Allison C Bailey/shutterstock
Allison C Bailey/shutterstock

Jennifer Coleman, head of the George Gund Foundation’s arts program, recently told me that many of the small arts organizations she’s worked with have been able to navigate the pandemic thanks to an influx of general operating support, emergency grants, and Paycheck Protection Program loans. Unfortunately, some of this funding is now drying up.

“I have concerns about what we’ll see in the fall,” said Coleman, the foundation’s program director for Creative Culture and Arts. “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.”

The same thought seems to have occurred to leadership at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Mellon recently announced it has allocated $5 million for a new COVID-19 Crisis Relief Grant fund in partnership with the Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI), a collaborative that promotes an intercultural approach to developing leaders within arts and culture. The fund will focus on artists and organizations “flying beneath the national radar,” with ILI supporting arts and culture work in communities of color and groups with social justice missions.

The ILI’s five member organizations will use funding to re-grant to small arts nonprofits, cultural producers and artists that “historically and currently have been overlooked and that might be particularly vulnerable to the financial impact of the pandemic” and “understand the value of collaborations and alliances across ethnic, geographic and intergenerational lines.” Roughly 1,500 artists and organizations will receive grants ranging from $1,000 to $20,000 “to lessen the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on livelihoods and the larger arts sector.”

The announcement comes two months after Mellon’s highly publicized, strategic pivot to social justice grantmaking, and suggests that its COVID-19 emergency support shows no sign of abating as the crisis enters a new and uncertain phase.

Crisis Relief and a “Major Strategic Evolution”

This has been an eventful five-month stretch for the nation’s largest funder of arts, culture and the humanities. In March, Mellon joined a consortium of funders, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York and Wells Fargo Foundation, in providing support for the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund. In late July, the fund announced it had awarded more than $110 million in emergency support to 768 New York City-based social services and arts and cultural nonprofits.

A couple of weeks later, Mellon, along with Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts and other national arts grantmakers launched Artist Relief, which provided unrestricted $5,000 grants to artists facing dire financial emergencies due to the pandemic. Mellon provided $5 million in seed funding for the $10 million initiative.

On June 11, the board of trustees approved a plan to boost giving in 2020 from $300 million to $500 million to provide emergency COVID-19 support to higher education, arts, and humanities nonprofits. Mellon’s commitment was part of a broader partnership between the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation designed to unleash over $1.7 billion in enhanced grantmaking.

At the end of the month, Mellon, which has a $6.5 billion endowment, announced it would prioritizie social justice in all of its grantmaking. As part of this “major strategic evolution,” officials said the foundation would divide its grantmaking into four program areas: Higher Learning, Public Knowledge, Arts and Culture, and Humanities in Place. Under the model, existing and new grant applicants will be evaluated based on “how their work will contribute to a more just and fair society.”

“At Mellon, we believe in the power of the humanities and the arts to facilitate a deeper understanding of the richness of human experience,” Alexander said at the time. “Now, we urgently ask the question, ‘What does it mean to pursue social justice through the humanities and the arts?’ We are a problem-solving foundation looking to address historical inequities in the fields we fund. Our mission clearly reflects our values, and the core of our philanthropic approach.”

Addressing “Entrenched Systemic Inequities”

Mellon has been pretty busy since its strategic pivot. In the last two months, it launched the Million Book Project, a $5.3 million initiative to distribute books to prisons across the country, awarded $1.5 million in COVID-19 emergency grants to higher education providers in prison, joined forces with the National Book Foundation and others to administer a $3.5 million COVID-19 emergency fund to literary organizations, and gave $10 million to the City University of New York (CUNY) to address pandemic challenges and advance social and racial justice.

All of which brings us back to Mellon’s new Crisis Relief Grants. The pandemic hit small arts organizations especially hard. Many organizations had small or nonexistent cash reserves, a cursory streaming presence, and a donor base whose finances had been disproportionately affected by the crisis. As Theatre of the Oppressed NYC Executive Director Meggan Gomez told me recently, “We didn’t ask a single donor for money,” since most of its donors give $10-20 a month and were likely struggling with their own finances.

Yet even before the pandemic hit, only 4% of arts funding from foundations and individuals flowed to groups whose primary mission is to serve communities of color, according to a 2017 Helicon Collaborative study. The pandemic’s impact on these communities was “amplified by entrenched systemic inequities that we can most effectively address collectively,” said María López De León, president and chief executive director of ILI partner National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC), which received $1,250,000 in Mellon support.

The other four ILI partners receiving Crisis Relief Grant funding are Alternate ROOTS ($1,250,000), First Peoples Fund ($1,250,000), PA’I Foundation ($750,000), and Sipp Culture ($500,000). Application requirements and deadlines will appear on, as well as each organization’s respective website, in the coming weeks.

“The urgent need to address the profound distress that many of these exceptional individuals and organizations are experiencing as the pandemic continues impelled us to work quickly in partnership with ILI to fund the Crisis Relief Grants program,” Alexander said in the program’s announcement. “We’re delighted that these grants will offer immediate financial relief to dynamic arts and culture leaders throughout the United States.”

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