The Role of Foundations in Achieving Creative Justice

Antonio C. Cuyler

Successful cultural organizations masterfully manage contributed and earned income. This income mix can include corporate grants, endowment income, foundation grants, government grants, individual donations, membership fees, ticket sales, and unrelated business income (National Endowment for the Arts 2012). Although Alicia Schatteman and Ben Bingle (2017) have suggested that government funding is the most stable of these sources of income, foundations have played a significant role in the development of the US cultural sector (Renz 1994; Negley 2017).

In addition to providing financial support for capital projects, general operating support, and programming, foundations have funded the development of many aspects of the sector (Renz 1994). For example, after the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965, from 1966 to 1976, the Ford Foundation contributed $80 million to the development of symphony orchestras in the United States and Puerto Rico (Negley 2017). Through their transformative leadership, foundations ensured the emergence of a competitive cultural sector. However, despite their efforts, foundations have made disappointing progress in addressing creative justice issues.

In 2011, Holly Sidford informed the sector of the existence of long-standing distributional funding inequities. She maintained that the majority of funding supported “legacy” cultural organizations with budgets greater than $5 million. These organizations comprise less than 2 percent of cultural nonprofits, but they receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. These institutions also focus primarily on Western European art forms and serve audiences that are predominantly white and affluent. In addition, funders grant only 10 percent of funding with a primary or secondary purpose of supporting the cultures of marginalized groups.

Most disheartening was the finding by Helicon Collaborative in 2017 that the funding inequities identified by Sidford (2011) have worsened. Fewer than fifty cultural organizations whose missions primarily focus on artistic traditions from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and First Peoples or that reach rural and low-income populations receive enough funding to maintain budgets of $5 million a year. These findings raise several questions. First, why, despite some foundations’ efforts, have funding inequities worsened? Second, has empiricizing that, which the cultural sector has known (Keller 1989; Gilmore 1993), inspired a doubling down on the funding privileges that legacy organizations have always enjoyed? Third, has this doubling down prompted a backlash that has further victimized ethnic culturally specific arts organizations (ECSAOs)? Fourth, what has this backlash meant for ECSAOs, who already face almost insurmountable managerial challenges (Cunniffe 2018; Matlon, Van Haastrecht, and Mengüç 2014; DeVos Institute of Arts Management 2015; Voss et al. 2016; Yancey Consulting 2018)? These questions should compel continued critical examination by foundations and the culture sector.

In this article, I explore three research questions: What role should foundations play in achieving creative justice? What behaviors do foundations practice that might undermine their efforts toward achieving creative justice? And what approaches to funding creative justice should foundations consider? Implicit in these questions is the assumption that foundations have a role to play in achieving creative justice. Given the transformative leadership that foundations have historically provided to the sector, they should play a strategic leadership role in a sectoral-wide focus on creative justice. Yet, the sector’s focus on social justice has overwhelmed progress in addressing access, diversity, cultural equity, and inclusion, which all play a role in achieving creative justice. But what exactly is creative justice, and how does it work?

Creative Justice

In his book, Creative Justice: Cultural Industries, Work, and Inequality (2017), Mark Banks describes creative justice as both a descriptive account and a normative aspiration. He uses three “working concepts” to define the term. The first, “objective respect,” means to respect cultural objects and practices by evaluating them in terms of their own objective qualities, as well their subjective apprehension and value. In adapting this principle, Banks admonished the cultural sector to value cultural objects and practices on their own merits. The US cultural sector has struggled with this in practice because it has whitewashed the term artistic excellence and used it to value the cultural products of marginalized groups irresponsibly.

Second, Banks identifies “parity of participation” as a concept that contributes to defining creative justice. He argues that parity of participation offers a point of commensurability between different types of justice claims. In addition to supporting claims for economic justice, such as the redistribution of wealth in the form of fairer pay, taxation, and social support, parity of participation supports the legitimate cultural rights and statuses of persons. He also suggests that cultural sectors adapt the following three foundational principles relative to parity of participation: (1) advancing social arrangements that allow for the maximum range of people to enter and participate in cultural work, in which they will receive fair treatment, just pay, and reward for their efforts relative to their peers; (2) ensuring that people are not prevented from entering cultural work on the grounds of any unfair cultural discrimination or prejudice, and that they have equal opportunities to participate and develop once they become engaged or employed; and (3) developing the cultural industries as democratic arenas where minority and marginal groups can advance their own fair representation and secure a more equal share of the public communicative space. He identifies blind auditions and selection, recruitment targets and quotas, and fair pay as indicative interventions to achieving parity of participation.

