No Recess during the Recession

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 20, No 3 (Fall 2009)

Janet Brown

I have visited groups of GIA members and nonmembers in every region of the country this year, from Boston to Los Angeles and Atlanta to Seattle. It has been an interesting first year as executive director of GIA, to say the very least. What I have observed is that grantmakers have not taken a “recess” during this challenging time. In many ways, for private and community foundations especially, there could have been a pulling away from grantees, a kind of “we can’t help you” attitude. Instead, what I’ve witnessed are dedicated program managers attempting to produce as much or more impact from their granting budgets with fewer dollars than before. There is more communication between funders and greater transparency and honesty between granters and grantees. Funders have not hung out a sign that says “grants down: out to recess.” Instead, they are working harder with fewer resources, protecting investments made over decades to the cultural and creative communities we serve.

My talks with grantmakers parallel the findings researched and reported by Holly Sidford, who interviewed twenty-two diverse funders for GIA’s online summer Reader (“In the Face of Recession, What Are Arts Funders Doing?”). Funders are “taking their own medicine.” A great many of them are assessing their own relevancy, who they are funding and why, and the effectiveness of their programs. There is also a realization that the field is fragile and under-capitalized and that, in part, funders may have contributed to this situation. The effects of funder-directed programs, changing criteria, boutique projects, and the expectation of grantees to continually grow with new programs are all concepts under the microscope at the moment.

In her Reader article, Sidford explains, “adaptation for funders means paying greater attention to the interplay of social and creative purposes, and ensuring that arts groups have a base of community support that will sustain them.” Many funders are asking questions about the role of granters in developing sustainability and the financial structure to best accomplish that goal. Many have moved to general operating support as their answer; many are repurposing grants in reaction to financial crises. Big questions are being raised: Can funding programs be both prescriptive or responsive? Do our criteria and application process reflect the goals of efficiency and accountability we require from our grantees?

This has not been easy work. There have been funders and arts groups that have dissolved. There are still public agencies on the chopping block. Grantmakers in the Arts has stepped up its communication this year, sharing our research and that of our members and providing a respite, we hope, for funders to analyze and share their tough decisions with one another. We will move out of this recession in stages. Some sectors will come back before others. In the meantime, grantmakers will continue to assess their work and how their decisions today will impact the future of artmaking in their communities.