Regrets of a Former Arts Funder

As Program Officer for Arts and Culture at the San Francisco Foundation, I and philanthropic colleagues often bemoaned how fragile many culturally specific organizations were. One person would wonder why there were so few financially stable African American arts organizations. Then a multi-voiced litany of woes would commence about how many Asian and Latino arts nonprofits were floundering in just as weak a state.

How was this possible in a community that has no "majority culture," that has had a Hotel Tax Fund giving decades of operating grants to culturally specific arts organizations, and a Cultural Equity Program since 1993 created to redress inequities in funding?

And sadly, at the national level, arts organizations from disenfranchised communities are no more stable. Few African American, Latino, or Asian theater companies founded in the 1970s are still in existence, or if they are alive, they do not appear to be as artistically vibrant.

(For a definition of culturally specific organizations, we quote the Cultural Equity Program: "arts organizations that are deeply rooted in, and able to express the experiences of, historically underserved communities including Native American, Asian American, African American, the disabled, Latino, L/G/B/T, Pacific Islander, and women.")

Other than Ailey, Jones, and King?

Remove the Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, and Alonzo King dance companies from the picture, and it's hard to find many dance ensembles led by people of color that tour year-round and are economically viable. The Bay Area’s Ethnic Dance Festival lists hundreds of artists in its database, but few are paid for their artistry.

As changed demographics transform the country, we should be seeing a burgeoning renaissance for artists working within specific cultural traditions in communities of color. But where is that renaissance? Is our society so racist that these artists and organizations cannot thrive?

Separate tracks

In hindsight, many funders did not feel equipped to judge quality outside of their own world views and experiences. I know that was a problem for me. Excellence matters -- and there was not a lack of artistic excellence -- but what was missing were the multiple perspectives in philanthropy needed to judge excellence in culturally specific organizations.

As a result, a separate "other" track was created for these organizations, a kind of affirmative action track with far less resources. By creating this separate track, we may have unintentionally entrenched a two-tiered caste system.

In addition, support to culturally specific organizations often focused on administrative infrastructure building and considered artistic quality a lower priority. This was a mistake, resulting in further undercapitalizing artistic efforts.

Maybe philanthropy should have taken a page from venture capitalists’ playbooks, investing more deeply at a significant level over a five- to eight-year time frame, as well as offering a range of non-cash, value-added assistance by sitting on boards, mentoring, and coaching of senior managers, in addition to artistic support. This is not hands-off, outsourced grantmaking. Focus on the triple bottom line and then get out!

I wish . . .

In retrospect, I wish I had presented this kind of framework to the San Francisco Foundation trustees; instead I followed a dispersal method of distributing small amounts of money to as many organizations as possible. Even with miniscule amounts of money, grantees had to elucidate numerous outcomes and activities. Now that I'm a grantseeker again, I wonder if all that paperwork was necessary for grants averaging $12,000.

Another problem I now see was that support was often not tied to the marketplace: box office, tuition, and auxiliary income are crucial. I once attended a performance with a colleague doing a site visit. The work was stale and there were only six of us in the audience, still the group met my colleague’s requirements for funding. Longevity with diminishing artistry is not success.

Not all culturally specific grassroots organizations are aground. La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley and Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, both born out of a legacy of social activism in the 1970s, evolved programs: La Peña incorporating Hip Hop aesthetics and Galería expanding from a Chicano focus to a broader representation of the Latino community in its Mission District neighborhood. In Philadelphia, the Asian American Arts Alliance is developing a multi-tenant facility for a diverse array of organizations, not solely pan-Asian.

Art history of a different type

Federal arts philanthropy began in the 1960s Camelot-era to support large mainstream arts organizations. W. McNeil "Mac" Lowry at the Ford Foundation replicated Manhattan classical culture, granting $80 million to support regional theater, orchestras, and Balanchine-esque ballet companies. State funding agencies at first also supported a Eurocentric cultural paradigm.

