A Regional Overview of Arts and Culture Foundation Grants


Linda Breneman

See them in snow under a full moon
they told me.
The shadows will take you out of
yourself to when
the Stones were erected, the time it
took and the reason
we try to guess today.

Richard Hugo, from "The Standing Stones of Callanish"

Poets know that how we ask a question determines how we see the answer. The Murdock Charitable Trust, in its ambitious new study of arts funding, is learning the same thing. It's often your landscape of assumptions that determines what you can see.

In the case of "A Regional Overview of Arts and Culture Foundation Grants," compiled by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, what we see may be most influenced by the fact that Murdock wanted to know about the five-state region in which it makes grants: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. It's an interesting region because it encompasses two large metropolitan areas (Seattle-Tacoma and Portland) and a few cities like Spokane and Anchorage, but it also includes some of the most sparsely populated rural areas in the country.

The large/small dichotomy of the region also extends to the thirty-nine foundations and nearly 1,500 grants included in the survey. Some of the foundations that make grants in the five states are among the largest in the world (the Gates and Allen Foundations, for example), while many of the foundations are mid-size or small family foundations. Grants to world-class museums in the metropolitan areas, such as $18 million to the Seattle Art Museum, loom large in this study, but small arts groups in small towns are also represented.

Murdock, a large foundation in its own right, with $600 million in assets and yearly grants totaling approximately $25 million, began the study to find out more about its own grantmaking, the kinds of arts and culture organizations in its five-state region, and the resources available to these organizations from other foundations. Murdock makes the point that this is a draft of the study and that the research is ongoing.

Even so, the conclusions Murdock has reached so far are interesting and instructive. For instance:
• During the year of the study, 1999, many of the large organizations in the metropolitan areas were pressing hard on capital campaigns to build new venues or start endowments. The fact that the study was a kind of a “snapshot” — covering one year only, and a year that was a big one for capital campaigns — influences the conclusions.
• By far, most of the grants and most of the dollars were given to large museums and performing arts organizations in Seattle and Portland, such as the Seattle Art Museum, the Portland Opera, and the Tacoma and Portland art museums. Museums of all kinds dominated the arts funding landscape. The only grant of a million dollars or more that was not to a museum, symphony, or opera was to KCTS, Seattle's public television station. Visual art (mostly art schools), media (such as public TV and radio), and other (literary arts and multi-disciplinary) accounted for only about 17 percent of the total grant dollars.
• As is often the case when studying foundation grants, categorization of grants was an issue, with some foundations classifying grants to arts organizations as educational or cultural. Murdock looked primarily at the purpose of the grant, but the main organizational categories were museums, performing arts, media, visual arts schools, and other (arts councils, multi-disciplinary, literary arts, and so on).
• Washington and Oregon were the 800-pound gorillas of the five-state region in 1999, with 54 percent of the grant dollars being spent in Washington, 38 percent in Oregon, 4 percent in Idaho, and 2 percent each in Alaska and Montana.
• Cities, towns, and rural areas outside the metro areas of Seattle and Portland accounted for only about 30 percent of the total grant dollars.
• Program grants made up not quite 30 percent of the total, while endowment and capital grants made up the rest.
• Washington-based foundations gave disproportionately more in metro areas than Oregon-based foundations (84 percent vs. 69 percent). Many more grants were given to small town and rural organizations in Oregon than in Washington — 19 percent of total grant dollars were sent outside the metro areas in Oregon, but only 5 percent of Washington's dollars were sent outside metro areas.

The conclusion section of the Murdock study says, “In many cases, the findings raise many more questions than are answered.” It's true that it would help to know more about how many foundations are operating in these states, how many organizations in small towns apply to foundations, or even how many organizations that would qualify for arts and culture grants are operating in rural areas.

Perhaps most important are the questions of whether this five-state region has fewer foundations than other areas of the country, how the per capita giving in rural areas compares to the rest of the country, and how we'd see all of this differently if the information were tracked over time.

With ongoing work by Murdock, the Foundation Center, and Grantmakers in the Arts to track data annually or every two years, we eventually may be able to hone in on important details, comparisons, and trends.

And all that data would be like giving foundations snow and full moon on the long nights when they make their guesses about how to fill gaps in arts funding.

Linda Breneman is trustee, Breneman Jaech Family Fund and a former GIA board member.