Advancing Equity in Arts and Cultural Grantmaking

Perspectives from Five Funders

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 23, No 1 (Winter 2012)

F. Javier Torres, John McGuirk, Edwin Torres, Carlton Turner, Consuella Brown

There is no doubt that the face of art and culture in the United States is changing. For grantmakers in art and culture, the question then becomes, as posed by Holly Sidford in Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, “whether cultural philanthropy will change with it.” The National Center for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) commissioned Sidford’s report as part of their mission to conduct research and advocate for policies that encourage all foundations to address inequality affirmatively and expand opportunities for disadvantaged people. As Sidford says, “This report is a call for funders to reflect on their policies and practices in light of demographic, aesthetic and economic trends. It is also an invitation to engage in a fresh field-wide conversation about the purpose and relevance of philanthropy in the arts today.”

In this collective essay, the five of us accepted this opportunity as a charge. Because we are a group of grantmakers with varying experience in the field, working for various types and sizes of foundations across the country, from urban to rural communities, we knew we would have different perspectives and welcomed the opportunity to exchange diverse points of view. What we present here is a chance to revisit questions and challenges that our sector has faced for generations. As difficult as these questions are for some members of our community to hear again, this NCRP report demonstrates that it is our responsibility as a sector to remind ourselves that real change takes time.

In her report, Sidford provides us with what she calls “a funding typology and pathways to change” for arts and culture grantmakers to consider. The typology includes five pathways: sustaining the canons, nurturing the new, arts education, art-based community development, and art-based economic development. These tools can be used as we evaluate the type of funding we provide to our communities, the impact of our grants, and whether the ultimate beneficiaries of our philanthropy include those communities we say we serve in our mission statements.

In discussing and writing our reflections for this article, we found ourselves asking more questions, reframing the typology, and digging deep into examples of programs and philanthropic organizations that are leading the way toward a more equitable cultural philanthropic community. We began to see that advancing equity in cultural philanthropy means being responsive to community change, being self-reflective and eager to learn as grantmakers, practicing transparency, and acting as community partners interested in making a difference, not just in giving away money.

In this collective essay, we offer our reflections, questions, critiques, and lessons learned in the spirit of encouraging a fresh and respectful fieldwide discussion of advancing equity in cultural grantmaking. Some of us offer new ways to reframe the typology and pathways presented in Sidford’s report, as we seek to broaden and deepen the discussion. Others are sharing what they have learned through examples of successful grantmaking that advances fairness, racial equity, and social justice. All of us hope the points presented here will lead to new reflections and questions to advance positive change and ensure that cultural philanthropy remains current and effective.

Rethinking the Typology and Pathways to Change

John McGuirk, program director, performing arts program, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

When NCRP released Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change by Holly Sidford at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference in San Francisco in October 2011, the report immediately sparked discussion among arts funders across the United States. In November and December, GIA developed its Online Forum on Equity in Arts Funding to present reflections and comments on the report and provide a public space for debate and exchanging views. For decades, funders have had conversations about equity, but a new energy and commitment to this topic are revealing successful practices and new ideas to minimize disparities in accessible and relevant arts opportunities for all Americans.

A healthy arts and culture ecosystem includes large-budget and small-budget organizations, those working in urban and rural settings, those representing diverse cultural traditions and emerging artistic expressions. In an effort to synthesize the discussions and blogs over the past three months, we have reframed some of the funding typology and added new questions to the pathways to change to be as inclusive and accessible as possible.

Pathway 1: Sustaining Diverse Traditions

Philanthropic focus: Preserving, presenting, interpreting, and building audiences for important works from multiple traditions, and the institutions and buildings that house such work.

Questions that lead to increased equity:

  • What are the demographics of our communities and how are they changing, including race/ethnicity, age, income, and education levels? Who participates in the arts?
  • How are the cultural needs of our community evolving as a result of these trends? Are our grantmaking practices inclusive, responsive, and relevant?
  • Are we supporting organizations representing multiple traditions, such as Native American, African American, Asian American, Latin American, and European?
  • Are we supporting organizations representing diverse identity-based cultural communities — GLBT, seniors, religion/ideology, and others?
  • Are we encouraging organizations to make their work accessible to diverse audiences, particularly through free or low-cost activities to reach disadvantaged communities?
  • Are we actively recruiting applications from artists and organizations working in diverse traditions, and are culturally competent people reviewing our proposals?