I came into the nonprofit arts field in the late 1970s when shifts in government (NEA Inter-Arts) and foundation (Rockefeller & Wallace) funding began supporting media and contemporary interdisciplinary art forms. However, hindsight has shown us that postmodernism was just another strand of modernism, with little room for cultural pluralism

Seeking to address inequities in funding distribution early on, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1971 established the Expansion Arts Program for "ethnic, inner-city, and rural arts organizations." This program lasted until 1995. 

In 1984, the California Arts Council was mandated "to target resources toward multicultural arts organizations," and developed Multicultural Arts Development Programs for "culture-specific and multicultural artists groups/collectives and arts organizations" which ran from 1985-2003. Similar programs were established at state and local agencies nationwide, as well as at select foundations.

However, with 40 years of these kinds of programs, why have they had so little impact in shoring up and diversifying the arts ecosystem? Why have philanthropic interventions been so ineffective? Despite years of technical assistance and organizational development funding streams, why are so many culturally specific organizations essentially dry-docked?

Culturally specific arts have to evolve, too

Many culturally specific creative organizations founded in the 1970s were centered on an identity politic of its core artists. While essential in its time, this focus ultimately limited an organization’s potential as time, issues, and the political landscape changed. Artists, too, constrained themselves if art practices were myopically identity-based.

So much aesthetic change happens from the fringe; history continually bears this out.  Therefore philanthropy should always be seeding the future along multiple frontiers. But after awhile, if an artist or artist organization does not get traction in its community, then perhaps aesthetic Darwinism should prevail.

What about mainstreaming?

There have been many artists nurtured in culturally specific, grassroots, and alternative organizations that have mainstreamed in recent years. With Philip Kan Gotanda produced by American Conservatory Theater, Naomi Iizuka at Berkeley Rep, Marcus Gardley at Arena Stage, Luis Alfaro at Magic Theatre, Ping Chong at Oregon Shakes, and Culture Clash at the Taper, are culturally specific organizations still necessary?

Yes, indeed! These artists’ considerable successes do not mean that no further attention to diversity is needed. In fact, without small and emerging culturally specific organizations to allow artists to find their initial stage legs, I worry about subsequent generations realizing their potential in larger venues.

In the past few months, I have sat on government and foundation grant review panels. In both instances, review criteria and panelists focused on stability and sustainability, perpetuating the old caste system. In an outcome-based evaluative structure, ambiguity was not rewarded. And in both panels, I heard, "Need is not a criteria." Well, yes it is and should be, if we are ever to let new groups into the privileged patronage circle.

Under-investment in artists

One study (Leveraging Investments in Creativity 2003) found that 79% of all grants to individual artists were under $10,000, 66% were under $5,000, and sadly, 50% of all grants to artists in this country were under $2,000. This has had a two-fold effect: new work is seriously underdeveloped and artists have to subsidize their art, reinforcing a class stricture.

A San Francisco Foundation study by Joan Jeffri (2004) showed that 63% of the Bay Area artists surveyed earned less than $7,000 from their art practice, and only 43% stated their income covered arts-related expenses.

Since 1995, when the NEA stopped supporting individual artists (except literature fellowships and honorifics in jazz and folk arts), there has been a fundamental distrust and discounting of artists in philanthropy.

It is time to reverse this and provide artists adequate time, money, and other resources. Focusing support on individual artists may be particularly pertinent for culturally specific art practices that do not lend themselves to organizing within the 501(c)(3) nonprofit construct.


While at the SF Foundation, I partnered with the East Bay Community Foundation in a commissioning program that funded 116 new projects involving a diverse array of 181 artists. A second program supported documentary projects in early production phases. 

When setting up these programs, I reminded the trustees that not all projects would come to fruition. For many venture capitalists, there is a rule of thumb regarding start-up investing. It suggests that on 1/3 of your investments you will lose all of your investment. On another 1/3 you may make or lose a little. The other 1/3 is where you make your money, and one or two is probably where the bulk of the return is. Unfortunately, this kind of risk-taking would seem foolhardy to funders.


