Bay Area foundations are recalibrating their arts and culture grantmaking in a region awash in rising rents, stingy tech donors, and entrenched funding inequities. A little over a year ago, the Koret Foundation reemerged from legal troubles with a bold $10 million arts and culture commitment. Six months later the Kenneth Rainin Foundation strengthened its support for the region’s working artists after a two-year strategic review.

Then there’s the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has given more than $335 million in grants to arts organizations since 1967 and provides financial support to roughly 10 percent of all arts organizations in the Bay Area. In late 2017, the region’s beleaguered artists rejoiced after the foundation announced its $8 million Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions to celebrate its 50th birthday. The commissions, said president Larry Kramer, were “a symbol of the foundation’s longstanding commitment to performing arts in the Bay Area.”

Recent developments suggest that Hewlett’s “longstanding commitment” to the region’s artists and arts organizations will soon look a little different. In November, the foundation published the findings of a “strategic refresh” that will guide its performing arts grantmaking over the next five years. “The who, how, and where of the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area is changing. And we need to change with it,” said program director Emiko Ono.

At a time in which arts funders are looking to boost inclusion and remedy funding inequities, Hewlett’s grantmaking will be guided by a “community-focused lens” prioritizing historically under-resourced organizations and those that serve diverse populations affected by displacement. While this is good news for some arts organizations, the future is a bit murkier for established grantees. “In order to transition the portfolio thoughtfully,” the framework gently states, “we expect, at least at first, to reduce the total number of grantees.”

I had the opportunity to check in with Ono about Hewlett’s revised program, changes to the Bay Areas arts ecosystem, and where things are heading next. Here is a recap of our discussion.

Pivoting Towards a “Community-Focused Lens”

Hewlett’s framework emphasizes the “ability to advance performing arts practices broadly and equitably, and more easily recognize meaningful arts practices supported by non-arts, for-profit, or informal groups or entities.” The foundation plans to “emphasize communities that have been overlooked and underfunded in the past, particularly those that have absorbed new populations due to displacement and other demographic changes.”

I asked Ono to elaborate on how Hewlett’s new “community-focused” lens differed from its earlier approach. Previously, she said, “by focusing our attention on more formalized nonprofit arts organizations, we unintentionally limited our understanding of other important sources of artistic vitality.” Ono defined “formalized nonprofit arts organizations” as those that have “professionalized staff, multiple sources of income, artists on contract, websites, ticketed events, and produce work in arts spaces.”

Two familiar external dynamics exacerbated what Ono called the misalignment between Hewlett’s previous funding strategy and the “artistic and cultural wants and needs of the people of the Bay Area.”

The first was fast-moving demographic developments across the region, including increasing inequality, rising real estate costs, and the displacement of communities of color from the urban cores of the region to more outlying areas. Hewlett calls this phenomenon regional “re-segregation.” Longtime residents, many of whom are Black or Latinx, are fleeing a rapidly gentrifying places like Oakland for towns like Antioch. And while the rents may be cheaper, the arts infrastructure is immature due, in part, to the fact that funders like Hewlett have a small footprint in these outer regions.

The second dynamic involved changes within the arts community writ large, including evolving audience expectations, outdated business models, and decreased financial support for the arts. (As Hewlett’s strategic framework noted, the Bay Area still hasn’t fully recovered from the James Irvine Foundation’s 2016 wind-down of its arts program.)

Reallocation of Funding

Hewlett estimates its total grantmaking budget to be allocated across the following strategies: communities (50 percent), youth (25 percent), artists (15 percent), and advocacy and infrastructure (10 percent). “While these numbers are very much our initial take on the right balance in our portfolio going forward, and thus subject to change as we get into the work of implementing our plans,” Ono said, “all of our grants beginning in January 2020 will be made under one of these strategies. We anticipate that it will take three years to fully realize these figures, as we complete payment of current multi-year grants and as we begin to understand where adjustments may be required.”

Hewlett’s community-focused approach will find the foundation casting 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.

I then asked Ono a question the $64,000 question: By how much will Hewlett reduce its number of existing grantees? “The short answer is we don’t have a good read on exact numbers yet, but can say that making fewer grants at first is driven to a large extent by our plans to reach communities where less of our funding has been directed in the past. We anticipate much of this work will utilize regrantors, who can reach more grantees than we can directly.”

While some existing grantees will ultimately lose out on funding, Hewlett aims to make the transition for these organizations as painless as possible. “We have been long term funders to many of these organizations,” Ono said, “and we are committed to being responsible supporters as we shift.”

In late 2022, Hewlett will conduct a mid-point evaluation of the refreshed strategies; in early 2024, it will begin the next strategy refresh. In the near term, the program will not accept unsolicited inquiries.

