Creating a Community Context for a Foundation Arts Program

Neal Cuthbert

In 1996, Neal Cuthbert, program director at the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, was interviewed by the James Irvine Foundation as part of a series of conversations about arts funding. This excerpt offers an example of a GIA member describing the importance of the arts program to the overall goals of the foundation.

My dilemma when I came on board with the McKnight Foundation was how to design an art program that could be incorporated into a foundation whose main goal is human service in a larger community and development context. This frankly interested me because I wasn't particularly interested in doing just a standard art funding program. For me the context for the art can be as important as anything else.

When I talk about the art program I always talk about it in terms of its having a community development context. We're interested in seeing how art functions in communities, who it provides meaning for, and how it animates people's lives and minds. This doesn't mean we shy away from arts organizations that just serve artists doing experimental work or avant garde work or whatever. That can also be a viable community. It's just a matter of wanting organizations to give some kind of evidence of being an animating force. Importantly, this isn't something we ask the organizations to prove; it's something we look for. We don't have a program that says "this is artist community development" and "this is an arts program." The whole program is informed by community development values and the judgments are made using community development thinking.

I see all arts organizations as essentially being community centers of some kind, be they museums, orchestras, or actual community arts centers. There is a community of people who support a theater's specific mission or a gallery's specific mission (use it, need it, want it) – it relates to their idea of what it means to be here, in this geographic place at this time. That kind of community activity – whether arts, or going to church, or sports events, or anything else – draws people together for a common, mostly value-based, experience, and activates and animates the life of the community. It also has community infrastructure ramifications. People get to know each other, ideas are shared, economic impacts can result (although I've done a couple of economic impact studies in my history, and I find that they're the worst rationale for arts funding).

Art activity can also change how the community views itself. One grant we made literally took a town in Northwest Minnesota and, over the course of five years, made it a boom town. It was a real risky grant to a project headed by a young entrepreneurial guy. I could see that there were things going on with his activity and that the town was being engaged with something that was profound for that community. So we made a couple of grants to help him along. Since we often provide a good housekeeping seal for other funders, a few others started to look at what he was doing. The grant money certainly gave his work an endorsement and the town started to think about itself differently. The town started attracting new businesses and jobs, and it now has a bit of a housing problem. It's a remarkable success story.

It's a favorite story with my board because it was a grant that one board member was not really eager about in the beginning. Now, everybody is proud as punch about this little town called New York Mills. There are other stories, not quite as dramatic, smaller stories across the state and a couple within our bigger cities – sometimes in communities of color, sometimes in geographic communities, sometimes in aesthetic communities – where you can see an organization take off and it's an amazing thing to witness.