From Neolithic Prehistory to the Classical Era

Grantmakers in the Arts 1983-1998

John Kreidler

Grantmakers in the Arts has been in existence for a brief two decades, and yet even within the ranks of long-time GIA conference attendees and the veterans who are among GIA’s leaders today, there is no common recollection of the organization’s prehistory and the moment of its founding. History generally belongs to the domain of the humanities rather than the arts, but nonetheless it is slightly embarrassing that a professional arts philanthropy organization, which has come to exercise substantial influence it its field, has no record of its founding.

What follows is a rendering of GIA’s prehistory and the first decade of its existence, assembled from video interviews and an assortment of documents, most of them unpublished. More information about the video project, inspired by GIA’s twentieth anniversary in 2005, follows at the end.

Neolithic Prehistory, 1931-1982: Early Origins of the Profession of Arts Philanthropy

A fine history of the early years of arts philanthropy was written in 1982 by Paul DiMaggio,1 then a member of the sociology faculty at Yale University. His history contains a wealth of details about the pioneers of arts funding, beginning in the early twentieth century with the Carnegie Foundation, and later Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, and a few others. Most of this history transpired, however, before arts philanthropy had evolved into a conscious profession.

In a speech delivered at the 1988 GIA conference in Chicago, Professor DiMaggio noted:

Foundations are the oldest institutional supporters of the arts. They’ve made grants to the arts virtually from their inception. In 1931, the Twentieth Century Fund reported that 13 of 122 private foundations were active in the field of aesthetics, which at the time, was more than grants for the physical sciences, humanities, government, race relations, agriculture or housing. Arts grants accounted for about 3% of total foundation giving in 1931, the third year of the Depression. Although the Rockefeller philanthropies and a few others were also active, arts-giving in the 1930s was dominated by the remarkable programs of the Carnegie Corporation under its president, Frederick Keppel. Hardly any area of the arts was untouched by Carnegie’s largess. The foundation provided fellowships to many of the leading art historians and museum directors in the U.S., distributed teaching sets of art books, photographs and slides to 302 U.S. colleges and high schools, endowed music departments in about 20 high schools and colleges, supported three of the country’s first community arts councils, opened a storefront branch art museum in a Philadelphia suburb, and sicked a SWAT team of artists and arts educators on a tiny prairie town in Minnesota. Carnegie’s engagement with the arts ended abruptly with President Keppel’s departure, marking a hiatus in really large-scale foundation programs, that was broken in 1957 with the inauguration of the Ford Foundation art program under the direction of W. McNeil Lowry.

It could be argued that the first professional arts philanthropist in the United States was W. McNeil (Mac) Lowry, a former newspaper journalist, who occupied the post of vice president for the arts at Ford until his retirement in 1975. In a separate article (Leverage Lost: The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era),2 I expressed the view that much of modern arts philanthropy, including several early programs of the National Endowment for the Arts, can be traced to concepts developed by Mr. Lowry during his long reign at the Ford Foundation, including the ideas of funding leverage (matching grants) and organizational advancement.

Throughout his Ford years, Mr. Lowry did much to build professionalism into the management and governance of arts institutions in the United States. In his writings, he often contended that professional managers were key to the survival of the nation’s cultural organizations, and consequently, the Ford Foundation played a significant part in the development of arts management programs at U.S. universities. At times, he went so far as to decry the influence of meddling boards of directors, who were frequently seen as detrimental to professional arts management. On three occasions, Mr. Lowry organized national meetings of the American Assembly3 to examine sweeping issues associated with the development of this country’s arts landscape. Although representatives from a few arts funding sources, both governmental and private, sometimes attended these meetings, the substantial majority of participants were professional arts managers or academics.

It was only toward the end of the Neolithic era, the mid-1970s, that a critical mass of arts funding professionals in foundations, corporations, and government agencies began to emerge from the rich primordial soup of New York City, and secondarily, in the Twin Cities, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Australopithecus philanthro-artis had arrived.

