Paul Juser/shutterstock

Paul Juser/shutterstock

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently announced it is revising its grantmaking approach to the arts in its home city of Chicago through an initiative called “Culture, Equity, and the Arts.”

The initiative consists of three key components. First, the foundation will develop “new and more inclusive selection criteria.” Second, the foundation will no longer base grant award amounts on the size of the organization’s annual budget size. And third, initiative stakeholders will recommend to foundation leadership grantees based on feedback from a five-to-eight person participatory grantmaking panel. MacArthur’s president and board will ultimately retain approval authority.

Previously, MacArthur defined an arts organization as one whose sole mission was the “creation and exhibition or production of art.” While this definition covered organizations that primarily served white audiences like symphonies, operas, and museums, it excluded “arts-centered organizations in the city in which art is integral to executing an organization’s mission but not the only focus of its work.” As a result, arts grantees with the largest budgets received the largest grants.

The new strategy will encompass organizations whose work is centered on racial equity and/or traditionally “underresourced identities,” such as people with disabilities and those who identify on the LGBTQIA+ continuum. For example, a human services organization in which arts programming is integral to its violence prevention work might be eligible. While the foundation expects to support institutions that serve the general public moving forward, it recognizes that “access to financial resources is not equitable across organizations and will strive to address that gap.”

By pivoting from “traditional arts organizations,” the initiative finds MacArthur tackling the funding gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in the city. And by embracing participatory grantmaking, a model in which in funders hand over decision-making power to people they serve, MacArthur is pointing to a future where grantmaking for the arts is a more collaborative and democratized affair.

Persistent Funding Inequities

A 2015 DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland study presaged the MacArthur Foundation’s concerns by surfacing stark funding inequities between diverse organizations and their mainstream counterparts.

The study found that 20 largest mainstream arts organizations in the U.S. had median budgets of $61 million, while the 20 largest organizations of color had median budgets of $3.8 million. The majority of organizations of color do not maintain an endowment fund. And in what its authors called the study’s “most important single statistic,” contributions from individual donors to organizations of color was only five percent of total contributed revenue.

The DeVos study suggested that donors don’t pass over diverse organizations out of spite or prejudice. Rather, these donors “would rather give money to a white theater doing a black play than a black theater doing a multiracial play,” said Michael Dinwiddie, president of the Black Theatre Network. Diwiddie attributed this to “the perverse notion we have in this country that people are being reverse racist by creating their own cultural institutions.”

Two years later, a study by Helicon Collaborative with support from the Surdna Foundation—a grantmaker long tuned into inequity in the arts—presented a similar narrative. While approximately 20 percent of Americans live in rural communities, less than 2 percent of arts foundation funding goes to cultural groups in these places. Similarly, people of color represent 37 percent of the population, but just 4 percent of all foundation arts funding is allocated to groups whose primary mission is to serve communities of color.

“Despite important efforts by many leading foundations, funding overall has gotten less equitable,” said the study. “Cultural philanthropy is not effectively—or equitably—supporting the dynamic pluralism of our evolving cultural landscape.”

Part of the Problem (and the Solution)

Cate Fox, MacArthur’s senior program officer, explained in a blog post earlier this month how the funder’s earlier grantmaking strategy mirrored Helicon’s main takeaway. The foundation, in partnership with the Field Foundation, found that nearly all of MacArthurs’ grantees’ headquarters were located outside of the areas where the white population is 10 percent or less. There were some caveats, however. For instance, many larger recipients have outreach programs across the city, including in predominantly African-American and Latinx neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, the main takeaway was clear, according to Fox:

MacArthur’s arts program articulated criteria had the unintended consequence of excluding significant parts of the city’s population and a variety of art forms and genres that contribute to the richness of the cultural sector. Moreover, our well-intentioned program may have helped to perpetuate the structural racism that exists in the arts sector and society as a whole.

Fox’s analysis is striking. At a time in which grantmakers are engaging in serious soul-searching concerning their role in addressing inequality, it’s nonetheless rare—and refreshing—to hear an officer admit that her foundation was, however unwittingly, part of the problem. And in Fox’s defense, this phenomenon certainly isn’t limited to the arts sector or a single funder. Research suggests that skewed giving from wealthy funders can increase inequality across the nonprofit sector and society as a whole.

Participatory Grantmaking and the Arts

Commentators have proposed a host of solutions to help foundations close the funding gap in the arts world.

The DeVos report encouraged arts organizations to build stronger boards committed to fundraising. Helicon implored foundations and nonprofits to diversify their leadership ranks. And Justin Laing, Managing Partner of Hillombo LLC, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit consultancy proposed a series of governance reforms like creating advisory boards where grantees are interviewed about grantmaking direction and evaluations conducted by grantees with the support of a professional evaluator.

The MacArthur Foundation, meanwhile, is making a bet on participatory grantmaking. “Better decisions come from having more voices at the table,” Fox said. “Therefore, we are piloting the use of a participatory grantmaking panel. The group of five to eight people who serve on the panel will reflect the city’s diversity and geography as well as a range of professional and lived experience.”

A 2018 report funded by the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations found that a growing number of equity-minded funders are embracing this model of giving, particularly in fields like environmental work, disability rights, and community development. However, beyond the Knight Foundation’s Arts Challenge, the study provides includes few in-depth references to the practice within the arts and culture sector

Arts funders aren’t alone in their reluctance to embrace participatory grantmaking. As my colleague Tate Williams noted, the concept has been slow to spread to larger or more traditional foundations because it cuts deeply into some of the longstanding power dynamics in philanthropy. Funders don’t want to outsource capital allocation or decision-making. They want to remain loyal to “traditional” recipient organizations. And in the case of the anti-inequality crusade, experienced program directors, equipped with legions of highly intelligent staffers, would rather not publicly admit they need help in tackling the foremost socio-economic issue of our time.

Participatory grantmaking can be an even harder sell for arts funders due to the sector’s inherent complexity. For example, while success in a field like housing can be quantifiably articulated and measured to build consensus across the stakeholder community, the same can’t be said for the notoriously subjective arts world, especially during a time in which community residents increasingly the arts as an agent of gentrification and displacement.

MacArthur, however, is undeterred, having concluded that a democratized and inclusive participatory grantmaking model can help it address widespread funding inequities across the city. “Our next steps may not be perfect,” MacArthur’s Fox said, “but we think they will move us closer to realizing our vision of making Chicago a city that is connected and integrated, where prosperity is shared, opportunity is equitable, and civic and cultural assets are available to everyone.”

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