What Does Equity Mean to an Arts Funder?

Equity is a complex topic with many interpretations. We are talking a great deal about it these days at Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA.) It is a major theme of the upcoming GIA conference in San Francisco, the focus of a new publication by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) for which GIA served in an advisory capacity, the topic of several articles in our upcoming Reader and the subject of a GIA Thought Leader Forum. Even our Forum on Arts Education in urban schools determined the lack of arts opportunities is an issue of equity.

Equity is in the eye of the beholder and no matter who you are, there is probably evidence of inequity somewhere in your universe. GIA's current discussions revolve around the "not funded or poorly funded" within our communities. This often means racial or cultural inequities, both in our cities and in rural areas. This kind of evaluation of on-going operations is both imperative and timely.

The NCRP essay written by Holly Sidford, Helicon Collaborative, gives us some unsettling statistics about private foundation giving to what NCRP refers to as "marginalized communities." According to the Foundation Center, one third of foundation giving to the arts goes to fifty recipients. At the GIA conference, there will be a discussion about the issues brought up by this report led by Bill Cleveland, Center for the Study of Arts and Community. Justin Laing, Heinz Endowments, will also lead a discussion on "Funding through a Racial Lens" hoping to elevate the topic to a new level of transparency and clarity. The concepts and questions that come out of these two discussions will inform our Thought Leader Forum on Racial Equity to be held in 2012.

Most arts administrators who have been around as long as I have (could that be 30 years or more?) have gone through numerous discussions and grant requirements about multi-culturalism and diversity. For the most part, it seemed past discussions focused on nonprofit organizations. Were they seeking people of color on their boards of directors and in their administrative offices and reaching out to audiences that were from marginalized communities? This focus has raised awareness and encouraged positive change for many organizations.

But I think this new conversation of what funders are supporting and why is different. It is driven by many factors: 1) there can no longer be any question that our community demographics have changed, 2) the economy has funders making tough choices, 3) the trend in philanthropy to break down silos and support a more holistic "livable community," and 4) a new generation of program officers who are inclined to want substantial not superficial change, many of whom are people of color with years of grantmaking experience. GIA's work in capitalization stems from funders asking themselves hard questions about legacy funding versus community needs. Add these factors to the reality that we are in a time of fluidity and change and you have a potential for powerful restructuring.

In a world full of inequities, artists and arts advocates are or should be on the front line of change. We believe in the transformative power of artists to speak the truth about injustice and demonstrate the beauty that reflects our hopes and aspirations. Our greatest challenge as an arts community is to have a more candid conversation about race, equity and opportunity. And our greatest failure is to believe there is no need for this conversation at all. As an association of funders, I look forward to GIA's equity discussions and to arts funders evaluating what it means to support a full and rich cultural community that includes every artist and every art form.