A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Joy Young, vice president of programming for South Arts, the Atlanta-based organization that seeks to advance artistic vitality throughout the South.

It was an exciting time for the regional regrantor. South Arts received an unrestricted gift from MacKenzie Scott in June and its leaders were laying the groundwork for the second cohort of a professional development and networking initiative called Emerging Leaders of Color. Young called the work “incredibly important to begin building a pipeline of leaders here in the South.”

The organization had another big announcement in the works, but Young wasn’t ready to divulge the details just yet. She simply alluded to an “opportunity from a major national funder to do more work around equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility.”

Then, in early November, South Arts announced the new opportunity in question—Southern Cultural Treasures, a $6 million, four-year initiative funding Black, Indigenous, and people of color-led and -serving arts and cultural organizations throughout the Southeast. The “major national funder” is the Ford Foundation, which is supporting the project with a $3 million matching gift. “This means that South Arts is asking community foundations, individual philanthropists, and national funders to donate toward the remaining $3 million match,” Young said.

The initiative is a win for the South’s arts organizations, which have historically received less philanthropic support than their peers in other regions. It’s also the latest example of South Arts stepping up its efforts to build an equitable ecosystem by engaging national funders, rolling out a more inclusive grantmaking application process and embracing general operating support.

“It’s time to acknowledge the value and relevance that these artists and organizations have to the communities they serve,” Young said. “They are part of the Southern and American landscape and deserve to be funded and recognized for that contribution.”

The South’s regional arts organization

Founded in 1975 as the Southern Arts Federation, South Arts is one of six regional arts organizations in the U.S. The organization works in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the state art agencies in nine states—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana.

South Arts’ board, which is chaired by Neil Barclay, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, is made up of directors from each state arts agency and individuals representing multiple disciplines both in the South and further afield. Young told me she anticipates the board will add three to five new positions over the next few years.

Young has more than 25 years of experience in the arts as a performing artist, academic and arts administrator, including a 14-year tenure with the South Carolina Arts Commission, where she served on the executive leadership team as the director of administration, human resources and operations. She described her role at South Arts as “thinking holistically about how all of the programs collectively do the work of our mission,” which involves working in partnership with state arts agencies and attracting new funding.

Support for artists and organizations

South Arts provides a broad array of grants to performing arts organizations and artists. For example, a national jury awards a $5,000 South Arts State Fellowship to one artist in each of the nine states whose work “reflects the best of the visual arts in the South.” Each artist then competes for one of two South Arts Southern Prizes—$25,000 for the winner and $10,000 for a finalist. South Arts began accepting applications on November 3.

With lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and additional support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, South Arts has committed $5.5 million to its Jazz Road program to date. The initiative provides grants of up to $15,000 to support multi-town tours by jazz artists. According to Young, many artists say this support enables them to “stay in a hotel and not in their car. That is the reality for many mid-career jazz artists.”

Last month, South Arts also awarded $2 million in Jazz Road Creative Residencies awards, supporting 52 jazz artists to develop new solo or ensemble work to perform and engage communities. Young said that South Arts’ grantmaking in the jazz field “speaks to a commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion and artists of color, specifically African American artists. It would be a shame if the very art form that sprang from this community was lost.”

Young told me that South Arts is currently focused on “supporting performing artists in rethinking and reimagining what their work looks like when they can’t tour.” That includes helping artists build out relationships for current and future work—both in-person and virtual—while recognizing that a theater doesn’t have to be the only place where a performing artist can thrive. “There is incredible artistic merit that can happen in programming that occurs outside of a traditional presented space,” Young said.

Closing the gap

South Arts’ efforts come against the backdrop of funders’ historically tepid support for arts organizations across the region. In a recent op-ed in Artnet, Young and South Arts’ president and CEO Susie Surkamer noted that “a person living in the South received only $4.21 in arts and culture funding from philanthropy, compared to the national average of $8.60 per person. If you’re reading this in New York or Boston, know that Northeasterners receive about $16.”

This phenomenon isn’t just restricted to the arts. As often reported here at IP, the South lags behind other regions in areas like support for organizations led by women of color and broader racial justice giving. A variety of factors contribute to this disparity. For example, Young told me that “most philanthropy tends to be place-based and that much of the nation’s industry and wealth has been historically concentrated in the North.”

In an effort to better engage grassroots organizations that have felt excluded from the grant application process, South Arts has “been trying to rework our messaging—scrapping jargon to focus on inclusivity, accessibility, and the personal stories of those looking for support,” the pair wrote in Artnet.