Finally, Banks proposes “reduction of harms” as the third and final concept in defining creative justice. He maintains that reducing the physical and psychological harms and injuries inflicted by cultural work, based on assessments of objective conditions and their human effects, helps to realize this third concept. A few of these harms include aggression, bullying, domination, exploitation (or self-exploitation), intimidation, overworking, stress, and violence.

While Banks argues that these harms can locate themselves in class, gender, and race-based discrimination and misrecognition, in my view they also appear in discrimination and biases against the differently abled and sexual minorities. Taking these three working concepts of creative justice together, I define creative justice as the manifestation of all people living creative and expressive lives on their own terms.

National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965

Congress established the NEA in 1965. The NEA serves as the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives US citizens the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates the United States’ rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across the country (National Endowment for the Arts 2018). To many within the cultural sector, the NEA serves as the United States’ ad-hoc ministry of culture.

Four of the provisions declared in the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 have profound resonance with creative justice:

  1. Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.
  2. The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.
  3. Americans should receive in school, background and preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression.
  4. It is vital to democracy to honor and preserve its multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas, and therefore it is essential to provide financial assistance to its artists and the organizations that support their work.

Considering that President Johnson signed this act during the Civil Rights Movement, and that the act uses language such as “access to the arts and the humanities,” “people of all backgrounds,” “mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups,” “diversity of excellence,” and “multicultural artistic heritage,” one can conclude that the US government intended for creative justice to frame the cultural sector’s development. Clearly, this did not happen. Even if foundations deserve acknowledgement for the funding they provided ECSAOs in the past, currently these organizations face devastating sectoral disinvestment. Furthermore, what behaviors do foundations practice that might undermine their efforts toward achieving creative justice?

Philanthropy’s Seven Deadly Sins

In a recent article, Ali Webb (2018) articulated a list of the seven deadly sins of philanthropy. Based on a survey she conducted of senior philanthropic leaders across foundations, the list includes (1) blindness to privilege, (2) dismissing community knowledge, (3) misplaced accountability, (4), poor partners, (5) failure to learn, (6) risk aversion, and (7) lack of transparency. In many ways, foundations demonstrate these behaviors in their funding practices. However, when it comes to foundations that fund culture, blindness to privilege, risk aversion, and lack of transparency deserve attention here as counterintuitive to the sector’s actualization of creative justice.

A Council of Foundations study found that 75 percent of full-time paid foundation staff in the United States identify as white (Webb 2018). Correlations exist between white privilege, wealth, and philanthropic giving. Even if Grantmakers in the Arts’ Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy Statement of Purpose and Recommendations for Action has helped to focus discourses and initiatives on creative justice, the cultural sector should acknowledge the potentiality of implicit racial bias in the awarding of grants, especially since it is highly likely that more than 75 percent of the staff at foundations that focus on culture are white.

As an old fundraising adage goes, people give money to people who look like them. If white people hold most of the wealth in the United States and they give to other white people, this may partially explain why funding inequities worsened between 2011 and 2017. But what if foundations could use their power and privilege to strategically lead the sector’s creative justice efforts? If the Doris Duke, Ford, Mellon, Wallace, and Walton Family foundations lead, would the rest of the sector follow?

Webb (2018) also argues that foundations are accountable only to their donors and their boards and thus are well suited to take on high-risk experiments that democracies need. Yes, foundations risk financial capital when awarding grants. But in a sector that prides itself on creativity, one expects room for risk. In turn, foundations should remain forgiving when grantees experience managerial challenges. Creative injustices appear in the cultural sector this way too.

The DuSable Museum in Chicago has faced complex and complicated financial challenges,1 which some who are close to the institution say stem from mismanagement of funds.2 Yet, financial mismanagement at legacy organizations, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera, does not have the same dire consequences. Why are ECSAOs not given the same latitude to fail with the expectation that their social network of donors, which has historically included foundations, will continue to support them?

Why are ECSAOs not given the same latitude to fail with the expectation that their social network of donors, which has historically included foundations, will continue to support them?

Lastly, other than annually filing the IRS’s Form 990, the government does not require foundations to share information or report how they use their funds (Webb 2018). They do, however, have to spend 4 to 5 percent of their assets to maintain their tax status (Renz 1994; Webb 2018). Even with foundations taking advantage of opportunities to share information about their application processes, a great deal about the granting process remains unknown. Do foundations employ a grant panel? Is there an open call for grant reviewers? If not, how do foundations choose grant reviewers? Are grant reviewers diverse? If not, how does a lack of diversity impact who receives funding? Or do foundations leave decisions to the proclivities of a sole program officer? More disclosure by foundations about their application processes would align well with the sector’s pursuit of creative justice. In funding creative justice, foundations should remain open-minded and creative in their approaches.

