Family Philanthropy in the Arts

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 1 (Spring 1998)


The Council on Foundations' 1998 Family Foundation Conference was held February 22-25 in Los Angeles. For the first time in the recent history of this conference, family foundation trustees and executive staff lobbied and succeeded not only in including arts on the conference agenda, but in having an entire day devoted to elective arts sessions. Arts funding was one of five "spotlight sessions on critical issues." Mercy Pavelic, president of the Heathcote Art Foundation, participated on a panel on Arts Funding and the Future. Excerpts from her remarks follow along with her report on the arts track as a whole.

Panel Remarks, Mercy B. Pavelic

Family foundations are hugely important to the future of arts funding. Yet there is no data on how we support the arts, what criteria we respond to, how we make our decisions. Nor is there any network through which family foundations interested in the arts, particularly those of us that are small and trustee managed, can exchange ideas, foster new and innovative ways of giving, and lend support to each other and to the organizations we fund. We need a common language to articulate to our peers that the arts and artists are indispensable for their ideas, explorations, and creative energy, for the mirror they hold up to society. Art, just as the human spirit it bolsters, belongs to every class, gender, and ethnicity. As such, art can play an effective role in every aspect of philanthropy, from education to poverty, drug abuse to mental health.

Creative artists forge new frontiers just as their creative entrepreneurial counterparts did in amassing the fortunes we are privileged to give away. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations were catalysts in the evolution of the national nonprofit arts sector during the twentieth century. So, too, the stewardship, growth, and preservation of this country's arts and culture in the new millennium should be fostered through cooperation among smaller foundations that support the arts in their own communities. As a group, we have a powerful voice with which to advocate for the arts. Many of us have already come together informally as “American Families for Art.” Please join the conversation.

I leave you with a thought articulated best by the Bessemer Trust: “The founders of family foundations bestow an important gift when they provide resources to improve the future. But they bestow an equally important gift on their children: the chance to make a difference. In the end, that is what family foundations are all about.”

Session Report

American Families for Art, an informal yet growing network of families, made great strides at this year's Family Foundation Conference. The day began with a briefing panel moderated by Mark Anderson, cofounder and executive director of ARTS Inc. Panelists included Ella King Torrey (president, San Francisco Art Institute and former GIA board president), Cora Mirikitani (program director for the arts, James Irvine Foundation and current GIA board member), Claire Peeps (executive director, Durfee Foundation), and Mercy B. Pavelic. Speaking to a packed room of almost one hundred, panelists' topics ranged from the current state of the arts environment to the emergence of an expanding definition of art that includes the civic engagement of art and artists and the wealth of ideas that flow from the arts community as a result. Family foundations were challenged to be flexible and to develop focus, to reflect their family values and the passions of trustees in their giving, to listen and respond to their communities' needs, and to recognize that even a small amount of money can have a critical impact.

Artist Lily Yeh attended the conference as a guest of the Heathcote Foundation. As executive director of the Village of Arts and Humanities, Yeh has collaborated for more than a decade with neighborhood residents as they redefined their community through the arts. Anyone who heard her remarkable speech at GIA's 1997 conference will not be surprised that Yeh so affected the Los Angeles audience that she was asked to speak a second time. The added session attracted family foundation representatives with widely varied philanthropic interests who had not attended the other arts sessions.

Following the morning session, an over-subscribed group went on a site visit to the not-yet-opened Santa Monica Museum. Afterward, the group reconvened at the conference site for a de-briefing.

On the last day of the conference, an again over-subscribed group met at luncheon roundtables hosted by the Heathcote and Sewell Family Foundations. An overwhelming majority of participants, particularly those whose foundations are smaller and trustee-managed, affirmed their need for a way to identify and network with their peers across the country. They want to learn about each other's activities — from giving to individual artists to arts in education initiatives. They also want to identify opportunities for collaboration, hone their legal and grantmaking skills, and develop new ideas. Also articulated was the need for research on how family foundations give to the arts, what criteria they use, and how their decisions are made.

Propelled by the energy generated in Los Angeles, plans have begun to be laid for a family foundation pre-conference before the 1998 GIA conference in Chicago. The pre-conference will be held on Sunday, November 15 and will be preceded by a reception for family foundations on Saturday evening, November 14. With an advisory group of family foundation trustees from around the country, the Heathcote Foundation will guide the development of a program for this event. Family foundations are encouraged to contribute to the agenda for this inaugural meeting. Tell us what is important to your foundation and community. Contact Mercy Pavelic by May 31, 1998, Heathcote Art Foundation, 4 Fairgreen Lane, Old Greenwich, CT 06870, 303-637-0726, fax 203-637-2170, email heathcot[at]artswire. org.