At this moment, the Council on Foundations was based in New York, the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) were fully operational, and a small circle of private, community, and corporate funders, beyond Rockefeller, Ford, and Mellon, was beginning to actively support the arts. Until 1979, when the Council on Foundations moved its offices to Washington, DC, a group of New York arts funders would occasionally meet at the Council to discuss the arts. According to Margaret Ayers (Robert Sterling Clark Foundation), this early group of arts funders included Richard Mittenthal (New York Community Trust), John Booth (Twentieth Century Fund), Howard Klein (Rockefeller Foundation), Marcia Thompson (Ford Foundation), and Ted Berger (NYFA). Throughout the 1970s, the arts had been claiming an increasing percentage of total foundation giving, and by the early 1980s, the ranks of Australopithecus philanthro-artis were growing quickly, both in New York City and nationally. As a consequence, dissatisfaction with the Council’s minimal arts offerings at its annual conferences was on the rise.

The Bronze Age, 1983 to 1989: Early Conferences and Development of an Informal Association

The grumbling came to a climax at the 1984 Council on Foundations annual conference in Denver. Unhappy, once again, a small group of arts funders attending this conference met to consider how to move beyond the Council’s thin arts programming. Alberta Arthurs, then leading the Rockefeller Foundation’s program in the arts and humanities, recollects that the four malcontents, who assembled in a hotel hallway, were Len Fleisher (Exxon), Ruth Mayleas (Ford), Mittenthal, and herself. This group decided to hold a follow-up meeting to discuss specific action. According to various sources, including Mittenthal and Cynthia Mayeda, then an employee of Dayton Hudson, the follow-up meeting took a great deal of time to organize, but was ultimately held in a conference room of the Dayton Hudson corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, perhaps in August of 1984. Ayers and Mayeda recall that the assembled group, in addition to themselves, included Cindy Gehrig (Jerome Foundation), Mittenthal, Margaret Wurtele (Dayton Hudson), Ellen Buchwalter (Rockefeller), and Patricia Doyle (Cleveland Foundation).

The outcome was a plan to hold a conference of arts grantmakers in St. Paul in October 1985, led by Gehrig and Wendy Bennett (Bush Foundation), with the support of an organizing committee assembled from the Twin Cities, New York, and other parts of the country. This committee consisted of Buchwalter, Doyle, Kathy Dwyer (Meyer Foundation, Washington, DC), Bill Lafe (Heinz Endowments), Mayeda, Mayleas, Mittenthal, Eric Peterson (Hewlett Foundation), Melinda Peterson (California Community Foundation), and Curt Sharp (the Pew Charitable Trusts). The membership of this organizing committee was purposely expanded beyond the original Twin Cities-New York group to convey the message that the St. Paul conference was national in scope. Due to the subsequent onset of motherhood for Bennett, Gehrig carried most of the load for organizing the St. Paul conference. Many members of the conference organizing committee formed the nucleus of an ongoing informal committee that eventually evolved, at the point of GIA’s nonprofit incorporation in 1989, into the GIA board of directors.

All of the topics covered at the St. Paul conference would become familiar themes for GIA conferences over the subsequent twenty years. Some were theoretical — “Artistic Risk-taking — How Important Is It? How Can Grantmakers Foster It?” — but most were practical — “Developing Criteria/Guidelines for Support.” This inaugural conference offered a total of only six sessions, and just two of these sessions were conducted concurrently, so the participants had few choices. Nevertheless, these six sessions featured a lineup of nationally prominent artists, artistic leaders, and arts funders. Among the presenters were Elliot Figman (director, Poets and Writers), David White, (executive director, Dance Theater Workshop), and David Gordon (artistic director, the Pick Up Performance Company). Notably, the subject of cultural diversity was not addressed in the 1985 conference.

At the time of the formation of the early conference organizing committee (1984-85), the intentions were mixed. Some members of the early group, including Mayeda, simply wanted to hold a conference, not to launch a formal affinity group of the Council on Foundations. For others, including Mittenthal, the Council’s first affinity group, Grantmakers in Health, was a compelling model for galvanizing the field of arts philanthropy.

Contributed funding for the St. Paul conference was provided by several of the funding sources represented on the committee, with the New York Community Trust serving as the fiscal sponsor due to its legal status as a public foundation. This status enabled the Trust to receive funds from the private foundations that provided most of the money for the St. Paul conference. The Trust continued to provide fiscal sponsorship for several subsequent conferences.

