Artists at work on a black lives matter street mural outside of city hall in Cincinnati. Tina Gutierrez/shutterstock
Artists at work on a black lives matter street mural outside of city hall in Cincinnati. Tina Gutierrez/shutterstock

In a previous post, I looked at how major U.S. funders are backing art emerging from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and the mass racial justice protests that followed. Some are staying the course as their grantees continue vital work, while others are releasing new RFPs, backing new projects, or changing programmatic focus.

But many funders are thinking beyond the present moment about a sector where, as of 2017, only 4% of arts funding from foundations and individuals flowed to groups whose primary mission is to serve communities of color, according to the Helicon Collaborative.

Co-Director Alexis Frasz told me that Floyd’s death was the “breaking point” that exposed conditions and inequities across the sector “that were there for a long time.” Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) artists and cultural workers are now calling for cultural justice and the dismantling of systemic racism with a renewed energy.

“There is currently a moment of reckoning in the arts sector, as there is within society as a whole,” Frasz said.

To get a better idea of what lies ahead, I posed the following question to Frasz and a handful of other representatives from arts funders: How can philanthropy—both at a conceptual and operational level—take this moment and build a more equitable and social-justice-oriented arts sector in the long term?

Here’s what they had to say.

Alexis Frasz, co-director of the Helicon Collaborative

The Helicon Collaborative, which works to “re-imagine and energize the role of culture in communities,” has quietly emerged as an influential player in an art space where funders increasingly cite equity and inclusivity as top concerns.

In 2019, Helicon partnered with the Hewlett Foundation on the funder’s strategic refresh, resulting in a new funding model emphasizing previously overlooked and underfunded communities. Since 2015, it has also been working with the Ford Foundation on the Art of Change fellowship, an initiative exploring the interplay of art and social justice.

Frasz offered the following recommendations for funders looking to make the sector more equitable:

Support BIPOC-led cultural organizations with multi-year general operating support: Frasz said funders must recognize that many of these organizations may not look like typical “arts organizations” or be explicitly “activist” oriented, since they often do intersectional work across multiple areas—housing, youth development, economic development, etc.

Support these organizations at levels significantly higher than, not proportional to, their budget size: Frasz argues that the proportion of revenue that organizations have received in the past is the result of an unjust system, not because of a lack of capacity or quality of work on their part. The MacArthur Foundation reached a similar conclusion after it revamped its performance arts grantmaking in Chicago last year. Previously, arts grantees with the largest budgets received the largest grants. MacArthur subsequently acknowledged that “access to financial resources is not equitable across organizations, and [we] will strive to address that gap.”

Review grantmaking policies and practices with a racial justice lens: For guidance, Frasz points to a recent Grantmakers in the Arts webinar in which the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s Arts Program Director Sharnita Johnson discusses how the funder has put communities and people of color at the center of its work.

Support BIPOC artists and cultural organizers that are deeply connected with movements and communities: “There are many artists across the world that are inspired by the events of the moment and are wanting to make work that responds to it, and that is a great thing,” Frasz said. “But there are some artists that are actually already rooted in the communities that are most impacted by police injustice and COVID-19, and who are already connected to social movements.”

Frasz cited groups like the Laundromat Project, Ashe Cultural Arts Center, Sweetwater Foundation and the Village of Arts and Humanities, which have been “doing work at the intersection of racial justice and arts and culture for a long time, and are deeply embedded in their communities. They’ve been practicing the truth of black lives mattering, and black culture mattering, for years, and should be supported.”

Frasz also encouraged funders to explore recent work by Grantmakers in the Arts, which “has been actively advocating for a racial justice lens to be applied to arts grantmaking for some time now.”

Helena Huang, Art for Justice project director

In June 2017, art philanthropist Agnes Gund launched the $100 million, five-year Art for Justice Fund to end mass incarceration in the United States. The fund is housed at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Ford Foundation is responsible for its grantmaking strategy, which focuses on bail reform, sentencing reform, and reducing legal barriers to reentry for people returning from prison.

The fund’s director, Helena Huang, offered four ways funders can support artists working for social change in the short-term:

Invest in Black artists and artists of color and cultural institutions in a manner that enables them to build assets and financial stability: “This might look like allowing their grant funds to be applied to capital creation, debt reduction and staff’s long-term financial health,” she said.

Give directly and substantially to individual artists and unincorporated groups: “People on the ground are best positioned to respond to their communities intelligently, accurately and equitably,” Huang told me. “And it is individual artists who have led the way in both planned and spontaneous works as we have seen even in this current moment.”

Recognize the essential role of art and artists in movements for change and in our collective well-being: “Now more than ever, we need to subsidize the creative workforce that performs these services and restructure our economy accordingly moving forward,” Huang said.

Listen to artists with a social justice practice who are aligning their work in deep partnership with advocacy organizations and follow their lead: “These are artists who understand the interconnection; the need to change both narrative and public policy,” she said.