Pathway 2: Nurturing New Cultural Expressions

Philanthropic focus: Creating, presenting, interpreting, and building audiences for new works by living artists, and the institutions and buildings that house such work.

Questions that lead to increased equity:

  • Do our programs recognize and support the diversity of art forms being created in our communities? Are we contributing to a sustainable ecosystem of arts and culture?
  • How do we support emerging artists and new arts organizations? Given the chronic funding challenges faced by many midsize and small arts groups, how do we orient our grantmaking practice to promote their long-term financial sustainability through multiyear, general operating support?
  • Are we actively recruiting applications from artists and organizations working in diverse art forms, disciplines, and aesthetics, and are culturally competent people reviewing our proposals?
  • Are we encouraging artists and organizations to make their work accessible to diverse audiences, particularly through free or low-cost activities to reach disadvantaged communities?
  • Are there nontraditional venues and spaces that provide arts and cultural experiences, such as the “cultural kitchens” referenced by Maria Rosario Jackson in her blog post in the GIA Online Equity in Arts Funding Forum?
  • Do we recognize art as a tool for social change, including youth development, creative workforce, placemaking, health care, and other cross-sector partnerships? Do we encourage collaborations and partnerships with diverse community-based organizations in other sectors?

Pathway 3: Arts Education

Philanthropic focus: Ensuring equitable access to multidiscipline arts education for students and lifelong learning opportunities for adults.

Questions that lead to increased equity:

  • Do teaching artists, arts specialists, and classroom teachers represent diverse cultural traditions?
  • Do participants expand understanding of multiple art forms, disciplines, and cultural expressions through sequential, curriculum based, and hands-on experiences?
  • Does funding provide arts education opportunities to the children and adults who have least access to it?
  • Are we working at the policy level to maintain arts as a discrete subject and to integrate the arts in basic school curricula?

Economic Development vs. Cultural Equity

Edwin Torres, associate director, The Rockefeller Foundation

The argument that culture deserves philanthropic subsidies because of their economic development impact has a challenge at its core.

On the surface, the argument itself is demonstrably true through sheer numbers alone. A 2006 report from Alliance for the Arts estimates the economic impact of nonprofit culture on New York City as $5.8 billion for the previous year. In contrast, commercial theater contributed $2 billion. Nonprofit culture generated 40,460 jobs and $2.2 billion in wages as opposed to commercial theater’s 13,500 jobs and $730 million in wages. Nonprofit culture also generated $170 million in city taxes versus commercial theater’s $66 million.

These numbers don’t paint a complete picture. If the intention of philanthropy is to support arts and culture for the benefit of low-income communities, then the reality is far less impressive. We often argue that culture deserves subsidies because it will attract tourists and new, middle- to high-income residents to lower-income neighborhoods. The truth is that the attraction of these populations seldom serves low-income populations well. Tourist dollars often don’t reach low-income areas, and the attraction of new, middle- to high-income residents generally displaces the economically vulnerable, transforming their neighborhoods from ones that were subject to disinvestment and neglect to ones in which they can no longer afford to live.

The “SoHo effect” of artists and arts organizations entering an area and then subsequently attracting a higher socioeconomic class of resident and business has long been well documented from individual artists and commercial galleries in Williamsburg to P.S. 1 in Long Island City to the New Museum on the Bowery. The challenge for philanthropists is how we navigate the dynamic tension between outsider interests (tourists, domestic visitors, new businesses, and new residents) and displacement of the economically vulnerable.

