Cultural heritage sites around the world are under threat not only from catastrophic events like war and natural disasters but also from daily use and lack of resources. In 2010, archaeologist Larry Coben founded the Sustainable Preservation Initiative (SPI) to address the challenge of preserving sites in areas of great poverty. He pioneered an approach that provides training and support to communities living near cultural heritage sites, empowering them to turn preservation into economic opportunity. SPI now works in Peru, Guatemala, Jordan, Turkey, Tanzania, and Bulgaria.
In this episode, Coben discusses his unusual path from lawyer and energy executive to archaeologist, sharing the work that inspired his innovative approach to cultural heritage preservation.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LARRY COBEN: Cultural heritage has something to say about poverty alleviation, about gender inequality, about resilient communities, about people eating. And we need to really make that clear.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Larry Coben, founder of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, a non-profit organization that combines the protection of cultural heritage with empowering local communities socially and economically.
Larry Coben is part energy executive, part archaeologist, and part social empowerment entrepreneur. In 2010, he founded the Sustainable Preservation Initiative as a means of giving local communities the tools to protect nearby threatened archaeological sites. SPI, as it’s commonly called, is currently working in Peru, Guatemala, Jordan, Turkey, Tanzania, and Bulgaria. To learn more about his important work, I sat down with Larry while he was at the Getty as a Visiting Scholar contributing to the scholar-year theme of “Art and Ecology.”
Thanks for joining me on this podcast, Larry.
LARRY COBEN: Glad to be here.
CUNO: Now, you’re in the midst of an astonishingly interesting career—archaeologist, energy executive, and what I like to think of as social worker—and all of this on an equally interesting academic foundation: undergraduate degree in economics from Yale, law degree from Harvard, and PhD in archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. Give us a sense how all of this happened.
COBEN: I have no idea. You know, I think I went through school the first time on a sort of “I need to get out, have a career, do-something” path. I went to law school and quickly figured out I wasn’t going to be a lawyer. I looked at my clients; they were doing far more interesting things, had much more control over their lives. I was doing general corporate stuff. I’d only practiced for one year, so I was a freshman lawyer and decided I didn’t wanna be a sophomore lawyer after I got out.
So I quickly realized that I had a more entrepreneurial bent than law was going to allow me to carry forward. So I somehow ended up with two other guys and we started one of the first—it was then called alternative; you now call it a renewable—energy company in the country. And I spent the next sixteen years being an energy entrepreneur.
CUNO: Well, what about archaeology?
COBEN: Archaeology was always an interest. I loved it. I would go visit sites on my vacations. I still remember taking courses from people like Vincent Scully and Jerry Pollitt when I was an undergrad. So I had some of the great art historians as kind of a basis rattling around in the back of my head. I actually took more art history than archaeology when I was in college. And finally I just said, “I— I wanna do this.”
CUNO: So then you went back and got a degree in it or—?
COBEN: I did. I started the terminal master’s program at Yale, which was Mary Miller’s suggestion, actually. She said, “Come and make sure that you really wanna go back to school,” ’cause I was thirty-nine at the time.
CUNO: And for our podcast listeners, Mary Miller is the director of the Getty Research Institute.
COBEN: Correct. And she was then professor and chairman of the art history department at Yale, at the time I was thinking of coming back. And she said, “You know, come back and make sure that you really wanna do this before you enter into a PhD program.” So I did that. And then a year after, I was in the PhD program at Penn, studying primarily Andean archaeology.
CUNO: What attracted you to that part of archaeology?
COBEN: The Andes? I had actually, in the last iteration of my career, was the CEO of a utility in Bolivia and several other companies located in that region of South America, so I’d spent a bunch of time there, loved the region, and wanted to give something back. Was fascinated by the Incas. And also, the only language exam I could possibly pass would be Spanish.
CUNO: So how often did you go down for digs? When did you start digging?
