The Place of the Arts in Multi-focus Foundations

A Conversation among Foundation Leaders

Bruce Sievers

When presidents and CEOs of foundations try to balance a range of equally justifiable social agendas, where are the arts? Sponsored by GIA, six foundation leaders spent a day and a half together discussing just this topic in the summer of 2008. The relevance of their conversation and the preliminary conclusions they drew are perhaps even more urgent today than they were then, as foundations face increasingly serious questions of priority. The course of the discussion reflected the integral place of artistic and cultural endeavors in the whole of a civil society and the nonprofit sector—reference to one invoked the other.


Cultural philanthropy has a very long history. Whether through patronage of individual artists, founding grants for the creation of libraries and museums, promotion of regional arts groups throughout the country, or the encouragement of arts education, philanthropists have provided vital support to artistic and cultural endeavors for more than four centuries in the United States and over two millennia through the history of civilization.

As formal foundation philanthropy in the United States enters the world of the twenty-first century, however, arts funding is facing specific new challenges: financial pressures as costs rise faster than income streams, increased demands on the time and attention of arts audiences, the rapidly changing terrain of electronic media distribution channels, competition with other compelling funding agendas that address critical social problems, and the uncertain place of the arts in foundations' increasing emphasis on “strategic philanthropy” and “measurable outcomes.”

Of these challenges, the last two are of particular importance to boards and CEOs of multi-focus foundations. Those who lead such foundations often find themselves trying to balance a range of important social agendas that call on philanthropic resources in equally justified ways. They operate at the center of a constantly shifting constellation of influences and compelling rationales for support of radically different social causes and must decide on priorities based on broad powers of judgment rather than narrow problem-solving techniques. The question frequently arises about how arts and culture fit within these rival purposes and within a framework of larger societal problem solving.

In light of these challenges, Grantmakers in the Arts convened a meeting of CEOs of multi-focus foundations in June, 2008 to explore the questions in depth. The meeting set for itself the following agenda:

Those who lead multi-purpose foundations often face a common challenge—how to integrate diverse funding interests into a coherent philanthropic vision. This is especially true for those who fund the arts along with programs that support basic human services, health, or the environment. One approach is simply to accept a plurality of interests and fund programs in parallel streams. Another is to seek to connect the disparate fields of support in some mutually reinforcing way. Whatever path is chosen, questions of emphasis, balance, interaction, rationale, and strategy remain. The purpose of this retreat is to provide an opportunity for those who have engaged these questions to reflect on their experience and a forum to explore the relationship of the arts to overall philanthropic goals.

The following summarizes the themes and conclusions of this initial exploration.

The rationale for cultural funding by foundations is integrally linked to the rationale for funding the nonprofit sector as a whole.

The discussion opened with an examination of the rationale for support of the nonprofit sector in general. Although arts funding is often justified in terms of specific benefits provided by cultural institutions—access to important life experiences and values, inter-cultural understanding, development of creativity—the rationale for support of the arts is in fact inseparable from reasons for supporting the full range of nonprofit activity in society. These include the long-standing justifications of “market failure” and “government failure” in providing certain kinds of public goods, but also include more recent discussions of pluralism, social capital, and the advancement of a set of values such as volunteerism, community service, social innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Recent challenges to the tax-advantaged status of nonprofits have highlighted the need to reach a shared understanding of the rationale for support of the nonprofit sector. In Minnesota, for example, the state Supreme Court ruled in December 2007 that a day care agency should be denied property tax exemption because it was not an institution of “purely public charity.” The ruling, based on a concept that the defining characteristic of the nonprofit sector is “charity,” assumed a very narrow definition of the purpose of nonprofit activity.

By contrast, the widely accepted understanding by both historians and contemporary analysts of the nonprofit sector in the United States includes the central purposes of advancing pluralism, promoting voluntary action, accommodating diversity, and championing individual visions of the public good. The term “civil society” is actually gaining acceptance internationally as the preferred concept to describe this sphere of social action, because it encompasses both the idea of nonprofit institutions and the distinctive set of values that support them. Rather than operating with a strict quid pro quo exchange of tax benefits for specified increments of public benefit as the Minnesota court presumed, civil society draws its primary legitimacy from its capacity to make space for private action to promote the common good without exact financial requital. This characteristic distinguishes civil society, and the nonprofit activity within it, from the governmental and for-profit sectors.

