Walking the Walk at Private Foundations: One Program Officer’s Perspective

by Lynn Stern (bio), program officer for Thriving Cultures, Surdna Foundation

How can private foundation staff advance equity and inclusiveness in its arts and culture grantmaking? The publication of NCRP’s report, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, comes at an opportune moment for us as we wrestle with this very question at the Surdna Foundation. Like many of our private foundation peers, Surdna is in the throes of organizational restructuring, a process begun in 2009. This journey has led us to a new mission—fostering just and sustainable communities—and redefined core programs in culture, economy and environment. It also affirmed the importance of social justice as core concept to apply to our work going forward. We are now poised to embark on a strategy development process that will result in clearly articulated grantmaking strategies within each of our three programs.

So how do we “walk the walk”? The NCRP report has already served as a springboard for revisiting and refreshing the assumptions and strategies that undergird our culture portfolio with an eye toward equity. We were fortunate to have NCRP report author Holly Sidford join us at our September Board meeting for a conversation with board and staff about the report’s findings and its implications for our culture portfolio’s strategy development. It was a rich and challenging discussion. In view of the demographic, economic and aesthetic trends transforming our cultural landscape, the report’s data on philanthropic giving trends in the arts and culture sector gave our board and staff pause. It compelled us to ask: To what extent are Surdna’s grantmaking practices across its culture portfolio inclusive, responsive and relevant to these trends? Are we addressing the inequities that face our communities and the pressing needs and concerns of our most marginalized populations?

These questions are not unfamiliar to us. In fact, we’ve been grappling with issues of equity and access in our support of teens’ artistic advancement since the inception of this line of work nearly two decades ago. In the last five years, as these concerns have grown more central to grantees’ work, our grantmaking intensified its focus on “widening the door” to the arts training pipeline for underserved teens, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds. Our support to organizations along the arts training continuum—community-based art groups, specialized public art schools, summer intensives, and national centers of excellence in arts training around the country—helps strengthen their capacity to identify talent and provide key supports (e.g. pre-college preparation, scholarships, financial aid, etc.) to benefit teens with the least access to arts training opportunities.

Our “expanding access” work is one way we’ve tried to be inclusive and responsive in our grantmaking. But there is much more that we can do. And the NCRP report gives us a helpful framework and fresh set of questions to consider in our strategy development process moving forward. Here are some of the questions the NCRP report has spurred me to ponder. In terms of changing demographics, how can we achieve more equitable outcomes for the young people—and their communities—we want to serve? Alongside our “expanding access” work, we have begun to support the artistic advancement of teens from disadvantaged communities through programs with strong artistic practice and a social justice/cultural equity purview.

In terms of cultural economics, are we contributing to a sustainable ecosystem of arts education/training organizations? Currently, our grantees represent a wide spectrum of organizations in all disciplines along the arts training continuum, from large institutions (e.g., art colleges, university-based arts programs, major museums and performing arts centers) to mid-size and small community-based arts groups. How do we need to recalibrate this mix (e.g. increase percentage of mid-size and small arts groups) to ensure a healthy biodiversity of arts education/training organizations? Given the chronic funding challenges faced by many mid-size and small arts groups, how do we reorient our current grantmaking practice (three-year, project-based support) to promote their long-term financial sustainability through multi-year, general operating support?

In terms of changing aesthetics and cultural practices, are we contributing to greater diversity in art forms and aesthetic practices? We expect to do this kind of analysis of our portfolio in the coming months, though my hunch is that grantees providing arts education/training opportunities for underserved teens in non-European arts forms and cultural practices are underrepresented in our work. We have begun to look at how Surdna can help validate and support the artistic advancement of young protégés/apprentices of master artists in immigrant and indigenous communities. As a national funder with a small staff, this will be challenging. Our notion of what strong arts education/training for young people looks like along the “conventional” arts training continuum is wholly inadequate when applied to the practices by which young people learn and master art forms and cultural practices in these communities. We know that it will be essential to partner with cultural intermediaries and/or community foundations with “on the ground” knowledge of these practitioners and their communities.

So this is a just a glimpse into my thinking and questioning as we bring a greater focus on equity to our arts and culture grantmaking at Surdna in the coming months. It’s been a humbling process so far. With “just and sustainable communities” as my north star, it has challenged me to look critically at our culture portfolio with a new set of priorities and identify grantmaking strategies and institutional practices that impede equity. I am grateful to GIA for making this online Forum on Equity in Arts available, and I look forward to engaging in dialogue with fellow bloggers and readers on this critical field-wide issue.