We have seen a steady decline in public support (especially governmental) for the arts in the past few years, and a chorus of voices claiming that they are the exclusive provence of the rich elites. Of course this is far from the truth, but it should raise some concerns about the overall image of the performing and visual arts in our society. If these attacks continue, we could lose much of what enriches our lives and defines our culture, and have them replaced by the gruel that is daily served up on television and the celebrity magazines. And, recently, yet another warning has been sounded.
“Billions of dollars in arts funding is serving a mostly wealthy, white audience that is shrinking while only a small chunk of money goes to emerging art groups that serve poorer communities that are more ethnically diverse,” Brett Zongker recently wrote in the Huffington Post. And there’s a study to back his contentions from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. It came to my attention because it was largely written by my colleague from the old days of the Mass Council on the Arts and Humanities, and the New England Foundation for the Arts, Holly Sidford. She knows of what she speaks.
“With this report, NCRP reminds us all that arts and culture can no longer be understood to be the province of society’s elites, but rather, that arts are expressions of the very essence of what makes a community whole, what makes it vibrant. Building socially just and sustainable communities requires funders to pay as much attention to the artistic and cultural fabric of our places as we do to economic opportunity and environmental health. It urges us to break away from our traditional notion of arts and culture as hap- pening merely in stately opera houses, concert halls and museums, but instead, as existing and thriving throughout our communities.”
- Phillip Henderson, President, Surdna Foundation
“It is a problem because it means that – in the arts – philanthropy is using its tax-exempt status primarily to benefit wealthier, more privileged institutions and populations,” Sidford said. “Just as funders got behind abstract expressionism in the 1950s and 60s … there are aesthetic developments in the arts that funders need to keep pace with, and this is one of them.”
In her report, she does try to balance the concerns by saying that America’s dynamic arts and culture landscape continues to evolve along with the changing needs and demographics of our communities. Yet, findings from a new report show that a majority of U.S. foundations that provide financial support to arts and cultural institutions have largely ignored these changes in their giving, according to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (www.ncrp.org).
In Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy, Sidford observes that the more a foundation is focused on giving to the arts, the less likely it is to prioritize supporting artistic traditions from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, Native American tribal cultures, rural communities like the Berkshires and other underserved populations. NCRP is urging arts funders to rethink their practices and consider the benefits of broadening their audience to include underserved communities and supporting arts that promote equity and justice.
Only 10 percent of grant dollars made to support the arts (such as visual arts, performing arts and museums) explicitly benefit the poor, ethnic and racial minorities, the elderly and other marginalized populations. Less than 4 percent of grants dollars support advancing social justice goals through the arts.
Further, 55 percent of arts grants go to organizations with budgets greater than $5 million, which represent less than 2 percent of the more than 100,000 arts and culture nonprofits. Recent research demonstrates that the primary audience of these large institutions is predominantly white and upper-income.
Velvet costumes evoked Tudor opulence at Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” during last month’s opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The red carpet was out; celebrities lent pop culture pizazz; and the audience had a genuine star, Anna Netrebko, to cheer for, which it did, lustily.
In the warren of Met administrative offices, the people who run one of the world’s busiest opera houses had something else to applaud: a record amount of contributions for the fiscal year that ended in July. According to preliminary figures released for the first time, the Met hauled in $182 million, an astonishing amount in a tough economic climate and 50 percent more than it raised just the year before. – The New York Times (link)
“Culture and the arts are vehicles for expressing our struggles and accomplishments, our identity and hopes for the future as individuals and as a society,” said Sidford, a consultant to cultural organizations and philanthropists. “When philanthropy ignores the breadth of artistic practices taking place today, it ignores large segments of our society and misses the tremendous opportunities to help build and strengthen our communities, fight for justice and protect our democracy.”
The report includes a useful guide for all types of foundations that give to the arts on how they can make equity a core principle in their grantmaking.
“There is a mismatch between the priorities and strategies of foundations that give to the arts and the needs of our communities,” said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of NCRP. “Arts grantmakers need to revisit their policies and practices if they wish to continue to be relevant and increase their effectiveness given the evolving demographic, economic and cultural landscape.”
“Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change” is available on NCRP’s website at www.ncrp.org/paib/arts-culture-philanthropy.
“Like Rockwell’s painting, art in all its forms often challenges us to consider new perspectives and to rethink how we see the world. This image still moves us with its simple poignancy, capturing a moment in American history that changed us forever. This is the power of the arts and humanities—they speak to our condition and affirm our desire for something more and something better. Great works of literature, theater, dance, fine art, and music reach us through a universal language that unites us regardless of background, gender, race, or creed.” – President Barack Obama – declaring October National Arts and Humanities Month (NAHM) and the recognition of the importance of culture in America. It is designed to encourage all Americans to explore new facets of the arts and humanities in their lives, and to begin a lifelong habit of active participation in the arts and humanities.
The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington, D.C. is a national watchdog, research and advocacy organization that promotes philanthropy that serves the public good, is responsive to people and communities with the least wealth and opportunity, and is held accountable to the highest standards of integrity and openness. Visit www.ncrp.org.
About Holly Sidford
Holly Sidford is a strategic thinker, program developer and fundraiser with three decades of experience leading and developing nonprofit cultural and philanthropic organizations. Prior to launching Helicon in 2007, Holly was the founding president of Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC), a ten-year initiative to expand support for creative artists and guided the research and fundraising that undergirds it. Prior to that, Holly was program director for arts, parks and adult literacy at the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund; interim director of arts and culture at the Ford Foundation and The Howard Gilman Foundation; executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts and associate director of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. She holds a B.A. in American history and literature from Mount Holyoke College and a Management Certificate from Columbia University.