There is a crisis here, as arts funding remains disproportionately skewed toward the classical behemoths. With organizations like Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Opera imploding because of structural deficits, I worry that precious philanthropic resources will be further diverted to maintaining what was, instead of capitalizing a more representative future. By merely preserving the past, we fail as cultural stewards and act irresponsibly.

Finally, my last “philanthro-past” reflection: it is time to give up the false dichotomies and biases between professional/amateur, high/low, esoteric/popular, and contemporary/traditional. Instead, philanthropy should be investing in the cultural interests that allow people who live in our communities to lead more expressive lives.

This would truly be representative arts philanthropy.

John R. Killacky left the San Francisco Foundation in June 2010 to become the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont. He is former executive director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco) and former performing arts curator of the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis). He is shown here with Shetland pony Pacific Raindrop.

Thanks to the Flynn Center for the collage of artists, the photo of the Mingus Ensemble, and for their season schedule cover.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (39)

  • I've sat on three grantmaking panels for the arts in the last several years, and each has disappointed me deeply, much along the lines that John describes here. The most recent panel was to make "multicultural arts grants," but the ranking system focused almost entirely on the quality of the proposal (how well did they describe their goals for improving management?) and just barely on the quality of the art produced, and not one bit about whether the community in question valued and needed the institution seeking funding.

    Each panelist ranked sections of the proposal based on guidelines; the mathematical results were the determinant, and there was no discussion of the outcome. Two of the three awardees were LGBT organizations comprised of well educated arts elite, who could write terrific proposals but whose communities do not rely on them the way, for instance, organizations (that also applied) such as a Slavic music center and a Latino visual arts center are important to their communities (and needed the money more).

    In a different multicultural arts grantmaking panel, the panel got all tangled up on questions such as whether a jazz festival run by white people, attended by mostly white people, and featuring mostly black musicians "counted," or whether a dance company headed by an African American choreographer counted because 2/3 of the dancers were not African American. [insert image of my pulling my hair out!]

    I appreciate this article by John because it helps me unravel some of my frustrations with these experiences. At the same time, I wish he had said a little more about the trajectory of a grassroots arts organization based in a community of color that succeeds and lasts, and what are the key supports and obstacles in that trajectory. Next article, John?

    Jun 27, 2011
  • Jan, I'm surprised by your careless, nearly callous, comment about "LGBT organizations comprised of well educated arts elite, who could write terrific proposals but whose communities do not rely on them the way, for instance, organizations (that also applied) such as a Slavic music center and a Latino visual arts center are important to their communities (and needed the money more)." Pitting LGBT artists or organizations against what you perceive as those more grounded in a specific community or culture is irresponsible, and I expect more from you. As a gay man who was just yesterday referred to as a "homo" and threatened with physical violence at a convenience store two blocks from my home, I can assure you that economic privilege, an advanced education and a life steeped in the elite arts conveys no advantage in a country that promotes hatred and violence towards LGBT individuals. And your comments, which perpetuate very common gay stereotypes, are just as damaging and unacceptable.

    Jun 29, 2011
  • Calm down. She wasn't making a blanket statement about all LGBT organizations, but the two awarded grants that also happened to be made up of well-educated arts elite. Also, nowhere did she imply that LGBT artists aren't grounded in a specific community. She merely stated that other communities might rely on their arts centers to a greater degree, particularly if there are only a few such existing programs. Perhaps in Jan's area there is a plethora of strong LGBT-focused arts programs, while there are only one or two underfunded programs serving, for example, the Slavic community.

    Jun 30, 2011
  • Thank you, Anonymous above. You're absolutely right about where I live.

    In addition, I want to say that it is not me who pits programs against each other, but the system. As John implies in his article, there are pluses and minuses to separate tracks for culturally specific arts organizations. I don't know the Big Answer, but I am keenly aware of the unintended negative consequences. Thank you again.

    Jun 30, 2011
  • In an advanced country like ours who has risen above the civil rights movement and women rights movement, it is embarrassing that we have laws that protect discrimination against certain people based solely on their sexual orientation. But in spite of this, some members of the public resort to ignorance when they mindlessly disgrace a well-respected nonprofit professional on her own site!

