Protecting Our Investments

It feels that there isn’t a lot that one can do these days to plug the dike. Organizations are hurting, foundations are cutting back and public arts agency budgets are prime targets for invasion by elected officials. What’s pretty obvious is that there is no bailout for the nonprofit arts sector. Private foundations cannot replace public dollars and governmental agencies don’t have the resources to substitute for private philanthropy. If we are all in this together…how are we strategizing together to maintain a level of support for the arts in our communities?

One pretty obvious answer to me is that we shouldn’t sit quietly by as another arts funding source hits the skids. This was brought into focus for me lately by the stories of two courageous women in the philanthropy field: Janice Pober of Sony Entertainment and Vickie Benson of the McKnight Foundation.

I met with Janice in Los Angeles recently on the same day that numerous teachers were receiving pink slips. Janice has worked passionately to position Sony as a “good neighbor” in the revitalization of Culver City where their studios are located. She has played an active role with the Culver City schools, encouraging the hiring of specialists in arts areas and particularly, an arts coordinator who would be an advocate and resource builder for all arts programs within the school system. Janice was visibly upset as we discussed the many cuts that were looming in the Culver City schools. But Janice sees her role as not simply a funder. She is an advocate and active partner in creating arts opportunities for children. In that role, she attends school board meetings and testifies on behave of the value of the arts to children. What she is also doing is protecting her investment. An argument for all private foundations who have spent dollars in the nonprofit arts sector.

Vickie Benson, president of Grantmakers in the Arts and arts program officer for the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis has a similar story to tell. She has been to the statehouse twice during the past couple months to testify in support of arts funding. The first time, she was invited by a legislative committee member to give input on regulations being written regarding fund dispersement from the new tax that will benefit culture and the environment. The second time she was asked to appear as a witness by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts when a bill was introduced to eliminate the Minnesota State Arts Board.

In her second testimony, Vickie made two things clear to the legislative committee: 1) if they had asked McKnight if it felt the Arts Board should be eliminated, the answer would have been “no” and 2) the private sector, as in previous downturns in governmental funding, cannot make up the difference when government resources are zeroed out. In other words, she was protecting her investment of support from McKnight to the cultural growth of Minnesota. You can read her testimony on the McKnight website.

Vickie heard from many private foundations who thanked her for her testimony and for helping to make the point that funding the nonprofit arts community is a “partnership” between the private and public sector. Vickie did this with the consent and blessing of McKnight Foundation president, Kate Wolford.

You can call this advocacy. You can call it information or education. You can call it protecting your investment. And it is all these things. What’s most important in this climate is that we speak up together as “grantmakers in the arts” no matter what sector you work in…public for private and private for public. It’s a partnership that needs involvement and education on all sides.

Be Better Together.