aerogondo2/shutterstock
aerogondo2/shutterstock

In mid-September, TRG Arts published a study looking at 219 organizations’ current plans for returning to in-person paid performance in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. The study found that just 23% of U.S. performing arts organizations expect to perform to in-person audiences in 2020, compared to 61% when asked in June.

While the findings may not be surprising, they’re depressing all the same.

“The situation is dire for the artist, and we’re concerned with the artists themselves, so that is a primary issue right now,” said Maurine Knighton, director of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s (DDCF) arts program. She develops and oversees grantmaking that supports artists and organizations in contemporary dance, theater, jazz and presenting fields. The foundation was the third most generous funder of dance organizations from 2014 to 2018, allocating a total of $32.5 million, according to Candid.

Knighton pointed out that there’s also going to be a significant gap between the time when public health guidelines allow audiences to assemble again and when audiences actually feel comfortable attending a performance. “That creates a further potential peril for artists and organizations,” she said.

Given this fraught outlook, the DDCF is exploring how to help performing arts organizations transform, adapt and better connect with new audiences in the months ahead. “It’s been demanded by the set of circumstances that we’re facing,” Knighton said.

Other funders have adapted, as well, with several shoveling money out the door to keep imperiled performing arts organizations afloat. But with uncertainty showing no signs of waning, Knighton argues that funders, for all their flexibility and innovation in the past seven months, shouldn’t rest on their laurels, particularly when it comes to democratizing grantmaking and advancing equity across the sector.

Post-COVID Reforms

In the early days of the pandemic, funders threw out the rule book. They converted program-related grants into general operating support and dialed back onerous administrative requirements. Knighton, who called funders’ embrace of general operating support “a tremendous win,” suggested some other areas for long-term improvement.

For instance, institutional funders tend to ask performing arts organizations to provide multi-year budget projections. “The truth is, we could continue to require that,” Knighton said, “but it has far less meaning now than it might have a year ago. We are in an environment of so many unknowns that it doesn’t feel like a respectful use of time to ask a grantee to provide that information.” Instead, Knighton proposes that funders ask for financial information on a quarterly basis—a less resource-intensive and speculative task than asking organizations to see three to five years into the future.

Knighton also told me that philanthropy needs to be “true partners” with grantees in the months and years ahead to help them be successful. This can involve facilitating partnerships, increasing networking, giving advice, or simply answering questions. “We should be open and available, and that’s not necessarily standard practices,” Knighton said.

To see a good example of how an arts funder provided constructive support to a nonprofit leader, check out my interview with Jennifer Coleman of the George Gund Foundation. Coleman relates coaching a newly hired executive director who was poised to meet other funders who thought he wasn’t up to the job.

Knighton also mentioned how some foundations prohibit organizations from working with fiscal sponsors when they don’t have 501(c)(3) status. “That’s not going to be helpful in this moment,” she said. Moving forward, Knighton hopes funders would “be open to fiscal sponsors in cases where that is appropriate.”

On Advancing Equity

Last year, Knighton co-wrote an article for Stanford Social Innovation Review with Kerry McCarthy, vice president for philanthropic initiatives at the New York Community Trust, called “The Role of Philanthropy in Advancing Equity in the Arts.” It is a must-read for arts organizations looking to align their efforts with funders’ interest in remedying funding inequities and supporting more inclusive programming.

Eleven months later, Knighton’s laid out two ways philanthropy can best promote equity in the performing arts: change eligibility requirements to open up funding opportunities for BIPOC organizations, and frame equity as a “routine matter,” rather than a “special effort that’s only being pursued when the zeitgeist demands it.”

As currently constructed, many arts funders’ eligibility requirements shut out organizations with small budgets. “Oftentimes, funders are looking for a balance sheet that has more assets than an organization of color might have,” Knighton told me. “That’s because, broadly speaking, an organization of color may not have the kinds of fixed assets that a larger organization will have.” Funding instead flows to wealthier, predominantly white organizations that in turn roll out diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

This phenomenon recently became apparent in Chicago, when the MacArthur Foundation discovered its arts program’s eligibility criteria “had the unintended consequence of excluding significant parts of the city’s population,” according to Senior Program Officer Cate Fox. Under its new Culture, Equity and the Arts framework, the foundation will no longer base grant award amounts on the size of the organization’s annual budget.

Another obstacle preventing funders from adequately funding BIPOC organizations involves board requirements. “Funders look for organizations that have board members who make a certain amount of contributions to the organization,” Knighton said, “and the truth is that in many cases, BIPOC organizations select board members based on their community connectedness and relevance rather than their financial wherewithal.”

Bottom line? “If eligibility doesn’t allow for funders to support BIPOC organizations,” Knighton said, “then there’s something wrong.”

“Humility is the Watchword”

Earlier this year, I spoke with Alexis Frasz, co-director of Helicon Collaborative, an organization that explores equity issues in arts funding in the U.S. Frasz told me that “equity must be a value embedded in the organization at the highest level and integrated at all levels. 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.”

Knighton agrees. “I have been working in the performing arts for quite some time, long enough to have seen previous initiatives that have advocated for this sort of work—‘cultural diversity’ in one round, ‘multiculturalism’ in another round.” She has also seen a pattern of “organizations doing that work only when and as long as funding is there to support it; therefore, it never has the ‘stickiness’ and sustainability that it must have to make real, lasting change.”

It’s incumbent on philanthropy, Knighton said, to determine if an organization prioritized equity before it became a buzzword, if it will remain committed to the practice once the grant expires, and acknowledge that BIPOC organizations have been doing the work all along. These organizations have the “lived experience” to give philanthropy guidance, Knighton said. “Humility is the watchword. We don’t know everything.”

We closed our chat on a (somewhat) optimistic note. In March, the New York Community Trust announced the $75 million NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund to support the city’s cultural and social services organizations. Participating funders included Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In late July, the fund announced that it raised more than $110 million for emergency grants and zero-interest loans to 768 New York City-based organizations.

Knighton told me that the fund’s success showed what philanthropy can do when it focuses its collective efforts on a daunting task. The challenge for funders moving forward, she said, is to “figure out that sweet spot that allows us to partner in a way that benefits foundations and the organizations that we intend to benefit.”

A few days after I spoke with Knighton, the DDCF’s primary goal of supporting individual artists became readily apparent when the foundation announced the winners of its 2020 Doris Duke Awards in the fields of contemporary dance, jazz and theater. Recipients will receive an astonishing $275,000—$25,000 of which the foundation earmarked for recipients’ retirement savings; the balance is completely unrestricted. The DDCF gave out eight awards this year, up from six in 2019.

“Our intent for this award has always been to enable its recipients to invest in their own well-being in ways that create the right conditions for them to continue to flourish and do their best work,” Knighton said in a DDCF press release. “Amid a year like no other in recent memory, the importance of this aim should be readily apparent to all.”

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