The Arts and Philanthrophy

Motives that prompt the philanthropic act

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 14, No 3 (Fall 2003)

W. McNeil Lowry
What follows are excerpts from a lecture that W. McNeil Lowry gave at Brandeis University on December 10, 1962 when he was director of the Ford Foundation's Program in the Humanities and the Arts. GIA member Ben Cameron called the speech to our attention, noting that it continues to have relevance today. The date, 1962, is important to keep in mind when reading Lowry's talk: the National Council on Community Foundations was renamed the Council on Foundations in 1964; the National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965.

My subject is the arts and philanthropy, by which I hope we mean not only large organized trusts dedicated to the advancement of human welfare, such as the Ford Foundation, but also all acts of patronage beneficently performed by individuals, corporations, or associations at either the local, state, or national level. As you will observe, I have attempted to organize my discussion of philanthropy around the motives which prompt it into the arts rather than according to its sources. But before coming to this analysis, I think it is important to sketch in general terms the present situation of the creative and performing arts in the United States.

Analysis of the current American artistic scene [1962] reveals many paradoxical elements. On the scale of history and in comparison with some of the older countries, the arts in the United States are underdeveloped. With conspicuous exceptions, most professional artists lead precarious lives both psychologically and economically. The majority are concentrated geographically in two sections of the country. Their scarcity in the Southeastern, Plains, and Mountain States leaves these areas generally underdeveloped except within academic halls and in a few museum collections from the past. Compared to other elements in the nation's life, the arts are also neglected financially. Institutions in the performing arts, from the largest to the smallest, regularly meet financial crises threatening their survival. The same influences of rising costs affect fine arts institutions differently; all but the most heavily endowed curtail their activities and their staffs while managing to keep their doors open. Tax support is slow to develop, and on the federal level, despite much agitation, appears unlikely to materialize in this decade.

Yet there are many conflicting elements in the picture. From the period when the arts reflected largely a social interest there remain a significant number of institutions operating with large budgets – the largest of all spending up to seven millions in a year. These institutions are among the most aggressive in pushing for federal, state, foundation, corporate, and private support. But the arts are no longer merely “social.” The arts as an ethic or an aesthetic have taken on a new doctrinal urgency in many diverse segments of the society, and the argument is advanced by the most as well as the least affluent of artistic groups.

Arguments for the arts

Among many other claims, the arts are said to be:

  • Important to the image of the American society abroad;
  • A means of communication and consequently of understanding between this country and others;
  • An expression of national purpose;
  • An important influence in the liberal education of the individual;
  • An important key to an American's understanding of himself, his times, and his destiny;
  • A purposeful occupation for youth;
  • In their institutional form, vital to the social, moral, and educational resources of an American community;
  • Therefore good for business, especially in the new centers of population in the Southwest, West, and other regions;
  • Components for strengthening moral and spiritual bastions in a people whose national security is threatened;
  • An offset to the materialism of a new and (generally) affluent society.

This is not the place to debate the validity of each of these claims. But they reflect a steadily growing interest in the arts in almost every part of the United States, even though that interest ranges all the way from concrete action to mere lip service.

Motives provoking philanthropy

A meaningful way by which to assess the role of philanthropy in the arts is through an analysis of the motives provoking the philanthropic act itself. I am sure each observer of the artistic scene might find a varying number of motives and label them differently. From my own experience in the field in every part of the country over the past six years, I have selected five categories about which to group the argument. I am not completely satisfied with my own labels, but for want of better ones I shall speak of the status motive, the social motive, the educational motive, the economic motive, and the professional motive.

Status: the temple complex

The motive of status might almost be called the temple complex. In dozens of communities around the country, there are plans, drawings, or actual skeletons of so-called “cultural centers.” Somehow in our country public, business, and other lay leaders appear to believe that art begins with real estate, as if art is engendered by the four walls, if they be imposing enough. At the risk of appearing ungrateful for all the artistic activities breaking out in American communities, I believe we must guard against a failing which is characteristically American – the tendency to mistake the symbol for the thing, the intent for the doing, the name for the act. Is this just another example of our materialism, even as we become more active in the non-material realms of the arts? I do not know, but it appears we are to have the audience before we are to know who will perform before it. The rash of cultural centers is one sign of the status motive. The rash of arts festivals is another. Exposure to the arts is a good; no one could be against it, particularly in a democratic society. But surely the artistic status of a community or region can not be measured merely in terms of the facilities it can offer to imported artists and artistic creations. As a motive for philanthropy, the status motive is the least perfect, and if it prevailed over other motives, it would be quite simply disastrous. None of us can afford to be complacent about this phenomenon in our society. It is being fanned by every wind that blows, particularly those from the banks of the Potomac, and it will not ultimately make for public happiness.