Holly Sidford’s report Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change speaks to the ongoing inequities in cultural philanthropy. The report cites the Rockefeller Foundation’s innovation, beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, in broadening philanthropic support to culture beyond its elitist origins. As a grantmaker, as a culture worker, and as a person of color from a low-income neighborhood, I was eager to embrace this legacy and move it forward by addressing this quintessential challenge. The Rockefeller Foundation’s current culture program, the NYC Cultural Innovation Fund, supports innovations in the form and presentation of art; innovations in economic resilience for culture organizations and culture workers; and innovations in cultural equity.

In 2010, my first year as associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation, we awarded a Cultural Innovation Fund grant to MoCADA for Soul of Brooklyn. MoCADA’s mission is to provide a more accurate portrayal of the historical, artistic, and cultural contributions of people of African descent. Since its inception in December 1999, MoCADA has been committed to using the arts as a medium to discuss and debate economic, political, and social issues disproportionately affecting people of the African diaspora through innovative exhibitions, public programs, and educational interactive tours.

The story of Brooklyn that is so often told at this moment is one of cultural renaissance marked by the discovery of the borough by a white creative class. But what about the cultural offerings of Brooklyn’s long-standing residents? The borough of Brooklyn has the largest population of people of African descent in New York City. Currently, tourism and marketing campaigns promoting Brooklyn as a destination for visiting, living, or shopping have neglected to highlight community-based African diaspora businesses and cultural experiences. This has had a polarizing impact on businesses and community-based cultural institutions in the borough.

Soul of Brooklyn is a collaboration between thirty-plus organizations to brand Brooklyn as a unique African diaspora cultural experience. MoCADA serves as the lead for the consortium of cultural organizations, which includes the Noel Pointer Foundation, the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, the West Indian Day Parade, 651 Arts, Creative Outlet, and the International African Arts Festival, among many others. Soul includes a campaign of public programming, communications, and technical assistance. The project is run in partnership with Brooklyn Arts Council, which assists the consortium in organizing and convening through regular meetings, offering technical assistance, and administering a competitive regrant program to support Soul of Brooklyn programming.

Soul of Brooklyn Week is held each June throughout Brooklyn. It serves as an opportunity for arts organizations to highlight an existing cultural event or to create a new event for that specific week. Phase 1 promoted five communities including Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Member organizations have expressed increasing interest in exploring the tensions between disinvestment and displacement shared by African diaspora cultural groups and the local businesses that serve long-standing residents. Soul of Brooklyn’s monthly programs and its Soul of Brooklyn Week boroughwide festival began to include more arts and business partnerships. The 2012 regrant program was structured around a call for proposals that specifically aimed to create mutually beneficial and sustainable African diaspora arts and business partnerships that create lessons learned for replication.

Recently, MoCADA’s executive director, Laurie Cumbo, served as a participant in the planning of Brooklyn’s new Dekalb Market shopping center. In her role as advisor, Ms. Cumbo recommended the inclusion of three Soul of Brooklyn–participating local businesses that were displaced as a result of gentrification. They all now have stores within the Dekalb Market, and one is talking about a second location in midtown Manhattan. The market is now discussing a performing arts venue with the Soul of Brooklyn Consortium, as are various business improvement districts and developers.

These indicators of success are in the early stages as this is only the first year of this effort. But they are a promising example of how philanthropy can use its grant dollars to support culture while creating targeted economic development for those who need it most. The Rockefeller Foundation supports similar efforts including El Puente’s Greenlight District (an effort to map informal cultural activity in Southside Williamsburg) and Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education’s partnership with Dancing in the Streets to develop a performance series illuminating the South Bronx’s cultural legacy. Each grant is important in its own right to each community it affects, but together they represent a collective series of examples of how essential it is to support growth while simultaneously maintaining and building cultural equity.

New Ways to Advance Cultural Equity and Community Change

Carlton Turner, executive director, Alternate ROOTS

Alternate ROOTS is an artist-centered and -led network organization and grantmaker founded by theater artists in 1976 at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee. The Highlander Center was established in 1932 to “educate rural and industrial leaders for a new social order.” Highlander brought in its first black speaker to a workshop in 1934, and in 1942 it took the important step of committing to fully integrated workshops in the racially segregated South. This history of Highlander is important because it speaks to the types of artists who gathered in 1976 for what would be the first Alternate ROOTS meeting.