COBEN: I did my first field season near Lake Titicaca in 1998 or ’99. I was working with a fella named Chip Stanish, who was the director of the Archaeology Institute at UCLA, and we did surveys in a bunch of very remote regions because we both love to explore and love to climb mountains. And when you’re forty, it’s a lot easier to walk up these 14,000-foot hills than it would be today. And so we did a lot of that.
And then I went to do my dissertation research back on the Bolivian side of the monumental, incredible Inca site, Inkallaqta it’s called, which means Inca place in Quechua.
CUNO: And that was at Penn.
COBEN: That was at Penn.
CUNO: And the with that degree, you did what?
COBEN: With that degree, I started the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, which is the foundation I run; but I continued to have an ongoing field project focused on Inca imperial expansion in the Cañete Valley in Peru. I also, while a graduate student, co-edited a volume called Archaeology of Performance, which was one of the first studies of ancient spectacle and theatricality and its role in state creation.
CUNO: I wanna get back to that in a second, but let’s back to the— your career, ’cause you’re still in the midst of an energy career, to the point of advising politicians and writing blogs and energy policy. How do you balance your many interests between that and archaeology and social work?
COBEN: I don’t sleep a lot. But I think, you know, I’ve only, in positions that I have in the energy world are all non-executive now. I like to joke I’m the only archaeologist who’s chairman of the board of a Fortune 500 company; I’m pretty sure it’s true. But I do things that don’t require me to go to an office, that I can do remotely, and that are primarily advisory rather than day-to-day operationally. I’d say most of my time now is probably dedicated to the social worker portion of the program, followed by the archaeology, followed by the energy.
CUNO: Is there anything in the energy, like renewable energy, that you could apply to the archaeology?
COBEN: Well, I think there’re a lot of principles of sustainability that carry over from one to the next. You know, how do you care for resources in a way that they’ll be usable in this generation, but also available to future generations? And whether that’s clean air, whether that’s climate, whether that’s cultural heritage, all of those things are really critical to sustainability.
So I think cultural heritage practice is also thinking more about these kinds of issues.
CUNO: What about your interest in anthropology and archaeology? You’ve written on archaeology of performance, including your PhD dissertation on The Archaeology of Performance: Theaters of Power, Community, and Politics. Tell us about your interest in those two, archaeology and performance.
COBEN: My other great love, beyond archaeology, has always been theater. And I’ll have to confess that the idea for this dissertation began at a theater benefit, when I was chairman of the board of a not-for-profit theater company. And I was hanging around drinking far too much alcohol with a series of actors and directors and things, and we starting talking about this. And the idea popped into my head that nobody really focused on this in the archaeological world.
Nobody thought about the role of theater in bringing people together or creating hierarchies or as a distraction or as a way of incorporating them and making them closer to your state. And that was one of the few ideas I’ve ever had a late night event, when I woke up the next morning I still thought it was a good idea.
CUNO: You remembered what you said.
COBEN: I remembered, and I still thought it was a good idea. And I called a couple of the people who I’d been talking to, and they still thought it was a good idea, and it just kept growing and growing in my mind, till I decided it had to be my dissertation. I think it was a bit of a surprise to my advisors, who thought I was gonna write about something having to do with economic anthropology.
CUNO: So you call it Archaeology of Performance. That was the title of your dissertation. What’s the difference between archaeology and anthropology, in these terms?
COBEN: I think the difference is anthropologists can actually observe live performance. Theoretically, I don’t think it’s different. Methodologically, it’s how do you take performance into account, given its more ephemeral nature, when you can’t observe it, you can’t film it, you can’t record it, you can’t interview people who were participants or in the audience? So for me, it’s how do you, from a material culture perspective, understand how performance is being utilized within a particular group? How frequent is it? What kinds of resources? Who is part of that process, et cetera?
CUNO: Did you take your PhD in the anthropology department?
COBEN: I did. I did, yes.
CUNO: Yeah. So I think our podcast listeners might be interested in and maybe a little confused by the distinction between anthropology and archaeology.