On June 10, the Art for Justice Fund announced over $14 million in funding to 47 artists and advocates focused on ending mass incarceration, including $2.5 million in emergency public health funding to address COVID-19 in prisons, jails and detention facilities.

Prerana Reddy, program director at A Blade of Grass

In 2011, philanthropist and cultural leader Shelly Rubin founded A Blade of Grass to “better understand how artists can illuminate and engage with social issues, expand the relationship between art and life, and build new audiences.” The organization is a nonprofit that gives grants as one component of its work.

Program Director Prerana Reddy encouraged funders to invest in power-building organizations in underserved regions and build their cultural organizing infrastructure with multi-year commitments. In addition, “there should be more direct funding to neighborhood-based cultural anchors that serve a lot of social purposes all at once, and that act as both social safety nets and as launching pads for local residents to become leaders and creators.” This goal, “rather than funding toward large museum renovations,” is where philanthropy should focus its attention.

Reddy makes a powerful point. According to Foundation Center data, the visual arts sector’s top 10 recipients of foundation and donor-advised fund support from 2014-2018 netted a combined $1.548 billion. Nine of the 10 recipients were affluent museums that either completed or are in the process of a major renovation or expansion.

This data excludes giving from billionaire donors. The Museum of Modern Art received a combined $370 million between 2014 and 2018 from four billionaires—David Geffen, Leon Black, Kenneth Griffin, and Steve Cohen—for its $450 million renovation. Meanwhile, foundations calling for greater equity are giving less to the arts than they did 20 years ago, effectively blunting their ability to change the narrative across a sector dominated by billionaires and growing DAF giving.

Reddy also told me that artists need “holistic, flexible and unrestricted support when asked to take creative risks, and if they are going to collaboratively show up with others. It is time to shift our resources from good managers of the status quo to good dreamers and agitators!”

Rashida Bumbray, director of Open Society Foundations’ Culture and Art Program

Last year, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations launched its Culture and Art program to “address the aesthetic, political and capacity needs of arts leaders, individual artists, and cultural activists, while supporting sustainability for a global network of locally led cultural organizations and initiatives that work at the intersection of culture, art and social change.”

Program Director Rashida Bumbray told me that “philanthropy has a unique opportunity in this moment, and we must let art lead a visionary pathway forward. As an artist and curator myself, I firmly believe that funders need to listen to artists articulate their own needs and find ways to support them holistically, including through flexibility to develop work on their own terms and in their own contexts. We want to attend to the humanity of artists, not only focus on their production.

“We need the radical imagination of artists to advance alternatives to oppressive power structures and ideologies—to do this, they must have the resources and relationships that philanthropy can help provide,” Bumbray said. “Art holds the potential to not only hold society accountable, but also imagine a bold future that shapes an inclusive democracy and inspires us to create and express social justice values.”

Margaret Morton, director of the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression team

Morton expressed hope that other national and local funders will support current and past Ford grant recipients like Wing Luke Museum, National Black Theatre, the Billie Holiday Theatre, the First Peoples Fund in South Dakota, and more. “These groups are telling stories about, by, and centered around communities of color on a daily basis,” she said. “They were doing the work before this moment, and are well-positioned to take discussions about representation, inclusion, and what it means to be anti-racist forward.”

Ellen Friedman, executive director of the Compton Foundation

Friedman told me that philanthropy can best support the kind of art that’s arising out of this movement by “trusting local Black leaders working for transformation, trusting artists who are connected to community to give voice in creative and meaningful ways to the pain and potential of this moment. Witness the murals all over, witness the dancing and joy that often accompanies protest marches—this all needs to be supported.”

Carolina García Jayaram, executive director of the Elevate Prize Foundation

The Elevate Prize Foundation, which launched last year in partnership with MIT, is now accepting applications for its Elevate Prize. Established by business leader, philanthropist and author Joseph Deitch, the prize will award $5 million to 10 social entrepreneurs tackling problems across healthcare, poverty, racism, and more this fall. “We’re looking to change the way we change the world,” Deitch said.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the prize encourages artists to apply, so I reached out to the foundation’s executive director, Carolina García Jayaram, for her thoughts.

Jayaram, who also served as United States Artists’ president and CEO, cited a 2003 Urban Institute study, which found that while 97% of Americans valued art, less than 30% valued artists. “This disconnect,” she told me, “is exacerbated by a philanthropic model that supports institutions over individuals and promotes the flawed notion that without traditional measurement and data, artists can’t be impactful, so are somehow suspect and unworthy.”

Money, to be sure, is critical, but so is “the vote of confidence from the foundation sector,” Jayaram said. “I want to take this notion one step further with the Elevate Prize, by making the important and often overlooked link between artists and social impact leaders to show they are often one and the same. Without artists and their unique perspectives and contributions, our goal to elevate the human experience for all cannot be fully realized.”

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