Social: a sense of occasion

The social motive for artistic patronage is merely an older variant of the status motive. It persists from a time when few of us could afford status but those who could were willing to pay for it. It surrounds the openings of operatic and symphonic seasons, particularly the former, but it is not altogether missing from the openings of museum exhibitions and other ceremonial occasions of the artistic season. The director of one of our large opera companies told me that he could open his season with a thirty-minute concert from the orchestra in the pit, raise and lower the curtain, and get by without singers on the stage, so intent would be the first nighters on the dinner parties they had just attended and their studies of the ladies' dresses in the hall. Perhaps he exaggerated, but I can vouch for the fact that the description of the dresses worn at one of his opening performances occupied five complete pages, barring advertisements, in the local press.

It is of course true that certain of the performing arts make their artistic statement with the greatest impact when we approach them with at least a trace of solemnity or grandeur, in short, with a sense of occasion. Like the status motive, the social motive for supporting the arts is by no means completely unworthy. Some of our greatest institutions in the arts (let us face the fact) were established because of this motive. But like the motive of status, the social motive is bad when it is dominant. When it takes control of an artistic institution or company, the art evaporates. The whole enterprise becomes something that is not art, but about society, about power, because what society is ultimately about is power.

Educational: for schoolchildren and by universities

The educational motive for philanthropic activity in the arts is more difficult to characterize. It operates in two ways. In the first, artistic enterprises are accepted as important to the community because they are somehow supposed to be “good for the schoolchildren.” The stock example is the business man who supports a symphony orchestra provided he is not expected himself to appear at Symphony Hall. He likes the idea that the schoolchildren possess an advantage he does not want to exercise himself. For some time orchestras and museums have partially supported themselves on the backs of schoolchildren; theater and opera companies are now making strenuous efforts to do the same. The donor's motive is single, the beneficiary's triple; the beneficiary hopes not only to extend his sources of support and help to educate young people in the arts but also to train adult audiences of the future. All three objectives are laudable. Whenever they distort the artistic enterprise, it is because art, when used for non-artistic ends, always risks distortion.

The second way in which the educational motive operates is through the use of an educational institution as a philanthropic base for the arts. I am speaking of the role universities, particularly the state institutions, have often assumed, to serve a community or a region as an artistic entrepreneur. Some of our state universities have even conceived their role in the tradition of the German stadt, which in turn took its own role from that of the German princeling. Particularly in areas where professional institutions in the arts were scarce, such universities have provided music, theater, opera, painting and sculpture both on the campus and in other communities within the state. Meantime, on their own campuses they have, like many other universities and colleges, provided through faculty appointments an economic base for writers, composers, painters and sculptors, even concert performers. This trend shows the adaptability of democratic institutions, and it gives no sign of abatement. Since the universities, particularly those with tax support, have a much easier time raising funds than do professional institutions in the arts, we confront here an important new development in artistic patronage. Recognizing it, even welcoming it, we should nevertheless not lose sight of its hazards. We are living in an age of a general speeding up of communication throughout every fabric of our society. But some of us worry lest every vehicle of communication, including even our educational system, may tend, if we are not vigilant, toward a steady popularization and amateurization of those intangibles we call the arts.

Economic: good for business

A fourth philanthropic motive, and the newest, is the economic. The arts are now not only good for people but good for business. This development is an offshoot of the educational motive for artistic patronage. The mobility of our economy, spurred by science, industry, and the need for national security, is intruding upon settled and somewhat provincial communities new concepts about their proper community resources. We must have not only good schools but other – and more specialized – cultural resources. A few months ago an important industrial corporation in a Southwestern metropolis lost out in competition with another city for the talents of a trained biochemist. Later investigation disclosed that the biochemist had taken a position in the second city because of its supposed greater cultural resource for himself and his family. In the Southwestern metropolis that had come out second best, a new vigor was felt in the cultural renaissance. Backed by the local press, the businessmen undertook an inventory of the city's cultural resources. The arts, which had been thought of as good for the schoolchildren or of interest to the ladies, were now good for business too. Given the nature of our democratic and laissez-faire economic society, this evolution within it is undoubtedly a necessary step in the development of our cultural resources. But it antedates (by how long a period we can only guess) any realization that it is the highly talented and professionally trained artist on whom all depends; it lacks as yet, in short, discrimination as to what the arts are really about.