COBEN: Sure. In many American universities, portions of archaeology become a subfield of anthropology. Anthropology has four subfields, one of which is archaeology. And so a lot of people, particularly those who work in the Western Hemisphere, are trained in anthropology departments and have their PhDs in anthropology departments. There’s only two or three, I think, archaeology departments in the United States that issue PhDs at this time.
It’s really a vestige of university departmentalism. But I think anthropologists have a different perspective in how they do analysis, in terms of the kinds of issues upon which they’re focused—things like social organization, power.
CUNO: So you mentioned you got interested in the Americas while living in Bolivia. And you also mentioned that Spanish was likely to be the only language you could manage to pass for a PhD exam. But how did you get interested in the cultures of ancient Americas?
COBEN: I’m fascinated by empires and expansive states. And the notion that the Inca could build this incredible empire from Colombia in the north to Chile in the South to almost to Paraguay in the east was extraordinary to me. And it was done, according to the historical documents, in a hundred to 150 years. And I was like, “How can you grow an empire that quickly?” Especially when you’re lacking some of the technological indicia that we take for granted, like a written language, like a wheel, things of that nature? So I was, and remain, very interested in strategies of expansion and incorporation and conquest.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Now, as an archaeologist, you recognized early on that cultural heritage—these archaeological sites, historic monuments—are at the risk of damage, destruction, and over-development, and looting. And then you recognized that the world’s poor and the world’s cultural heritage exist in close proximity to one another. When did you begin to put the two together and form the Sustainable Preservation Initiative?
COBEN: Really, when doing my dissertation research. I was working at a community in Bolivia where people were exceptionally poor. The average weekly wage, I think, was five dollars a week, a dollar a day. And as a result, not surprisingly, people were growing crops on this monumental site. Their cattle were grazing on it.
We had the largest extant building in the Inca Empire, eighty meters by twenty-five meters, and so people were playing soccer in it because who wants you ball to roll away when you’re working at 10,000 feet of altitude? And I would do what archaeologists are told to do in these situations: I would tell them how important their site was. The last thing they needed was a guy from New York telling them how important their history was. And they would say, “Yes, yes, very important.” The next day, growing the crops, grazing the cattle, et cetera.
And I realized that—and I think this is true for most cultural heritage destruction—the causes, be it looting, be it agriculture, are economic, and we needed an economic solution. So I came up with this crazy after, after some town meetings there. We were a hundred miles from the nearest city, but a few tourists would show up every week. I said, “Let’s build a gate across the road.” I said, “We’ll let Bolivians pass for nothing, but if it’s a foreigner—’cause we know they’ve already chartered a car and a guide—we’ll charge then ten dollars to come in.”
And they looked at me like I was crazy. Who’s gonna spend two weeks wages to go look at this pile of rocks? So being the last of the big-time spenders, I said, “I will pay for the gate and a few weeks wages for a guard.” It cost me, Jim, a whopping fifty dollars. Now, the first week, four tourists came, the second week, three more, so that’s seventy. I said, that’s the best venture capital deal I’ve ever done. That’s a heck of a return, at 140%. But what happened was, it changed people’s attitude toward the site.
And this is considered a bad word in certain circles, but it made the site look like a sustainable economic asset to folks. So the first thing they did was take the money, build a new soccer field, and buy out the people who were grazing and growing crops there, started to protect the site. Then they actually wanted to listen to my lectures, because it had some relevance to their daily life. So it was really armed with that knowledge, I came out looking to find foundation that was following this paradigm; couldn’t found one. And when you can’t find one, you have to put up or shut up, so I started the Sustainable Preservation Initiative.
CUNO: Now, on your website, you say that the initiative is about people not stones. Tell us about that and whether that’s a useful dichotomy, people not stones.
COBEN: Well, when we started, most people working on cultural heritage preservation focused on fixing materials, fixing walls. Which is wonderful and incredibly important work, but my view was all the stone fixing in the world, for example, at my site in Bolivia, wouldn’t have preserved that site from the ongoing agriculture, soccer, grazing, et cetera.
