While the Helicon Collaborative may not be a household name, the organization, 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.

Last year, Helicon partnered with the Hewlett Foundation on the funder’s strategic refresh, resulting in a new funding model emphasizing communities that have been previously overlooked and underfunded. 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, since 2015, and is currently managing a program on behalf of the Ford and the Walton Family Foundation to diversify curatorial and managerial leadership.

In 2017, Helicon published a widely cited study that found that despite important efforts by many leading foundations, arts funding overall has actually gotten less equitable. Three years later, Helicon co-director Alexis Frasz 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.”

Frasz’s comment underscores why foundations like Hewlett, Ford, and Walton have gravitated towards Helicon. Funders acknowledge the funding disparities that persist across the sector. In some cases, they’ve gone so far as to admit that they have unwittingly exacerbated those disparities. Arts organizations also know they should roll out more inclusive programming to serve new demographics. But knowing and doing are two very different things. Helicon helps funders and organizations bridge this gap by offering five core service offerings—program assessment, program design and management, research and analysis, strategy development, and leadership training and coaching.

“It’s Not Just Money”

The first step for funders looking to implement more equitable grantmaking is to “acknowledge the problem, candidly assess their policies and practices that may be contributing to inequities, and set concrete goals for change,” Frasz said. “What we do know is that it is very hard for program staff alone to make change without the express and authentic support of the board and CEO of the foundation and without change in the current policies and practices that sustain the status quo.”

The collective’s work with the Hewlett Foundation provides an instructive case study. Helicon conducted an evaluation of Hewlett’s grantmaking between 2008 to 2017, gauged the impact of its work, and commissioned interviews with arts and culture leaders. The exercise revealed that the foundation’s previous performing arts funding approach prioritized what program director Emiko Ono called “formalized nonprofit arts organizations,” defined as those that have “professionalized staff, multiple sources of income, artists on contract, and ticketed events.”

Helicon’s work underscored additional pressure points. For example, longtime residents, many of whom are Black or Latinx, are fleeing rapidly gentrifying places like Oakland for towns like Antioch—the very same areas where Hewlett has a small footprint. Helicon also called attention to impactful changes within the arts community writ large, including evolving audience expectations and outdated business models.

In short, Helicon’s work echoed the main takeaway from its 2017 report on the state of arts funding—it’s “not just money.” Funders will have to do a lot more than write bigger checks if they hope to meaningfully address deeply rooted inequities in the arts.

Last November, Hewlett 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,” will cast a wider net in terms of the types of projects it will support, like festivals and art created in community spaces. It will also ensure that “arts leaders see themselves as civic leaders, utilizing their unique voices and platforms in service to their communities,” Ono said.

Asking Tough Questions

Last year, the MacArthur Foundation underwent a similar strategic revamp after discovering its previous arts grantmaking model “may have helped to perpetuate the structural racism that exists in the arts sector and society as a whole,” said Cate Fox, MacArthur’s senior program officer. MacArthur’s new approach calls for piloting the use of a participatory grantmaking panel that will recommend a slate of grantees to MacArthur’s president and board.

Participatory grantmaking’s underlying premise, which argues that panelists reflecting an area’s diversity and geography can drive more equitable and inclusive grantmaking, naturally aligns with Helicon’s work in addressing deeply rooted disparities across the space.

The practice, Frasz said, “has great potential to shake up power and wealth dynamics—in a good way—but it also takes work and an authentic commitment to sharing or relinquishing power. It is not just getting a few community members to sit on a board and rubber-stamp a decision.”

Frasz’s comment reminds us, yet again, that the devil is in the details. In MacArthur’s case, its president and board will ultimately retain their approval authority over how funding is allocated.

To that end, participatory grantmaking surfaces some thorny questions for well-intentioned funders as outside forces like Helicon nudge them to dismantle the status quo. These questions, Frasz said, include: “Who gets to represent a community and how are they accountable? How do you get the people who are most affected by the issue to participate if they aren’t already so inclined? How much decision-making power does a funder give up to the community? There is no one right answer,” Frasz said, “but it is important to engage with these questions.”

Working with Organizations

Helicon takes a similar approach when working with arts organizations. First, “equity must be a value embedded in the organization at the highest level and integrated at all levels,” Frasz said. “It will not work if it is simply a numbers game or done only when funding is available for it and abandoned when there is not.”

Second, just as funders need to do more than write bigger checks, organizations must be willing to not only include people of different backgrounds and experiences in the organization, but “also be willing to actually change how the organization thinks, talks, operates, and programs,” Frasz said.

This can be a big ask, an organization’s stakeholders may not easily agree on what is considered “good” art or practice. Audience members may not agree either. In a recent chat, Bruce Whitacre, executive director of Theatre Forward told me that as theaters pivot to more inclusive programming, “We are hearing accounts throughout the country of traditional audiences sometimes reacting negatively to new audience members from diverse communities who may be more vocal in their response to a play.”

But that’s precisely the point, Frasz argues. It’s supposed to be difficult. “Equity must be championed at the highest level of the organization so that it is pursued even when it challenges tradition and some people don’t like the implications and results. Moreover, “it cannot be the responsibility of the people from groups that are underrepresented in the organization—whether LGBT, people with disabilities, or diverse racial and ethnic groups—to fight for their perspective or voice to be heard,” Frasz said. Helicon helps organizations kick start and navigate these kinds of occasionally charged conversations.

For an example of Helicon’s work with an arts organization, let’s briefly turn our attention to Boston, where in 2018 it partnered with HowlRound, a nonprofit theater organization, across two service areas—research analysis and strategic communications. HowlRound was founded in 2009 in response to what Helicon called the “crisis of equity, sustainability, and relevance in the nonprofit theatre sector.” On the equity front, Helicon noted that the majority of philanthropic money was going to the largest and wealthiest theaters, despite the fact that their audiences were not reflective of the American population.

In response, HowlRound rolled out what Frasz and co-director Holly Sidford called a “new kind of commons-based infrastructure for the theatre field”—one that sought to “nurture and support openness, collaboration, and community over maximizing profit, hierarchy, and competition.” Click here for a detailed essay by Frasz and Sidford on this project.

A Growing Network of Support

Frasz told me that organizations that want to become more equitable in their practices can reach out to organizations like Race Forward or Of/By/For All for support, or “look at and learn from what other organizations are doing that are further along on this journey.”

Frasz cited other organizations doing encouraging work to make the arts more equitable, including:

  • The Mosaic Network and Fund—Launched by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and New York Community Trust, the network provides targeted funding for groups that are led by, created for, and accountable to African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American arts groups in New York City. The fund is now supported by more than 15 funders and is set to distribute more than $4 million to over organizations.

  • Race Forward—Founded in 1981, Race Forward brings systemic analysis and an innovative approach to complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity. Frasz highlighted the organization’s work in providing interactive trainings on how to challenge the institutional dimensions of racial inequity for funders and organizations. 

  • Enrich Chicago—This consortium of cultural organizations and funders like the Joyce and MacArthur Foundations works to discuss and disrupt patterns of racial and other bias in the cultural sector of the city. Their efforts have led to anti-racism training programs and an initiative with the Chicago High School for the Arts to provide internships in cultural groups for young people of color.

These efforts, Frasz told me, mirror the work being done by organizations like Justice Funders and the Boston Impact Initiative to close the racial wealth gap by steering national foundations towards more equitable grantmaking in fields like health, education, and the environment.

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