Although various observers gave credit to Gehrig, who organized the first conference, or to Mittenthal, who chaired the early organizing committee meetings, for the founding of GIA, neither Cindy nor Richard confirmed this view in our interviews with them. Both credited the broader circle of arts grantmakers who were responding to their need to convene and their disaffection with the Council on Foundations, either in the hallways of the Denver Council on Foundations conference or at the first organizing meeting at Dayton Hudson.

While history often credits single individuals for founding organizations, nations, or movements, this research project found no Susan B. Anthony who brought forth GIA. Rather, on the basis of the thirty-five interviews, supplemented by other evidence, GIA appears to have materialized out of an evolutionary process involving numerous people. All of them shared a common desire for something beyond what the Council’s arts-deficient annual conferences could offer, but they had disparate views about the course ahead. Indeed, they did not immediately adopt the name “Grantmakers in the Arts.” For the first few years, the majority view, though never unanimous, was that the group should remain voluntary and informal, with all necessary funding provided by the committee members’ foundations or corporations.

Even as the 1985 St. Paul conference was concluding, the committee members began recruiting a wider circle of arts funders to join the informal association, with the objective of achieving broader national representation. By late 1985, the committee consisted of the original group plus Rebecca Riley (MacArthur Foundation), Sam Yanes (Polaroid), and Myra Millinger (Flinn Foundation). The committee now included most of the individuals who would take full or partial responsibility for organizing the next several conferences in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Brewster (Massachusetts), Philadelphia, and Phoenix.

The second conference was organized by Margaret Ayers and Ellen Buchwalter at Lincoln Center in 1986. This conference was larger than St. Paul in both attendance and budget, and among its highlights was a reception hosted by Mayor Koch and Bess Myerson, New York’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs (and former Miss America) at Gracie Mansion. The third conference, co-chaired by Melinda Peterson and myself (then at the San Francisco Foundation), was held in San Francisco in 1987. By this time, the group had formally adopted the name “Grantmakers in the Arts.” For the San Francisco conference, a GIA logo was crafted by a designer at Wells Fargo Bank. Subsequently this logo was adopted as the organization’s permanent graphic identity.

In addition to conducting annual conferences, the Bronze Age organizing committee had often occupied itself with debates about internal governance. Long discussions were devoted to the merits of forming a membership, terms of office, hiring staff, and establishing a formal legal corporation. One member of the committee noted that these meetings were often tense and discourteous. Early in its history, the committee adopted a policy of limited terms of office. In 1989, during Rebecca Riley’s term as chair, the group was formally incorporated under the name “Grantmakers in the Arts” in the State of Illinois, which continues to be the official corporate venue. Despite the decision to become formally incorporated, a strong aversion to staffing and a formal membership structure marked the late Bronze Age, along with a general understanding that Grantmakers in the Arts exclusively represented private sector grantmakers (foundations and corporations). Although this underlying assumption excluded governmental arts funders, governmental grantmakers were frequent participants in all of the early conferences, though never represented on the organizing committee.

The Classical Age, 1989-1998: Beyond Conferences; Emergence of a Professional Class

The beginning of the Classical Age was marked by four events: the arrival of Ella King Torrey as president, the beginning of the GIA newsletter, the advent of the Foundation Center benchmark studies, and the emergence of a truly national professional class of private arts funders.

GIA’s first foray into programming beyond the conferences was the newsletter, first published in 1988 through the voluntary effort of Sarah Lutman (Bush Foundation). After the first two issues (1988 and 1989), she worked in partnership with Anne Focke (free-lance consultant and a founder of Artist Trust, Washington state), who GIA hired under contract for the task. In the course of many of the video interviews, the newsletter, which grew into the GIA Reader, was praised for the excellence of its content, but also for the contribution it has made to elevating private sector arts grantmaking to the level of a conscious profession.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a professional class of directors of state and local arts councils was being cultivated by the American Councils of the Arts, and its two spin-offs, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) and the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (NALAA).4 Both NASAA and NALAA operated as membership organizations, a course that GIA did not quickly embrace. In 1989, the nation was beset by a major recession that seriously eroded the funding bases of many state and local arts agencies. In addition, the National Endowment for the Arts was being battered in Congress for the Mapplethorpe and Serrano exhibitions. The future of governmental support of the arts, especially by the NEA, was seriously in question.

