Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Equity in Arts Funding: We're Not There Yet. We're Not Even Close.

This week, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy released a new paper by Holly Sidford called Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change. The title may sound innocuous. The paper is anything but. Sidford makes a clear, well-researched, and persuasive argument that "current arts grantmaking disregards large segments of cultural practice, and by doing so, it disregards large segments of our society." You should read this report. This is one of those important problems we were talking about last week.

We may say that we want to support programming and cultural opportunities for low-income and non-white people, but that's not where the money is going. Only 10% of arts foundation funding goes to minority-led organizations, and worse, the higher a foundation's funding in the arts, the less likely their money goes to support organizations serving low-income or underrepresented audiences. The majority of foundation funding for the arts goes to large, established organizations that present work that is based in the European canon for a primarily white, upper-income audience. Even as demographics change and public participation in the arts shifts away from these Euro-traditional formats, the money still flows down the old pathways.

This has obvious negative implications when it comes to issues of social justice and representation in the arts. But it has a whole slew of other negative implications as well:
  • it hinders innovation by narrowly focusing money on a small group of organizations
  • it makes funders less relevant to the shifting trends in cultural practice and participation
  • it makes philanthropy less philanthropic and more self-serving (wealthy people getting tax exemptions for donating to the symphonies, theaters, and museums that are most likely to serve them as audiences)
  • it creates inequity not just in initial funding but sustainability of programs for underserved audiences
  • it diminishes the potential for art and arts programming to have transformative civic impact on individuals and communities
It can be easy to throw up our hands and say, "we don't make the rules here--the funders do." But a lot of the questions and issues described in Sidford's paper are as applicable on the level of individual programs or institutional priorities as they are for funders and foundations.

Page 20 of the report describes six barriers to equity in arts funding, all of which apply on the institutional level. There's the barrier of artistic quality--funders, trustees, or staff members who argue that work by non-canonical artists is not up to the standards of the institution. There's the barrier of the concern that this work is "social work" and not art--and therefore doesn't belong in a museum or a theater. And then there's the concern that you might have to cut "core" programs to introduce something new for a specialized audience. These barriers are present on every level of our organizations, from who we choose to collaborate with to what programs we offer to what our board looks like to where we seek funding.

All of these questions and barriers are worth grappling with and debating among cultural practitioners. What are we doing to create new pathways for more diverse and equitable work, and what are we doing to shut those pathways down?

Reading the report, I kept thinking of Rick Lowe, the artist and community activist behind Project Row Houses in Houston. When I met him at AAM, Rick told the story of the beginnings of Project Row Houses in the following way. He had been hired on contract in the 1990s as a curator for an exhibition at the MFA Houston on African-American artists. He got to see the museum process from the inside. The exhibition project was grant-funded, and it was specifically targeted to support African-American artists and audiences. But Rick noticed that only a tiny portion of the grant was actually going to those folks--the majority fueled the MFA machine. And so he realized that he could start his own non-profit that would do a better job supporting underrepresented artists and audiences. Almost 20 years later, Project Row Houses is a powerhouse organization combining art, civic action, public housing, and social change.

Project Row Houses does receive foundation funding--but there are a lot of projects with comparably powerful community impact that do not. Rick's story makes me wonder: what could arts institutions be doing to incubate and foster innovative work by and for underrepresented audiences? Instead of Rick's experience with the MFA turning him off of traditional institutions, is there a way that experience could have been a positive launchpoint for his future work?

One of the institutions that really impresses me in supporting this kind of social change through the arts is, strangely enough, a children's museum. The Pittsburgh Children's Museum leads the Charm Bracelet effort to provide micro-granting throughout Pittsburgh's Northside neighborhood to enhance community vibrancy, health, and learning. The Children's Museum is functionally serving as a fiscal sponsor for small programs--peer mentoring for teen girls, public art, a farmer's market--that promote social justice and cultural engagement for low-income people. I find it incredible that in the midst of an economic recession, the Children's Museum (and other institutions in Pittsburgh) have stayed committed to regranting for social change in this way.

What can you do in your own organization to ensure that your programs, budgets, and priorities match your goals for demographic participation, civic engagement, and social justice? What do you think funders should be doing--and are you willing to hold yourself to the same standard?
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