    Jul 02, 2011
  • This is a great post. Some really nice thinking about culturally specific orgs. I agree they are often under-funded. Lack of diversity and expertise on funding boards is definitely part of the problem.

    Jun 28, 2011
  • John, first, thank you for your honesty in reflecting regrets in this area. Funders too often do not publicly (or sometimes even privately) acknowledge decisions that were political, expedient, ill-informed or just plain wrong. And if they do, it rarely happens in a timeframe that allows rectification. Second, I think timing has a lot to do with how we are able to act on learning. It seems that in those rare moments when we feel flush - that is not in recession - we look forst to growing and expanding the impact of what we already have rather than stepping back to ask what are we missing. And third, these flush times are so few and far between that the cyclic emergencies and/or planned advancement campaigns of major institutions keep these institutions top of mind for foundaiton board members - many of whom often sit on these institutions' boards - or their wives do. This makes having a c onversation about expanding the grantmaking field very difficult for program staff. Thanks for a very thoughtful piece, John.

    Jun 28, 2011
  • From Barbara Schaffer Bacon: Thanks John for putting this issue and your perspective on the table. Recommended Reading on the topic: Community-Based Arts Organizations: A New Center of Gravity by Ron Chew Amid changing demographics, a new political climate, technological advances, and globalization, small and mid-sized community-based arts organizations offer artistic excellence and innovation, astute leadership connected to community needs, and important institutional and engagement models for the arts field. As value-based organizations, they are purposeful and have a sustained commitment to fundamental values related to cultural responsibility, ethical practices, and respectful relationships. Attuned to significantly changing demographics, they honor both cultural legacies and future possibilities, understanding them as a continuum, not a contradiction. They often work in partnerships that cross silos and sectors to connect art organically with other areas such as health, community development, humanities, and social justice. They are multilingual in more ways than just language, and their social networks run broad and deep. This essay by Ron Chew, Principal, Chew Communications and former long-time director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, makes the case for greater support of this important segment of cultural organizations, exemplified by such organizations as Arte Publico Press in Houston; East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Oakland, CA; Ma-Yi Theater Compan in New York City; and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Chew underscores their crucial contributions to the cultural ecosystem, to civic culture, and toward achieving healthy communities and a healthy democracy. This essay was developed for and supported by Animating Democracy, Americans for the Arts with funding from The Ford Foundation in 2009.

    Jun 28, 2011
  • interesting article by Killacky

    Jun 28, 2011
  • Dear John, Thank you for your thoughtful comments on a set of questions that have woven a thread through my life. As a person who was "incubated" artistically in the San Francisco Bay Area where middle-eastern dance, West African high life dance and music, Cuban rumba, Chilean guitars and maracas, Mexican Mariachi bands from Guadalajara, Hip Hop and other social dances from the African American Community, Filipino stick and fabric dances, Baltic singing, Flamenco Voice, Gospel singing, Yoruba deity practice, Afro-Haitian dance...and many other forms were the lifeblood of my artistic training from 6 - 30 years old. It wasn't until I went to college in my 30's and "trained" that I began to articulate the gap between what was designated as "art" or considered "community" work. Yet, the tradition of master to apprentice, collective involvement, activated art was not quite acknowledged, formally supported, or understood very well by the institutions who funded and presented work. In your post you point to the structures, or rather lack of structures, to support individual artists, and also allude to the role that 501c3 does, or does not, play in meeting the artists and art forms where they are. One of the earlier responses to your post also points to the measurement of management ability over mission or creative equivalents. And this is where I gravitate towards when thinking about the topics you raise - what are the conventional structures that perpetuate the marginalization of the cultural expressions and artists that you refer to? Plus, how are we overlooking cultural activity that isn't expressed in ways we consider conventional. I think there are some very interesting people doing some good and provocative thinking along these lines. I would posit the following references: Mark Stern and Susan Seifert - University of Pennsylvania "Migrants, Communities, and Culture" An older resource - but great research from the now "sunsetted" Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley "Immigrant Community Arts" by Dr. Pia Moriarty And then more recently the Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowment Trusts program Advancing Black Art which really takes a risk in getting very clear about what they are trying to fund: And finally - Broward County Cultural Division which does a very good job of funding individual artists as well as cultural specific organizations, especially considering that it is a publicly funded entity and not that large a funder. Lots and lots more to let's talk about fiscal sponsorship :) but that's enough for now - Kim

