It's a Complex Cultural Eco-System

The blogesphere and pressophere (I made that word up) lit up on Monday, October 10 with the release of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s (NCRP) essay on private foundation arts funding to marginalized communities. NCRP defines marginalized communities to include but not be limited to lower-income communities, communities of color, disabled people, women and girls, rural residents, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.” Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change written by Holly Sidford, Helicon Collaborative, reports, among other statistics, that a majority of private foundation support goes to organizations with budgets over $5 million that represent only 2% of all arts organizations.

Grantmakers in the Arts was involved in this study as advisors. I saw a couple of the drafts and made recommendations. We worked with NCRP to make sure they were aware of the many GIA members, both private and public, who specifically fund within the communities they describe as marginalized. I urge everyone to read the report in its entirety. I am pleased with the tone and spirit of the report. It is not without controversy and I’m pleased with that too.

NCRP’s reputation and mission is as a watchdog. (I’m a firm believer in watchdogs.) We knew from the beginning this project did not have the resources or time to be a thoroughly researched and objective study. NCRP has a point of view and this "essay" reflects that. The Foundation Center, although a great resource for data on all things philanthropic, does not have a perfect system of collecting information on arts funding, particularly as it pertains to cross sector giving in areas like social justice, human services, education, health, environment. It also doesn’t record gifts under $10,000. Despite this, I believe the basic tenets of the report are correct and that it should be read by all arts funders to inform their assessment of mission and programming.

The arts community including funders is not one-dimensional. It is a complex eco-system of interdependency that includes K-12 education, higher education, individual artists, and nonprofit organizations working in every aspect of community life from health to corrections. It also includes a range of professional institutions that are symbols of a community’s cultural wealth and the protectors of our society’s treasures. And, let’s face it, there is not enough private foundation money in the arts to go around. We have always known that. It’s an eco-system that, unlike most nonprofit sectors, has actually sustained itself through a diverse funding stream of earned income (we sell lots of tickets) and support from private foundations, local businesses, national corporations, individual contributions and public sources. No one entity makes it work. It’s the combined effort that supports the system.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the sensational headlines that hit the papers and the web. Although I’m not sure NCRP intended the sound bites to be harsh, it is also part of their modus operandi to shock and embarrass the private foundation world into change. I’ve never thought this was a good tactic and, in fact, I believe it has the opposite effect. Let’s all remember one thing: private dollars are private dollars. They are not given with the same egalitarian expectations as are government dollars, which is why I am such a strong supporter of public funding for the arts. And the “greater good” is defined with many nuances from many perspectives. I’ve always believed you “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” But then, honey doesn’t make great headlines.

Here’s the statement that I made that didn’t make the cover of the report “The role of Grantmakers in the Arts is to provide information and options to the arts philanthropy field. We were honored to be asked by NCRP to serve in an advisory capacity on this report, which provides an important point of view to be considered as arts grantmakers respond to ever-changing community needs.” And respond, they will.

Artists of every discipline, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status and geographical location are important to the eco-system. The NCRP report gives us an opportunity to reassess our missions and purpose as funders. If the mission is clear so are the actions that support that mission. Let the conversations go forward and the communities in which people live will be the richer because of honest conversations to improve our ever expanding and complex cultural eco-system.