A fear that private arts funding was being affected by public controversies was part of the impulse behind GIA’s desire to better understand private arts funding. In 1989 GIA began discussions with Loren Renz at the Foundation Center that led to the 1992 publication of Arts Funding: A Report on Foundation and Corporate Grantmaking Trends. This first edition of the Center’s benchmark research showed that combined foundation and corporate support of the arts eclipsed all national, state, and local government arts funding and that the arts had held a fairly consistent share of all foundation giving through the previous decade.

Not only was the locus of funding moving toward the private sector, but so too was the locus of leadership. The Pew Charitable Trusts (Marian Godfrey), Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund (Holly Sidford), Knight Foundation (Penny McPhee), MacArthur Foundation (Rebecca Riley and Nick Rabkin) and the continually reinvented Rockefeller Foundation (Alberta Arthurs, Suzanne Sato, Joan Shigekawa, and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto) were all prominent in national initiatives. During the Classical Age, attendance at GIA’s annual conferences nearly tripled in comparison to the first conference in St. Paul, a reflection of the private sector’s growing investment in arts staff and grants budgets.

This growth in resources, clout, and self-awareness culminated in a 1993 decision, during Torrey’s term as president, to amend the GIA bylaws to convert it to a membership organization. This decision was fateful, because it committed GIA to a higher volume of year-around administration. For a few years, this workload was carried through the voluntary efforts of individual board members, sometimes backed by the labor of administrative and financial staff in their home-base foundations. By 1995, however, it had became evident that voluntary efforts were not adequate, and by the end of Torrey’s term, a private contractor, John Cimarosa based in Connecticut, had been hired to set up and manage GIA’s membership and finances. In mid-1996, during McPhee’s term as GIA president, the board decided it wanted a somewhat broader array of services and contracted with Focke in Seattle to take on the financial and database responsibilities and to establish an office for the organization.

All of these Classical Age developments at GIA (in publications, research, and organizational structure) along with external changes at the NEA and in the size and stature of arts funding in the private sector, yielded two of the most profound conferences in GIA’s history: the 1993 La Jolla retreat and the 1995 Eureka conference. These two conferences were acclaimed in superlative terms by 80 percent of the individuals who participated in the video interviews.

The La Jolla retreat, “Alternative Futures,” was the invention of Ella King Torrey, Holly Sidford, and Nick Rabkin, who envisioned it as an opportunity for arts funders to reflect on the “culture wars,” AIDS, and other pressures of the early 1990s. Prior to the retreat, ten “thought papers” were commissioned, all of them by authorities outside of the profession of arts funding:

  • Kathleen D. McCarthy, City University of New York
  • Paul Mattick Jr., Adelphi University
  • M. Melanie Beene, management consultant
  • Andrei Codrescu, poet, editor, and filmmaker
  • bell hooks, writer, Oberlin College
  • George Anastaplo, Loyola University of Chicago
  • Guillermo Gómez-Peña, performance artist and critic
  • Michael Morgan, Oakland/East Bay Symphony
  • Greg Tate, The Village Voice
  • B. Ruby Rich, cultural critic and journalist

Advance copies of the papers were provided to all attendees, and the authorities themselves were lead discussants at the retreat. Many participants remember La Jolla as a serious gathering where disagreements were aired and tempers sometimes ignited. The proceedings of the La Jolla retreat were published by GIA in a book entitled, Alternative Futures: Challenging Designs for Arts Philanthropy, which was dedicated to Mac Lowry.5

The 1995 conference is variously remembered as “Eureka,” “Humboldt,” “The Redwoods,” and “Peter’s Conference.” Everyone agrees that the 1995 conference reflected the exceptional imagination of Peter Pennekamp, executive director of the Humboldt Area Foundation, which is based in Eureka and conducts business in several rural counties of upper Northern California. The video interviews are filled with rich remembrances of walking on beaches, kayaking on Humboldt Bay, hugging redwoods, meeting with tribal leaders, dining on tables set on the main street of the town of Blue Lake, and listening to an impassioned speech by the U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Hass.