    Jun 28, 2011
  • Thank goodness for plain talk about the way most foundations distribute money. It is so refreshing to hear him question typical grantmaking strategies followed by most foundations. And it's about time for more discussion on this topic. "Hands-off, outsourced" funding by way of small amounts of money often does not strengthen organizations. They may need much, much more. Thank you thank you! Gail Perry CFRE MBA

    Jun 28, 2011
  • I have to disagree with the people calling for "hands-on" support from funders. I can't think of a worse thing to do to a fledging, creative dance troupe or theater or group of musicians, particularly in a comunity of color, than to have to take even more advice from the bureaucratic, never-ran-anything-themselves program officers who dominate the field, and keep on giving conventional, irrelevant and even harmful advice to their grantees.

    If I were such a group, I'd welcome and benefit from advice from John Killacky or Frances Phillips. But I know oh so many arts funders whose advice would be heavy handed and terrible!

    Jun 28, 2011
  • John, I'm wondering if you could expand on the issue of ambiguity not being rewarded. There's a lot to unpack there that seems like it could be helpful for both grantmakers and grant seekers. It seems that the traditional approach to this has been that applicants should at least "know what they don't know." What kind of evaluative process do you imagine? And does that look different whether you're talking about foundation processes vs. civic grantmaking? Also, (this question is also to Jan given her comment) what kind of criteria would you suggest that fairly evaluates the issue of need? (Particularly since Jan seems to be suggesting more than economic need on the part of the applicant organization.) And how do you weigh this against innovation, proportion of request vs. budget (feasibility), etc?

    Jun 28, 2011
  • Years ago when I worked at Walker Art Center, Meredith Monk had just spent five years working on her opera,"Atlas." When I asked her what she wanted to do next, she said go in the studio and experiment on a new solo. I worked on a grant for Meet the Composer about this, and tortured myself describing something that didn't conceptually exist. Before submitting it, my assistant said, what are you really trying to say, mostly sounds like rhetoric. So I threw out the narrative and simply described Meredith wanting to go into the studio. The grant was awarded and she made "Volcano Songs."So few times have I dared to be so honest in grant proposals. When reading grant proposals, I often see over promised and over hyped outcomes , and worry that the system doesn't really encourage experimentation without knowing the end result.

    Jun 29, 2011
  • Sorry, somehow my name wasn't attached, but the above reply was from me. John Killacky

    Jun 30, 2011
  • The culture wars of the 80's and 90's have resulted in funders who are nervous about supporting individual artists or organizations, who may produce work that is politically or culturally " incorrect". It is much safer to fund arts that fit comfortable into our joint artistic heritage than to take a chance on anyone going out on a limb. The best of new art has traditionally come from artists working from the fringe of the community, who have the ability to be fearless in challenging the status quo without worrying about losing funding from a traditional foundation or government source.

    Jun 29, 2011
  • I so agree with you. The fallout from the 1990s Culture Wars certainly impacted when the NEA stopped supporting individual artists. Other funders followed suit. However, there are some heroic examples of funders that are supporting individual artists: Creative Capital, United States Artists, Gerbode/Hewlett, Haas Jr., 3Arts, Jerome, Guggenheim, Pew, McKnight, and others. John Killacky

    Jun 30, 2011
  • This is an excellent article. As the founding Artistic/Producing Director of the Towne Street Theatre in Los Angeles, whose mission is to produce and create work by African-American artists, the challenges to actually have money to do that are enormous. So many funders have guidelines where the organization must have $100,000 budget or higher. For a small organization of any color, this is a fluid # - someone once told me - just lie - which was advice I did not take, so we continue to try to make ends meet. So many funders also do not give money for operating expenses, which is needed as much and almost more, then the money to create the work. Operating expenses help sustain and make the organization stable - thereby creating the space to help develop and present the work. The Cultural Data Project, developed I am sure to help, has hindered many of us with no staff to complete even more paperwork, that you wonder is it really necessary? I believe the problem is and continues to be - art for art's sake - looked as elitist and not a necessity in our society. So those who "make" it are held up as examples of how the system is working and the rest of us just have to figure out to survive.