And when I first went out, when I started talking about people, nobody wanted to hear about people; they were all about materials. So it was kind of a harsh way of driving home the point that we were a bit different and doing other things. Now that we’ve been at this for nine years, I think people are much more open-minded to the notion of the importance of community, the importance of local people, the importance of empowering women. And so we’ve actually moved our tagline now to “build futures, save pasts,” which I think is a more accurate representation of what we do, and certainly a less hostile one.
CUNO: Now, give us a sense of a couple of the projects you’ve been working on. For example, the San José de Moro and the World Heritage site at— Pachacamac?
COBEN: Pachacamac. Pachacamac is just outside of Lima. It’s perhaps the most important pan-Andean pilgrimage site at any time, and certainly during the Inca Empire. And yet because it’s so close to Lima, as the city of Lima expands, it’s now surrounded, effectively, by the city of Lima.
And they’ve been suffering from land invasions and things like that from time to time over the last several years. We worked with the local site director there, Denise Pozzi-Escot, to create a women’s cooperative, which would sell souvenirs to tourists coming to the site. You wouldn’t believe how many tourists show up at a site in the desert in the summer without a sunhat, for example. It’s their best seller.
And the idea was, we gave them a whole business education, because so many programs, what they do is they teach people to make pretty things, not to run a business. And then when the people running the program leave, the business collapses. So these twenty-four women, after going through a, you know, a year of classes and some mentoring—and mentoring together because we realized that you have to have mentoring and practice; you can’t just apply these principles from class willy-nilly to your business without some help—they now run their own independent business.
There’s twenty-four of them. Their sales go up 50% a year. This year, they’re gonna sell close to $50,000 worth of products, which is extraordinary when you consider the low wage level of Peru. And they’re all working part-time as a cooperative. Because unfortunately, social structures there and machismo there, it’s very hard for women to work full-time. And so they each cover shifts for each other, they each work a certain number of hours—I think it’s six to eight a week—either doing sales or making products.
One of the most amazing things is, one time I went down, they had just taken their class on making an organization chart. And every person got up and explained what they did on the org chart. Jim, it was better than any business school class I’ve ever been to. I was almost in tears. And perhaps equally importantly, we had a large donor with us, who took out his checkbook.
And you also see it in their self-esteem. When I would first get there, people would kind of mumble and not really look me in the eye; now they’re all jokingly shoving each other out of the way to be in the pictures and the videos. They make their own videos; they do their own advertising. And you know, they’re always trying to hustle something new when I’m there, which I think is fantastic.
And what it’s done is, it’s changed the nature of the relationship between the site and the surrounding communities. There haven’t been any invasions or looting incidents since we started the program. And obviously, I can’t take credit completely for that, but I think it’s a big cause. All sorts of other community events are occurring between the site management and the site museum and the people in the surrounding communities. We just ran a huge business training program for fifty more people in the community, for their businesses that aren’t quite as directly related to the site. So it’s an extraordinary example of how community development, poverty, alleviation, and women’s empowerment can work hand-in-hand with cultural heritage to improve both.
CUNO: And is your work in cultural heritage primarily now in terms of protection and preservation of cultural heritage? Or is it also still in active archaeological digs and excavations?
COBEN: I’m spending far more time on the foundation work. I still have an active and ongoing dig, but I have to give full credit to my team; they spend most of the time excavating, and I’m more of a drop-in leader than perhaps I would like to be.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Now, I read somewhere that the Sustainable Preservation Initiative has a Business School, capital B, capital S, and a capacity building program. Tell us about them, and tell us about the faculty and the students and the relations between their work and the restrictions that must be on them, placed on them by local governments.
COBEN: Yeah. It’s been fascinating. One of the things we started to do as we were training people, like in Pachacamac, as I was describing, was it wasn’t enough to teach them to make pretty things. We had to teach accounting. We had to teach, how can you register your business with the government? ’Cause otherwise, you can’t take a credit card. We had to teach things like procurement and how do you calculate if you’re making a living wage. Things that we might take for granted, but are not part of the education system in Peru, and particularly not for people who’ve probably had a sixth- or a seventh- or an eighth-grade education, on average.
