Research in Progress

Private Support for the Folk and Traditional Arts

Betsy Peterson

At the Fund for Folk Culture (FFC), we have been working with Laurel Jones and Morrie Warshawski of the Bay Consulting Group (BCG) to survey the range of private support for the folk and traditional arts and investigate opportunities for increased private support in this cultural sector. The research is being conducted on behalf of the NEA and is consistent with the FFC's commitment to collaborate with artists, culture bearers, cultural workers, nonprofits, funders, and communities to build effective networks of sustainable activity, learning, and support for folk arts and traditional culture in this country's communities. In shaping the scope of the research, the FFC and BCG have been assisted by NEA staff and an advisory committee including Kurt Dewhurst (Michigan State University Museum), Daniel Salcedo (PEOPlink, Inc.), Holly Sidford (independent consultant formerly with the Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund), and Chris Walker (the Urban Institute).

Research will result in a working paper summary of findings to be distributed to funders and practitioners in the field. A second publication designed for broader circulation will be produced, with the purpose of promoting the folk and traditional arts. We anticipate the first report to be available by the end of 2001, with the second publication to follow soon thereafter.

Preliminary Findings
As we begin to prepare the reports, everyone involved has been surprised by some of the information gleaned from the data-gathering and interviews. While the final documents will explore in more depth the definitive findings and suggestive trends in folk and traditional arts activity, it is worth noting a few of them here.

Some of the data gathered questions one of the most basic assumptions of the research — that is, the field of folk and traditional arts is underserved and underfunded by private foundations. While it is clear that the public sector (at the local, state, and federal levels) remains a leader in dollars and commitment, the foundations listed in the FFC grantee survey and the Foundation Center data indicate a wide range of private funding activity for folk arts organizations and folk and ethnic arts museums (though museums, no doubt because of organizational size, fare better than most private nonprofits). At the same time, this broad-based private support has not translated into prolonged funding commitment. From the surveys and data queries, it is clear that funding is fragmented and scattered, with little evidence of repeat funding. Private foundation support seems focused more on individual organizations and not on the field or sector per se.

A central question raised, however, is not one solely of volume or dollar amounts. It is also definitional.

Attempts to gather data according to definitions based on genre or folklore discipline have proven to be extremely difficult if not futile (unless one reviews every foundation annual report and classifies each grant awarded). Discussions with Foundation Center, Urban Institute, and NASAA staff confirm this problem. Folk arts funding may be classified variously as ethnic arts, historic preservation, performing arts, youth education, community development, job training, and the like. The range of existing classification challenges all of us to consider both the social and artistic purposes of cultural activity that is rooted in community life, values, or aesthetics. If past data classification schemes mask the level of current funding activity for folk arts and traditional culture, they also obscure the level, range, and power of activity already occurring in this sector. People become involved in traditional culture rooted in community life for a range of reasons. It may be time to develop a classification system and way of thinking that more accurately reflects its function and purpose.

Folk Arts Organizations and Implications
for the Unincorporated Sector

From our survey work, it is clear that the vast majority of organizations working in folk arts and traditional culture have annual budgets of under $100,000. In large part, the obstacles that folk arts and traditional culture organizations face are obstacles that most small organizations face. Of the 576 self-identified folk arts organizations listed on Guidestar, for instance, 72 percent have annual budgets of less than $100,000 (and, given the limitations of data, this does not begin to capture the realm of unincorporated activity). In keeping with observations about the voluntary sector in the Rand Corporation's recent report, The Performing Arts in a New Era, many of them might also be characterized as serving locally-based niche groups or markets. Future investment or activity emerging from the research provides an opportunity to consider questions of service and support for small organizations. What are the resource needs of small organizations? What is an appropriate level of assistance for small organizations that recognizes their essential nature and role in community life without changing them into something they are not (e.g. “bigger and better”)? What support systems and intermediary networks are required? And which ones already exist?

Betsy Peterson, Program Director, Fund for Folk Culture.