    Jun 29, 2011
  • Thanks so much everyone for these insights, and I sincerely hope and trust that creative alliances rather than cutthroat competition will become the hallmark of future struggles to both seek and distribute resources in flush times as well as in straightened ones. Like the commitment to diversifying, this must become an article of faith, not an option, a whim, or simply a dream. I am dedicating this to the custody of the "better angels."

    Jun 29, 2011
  • My conclusion from this column is that it's time to throw out cultural distinctions. Artists & arts orgs should not be considered for funding because they are from any particular "cultural" segment. They should be funded only because they have a good mission, good product, and a viable community of supporters. Speaking only as a consumer of art, I don't care what ethnic or cultural background something has; if it's good art, it's just good. I recently discovered eastern European (I forget if it was Czech or something else) folk music, and I love it. By the same token, something that is mediocre is not redeemed because it comes from a particular cultural segment, nor should something that is poor quality get any kind of reward purely for its cultural basis.

    Jun 29, 2011
  • Dear John: To continue our on-going conversation, (now for decades) this is a wonderful piece. Your probing essay is deep and provocative and I deeply appreciate your examination of "effectiveness" and your articulation of "caste system". My friend we have history and when you mention Luis, Ping, Culture Clash... We know their history before they got to the stages you mentioned and how important the small spaces where to their careers and the development of their voices. My own examination of the conditions you articulated are discussed in a paper of mine just published, folks who appreciated you insights might find value in this paper which is entitled the “The Color Line in US Cultural Policy: an essay with dialogue” published by NAMAC Recently, I've turned my lens upon evaluation and the sociologies associated with them as a means to understand how racism works in our sector. Yes, there is something wrong with how we are trying to understand and support the ways of many small and mid-size art orgs of color that are living the hand to mouth life for 20 plus year, that do not fit nicely in the stabilization /sustainability rhetoric of technocrats and yet they are still kicking it. And that evidence asks has me looking at how the field uses empirical research methodologies as a privileged mechanism to asses the value of an org and how these rubrics of measurement are profoundly weak because of its racists legacy. Your essay of witness and concern rub up against how “otherness” is created and sustain through policies that avoid the hard examination of the politics of resource and position, of the multi-worldviews that enliven our plurality that operate in our sector that ask for more from us. Thanks for the prompt. Abrazos Roberto

    Jun 30, 2011
  • John - nice piece - thank you for sharing it. I hope arts funders (or any non-profit funder) gets to read this - I'm especially drawn to a more collaborative model. Having now fundraised in NYC, SF and southeastern MA - it is the rare foundation that does not view itself as the coy debutante to be swayed by the non-profit suitor. It is exhausting and ineffective. Sorry to be so pithy! -- John

    Jun 30, 2011
  • John, excellent provocation; honest, too....but there's so much more to this story (you know that); many intellectuals/critics/scholars of color have been meditating and saying for some time that the apparatus of multiculturalism yielded some strange fruits: Roberto Bedoya, GGP, Jeff Chang, Josephine Ramires, Ron Chew, myself....and in that exceptionalism that you mention of those organizations of color that have been thriving (artistically AND administratively) by writing a different script than the usual "ethnic arts paradigm" as written by the moment that was the 80s and 90s -there are even deeper lessons to be mined -- yes Galeria in SF, also MACLA in San Jose, Pregones in the Bronx, Cenzontles in San Pablo, CA, etc.....but those lessons often dont sit well with the nationalistic ethnic intelligentsia or with the liberal-do-gooders....In the old famous words of Spivak: the subaltern have been speaking, but who has been listening? --Maribel Alvarez

    Jun 30, 2011
  • Thanks, John, for the post. I totally agree with you on the VC approach, especially since it would free up a lot of arts orgs' time from fundraising, which many small to mid-sized organizations simply don't have the resources to do effectively.