Over the next thirty-five years, the artists who organized their collective voice through Alternate ROOTS helped define the national field of community-based arts in the United States. They were dedicated to harnessing the stories of southern communities often overlooked in the national landscape. They shaped the ROOTS mission to support the creation and presentation of original art, in all its forms, which is grounded in a particular community of place, tradition, or spirit.

Alternate ROOTS membership is open to any artist in the United States and abroad. Yet since its inception, ROOTS has maintained an emphasis on providing resources for artists working in a fourteen-state southern region stretching from Maryland to Texas. ROOTS is one of the strongest advocates for artists in this region, representing their work in spaces often dominated by art created on the East and West Coasts. In this way, ROOTS has become an important source of validation for artists working in rural and geographically isolated communities in the American South.

In the early 1990s, Alternate ROOTS developed the Community/Artist Partnership Program (C/APP) to provide small grants to foster partnership building among artists, arts organizations, and community partners. The partners can be as diverse as a community center, a hospital, a school, or a collective of other artists. Partnering is an essential tenet in this program, requiring deep understanding of what partnership is and how it works. Partnership can be difficult to understand and even harder to achieve. Partnering requires transparency, being able to recognize and own the power dynamics, and defining clear and effective methods of communication. Where artists are working in community, partnering is essential to the process of community development.

The C/APP application is a joint process that requires two (or more) parties to identify the central issue(s) that will be the focal point of their creative interrogation and create a list of core, shared objectives that will be addressed as part of the proposed project. Alternate ROOTS has funded more than one hundred such projects. In this process, ROOTS has learned many lessons about the relationship between art, culture, and community development. Here are a few examples that point to the importance of arts and culture in advancing equity at the community level.

Collective Sun: Reshape the Mo(u)rning, Durham, North Carolina

In Durham a group of artists and organizers called SpiritHouse came together to talk about the impact of violence, policing, and the prison industry on communities of color across the South most affected by racism, poverty, and gender discrimination. SpiritHouse began creating poetry, media, and performance art to take to the homes, workplaces, and schools of the communities dealing with these forms of economic disparities, racial inequities, and systemic injustice.

In 2011 SpiritHouse received a C/APP grant to create a community intervention called “Collective Sun: Reshape the Mo(u)rning.” According to SpiritHouse director, Nia Wilson, “Alternate ROOTS funding has allowed us to acquire space, to pay artists to do this work, and to travel to communities that have been out of our reach. ROOTS has been our main source of funding [in this phase]. Because of the ROOTS name, we have been able to secure additional funding from sources that have not been aware of us before.”

The Homecoming Project, New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans–based Junebug Productions recently received a C/APP grant to support “The Homecoming Project.” The work illuminates the important history of gatherings in New Orleans, and how coming together strengthens the collective work of a community that continues to suffer since the great storms of 2005. To develop widespread community participation, Junebug partnered with seven organizations including the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, the New Orleans African American Museum, and Amnesty International. Homecoming artists worked with the community through story gathering and storytelling, using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to help develop an understanding that the issues this community is facing are not disconnected from issues faced around the globe. Events took place over several months and included community story circles, dinners, individual conversations with elders, and multiple formal and informal performances. It culminated in a second line parade featuring the Hot 8 Brass Band and organized in collaboration with the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club.

ROOTS Fest 2011, Baltimore, Maryland

Alternate ROOTS celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary with ROOTS Fest 2011, a huge effort in community development that was cleverly disguised as a performing and visual arts festival. It included a three-day National Learning Exchange and a two-day outdoor street festival, featuring five stages with live performances, community forums, arts vendors, food vendors, and a pavilion dedicated to health and well-being. More than eleven thousand people turned out to participate in the interactive events, cheer for their favorite performers, watch and discuss plays, buy art, munch on giant turkey drumsticks, and celebrate community.

