Nomad_Soul/shutterstock
Nomad_Soul/shutterstock

Back in 2014, the Wallace Foundation launched the six-year, $52 million Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative to identify and share insights into how arts organizations successfully engage, expand and retain their audiences. For over half a decade, Wallace built out an extensive repository of research papers, audience surveys and case studies documenting its findings.

The BAS initiative is winding down, but Wallace isn’t resting on its laurels. It recently announced an equally ambitious new program—a five-year, $53 million initiative focused on identifying ways that arts organizations of color can “leverage their experience and histories of community orientation to increase their resilience, while sustaining their relevance.”

The initiative’s first cohort is open to organizations with annual budgets between $500,000 and $5 million operating in the visual, performing, literary and media arts fields, as well as “community-based organizations focused on artistic practice.” Wallace plans to roll out a second, larger cohort that will focus on organizations with budgets below $500,000 in late 2022.

“Equity has long been a central value at Wallace, and we hope this initiative advances that commitment,” said Bahia Ramos, the foundation’s director of arts. “By listening to and partnering with arts organizations of color, and documenting and studying their work, we hope to highlight their important contributions and better understand the practices that make them matter so deeply to their communities.”

The initiative is the latest substantial investment by a major funder to strengthen arts organizations of color in a field transformed by the pandemic and the death of George Floyd. It’s also another reminder that restricted support coupled with extensive funder and grantee involvement will continue to be a huge part of the institutional arts grantmaking mix moving forward.

A brief summary of funders’ support

Last fall, I spoke with Ramos about the state of Wallace’s engagement work. She said that many arts leaders she spoke with were encouraged by their organizations’ success in reaching new audiences thanks to the unexpected shift to virtual programming. These leaders were focused on retaining new audiences, monetizing virtual performances, and sharing lessons learned with their peers.

“Grantmakers have opened a dialogue to be more transparent to learn from each other and to build a more equitable system,” Ramos said. In October, Wallace launched a five-part “Reimagining the Future of the Arts” conversation series. Over 600 participants dialed into its first installment, which explored ways that the pandemic may permanently change how organizations engage with audiences.

Meanwhile, other funders have been rolling out unrestricted support with a focus on BIPOC arts organizations. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided $10 million in emergency grants to six U.S. Regional Arts organizations for the purpose of disseminating unrestricted funding to small to midsize arts organizations led by and serving BIPOC people as well as rural nonprofits.

In September, the Ford Foundation launched America’s Cultural Treasures, a $156 million initiative providing unrestricted funding to 20 BIPOC arts organizations navigating the pandemic.

Grantmakers have kept the unrestricted support flowing throughout 2021. In April, Ford announced a fresh $1 billion infusion into its Building Institutions and Networks Initiative, a program that provides recipients with unrestricted, multi-year funding, including many in the arts and culture field.

A month later, the LA Arts Recovery Fund, which was initiated by the J. Paul Getty Trust and housed at the California Community Foundation (CCF), announced $36 million in general operating support grants. Seventy-one percent of the fund’s 90 grantees are founded, led by, or have boards with majority Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous leadership. CCF Marketing and Communications Director Paula Valle Castañon told me that “now, more than ever, our arts and culture sector partners need multi-year general operating support.”

In June, MacKenzie Scott and her husband Dan Jewett—now philanthropy’s biggest practitioners of unrestricted support—announced a fresh $2.7 billion in unrestricted grants to 286 institutions. Unlike in previous rounds, arts and cultural organizations were among the biggest winners.

A focus on “community orientation”

It’s easy to see why nonprofit leaders pleaded for unrestricted support before and during the pandemic. Unrestricted funding can help organizations build up cash reserves or set up an endowment that will help them withstand future financial shocks—a relatively rare phenomenon for arts organizations of color.

“When you get to the medium and smaller arts organizations—that don’t have endowments, that don’t have rich boards, that don’t have huge amounts of operating cash flow—those organizations are panicked,” Ford Foundation President Darren Walker told Geoff Edgers at the Washington Post upon announcing the launch of America’s Cultural Treasures last September. “If we don’t help them, they will be gone.”

Rather than unrestricted support, the Wallace Foundation takes a different approach in its grantmaking. It bankrolls research efforts to “answer important questions that, if solved, could help strengthen practices and policies within a field.” But this approach can also instill financial stability and resilience. For example, by promoting best practices around monetizing virtual programming or using marketing analysis techniques to reach new audiences, its BAS initiative gives leaders tools to grow their organization’s revenue base.

