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Growing calls for racial justice have underscored longstanding inequities across society, including the arts sector, where, as of 2017, only 4% of funding flowed to groups serving communities of color, according to the Helicon Collaborative.

This isn’t news to Jennifer Coleman of the Cleveland-based George Gund Foundation. After becoming the foundation’s Creative Culture and Arts program director five years ago, Coleman embarked on an effort to identify, track and engage the city’s organizations of color. In doing so, she expanded the foundation’s roster of diverse partners, many of which had associated institutional philanthropy with large and affluent institutions like museums and opera houses.

“They don’t have many resources, and they don’t know how to approach a foundation,” she told me. “And when they do so, it’s often with incredible trepidation. It’s important that organizations know they have a place where they have a voice.”

Coleman’s efforts reflect the priorities of her employer, which has put equity and inclusion at the forefront of its work in recent years. With assets around $300 million, the George Gund Foundation has long been a funding powerhouse in northeast Ohio. Its namesake was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1888. His family settled in Cleveland in 1897. After graduating Harvard College and Harvard Business school, George worked in banking and real estate in Seattle and served in Army intelligence in World War I. He returned to Cleveland in 1936, where he became president of the Cleveland Trust Company in 1941.

He created the George Gund Foundation in 1952 and passed away in 1966. His son, Geoffrey, is currently the president of the board. Another son, Gordon, has given away millions, with a focus on medical research, arts, community and environmental causes. His daughter Agnes launched the Art for Justice Fund in 2017 to end mass incarceration in the U.S.

The George Gund Foundation has five program areas: climate and environmental justice, public education, thriving families and social justice, vibrant neighborhoods and inclusive economy, creative culture and arts. As part of the foundation’s grant evaluation process, it asks applicants to provide their thoughts about climate change, threats to democracy, and inequality and racial equity. The foundation has awarded $722 million in grants since its inception.

“Organizations Have Been Shut Out”

Coleman was a practicing architect prior to joining the foundation five years ago. She had previously served as chair of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, the Downtown/Flats Design Review Committee, and the Group Plan Commission. She has also been a member of the board of trustees of many local arts and cultural organizations.

When she first started, Coleman sought out a definitive list of the region’s Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)-serving arts organizations. She discovered such a list didn’t exist. “So I made my own list,” she said, doing research online and calling up arts organizations, asking them, “Who are your colleagues?”

She came up with approximately 60 organizations. “I called them and asked them, ‘Can I sit down and talk with you? How can we help?’” Coleman quickly realized she had struck a nerve. “A lot of these organizations have been shut out of the grantmaking process,” she told me. She says this has affected how these organizations perceive philanthropy. “People associate foundations by seeing a name on a symphony or museum” and instinctively feel excluded.

It’s hard to blame them. 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. Their combined contributions exceed total state legislative arts appropriations ($353.2 million) for FY 2019.

Foundations don’t fare much better. According to Candid, from 2014 to 2018, the top 10 grant recipients in the arts and culture field received a combined $1.5 billion from institutional funders, and to a lesser extent, donor-advised funds. Eight of the 10 institutions were major metropolitan museums that have either completed or are in the middle of massive renovation projects.

These projects are facing greater scrutiny in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Rather than funding large museum renovations, A Blade of Grass Program Director Prerana Reddy told me that philanthropy should allocate “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.”

“Philanthropy Has Baggage”

Coleman then related an even more striking anecdote. After she landed the job, her picture appeared in local papers. Coleman is black, and after the article was published, she received several calls from local arts organizations of color that had never worked with the foundation before.

“It was very telling,” she said, “and it isn’t because the foundation was purposefully excluding.” Instead, Coleman attributed the reaction to the fact that “philanthropy has baggage.” And in many cases, its reputation is rightfully earned.

The 2017 Helicon found that despite important efforts by many leading foundations, arts funding overall had actually become less equitable. Three years later, Alexis Frasz, Helicon co-director, told me that funders and organizations are taking the necessary strategic and operational steps to address this deeply rooted problem. “We have known about these issues for decades, and it is past time for both organizations and funders to begin dismantling the status quo,” she said. “The system will not improve without deliberate, concerted and sustained effort.”

Coleman’s experiences demonstrate that it’s up to grantmakers to change this narrative. The good news is that other foundations are stepping up.

Last November, the Hewlett Foundation published the findings of the strategic refresh that will guide its performing arts grantmaking over the next five years. Its new “community-focused” approach, which will prioritize “historically under-resourced organizations and those that serve diverse populations affected by displacement.” And the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation implemented a participatory grantmaking panel as part of its revised grantmaking approach with an eye toward better engaging historically underrepresented organizations.

Coleman also touted the “inspiring” work of Grantmakers in the Arts, the consortium of arts funders that has “done a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to racial equity.” For instance, the organization’s Black Arts & Cultural Funding and Justice Resource Hub identifies funds and resources that support black artists, culture and communities.

Prioritizing Needs

Integrating organizations of color into the grantmaking process is just the first step in a broader continuum. Coleman meets with applicants to determine if their requested support properly aligns with their needs. “After we talk, we may find out that an organization should instead be focusing on staff capacity instead of developing a strategic plan.”

Once organizations receive grants, Coleman encourages leaders to focus on operational management. This sounds intuitive, but many leaders tend to focus on programming, as it’s the most immediate way to serve the community. Coleman told me that while this is critical, leaders have to convince funders they are “putting time for the organization itself.”

Coleman told about a local organization that had fallen on hard times and hired a new leader. Some of the organization’s funders weren’t thrilled with the hire. The new leader sensed he was on shaky ground, so he called Coleman, whom he had never met before, and said, “‘We’re going to have a conversation with a funder that doesn’t have a lot of faith in us.’” Coleman responded by saying, “Whatever you do, start with how you’re going to fix the organization before you talk about programming.”

The new hire took Coleman’s advice and the meeting went well. Coleman even got a call from a funder afterward who “expressed surprise and delight that the conversation was organizationally focused.”

Talk of organizations on shaky ground naturally raises the issue of COVID-19. In the early days of the pandemic, like many other funders, the Gund Foundation converted project grants to operating support and accelerated the payout of two-year grants. Coleman told me she thought she’d see an influx of emergency grant requests, but they didn’t materialize. She attributed this to the fact that grantees successfully secured Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.

The problem now is that this funding has dried up. “I have concerns about what we’ll see in the fall,” Coleman said. “Many organizations had the mindset of, ‘If we can hold it together until the fall or the end of the year, we’ll be OK.’ But it won’t be over in January 2021.”

Looking ahead, Coleman plans to explore better integration of arts education into the all-virtual model. She alluded to promising research suggesting that “arts in small bites” can help children working on laptops better absorb core work math and the sciences. “Arts and creative thought will be helpful to students who have to learn remotely,” she said. The foundation is also expanding its work in the field of creative placemaking. “We need to infuse art into our daily civic life from top to bottom.”

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