Lessons from Public Funders

by Barbara Schaffer Bacon (bio), co-director, Animating Democracy, Americans for the Arts

GIA asks, “What can private foundations learn from public funders who are working with marginalized communities?” I think public support programs, some old, and some more current have a few lessons to offer. Though neither was without problems or controversy, both Roosevelt’s Federal Arts Projects in the 30s and The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in the 70s suggest that light structure can produce great results. They provide evidence that talented artists will answer the call and can produce great works that are relevant to and reflective of the communities for which they are created. While the Federal Art Project was more prescriptive, artists had a very public platform and some latitude to create their work. The public works they created and the artist’s interaction with the public is credited with stimulating national interest in American art and laying the groundwork for the National Endowment for the Arts to be established.

As a jobs and not an arts program, CETA had a looser structure. Artists and creative administrators were deployed, often creating their own job descriptions as they went to work in neighborhoods and community centers around the country. But they found their way and many of the programs created had staying power. The San Francisco Art Commission’s Neighborhood Arts Program, and later SOMArts Cultural Center, began a Technical Services Program that helped support the establishment of many neighborhood and culturally-specific parades and festivals that still thrive today. In Minneapolis, the American Composers Forum, The Loft, Dance Today (formerly the Minnesota Dance Alliance), Forecast Public Artworks, Warm, Illusion Theater, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Springboard for the Arts (formerly Resources and Counseling for the Arts), Milkweed Chronicle and many others grew out of the CETA era.

The lesson from these federal programs seems to be that we should keep program structures loose and expectations open. Instead of prescribing outcomes, we need to trust the artists and communities we seek to serve to couple creative expression with community engagement in meaningful ways. While we’re thinking about it, a jobs program for the arts would be a pretty good idea now — any interested funders?

Lessons and models are also available from local and state arts agencies that have evolved effective programs to serve marginalized communities. The most impactful have worked systemically, sustained leadership and funding over more than a decade, and combined training with program support. For example, the St. Louis Regional Arts Council Community Arts Training Institute (CAT) is a five-month curriculum fostering successful partnerships among artists, social workers, educators and community activists with the goal of creating significant arts programs in community settings such as neighborhood organizations, social service agencies and after-school programs. Now in its 15th year, CAT as developed a cadre of over 200 skilled artists and social service agencies through a well conceived community arts training and project support program focusing on strong partnership work.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s YouthReach Initiative promotes out-of-school arts, humanities, and science opportunities that are providing at-risk youth with in-depth experiences in arts and culture. Whether it’s linking a high school dropout to a teaching artist, or introducing an incarcerated teen to Shakespeare, these programs find innovative ways to inspire positive growth. The award winning program reaches deeply into communities and neighborhoods across the state and has helped to shape programs of the highest quality that are garnering national awards themselves. YouthReach is informed by and grounded in strong youth development principles. It has enjoyed consistent leadership, invested in evaluation, provided training opportunities, and developed effective partnerships at the state level that have helped to advance appreciation for the role the arts play in positive youth development.

As Sidford cites in Fusing Arts Culture and Social Change, public arts agencies have provided significant support for artists and groups whose roots may be more in the community than the academy as well as leadership for reaching marginalized populations. They can offer more than models and lessons to private foundations seeking to broaden the scope and impact of their investments in art, culture, and society. They can be strong partners or intermediaries for reaching marginalized communities.