Professional: the artist and the arts on their own terms

In the identification of motives for artistic patronage I have chosen as the argument for my discussion, the fifth and last is the professional, a feeble name, I am afraid, for the motive I desire to convey. Basically it means accepting the artist and the arts on their own terms. This does not appear to be a very unorthodox requirement when we consider how easily (in the main) philanthropy accepts, say, scientists or educators on their own terms. But individual patrons, corporations, public officials, and until recently foundations have too frequently chosen to concern themselves with the educational or social uses of the arts, if they have indeed devoted their resources to the arts at all. Some of us have long hoped that the sources of money in the United States, private or public, individual or corporate, would find a greater share for the professional arts. A greater share for the arts is actually becoming visible, though by no means as yet proportionate to the importance of the arts in any society. But a paradoxical development is also emerging. We are beginning to see an enlargement in the funds available to the arts without too much prospect of channeling the new resources into the places where they are the most imperatively needed, places which traditionally have been subsidized by the artist himself through his Spartan determination. And in many quarters, public-spirited persons of good will are performing good works in the exposure of the public to art without too much thought as to what is being exposed or the results to be anticipated.

At its most basic level, art is not about money, or facilities, or social acceptance; it is about the surge of artistic drive and moral determination. It is about the individual professional artist or artistic director. And philanthropy, in the arts at least, is professionally motivated only when it accepts the artist and the arts on their own terms, and learns from the artist himself at least to recognize the atmosphere in which the artistic process is carried out.

What is that atmosphere? None of us can describe it to the complete satisfaction of anyone else, but as I have said on another occasion,* it derives importantly from “the drive or fanaticism or whatever of the person who has made his choice, and will often have to eschew anything else – money, the elite identification of a university degree, even health – to develop the latent talent he hopes he has. It comes also from the pride of doing for oneself, of making ends meet, of giving society what it will pay for even if what it pays is inadequate to sustain a normal life, or working in the midst of a fraternity that will show the same fanaticisms and abnegations. It comes from the endless time, time, time spent on doing one thing, only one thing, and then starting all over again. It comes, finally, from the acceptance of such distortion as a way of life, a way of life, you will note, that is in some ways completely antithetical to the ideal objective of a liberal and humane education. Some of the most professional, the most talented, and the most mature artists I have met lack either the time or the capacity to sort out a decent personal life from the endless hours of their artistic concentration. Only a rare heredity or early environment and not, I am afraid, a very good education, has given some of these artists a humanity that separates them from the talented bums in their midst."

It is no accident that so many talented artists (you will have guessed by now that I use this word to apply to creators or performers in all artistic fields) who are thirty-five years of age or older speak of “the Depression psychology.” Strictly speaking, however, this is a timeless phenomenon in the artist and not peculiar to an era when the entire social community is in severe economic straits. Many persons believe that the artist became socially motivated in the Depression era because the government itself accepted him as just as rightfully unemployed as a bricklayer or a mechanic. I am not, of course, merely repeating the romantic picture of the artist as a starveling or saying, with Matisse, that hunger will bring out the artist's creativity if he has any. The Spartan fanaticism of the driving, talented force is not purely a factor of the annual income of the artist or artistic director in whom the force is lodged. It is certainly not saintly, nor is sainthood the goal. It is neither moral nor immoral. It does mean, however, that the artist has chosen what he must do without the promise of security, not merely financial, but even emotional or social. If the concentration is great enough to develop the existing talent, it is great to the point of distortion. And distortion, as I said earlier, may itself have to become the way of life.

Philanthropy's role

If any of this be true, then what the artist is about is not what society or education or business or physical magnificence is about. And if philanthropy – public or private, individual or organized – is to relate to the arts in any realistic and therefore meaningful way, it can learn how to do so only from the artists and artistic directors themselves. It is they who must, in short, become the chief participants in the whole philanthropic process.

It has been my privilege for five and one-half years to help carry out this sort of exploration for the Ford Foundation. Whether it is theater, music, painting, ballet, or opera with which we are concerned, we attempt to talk to many artists and artistic directors in the field and to gain a realistic insight into the problems with which the art is confronted. Through our extensive fieldwork in every part of the country, through conferences and panels we call in New York, through interviews with individual men and women in our offices, we listen. Anything we know about the arts we do not read from books nor attempt to view from our own vantage point on Madison Avenue. We are catalysts rather than reformers, participants rather than backers, communicants rather than critics. And when we announce a specific program for individual artists, both the nominating and the selecting processes are in the hands of the artists and artistic directors themselves.

As the scale of the Ford Foundation's activities increases, important actions we shall take will appear to serve all five philanthropic motives I have defined – status, social, educational, economic, and professional – as did, for example, the six million dollars in grants to strengthen the resident theater concept announced in October. Every important philanthropic action has both an organic and a nuclear relationship to its society, and it is always an action taken in concert. But only the professional motive can justify what we do, our acceptance of the artist and the arts on their own terms. This is the key to channeling new interests and new financial resources in the arts into effective development for the future. Other motives are important, but they are finally irrelevant.


* Proceedings of the Association of Graduate Schools, New Orleans, October 24, 1961.

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