And the we realized that to scale and keep doing projects like this, we had to codify our curriculum and actually write it down and move it from oral knowledge to an actual curriculum and create materials around it.
What happened then was sort of extraordinary, and it was another one of these lights going off that cultural heritage shouldn’t be in a silo, but instead should be an integral part of the sustainable development goals of the United Nations, or SDGs. Cultural heritage has something to say about poverty alleviation, about gender inequality, about resilient communities, about people eating. And we need to really make that clear. And we need our practice to make that clear. Otherwise, we’re going to remain on a side silo and not be central to the discussions about funding and social change going forward.
People like the UN read the curriculum and said, “We don’t have anything like this.” ’Cause most of the curriculum[sic] that are out there are dedicated to creating the next Silicon Valley entrepreneur, the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next Reid Hoffman, people like that.
When the people who really need it are the women running part-time businesses from their houses with their neighbors. And so we said, “Wow, maybe we should be thinking about offering this program not just to the one business around the archaeological site, but a whole community around it.” And that’s we started to do.
So after we had the success with the SISAN women, we then went to the whole community, who had heard about the program and its success, and we had 120 applicants for sixty spots. We actually had an admissions process. It was almost as rigorous as the one for becoming a Getty Scholar here. And you know, of those sixty who started, five dropped out the first week because of jobs or family issues, but of the fifty-five who started, forty-nine made it to graduation. That’s pretty extraordinary. It’s been fantastic.
And so now, the whole community think— associates the site and this training together, and has had exposure to their cultural heritage, as we conducted the business school at the site museum at Pachacamac.
CUNO: I’m assuming that you do all this work with the permission of, and maybe participation of, the local governments. What’s it like to work with the local governments?
COBEN: It varies. Sometimes we do it in partnership with them, sometimes with their permission, and sometimes, you know, we sometimes end up asking for forgiveness, rather than…
COBEN: …getting permission first. Yeah. The first couple are always, we don’t wanna wait for them. And then once they see it, it moves forward.
Governments have been extraordinarily supportive. We have a agreement with the Museum of Culture in Peru to expand this throughout the Inca road system, which is a World Heritage site now. We’re about to—and I hope I’m not jinxing this—enter into a partnership with the City of Lima to do more of these capacity building programs, both at the archaeological sites that are within the city, but also at some other non-archaeological sites, as well.
The real key is getting government to realize, number one, that this works; and number two, that you can’t do this in two weekends. You know, we do forty hours of coursework and everyone goes, “Well, why don’t you do it ten hours a day over two weekends?” And I say, “I can’t learn anything that fast. And there’s a reason MBAs take two years.” But people wanna do it because you could run more students through with the same number of dollars. But you’ll have minimal impact.
So the local governments, in general, are supportive. If they’re not, there’s unlimited demand for what we’re doing. So if a community doesn’t want us, we say, “Thank you very much. No worries.” You know, “Here’s our card. Call us in a year, if you change your mind.”
CUNO: And I was thinking that as successful as you’ve been in this project and in this arena, that you might attract the participation of government. And that might good and that might be bad.
COBEN: Yeah. And I think if we really wanna scale, it’s the only way to do it, ’cause only government has the kind of reach to really scale one of these. Because you know, we’re constantly out raising money and trying to find human capital, but government is already there. And they have methods of distribution now. That also means a lower level of control, obviously, in terms of what is taught, how the curriculum is implemented.
But I think within a year, we’re gonna put this curriculum online and conduct courses for other NGOs on how to implement this curriculum and let them go at it, because that’s the other way to scale. I’d much rather reach more people than build a big organization. So that’s really what we’re pointed to. I’m very excited about the City of Lima partnership, ’cause that’s a city of 12 million people. And this’ll be a pilot of a few programs; but if they get excited, that could be a massive scaling opportunity.
CUNO: Yeah. So we’ve been talking about social and economic development. Is there a danger in over-development? And is there an inclination to over-development? Or is it so dependent on the kind of tourist trade that they realize that putting that at risk will be a problem?