Funding Creative Justice

In 2017, Steven Lawrence reported on the plethora of ways public arts funders have begun to think about addressing cultural equity. However, public arts funders can only do so much, due to the nature of the type of funding they manage. This does not mean that they should receive a pass. As a previous grant reviewer for local, state, and national arts agencies, I find the quality and quantity of applications received from ECSAOs disturbing.

Suggesting strategies for funding cultural equity, Janet Brown and Angelique Power (2016) recommend more grants for longer periods of time and providing unrestricted general operating support to more ALAANA organizations. They argue that under good leadership, investing in an organization’s administrative capacity over time will provide the human resources needed to cultivate individual donors and other sustainability strategies. In addition, they suggest investing in management education and effective staff leadership as approaches to funding cultural equity. In making the shift from cultural equity to creative justice, I believe these strategies would work well. However, I take issue with the idea that in funding ECSAOs, foundations should prioritize great art rather than new buildings. This practice shifts the conversation back to the euphemism “artistic excellence,” which has racist over- and undertones, and evaluates ECSAOs on inappropriate terms (Voss et al. 2016).

Not entirely different but more comprehensive, a report by Yancey Consulting (2018) suggests larger grant amounts, multiyear funding, more general operating support to cover the people who make the programs happen, technical assistance support to augment capacity and integrate complementary expertise into the organizations’ intellectual assets pool (albeit temporarily), convening clusters of grantees for strategic conversations, supporting and encouraging professional development of staff, and supporting succession planning. These ideas may address the issue, but foundations can do more.

First, foundations should meet with ECSAOs to discuss their dreams, hopes, and needs. The intelligence that foundations could gather would wisely inform their approaches and initiatives to fund creative justice moving forward and challenge the idea that ECSAOs do not have a desire to grow. If foundations want to demonstrate the same kind of leadership that the Ford Foundation did from 1966 to 1976, when it funded orchestras, they could strategically decide to fund only ECSAOs for the next ten years. Or foundations could award at least 50 percent of their funding to these organizations for the next ten years. This may help ECSAOs achieve parity with their legacy cultural organization counterparts. As highlighted in the brief story shared about the DuSable Museum, ECSAOs need more than just funding. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Arts Grant Program, especially the managerial consultant assistance component, could serve as an inspirational model for foundations who aspire to do more than give money.

Recently, the Ford and Walton Family Foundations collaborated on funding the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative. This kind of collaboration has real potential for addressing creative justice, especially if foundations join together to make more strategic funding decisions. In addition, foundations should consider the Ford Foundations’ Art of Change Fellowship as a model for connecting ECSAOs with fellows who have specific managerial expertise, as well as the cultural sensitivity to understand the challenges ECSAOs face. These fellows might also help foundations think more deeply and objectively about how to fund creative justice. Lastly, foundations should consider funding fellowships to connect arts management students with ECSAOs. Unfortunately, legacy cultural organizations often cannibalize arts management talent developed in diversity internship and fellowship programs, making it difficult for ECSAOs to compete. A meaningful placement with ECSAOs could make a difference in a student’s career and life, as well as in the organization’s work.


In this article I have explored three research questions: what role should foundations play in achieving creative justice? What behaviors do foundations practice that might undermine their efforts toward achieving creative justice? And what approaches to funding creative justice should foundations consider? I defined creative justice as the manifestation of all people living creative and expressive lives on their own terms. I also linked the current discourse about creative justice to the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. Lastly, informed by Webb (2018), I described behaviors that may negatively impact foundations’ efforts toward achieving creative justice and suggested additional ways foundations can think about funding creative justice. Regardless of their final choices, foundations should evaluate the impact of their creative justice funding approaches, not simply as a line of defense against reports that might show less progress than desired or expected but also as a way to learn from their efforts.

Humanity has suffered grave creative deficits as a result of creative inequities and injustices. Inequity and injustice have also caused an imbalance in the US cultural sector, which has limited the potential and dynamism envisioned at its inception. In closing, Audre Lorde’s (1984) words come to mind: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Because of the Eurocentric origins of philanthropy in the United States, one must consider the question, “Has arts philanthropy become a tool of the master?” If so, is arts philanthropy simply a release valve to the social pressures of capitalism? If no, then to achieve creative justice, foundations should harness the power of transformational leadership to lead the cultural sector in practicing an approach to philanthropy that is disruptive to social inequities, radical in its practical implementation, and transformational in its impact. Given their past, if anyone can achieve this, foundations can, but only if they wish it so.


  1. Rhodes, Dawn, and Dahleen Glanton. “DuSable Museum Braces for Change Ahead of Obama Library Arrival.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 13 Aug. 2015,
  2. Bertagnoli, Lisa. “Inside the Meltdown at a Pillar of Chicago’s Black Civic Life.” Crain’s Chicago Business, 1 June 2018,


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