ArtPlace: A Moment to Build On

The arts blogosphere is a buzz with news about ArtPlace America, a new nonprofit regranting organization funded by several major foundations, in partnership with commercial financial institutions, and involving seven government agencies. Add the Nonprofit Finance Fund in the mix as fiscal management and you have a pretty complex new initiative. Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, brought foundation leaders together which ultimately resulted in the ArtPlace program. Carol Coletta is president of ArtPlace and also President of CEOs for Cities.

Three things stand out for me. 1) The announcement of the initial grants from this group has gotten more press than an announcement by any single funder. 2) The quotes from presidents of foundations like Ford, Kresge and Mellon are testimonials by powerful men that investment in the arts and culture of a community will revitalize economic growth. This is a strong message for the general public and for elected officials. 3) These are private sector investments that will compliment government programs and/or be enhanced by public agency involvement in a way that may not necessarily include direct dollars.

Throughout its history, the NEA has always used matching requirements from private and public sources as a funding strategy. There have been programs, as in the late 80s and early 90s, where federal governmental dollars were leveraged to raise new government dollars. (Those were the good old days!) The NEA has also always had programs that focused on “creative placemaking.” (Having come out of the community arts development world, I find this term a bit strange but so be it.) As I understand it, Mr. Landesman believes that new federal dollars are not likely. I have to agree with him there. He also believes that economic development can be a “why arts” argument that will resonate with the general public and with government officials in this time and this economy. I also think that’s true. So the idea that major foundations could in 2011 create a grant program where funds will be leveraged by financial institution loans and could ultimately incentivize public spending for the arts is pretty enticing.

As an arts community, we need this influx of dollars, enthusiasm and moral support. And this idea of heavy hitters like Bloomberg Philanthropies endorsing the arts for economic development, which had some play in the past, could actually light a fire now. I think the time is right. And hopefully, this could lead to private dollars incentivizing public programs with the arts as the catalyst far beyond the commitments of ArtPlace.

Every private foundation program officer, corporate funder and local, county and state arts agency staff should be paying attention here. We cannot underestimate the advocacy power of major foundation presidents like Luis A. Ubiñas, Ford Foundation, Rip Rapson, Kresge Foundation and Don Michael Randel, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation speaking out about how important the arts are to the vitality of our cities and towns and backing up that talk with money. We can use their testimonials and actions to put together similar partnerships to benefit our own communities. This is a moment to build on. Think big.