COBEN: One of the reasons we have moved toward the business school program is those involve non-touristic businesses, as well. So you’re getting a balance between tourism-related businesses and simply businesses that are serving other people in the communities around the sites.
We haven’t seen over-development. We’re talking small start-up businesses that characterize these types of programs. I mean, you know, there’s a few sites in Peru, like Machu Picchu, they need different kinds of programs for what they’re doing to control their growth, rather than actually to create economic growth in the community arounds that’s adequate for people to alleviate their poverty.
Because poor people can’t afford to preserve their culture. They want to. They love it every bit as much as you and I. But if it comes down to preserving your culture or taking that stone to fill the hole in house or growing a crop that you can’t otherwise, or even looting a pot to eat, you know what people are going to choose.
CUNO: So we’ve been talking a lot about development, economic developments in archaeological sites and the sensitive areas of archaeological sites. I know that one of the greatest technologies that has been developed to help with archaeological sites and the discovery of them is LIDAR and other remote technologies such as that.
Is there a danger, though, that finding those things will then attract developments in those areas, tourist developments, putting them at risk before they’ve actually been excavated?
COBEN: I think there is a risk. I think a lot of looting takes place by people who work on archaeological crews. You teach people where they’re going to find the coolest stuff. And then you leave, and those folks are there without a job, and they go and they dig in the similar places and find— Guatemala, where they’ve just found all these sites, is gonna be an incredible test case of what you’re talking about, because they’ve found so many pyramids, so many road systems that [the] Ministry of Culture’s not gonna be able to protect them all.
So it would not surprise me to see higher incidences of looting in those areas, even though people haven’t published specific site locations. But if archaeologists have access to LIDAR, presumably the looters would have access to LIDAR, too. It’s, LIDAR is now portable enough you could put it on, you know, a drone.
CUNO: Yeah. Or governments will use it to put roads through archaeological sites or other kinds of development.
COBEN: Yeah. I mean, it will really take the battle to the federal level, in terms of, you know, how much of this are you going to protect and how much of this are you going to destroy? ’Cause right now, under forest cover, in general, it’s pretty well-protected because it’s inaccessible to everyone.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, you’re here at the Getty Research Institute during a scholar year, exploring art and ecology. That’s the topic of the year. What are you working on, and how does it relate to your scholar year theme?
COBEN: Well, I’m working on some of the things we’ve been talking about. I’m really talking, writing about how sustainability and environment relate to archaeological practice; how we need to incorporate local communities and their landscapes into that practice. So I’ve been focused really on trying to bring culture, art, archaeology, more into the center of policy discussion. There’s far more people who seem to be focused on the environment or ecology—sadly or for better or for worse—than on art and culture.
And I’m trying to kind of break down that divide a little bit here and talk about how all of these things actually can be marching hand-in-hand, not just to preserve the past, not just to preserve our environment, not just to solve the climate change problem, but for people to have better lives, better educations. And so how do you move cultural heritage from the silo in which it frequently exists to the center?
CUNO: Mm-hm, mm-hm. So what’s next for the Sustainable Preservation Initiative?
COBEN: A massive expansion in Peru; we’re going to continued expansion in Tanzania; and we’re looking very hard at third and fourth countries right now. We will probably remain focused on this capacity building program. And as I said, I hope within a year, we will have a way that others can adopt this with some help from us, because just putting a curriculum up doesn’t work. But you know, our new mission statement, as much as anything else, is to bring this basic training to as many women and marginalized people in the world as we can; and by doing that, allowing them to build futures and saves pasts.
CUNO: Yeah. You mentioned Tanzania. What took you to Tanzania and what are the prospects of success there?
COBEN: We already have too successful projects there. It began with, I gave a talk at Rice University, and there was a professor there who said, “I think Tanzania would be perfect for this.” And unlike a lot of people who say that, he actually followed up. And we went and we met with two professors from the University of Dar es Salaam, who understood that social entrepreneurship was actually critical to archaeological heritage management and site preservation, and had written on that.