Ashley Milburn, a local found-object artist and graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art Community Arts Program, together with local organizer Denise Johnson, founded CultureWorks, the lead partner in ROOTS Fest. Together, Alternate ROOTS and CultureWorks created spaces for participation for individuals, organizations, and institutions, such as Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and Bon Secours, a Maryland Foundation. All these partners have a stake in west Baltimore, the primarily African American and economically marginalized community where the festival took place. Planning the festival began the process of working together to communicate regarding shared issues and concerns. ROOTS Fest 2011 was the linchpin, the catalyst, but the larger goal was to create opportunities to forge partnerships that can change the direction of long-term development within this community.

As these examples show, small grants can make a big difference. These partnerships exemplify the important work that has been taken on by artists who are using their creativity to transform their communities. A community-based artist is not a synonym for amateur artist. It is a label that describes artists who have made an intentional decision to apply their creative work to physical, emotional, intellectual, and material change. This kind of community-based work is not project based. There are no start and end dates to transforming our communities. It is a continuum.

Through C/APP and other programs, Alternate ROOTS supports artists working in ways that are not yet recognized by many local or national arts agencies. The importance of this work is often mistakenly categorized as limited to being localized. Yet the nontraditional ways in which artists working in, by, and for community are engaging old and creating new traditions are informing the reshaping of our national understanding of our work both as grantmakers and engaged citizens.

Nurturing New Avenues to Arts, Culture, and Community Change in Chicago

Consuella Brown, acting president, The Woods Fund of Chicago

The Woods Fund of Chicago uses its grants and leadership to increase opportunities for less advantaged people in communities throughout metropolitan Chicago. The foundation works primarily as a funding partner with nonprofit organizations, especially those that pay disciplined attention to race and ethnicity as they analyze problems, look for solutions, and define and document success. The Woods Fund of Chicago integrates arts and culture grantmaking into the program areas of community organizing, public policy, and the intersection of community organizing and public policy to advance equity.

Nurturing new avenues of change in this context of arts and culture grantmaking means that individuals and groups can draw upon community organizing and popular education principles as well as creativity and imagination. Seen through this lens, what becomes abundantly clear is a blending of techniques and skill sets that complements the work of the artist and of the organizer. These blendings can ultimately create systems change that is equitable and just for the most marginalized in our society. The following examples show how arts and culture advances community change in Chicago and point to larger concepts and emerging best practices in advancing equity. These examples show four key ingredients in nurturing artistic endeavors to create systems change.

  • Albany Park Theater Project is an ensemble of youth artists who collectively write, choreograph, compose, and stage original performance works based on people’s real-life stories. The organization challenges young people to be both artists and ethnographers and to explore current issues that affect them and the members of their community. Their stories are molded into a play, which the young people perform. It is the unfolding of the story that seems to agitate the young people to become activists. As they shape their performance pieces, they are living the story over and over again and want to do more than just act it out. They want to change the narrative they are living. In this way, Albany Park Theater Project embodies the spirit of a key best practice in an integrated approach to art, culture, and community change: The creation of art is participatory and deeply steeped in the voice and lived experience of the people being engaged.
  • Storycatchers Theatre is a youth development arts organization that prepares young people to make thoughtful life choices through the process of writing, producing, and performing original musical theater inspired by personal stories. As part of their mission, Storycatchers Theatre works with incarcerated youth. Their work demonstrates that seeing young women engaged in the creative process ultimately changes the way detention center staff treats these youth. The staff now sees them as having potential to grow and are more willing to engage with them and listen to their perspectives.

Additionally, because of its relationship with the detention center staff, Storycatchers facilitated a letter-writing effort among the youth, which led to these young women meeting directly with the warden to discuss their issues and concerns. In their work, Storyteller Theatre demonstrates another important best practice in integrating art, culture, and community change: The artist and arts organization build relationships within the institutions in which they work and then leverage these relationships to address administrative or public policy.

It is not only important to offer arts programming in a school to address bullying, for instance. It is just as necessary to use the relationship with the principal of that school to begin to explore ways in which she or he can decrease the number of security guards or implement a peace circle instead of calling the police when a fight occurs on campus.