The arts and other cultural fields highlight the strength of civil society to advance pluralism and promote a set of essential human values. Through developing human capacities, articulating diverse forms of cultural expression, and providing unique insights into the human condition, the arts define a significant portion of the nonprofit world. The group meeting in June 2008 agreed, therefore, that the leaders of multi-focus foundations need not be drawn into the “instrumental” versus “art for art's sake” debate so often argued as justification for supporting the arts. The arts clearly constitute an important part of the larger rationale for support of nonprofit activity in modern liberal democracy.

Key contributions of arts to the philanthropic agenda

A central question of the retreat was, how do the arts fit into a broader framework of grantmaking that involves multiple funding agendas? Although the group acknowledged there is no one general solution to the funders' challenge of deciding among a range of compelling social needs, they agreed that arts funding can be vital in pursuing a spectrum of purposes that define the pluralism of civil society, among which were mentioned: being a source of diverse ideas and of innovation/creativity (R&D), telling the story of who we are, conveying the history of culture, being a bellwether of democracy, developing critical thinking, aiding workforce development, building on the strength of multiple intelligences, enhancing community well-being, expressing the story of pluralism, and encouraging broad access, participation, and social bonding.

One way of asking the question about the relative value of arts and cultural funding is to ask: What would be missing in society if nonprofit arts organizations received no philanthropic funding and disappeared? Since a wide range of arts activity is currently available through commercial sources (commercial theater, cable channels, the Internet, and so on), what is the distinctive contribution of philanthropically-supported cultural organizations?

The group highlighted four key objectives shared by a large number of foundations that can be particular strengths of nonprofit arts activity and are also essential features of a healthy civil society. In addition to naming the objectives and listing a series of related strategies in each case, participants amplified the points with stories from their own experience.

1. Building healthy communities

  • Arts as a way of integrating diverse community building goals
  • Enhancing overall quality of life and providing equitable access to it
  • Neighborhood revitalization
  • Strengthening mid-sized nonprofits
  • Supporting anchor institutions
  • Community celebration

About five years ago, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund crafted a mission of promoting social connectivity and mutual accountability in pursuit of building a healthier community. This mission serves as the frame for the foundation as a whole. Within that, the Fund recognized that many legitimate avenues could reflect and advance the values inherent in this mission—and that the community-building frame served to connect its grantmaking programs across issue areas. As a result, the arts program area is as significant to achieving the mission as are the economic development or public education programs. In fact, the strategic planning process undertaken to reframe the mission helped the Fund recognize the value and uniqueness of what the arts bring to moving the mission forward, strengthening its commitment to continuing to fund in this arena.

The Durfee Foundation launched the Stanton Fellowships in 2006, a program that supports a cross-sector cohort of nonprofit leaders in Los Angeles in problem-solving around intractable issues in their fields. Leaders in the arts work with their colleagues in health, homelessness, environment, and economic development. The program strengthens ties between the arts and other sectors. The goal of the Stanton Fellowships is to build a cross-sector leadership platform for the city.

In 2000, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation embarked on a strategic planning process that engaged citizens, grantees, and community leaders in twenty-six cities. The foundation asked the communities to help the foundation identify the investments that would have the most impact on the quality of life in the community. For roughly half a dozen of those communities, the arts rose to the top of the agenda.

2. Realizing human potential

  • Developing understanding and appreciation of the arts
  • Arts education as part of the larger education agenda
  • Work force development (skill building, creativity, etc.)

Since 1997, the Durfee Foundation has been offering Master Musician Fellowships to assist artists in transferring their skills to a next generation, to develop talent and leadership, and to honor creativity. A “culture bearer” program, the Fellowships support the preservation of cultural identity, and focus attention on the rich diversity of talent and experience among immigrant communities.

The Blank Foundation's Pathways to Success program focuses on preparing high school students for post-secondary education and careers. Among the interventions, arts programs have proven to be particularly successful, albeit for small numbers of talented students. The Talent Development Program of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra identifies and supports talented young African American and Latino students who desire to pursue careers as classical musicians. Designed as a pipeline program to feed players of color into professional orchestras, TDP has offered a unique “pathway” to students who might not otherwise pursue higher education.

3. Re-shaping civil society

  • Contributing to transformed society
  • Intercultural understanding
  • Conveying history
  • Providing vital social information

In the experience of the Gerbode Foundation, most artists are deeply interested in social justice and can make important contributions to the advancement of this goal. Helping artists to explore these commitments (on their terms… not the foundation's) has consistently been rewarding and productive. Among many examples of this kind of contribution by artists, one of the better known was Gerbode's 1987 commission of playwright Tony Kushner to write Angels in America, which dealt with HIV/AIDs and much more. It was originally performed at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco and went on to Broadway and a slew of Tony awards including Best Play as well as a Pulitzer. A few years later HBO produced an award-winning version that was viewed by millions. While awards and numbers are certainly not the only measure of success, they are not a bad thing either.

