing the same things, and they might not know it. There are so many of the same challenges. It’s been such a moment of upheaval for the world at large and within the arts and culture sector; historic challenges like career sustainability have worsened during the pandemic, as well as amplified essential calls for increased equity and inclusion.
What this means is that we have an opportunity to learn from one another. We have an opportunity to connect with grantees from the Jewish arts community with the arts community at large, to build bridges and to think about common ground. Where can we learn from one another? What can we teach each other about capacity-building? About career sustainability for artists? About creating equity for artists?
I’m excited to create community and share conversations. There is so much power when you work together, when you build community.
Tell us a little more about what you mean by inclusivity and equity in a Jewish context.
I want to embrace the diversity, complexity, and intersectionality of the Jewish experience and figure out what that looks like in a Jewish arts and culture space. We’re having all these interesting conversations right now about what it means to be Jewish and what the Jewish community looks like, and I feel like for Jewish philanthropy there is an opportunity to embrace that diversity in the context of Jewish arts and culture.
Something I have found really inspiring about Judaism and Jewish identity is that it’s been around for thousands of years, and it’s continually evolving and changing—what it means to be Jewish, and what it means to be Jewish and creative. I find that really exciting. I think there is a lot of joy in that complexity.
You’re also an artist.
I work in collage and mixed media, and I’m expanding into acrylic painting. I have always identified as an artist, but I let it fall to the wayside over time because I had this rewarding career in arts grantmaking and curatorial work. When I had my daughter and the pandemic hit, I had this now-or-never moment, that I needed to engage in my own work as well, so I started making collages in my basement.
It’s been wonderful to build up a creative practice for myself. I also found a lot of inspiration in communities for artist-parents that explore how to engage with a creative practice in this season of life—you know, when you have a job and a small child. I found particular motivation through An Artist Residency in Motherhood, a self-directed program I participated in in late 2019, which helped me commit to making art on a regular basis.
It feels like parenting or caregiving is a theme in your work.
I’m very interested in exploring the emotional or narrative lives behind women and girls, and yes, caregiving and parenting. I’m interested in their unseen or hidden narratives. I use archives and found photos as source material, especially images of womanhood or maternity, in making those experiences more visible. Often it’s a photograph of a figure who is unidentified. I’m exploring what it means to give life to that person.
There’s a lot of color though.
I like creating a juxtaposition between these found images and a colorful landscape. It’s an interesting way to interrogate conditions of womanhood, family, and identity and create something beautiful and compelling. I’m interested in how combining images and color in this way can help illustrate those multilayered aspects of ourselves—of our memories, history, and personal identity—and again, to find joy in that complexity.

Sarah Burford, The Mountaintop. Collage on paper (2021)

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