“To put a fine point on this,” Ono said, “our strategy is not intended to signal that arts organizations ought to adapt in particular ways, such as serving more diverse audiences or taking on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. These efforts can and often do help organizations evolve but we’ve also seen a great many efforts undertaken to interest funders that have hurt organizations.”

Ono underscores the inherent risks that come with an organization calibrating its approach in an effort to appeal to funders. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s managing director Susan Medak raised the very same point earlier this year when we discussed funders’ surging interest in socially-driven art. “I fear companies will chase social impact money, and don’t believe it will ever turn into the kind of support we want or need it to be,” she said. “Any of us who have been around know that foundation priorities change all the time. If you live by foundation support, you are likely to die from lack of it, as well.”

As for Ono, the most vibrant arts organizations “clearly understand who it is they are serving and why, and have specific and feasible plans to develop the health of their organization, artists, employees, and community over time.”

Closing the Funding Gap

Hewlett’s previous arts program strategy didn’t move the needle all that much in terms of remedying funding equities. The framework notes that in 2008 Hewlett awarded 34 percent of grants to “California diverse” organizations. The figure inched up to 35 percent in 2017, despite the fact that the Bay Area underwent a profound demographic shift over the previous nine years.

Readers may feel inclined to view Hewlett’s refresh as strictly a regional affair given the Bay Area’s exploding cost of living. That would be a mistake. Hewlett’s shift underscores a growing realization that for all their good intentions, grantmakers all across the U.S. haven’t effectively addressed the funding gap between established institutions and their more diverse and under-resourced peers.

Consider recent developments out of Chicago, where the MacArthur Foundation announced that it is revising its grantmaking approach to the arts through an initiative called “Culture, Equity, and the Arts.”

Previously, MacArthur defined an arts organization as one whose sole mission was the “creation and exhibition or production of art.” This definition covered organizations that primarily served white audiences like symphonies and 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. In announcing the changes to its arts grantmaking, MacArthur recognized that “access to financial resources is not equitable across organizations and will strive to address that gap.”

Hewlett and MacArthur aren’t alone. A pivotal 2015 study by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland explored the growing funding gap between established arts organizations and their African American and Latino counterparts. Two years later, a study on arts philanthropy from the Helicon Collaborative and the Surdna Foundation found that “despite important efforts by many leading foundations, funding overall has gotten less equitable. Cultural philanthropy is not effectively—or equitably—supporting the dynamic pluralism of our evolving cultural landscape.”

Hewlett partnered with the Helicon Collaborative on its strategic refresh. The collective conducted an evaluation of the foundation’s grantmaking between 2008 to 2017, gauged the impact of its work, and commissioned interviews with various arts and culture leaders. Hewlett also reached out to previously under-accessed Bay Area communities through a series of what it called Listening Circles.

“We had a strong sense that crucial artistic work was happening in these communities where our funding has not historically flowed,” Ono said. “We learned that despite receiving little to no outside financial support, extremely important artistic and cultural work has been sustained and continually emerging in these places for generations. The surprising part was the degree to which Listening Circle participants, most of whom were artists and creative entrepreneurs that had done this work without financial support or validation, were willing to share deeply felt aspirations and challenges during these conversations.”

“The Arts Matter”

Both the MacArthur and Hewlett foundations, to their credit, acknowledged a lack of in-house expertise to effectively pivot towards historically under-resourced communities. The former’s new grantmaking strategy calls for stakeholders to recommend grantees to foundation leadership based on feedback from a participatory grantmaking panel. “Our next steps may not be perfect,” said Cate Fox, MacArthur’s senior program officer, “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.”

As for Hewlett, “employing a community-focused lens is new for us,” its framework read, “and our lack of experience with this framework, and with many of the communities we intend our grantmaking to serve, presents a challenge, particularly given the small size of our staff.” To Ono’s previous point, moving forward, Hewlett will work with intermediaries, both as advisors and regrantors, who are “better positioned than we are” to provide response services and grants to communities, arts organizations, and artists.

It’s natural to instinctively view a foundation’s strategic refresh as a technical exercise, especially when valuable funding is at stake. But as Ono told me, Hewlett’s new approach transcends dollars and cents. It is inextricably linked with our unsettled Zeitgeist and the precarious state of the arts in a rapidly changing Bay Area. “We believe the arts matter—for individuals to understand and express themselves, for communities to transmit their concerns and aspirations, and for creating connections across a society too often pulled apart by polarization, inequity, and isolation,” she said.

As a result, Hewlett isn’t revising its grantmaking to “amplify the wide range of ways the arts enrich the lives of individuals, communities, and society. Our refreshed strategy helps us work in new ways that ensure our support reaches more people and communities throughout the region the foundation call home.”

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