The long experience of the Highlander Center, a progressive organization based in Tennessee, building grassroots power for social change for seventy-five years, is a good reminder that the role of cultural activity in social change can't be underestimated. One participant asked, rhetorically, has there ever been an important social movement without song, dance, art, theater as a critical component and companion? “How can we talk about fundamental change in the broader society without supporting creative expression?” The Civil Rights Movement can't be envisioned without the background chorus of “We Shall Overcome” and the extraordinary images of the photojournalists of the period. Likewise, the Gay Rights Movement and the change in U.S. culture that brought gays out of the closet would not have occurred without the contributions of playwrights, artists, photographers, filmmakers, and novelists.

4. Realizing donors' diverse visions

  • Manifesting a pluralistic aim of civil society by allowing philanthropic donors to express diverse visions of the public good
  • Enhancing the free play of ideas in philanthropy

Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen uses a variety of approaches in his desire to improve the Pacific Northwest region and the world, from making responsive community grants through his Seattle-based foundation to establishing new nonprofit organizations to solve large-scale problems or test new models. In 2000, he founded the Experience Music Project, an interactive museum designed to engage young people in the transformational power of music. This project grew out of his own experience using music as a form of personal expression. Giving expression to the multifarious inspirations of a wide spectrum of donors both adds to the creativity of the nonprofit world and increases the appeal of giving by prospective philanthropists.

Ways of knowing and evaluating – the arts as connector

In James Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, we are reminded that, “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” Scott observes that while this narrowing of vision can be useful in bringing unruly natural and social arenas under manageable administrative control, it also arbitrarily restricts understanding of complex social phenomena and creates blinders that can have dangerous consequences for natural or social environments. He contrasts the “techne” of social engineering schemes and their narrowed vision with the “metis” of practical and experiential knowledge of the navigator, farmer, and artist.

Using Scott's notion of metis, along with Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, retreat participants discussed how the kind of knowledge yielded by the arts affords particular insights into human experience and social problems that escape social scientific or other forms of analysis. This distinction has two important consequences for arts funding: 1) It suggests that the arts provide an avenue into connecting with the world that can yield high social benefit—and is a reason why training and experience in the arts can produce unique results in human development and can be highly effective in youth and community programs. 2) It implies that the evaluation of arts programs requires descriptive information along with measurement—as the group formulated it, “stories and numbers.”

There was consensus in the group that one of the most important benefits of arts activity is that it operates, at least in part, at the margins, pushing conceptual and social boundaries and expressing its essential creativity. Evaluating this work requires, above all, judgment and understanding (one of the reasons why peer review is used so often in arts grantmaking). This insight can carry over into other areas of grantmaking; it is one indication of how the arts can expand philanthropic vision and inform broader discussions of “strategic philanthropy,” including how evaluation is conducted across a full range of activities supported by foundations. This, along with the other themes of the retreat, invite further exploration of the relationship between arts grantmaking and other central concerns of contemporary philanthropy.


Although there was no presumption that the purpose of the retreat was to develop a comprehensive rationale for contemporary arts philanthropy, participants did, during the course of the two-day conversation, come to a strong consensus on fundamental grounds related to such a goal. In particular, they agreed on three key points central to understanding the vital role of funding arts and culture in multi-purpose foundations:

Rationale—The rationale for support of arts and culture is inseparably linked to (and reinforces) the rationale for support of the nonprofit sector as a whole—the pluralism, experimentalism, and creativity that are essential to the successful functioning of civil society.

Efficacy—Work made possible through arts and culture funding provides vital, often essential, support to broader foundation goals such as community building and human development.

Knowledge and evaluation—Assessment of arts and culture funding provides insight not only into what is accomplished by the cultural arena but also into an expanded understanding of the work of philanthropy as a whole.

The group agreed that each of these topics had great potential for future exploration by the field.

Bruce Sievers is visiting scholar and lecturer at Stanford University and former executive director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

A small, collegial gathering among foundation leaders whose giving encompasses several fields met for two days in June 2008. Sponsored by Grantmakers in the Arts, the retreat was facilitated by Bruce Sievers, former executive director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and organized by Anne Focke, then executive director of GIA. Its aim was to consider where arts and culture fit into multi-field foundations and how the arts intersect with and support other priorities. Other participants included Sue Coliton (Paul G. Allen Family Foundation), Pamela David (Walter & Elise Haas Fund), Tom Layton (Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation), Penny McPhee (Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation), and Claire Peeps (Durfee Foundation).