Silk Road Rising creates live theater and online videos that tell stories primarily through Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses. Representing communi-ties that intersect and overlap advances a polycultural worldview. Their new video play, Mosque Alert, focuses on two suburban American families, one Christian, the other Muslim, who find their lives torn apart by a proposal to build a new mosque in their community. This play addresses the reality that a suburban town in the Chicago metropolitan area refuses to issue a permit that will allow the local Muslim community to build the larger mosque it needs. The characters and play are all being rolled out online, and, once it is completed, Silk Road Rising will invite residents and elected officials of this city to attend a live performance of the play. After the play, the mayor will be asked to sign a commitment letter welcoming the mosque in the community. The letter will then be used as leverage to gain the building permit for the mosque. In creating and presenting Mosque Alert, Silk Road Risings has developed a ten-step artistic and civic engagement process that consists of online, offline, and live components, and demonstrates a third best practice in integrating art, culture, and community change: The work is public, visible, and accessible to a diverse group of people and stakeholders.

Changing Worlds, an educational arts nonprofit organization, fosters inclusive communities through oral history, writing, and art programs. Changing Worlds helped with the negotiation of placing a bust of the Buddha in a predominately African American and Latino community, with a significant Catholic population. By using their skills to improve learning, affirm identity, and enhance cross-cultural understanding through history writing and art, Changing Worlds began a conversation about what a peaceful community should look like. This demonstrates a final and perhaps most challenging best practice: Art and culture for community change can make participants so uncomfortable that they are compelled to act in a constructive and civically engaged manner.

Melding new avenues of community organizing and the arts can sometimes bring creative changemakers into conflict or confrontation with established arts institutions. A case in point: in October 2011, a Take Back Chicago march featured a flotilla of kayaks powered by men and women draped in Robin Hood costumes. They glided down the Chicago River singing protest songs as they passed a handcrafted banner that read, “We are the 99 percent.” Several hundred more participants joined from numerous arterial streets off Michigan Avenue, and an impressive live street theater unfolded. This all took place in the cultural district, and the street being occupied led to the new wing of the Chicago Art Institute.

Yet this nurturing and melding can become a win-win, benefiting a wide range of citizens, including both artists and organizers. Some elected officials were once artists themselves, for example, so it is important to cultivate and support them. Moreover, these new emerging practices hold great promise for fostering more civically engaged individuals and communities through the arts. There are also more opportunities for community organizers to learn from the arts community. Artists and arts organizations have experience in sustaining audience engagement and building a dedicated subscriber base. This experience can strengthen the work of community organizers. Artists and arts organizations have skills in stage direction and management, artistic design, and the development of new protest songs that are moving and participatory. These creative skills can enrich and deepen community organizing. These are turbulent times that require radical and innovative solutions. While integrating arts, culture, and community change poses challenges, it also provides enormous promise in advancing an equity agenda.

Final Thoughts

This reflective process has been incredibly rewarding for us. It has allowed us to continue to seek honesty, transparency, and accountability in our work. We are dedicated to continuing to ask, learn, and respond in our efforts toward advancing equitable cultural philanthropy.

An additional challenge for us to explore is how we define equity. Some might consider equity to be the representative distribution of funds according to demographic data. Others may believe equity is an equal distribution of resources across all parties. However, those two examples assume that all communities are starting from the same place, that we all have the same capacities and the same wants and needs. As a community of philanthropists striving for true equity, we should not forget the centuries of imbalance that have led us to this inequitable time in our history.

We must also recognize that by trying to serve everyone we may end up serving no one well. Perhaps we might consider how to think collectively and act independently in our search for equity. As some of us focus on deep investments in one marginalized community, other foundations may be concentrating on other communities. There are great examples across the country of regional collectives of arts grantmakers who meet formally and informally. They create comprehensive lists of their grants and are transparent about whom they collectively serve and whom, as a sector, they are marginalizing. While these discussions may or may not lead to changes in funding priorities or commitments, they do allow grantmakers to be accountable and honest about whom we are choosing to leave out.

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