Young’s comments echo the sentiments of other arts leaders I’ve spoken with who are attempting to make the grantmaking process more inclusive. One such leader is the George Gund Foundation’s Jennifer Coleman. When she assumed her role as Culture and Arts program director, Coleman made a list of BIPOC-serving arts organizations in the Cleveland region and proactively reached out to them. She quickly realized she had struck a nerve. “A lot of these organizations have been shut out of the grantmaking process,” she told me. “People associate foundations by seeing a name on a symphony or museum” and instinctively feel excluded.

Engaging national funders

While a more inclusive grantmaking process is clearly a good thing, Southern arts organizations, on the whole, will still lag behind their peers in other regions as long as there’s what Young and Surkamer called an “absence of equitable national support.”

South Arts has been doing its part to turn the tide. The organization has successfully engaged national funders like the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, which supports its work in rural Appalachia, and Doris Duke and Mellon for its Jazz Road initiative.

In June of 2020, Mellon allocated $10 million for the United States Regional Arts Resilience Fund. The fund initially directed support to the nation’s six regional arts organizations, including South Arts, which launched the South Arts Resilience Fund. In doing so, Mellon joined other arts funders in providing emergency support to regrantors that were closely engaged with grassroots and BIPOC-ed arts organizations in the early days of COVID-19.

In October of 2020, South Arts announced that its South Arts Resilience Fund had awarded a total of $1.67 million to 34 small- and mid-sized regional arts organizations to build their resilience through and beyond the pandemic. “These are unprecedented times and we are glad to provide arts organizations the flexibility and resources to explore their work,” Surkamer said in South Arts’ press release. “The strategies for resilience look different for each organization, but the ultimate goal is almost always the same: create deeper, more meaningful connections with audiences while working toward long-term sustainability.”

Critical general operating support

South Arts’ twin goals of building out a resilient regional arts ecosystem while engaging national funders both come into play with Southern Cultural Treasures. And while $6 million is a significant amount of money for historically undercapitalized BIPOC-serving arts organizations in the region, the nature of the initiative’s support is just as important.

Taking cues from Ford’s America’s Cultural Treasures initiative, Southern Cultural Treasures will award general operating support grants of up to $300,000 over three years. It’s been said many times before, but it’s always worth repeating: For BIPOC arts organizations to thrive, they need general operating support.

Back in May, I spoke with funding leaders about how philanthropy can most effectively support a more equitable arts sector in the aftermath of historic nationwide calls for racial justice. Ford’s executive vice president of programs Hilary Pennington said that “organizations have a right to general operating support and multi-year funding. The more that organizations feel brave enough to ask for that, the better, even if they don’t always get it.”

Ford, to its credit, has walked the walk. In 2015, 36% of its grants were categorized as “general/core support.” Last year, that figure stood at 83%, making this initiative par for the course for Ford. But these figures also illustrate just how far Ford’s funding peers have to go. In March, a report on 2020 COVID-related giving from Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy found that flexible support reflected “only 9% of all dollars awarded to named recipients” once MacKenzie Scott’s grantmaking was taken out of the equation.

Southern Cultural Treasures will also provide project grants of up to $7,500 and an array of networking opportunities. South Arts says it will support a cohort of 12 to 15 organizations between May 2022 and March 2025. It has begun accepting letters of interest on its website.

Upcoming plans

On June 16, South Arts fired off a brief press release thanking Mackenzie Scott for a “transformative unrestricted gift” that will accelerate the organization’s efforts to “increase capacity, and widen and deepen our commitment to equitably strengthening the arts and the South.”

Those efforts are proceeding on multiple fronts. South Arts is currently accepting applications for the Emerging Leaders of Color program, a free, multi-day professional development program for early to mid-career arts administrators of color. Launched in partnership with the Western States Arts Federation, the program provides learning and networking opportunities to administrators of color seeking leadership positions in arts and culture.

Looking ahead, South Arts will be rolling out a literary arts program that, according to Young, “aims toward lifting the unique sense of place that is the South, allowing us to bring to the forefront important new writers who live, work and can write about our region.” Using American Rescue Plan funding through the NEA, South Arts also plans to announce opportunities for literary and media arts organizations to hire artists and creative workers in a professional capacity next year.

Calendar year 2022 will also include more grants to support traditional artists whose work falls within South Arts’ Appalachia-centric In These Mountains program. Finally, in fiscal year 2023, South Arts will award funding to approximately 20 arts organizations to implement projects that address communal and individual challenges and strengths through the arts. These “cross-sector impact” projects will connect the arts with areas such as mental health, aging, and juvenile justice and will emphasize partnerships.

Until then, Young said, “every arts organization should take a look and learn what their regional arts organizations are doing and reach out to them. Every state has a state arts agency, and they should be reaching out to them, as well.” At the same time, she encourages organizations to reach out to her. “I would love to hear from your readers about how they can imagine South Arts being their partner as we want to bring forward our mission of really advancing Southern vitality.”