GIA in the Post-Modern Era

The purpose of this paper is to document the early origins of Grantmakers in the Arts. Having recounted the Neolithic prehistory, and the first two eras of the organization’s informal and formal existence, the year 1999 provides a convenient point for ending this history. In that year, GIA established its first permanent positions and hired its first staff, Anne Focke (executive director) and Karen Haberfield (associate), who established its office in Seattle. Unquestionably, these relatively recent developments have had major consequences for the programs, publications, structure, and membership of GIA. Within the thirty-five video interviews are many facts and anecdotes from this most recent era, including comments by the three most recent board presidents, Marian Godfrey, Sarah Solotaroff (Chicago Community Trust), and Claire Peeps (Durfee Foundation).

Most of the themes that marked the early years of GIA’s existence remain evident in the organization’s current evolution. The question of how GIA engages its public sector members now that they’re full members was one of the most common points to surface in the video interviews and was prominent in comments from Diem Jones (Arts Council Silicon Valley), Jonathan Katz (NASAA), Shelly Cohn (Arizona Commission on the Arts), and Robert Lynch (Americans for the Arts). Other topics still being digested include the arts education, the political neutrality of GIA, the engagement of foundation trustees in GIA, and trade-offs between GIA’s size and its ability to support an intimate community of arts philanthropists. The way the organization responds to these concerns should provide ample grist for the next committee that decides to document GIA’s history.

Project Background

In the spring of 2005, a committee was convened to consider ways of celebrating GIA’s first twenty years of public activity. The committee’s members (with current affiliations) were Jeanne Butler (American Architectural Foundation), Frances Phillips (Walter and Elise Haas Fund), Ed Jones (JPMorganChase), Anne Focke (Grantmakers in the Arts), and myself (Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley). None of us were involved in the earliest years of GIA’s history, nor were we aware of any written or oral version of the organization’s founding. The committee soon conceived of the idea of capturing GIA’s early years through video interviews, which would form the basis for a GIA archive and provide source material for this article. A total of thirty-five digital video interviews were subsequently conducted: twenty-eight at the October 2005 GIA conference in Pasadena, five in January 2006 at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, and two at sites in the Bay Area in March and April 2006. A complete listing of interviewees follows.

Although this effort was substantial, still more interviews would have been desirable given more time and foresight. Among the early arts philanthropy leaders (listed here with their early affiliations) whom the committee would have liked to interview were Rachael Bellow (Mellon Foundation), Ellen Buchwalter (Rockefeller Foundation), Patricia Doyle (Cleveland Foundation), Howard Klein (Rockefeller Foundation), Mac Lowry (Ford Foundation, deceased), Sarah Lutman (the Bush Foundation), Tim McClimon (AT&T Foundation), Penny McPhee (Knight Foundation), Myra Millinger (Flinn Foundation), Rebecca Riley (MacArthur Foundation), Janet Sarbaugh (The Pittsburgh Foundation), Suzanne Sato (Rockefeller Foundation), Marcia Thompson (Ford Foundation), and Ella King Torrey (the Pew Charitable Trusts and Pew Fellowships for Artists, deceased). The committee is satisfied, however, that we now have a solid base of facts about why, how, when, where, and by whom GIA was founded. Perhaps, at last, our collective embarrassment at the lack of a recorded history can be put to rest.


  1. Paul DiMaggio, “Cultural entrepreneurship in nineteenth-century Boston,” Part I: The creation of an organizational base for high culture in America. Media, Culture and Society (U.K.) 4, 1 (winter), 1982. Part II: The classification and framing of American art. Media, Culture and Society (U.K.) 4, 4 (autumn), 1982.
  2. John Kreidler, Leverage Lost: the Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era, 1997. Online version available at: In Motion Magazine
  3. The American Assembly is a national, non-partisan public affairs forum illuminating public policy concerns by commissioning research and publications, sponsoring meetings, and issuing reports, books, and other literature. Founded by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1950, it is affiliated with Columbia University.
  4. In 1996, NALAA merged with the American Council for the Arts in the creation of Americans for the Arts.
  5. Andrew Patner, editor, Alternative Futures: Challenging Designs for Arts Philanthropy, a series of conference papers, commissioned and published by Grantmakers in the Arts, 1994. Copies are available from GIA.