I mean, part of the issue for us is finding people in our field who are interested enough in these things to take away from it, because there’s no promotion for doing one of these projects in your field. You don’t get tenure for it, there’s no reward. And you can’t really do it well as your number seven priority. So we keep having to find extraordinary people in the field who will give us that jump start, so that it’s worth it for us to make the investment in a community, and then find our own team on the ground.
And so we’re working there with Elgidius Ichumbaki and Noel Lwoga, who are two fantastic archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists at the University of Dar es Salaam. And we’re gonna continue to do projects there. And we’re also going to— As I said, we have two, both in port-related sites. And we’re gonna begin with our first business school capacity building program there, which should start in June.
CUNO: Wow. You mentioned a third and fourth country.
COBEN: Well, we don’t have anything underway yet, but we’re looking very closely at Argentina at the moment, because we’ve received from some very strong partners, a desire to export our program from Peru to Buenos Aires, in particular, but the country more broadly.
And that’s a manageable kind of scale for us, because we already have materials written in Spanish and Spanish-speaking faculty—though obviously, we’d have to find new folks. But that’s an easier type of expansion for us than an entirely new region. So if I were gonna bet what country three was going to be, that’s what it would be.
CUNO: Yeah. Do you worry about getting too large?
COBEN: Every day. Every day. But I also worry about not getting this out there. So I think we have to take reasonable risk. It’s always a balancing act with growing. I mean, we can either do two or three projects a year, and I’d have no trouble with it, or we can try to expand greatly. And I think that’s one advantage that I have as a former entrepreneur; I’m pretty good at balancing the risk/reward of rapid expansion. Just taken on a new partner, a powerhouse woman who used to be the chief risk officer at UBS, the Swiss bank. So we like to joke, we know we can run a Fortune 500 company; the jury’s still out on a foundation.
CUNO: So tell us about the scale of the operation. How many people are employed, for example?
COBEN: We directly employ roughly a dozen people, throughout the entire organization. We are a lean, mean fighting machine. Now, we have a lot of part-time people who come and teach particular classes or do particular things as consultants. But most of the people we have, we employ not in the United States of America. There’s only two of us here.
We have a team in Peru and a team in Tanzania and run this, ’cause it needs to be done locally, in a decentralized manner. Both from a budget perspective, but also from a cultural understanding perspective and a logistics perspective. People in a small town in Tanzania or a small town in Peru don’t wanna hear from me on a regular basis. They’re happy if I come once in a while, but I’m not the person who needs to develop the day-to-day relationship.
In fact, one of the things we do is use students from old courses to go and talk to people in new ones, so they understand the benefits and it can really be culturally embedded for them.
CUNO: And my students you mean local people? So people that might come from Bolivia or from Peru would find their way in Tanzania?
COBEN: Well, we haven’t taken anyone from Peru to Tanzania, but we’ll take people from our early Peruvian projects to the later Peruvian projects or the business school, because nobody knows the benefits and can speak to the benefits of the program better than they can. So we’ll bring those people and then we’ll just leave the room and let them all talk amongst themselves.
CUNO: Now, this would likely be something that could be replicated elsewhere in the world by other people. Do you find that happening?
COBEN: Not yet. And that’s why we’re really going to work on dissemination and helping other NGOs implement it. People love the idea. But if you think about it, how many people in heritage studies do you know who are actually trained in entrepreneurship or economics? I remember when I was here for the roundtable, you said, “this would be a great thing here at the Getty, but I don’t know who would do it.” Or words to that effect.
And I think it’s true with every institution. I think people now see the benefit. I talk to curators, and they really would like to do something with the community. But if you haven’t been trained or have some background or have a great partner in this, it’s hard work. It’s extremely hard work.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, you’ve made a huge success of it, and it’s a great idea. So we wish you all the best, and we thank you very much for joining me on the podcast today.
COBEN: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
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Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LARRY COBEN: Cultural heritage has something to say about poverty alleviation, about gender inequa...