A similar logic infuses the new $53 million initiative. Historically underfunded BIPOC organizations that strengthen their “community orientation” can attract and retain new audiences, thereby strengthening resilience, which Wallace defines as “the organizations’ ability to adapt and thrive.”

The foundation defines “community orientation” as an organization’s “efforts to serve its community through artistic work and other means,” which can include engaging audiences from a particular community, presenting and preserving the community’s art forms or works, or fostering new productions from that community. One of the initiative’s goals is to “determine whether this is a meaningful definition of the term and how it could be refined.”

After vetting applications, Wallace will invite approximately 50 organizations to submit proposals. It will then select 10 to 12 organizations that will receive five years of funding totaling $2 to $3 million to “develop projects that use community-oriented approaches to meet strategic challenges” in partnership with foundation staff, academic researchers and ethnographers. Grantees will also participate in peer learning groups throughout the initiative.

A closer look at the initiative

So how does Wallace’s new initiative address the needs articulated by nonprofit arts leaders and those serving communities of color in the aftermath of a tumultuous 2020?

Back in May, F. Javier Torres-Campos, director of the Surdna Foundation’s Thriving Cultures program, told me that leaders in the field need to “do community due diligence so that we can ensure the organizations we’re supporting are, in fact, in full partnership with community members who are most deeply impacted by oppression.”

Wallace clearly got the memo. Back in March, in the fifth installment of its “Reimagining the Future of the Arts” series, Wallace looked at how arts organizations with deep roots in communities of color were defining success during the pandemic. That same month, Wallace published a report looking at how leaders from 21 BIPOC arts organizations leveraged community engagement and high-quality programming to boost financial health.

Now, Wallace has added its new $53 million initiative focused on community orientation to its docket. Taken in total, these cumulative efforts go above and beyond Torres-Campos’ call for broader and deeper community partnership.

At a more mechanical level, grantees will appreciate the initiative’s five-year timeframe. Long before the pandemic struck, leaders complained about getting stuck on the annual grant application treadmill. A lengthy five-year grant period will allow arts leaders to breathe a bit easier.

On the other hand, there’s the absence of unrestricted support, nonprofit leaders’ top request from funders throughout the pandemic. A proponent of unrestricted support might very well argue that Wallace could do a better job strengthening resilience across the sector by, for example, awarding 53 unrestricted grants of $1 million each to undercapitalized BIPOC arts organizations. That’s 53 institutions that can strengthen their cash reserves, establish an endowment, make needed capital improvements, or engage with consultants to strengthen connections with the community. Needless to say, such a grantmaking model wouldn’t lack for popularity.

Advancing knowledge

Of course, we could apply a similar calculus to any other restricted grant program aiming to resource the field—say, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ $30 million Digital Accelerator program to help arts institutions improve their technology infrastructure, or the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation’s “Broadening Narratives” program, which looks to expand the definition of a “collecting organization” to illuminate historically underrepresented groups.

I’ll leave it to readers to gauge the relative utility of this approach. But readers also know that many foundations’ missions require them to advance specific priorities as they seek to advance the field, and forms of restricted support are often the most effective mechanism to do that.

For instance, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ grantmaking reflects its namesake’s belief that technology can help institutions achieve their strategic goals. And one of the Donnelly Foundation’s three focus areas is supporting collecting organizations with the broader aim of building equitable communities.

The Wallace Foundation “identifies important knowledge gaps in our areas of interest; funds real-world tests to yield answers to fill those gaps; and then disseminates what has been learned to policymakers, influential thinkers and those who work in the fields we cover.”

This is a wholly unique value proposition. “Because Wallace is focused on building credible, useful knowledge, not just funding worthy projects, grantees—especially those who help Wallace develop and test solutions—may find that working with Wallace is different from working with other foundations,” its website reads.

I’d argue that Wallace is being a bit too modest. While outfits like the Helicon Collaborative and Stanford Social Innovation Review have explored ways to boost funding equity for BIPOC arts organizations, there’s still a relatively small body of research documenting how specific BIPOC organizations measurably increased their relevance and resilience. (I also suspect some leaders will acknowledge that cash alone does not inherently guarantee the organization will meaningfully engage with its community or successfully adapt to unforeseen calamities.)

If Wallace’s new initiative generates a knowledge base similar to its BAS initiative, BIPOC arts leaders will be able to tap a deep repository of actionable best practices and research—a huge net gain for the field. “Our goal,” Ramos said, “is to benefit not only organizations that are selected to be part of the initiative, but also other arts organizations of color and the broader field of the non-profit arts.”

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