    As a grantwriter, I know that too often the onerous demands of heavily quantitative-based grant applications can absorb so much in the way of staff or consultant time (which costs $$, after all) that the "take" on a successful $15K or $20K grant is substantially reduced. Further, b/c this funding has to be re-applyed for every year (often a crap shoot), it is very challenging for arts orgs to accurately predict cash flow. A multi-year VC approach would presumably negate this problem.

    In a way, this is why GFTA is so fantastic. Yes, it has a lengthy, unwieldy application (and invoicing) process, but it makes significantly-sized grants and is wonderfully predictable. Some of the old NEA programs (like Expansion Arts) used to be similar, but those NEA days are long gone. One problem with the VC approach, of course, is that several good orgs will inevitably be left out in the cold (a foundation can't fund everyone). Perhaps a double-stepped approach would ease the way.

    Of course, the other big issue is individual giving, which concentrates itself on the big arts orgs. Since individual donors tend to give to the same orgs year after year, this is a ripe area for small to mid-sized orgs to make inroads into....of course, the problem is access. I think this is also an area, though, that donor-advised foundations like SFF could influence somewhat.

    If donor-advised foundations proactively helped small and mid-sized arts orgs develop direct relationships with their own donors (admittedly risking cutting themselves out as middlemen), they could do something really big. Helping the arts orgs manage these individual donor relationships--through funding, mentoring, advocacy, etc-- would also be important, of course. Individual donors can very tricky, at times.....Anyway, thanks for putting this out there and for hopefully encouraging some new thinking on the part of foundations. --Dino Enrique Piacentini

    Jun 30, 2011
  • "... I followed a dispersal method of distributing small amounts of money to as many organizations as possible." That's the problem. The giving strategy benefitted the Foundation, not the recipients. It would be better to invest larger amounts in fewer proposals. Identify the ones most likely to succeed and give them the resources they need. That strategy should not be limited to the arts.

    Jul 01, 2011
  • I mentioned the giving strategy of dispersal is one way of working, but I do not think it is necessarily easier. Going deeper with larger investments was the other strategy I wrote about, However, I would caution about supporting only those "most likely to succeed." If everything is assured to be successful, have any risks been taken? Philanthropists need to celebrate failure with grantees and foundation trustees since it is an essential element of change. Lessons learned from mistakes are often catalytic and transformative – exactly what funding guidelines and criteria demand. John Killacky

    Jul 02, 2011
  • I thought the article was full of valuable information as were the comments. Thanks to all. As a person who works for an organization that promotes and supports artists out of the western Euro-based mainstream, I found myself nodding frequently at several points throughout. The paperwork IS enormous for relatively small amounts of money. We got to the point that we simply by-passed some applications processes because the resulting grant was much like a grocery store rewards card:the granting organization mining your organization for information about the field, in exchange for a small amount of money. And in other cases, there is no hope of getting one's foot in the door because the funding circle is---"clubby." I once sat on the selection committee for the selection of mid-size organizations and most of the organizations seeking funding were represented on the panel. Each of them left the room when their proposals were discussed, but each of them received the funding in the end. Those not at the table were left out in the cold. In the field of art I represent as an arts administrator, funding organizations expect to see certain qualities that ring recognizable to them. If the work is delightfully innovative, it may not fit into preconceived frameworks about (insert name of culture group here) and the panelists may simply not SEE the work. That blindness applies to both the art and to the perceived understanding of the social issues facing (insert name of culture group here), meaning that some organizations look for culture specific arts organizations to bathe in their social justice challenges. If the organization does not do this, they will not be seen as "brother enough." In a few cases, thankfully, not most, mainstream arts funding organizations invite culture specific artists and non-profits to apply for their funding to round out the application pool and have no intention of awarding funds to them. In the end, even mainstream arts organizations that depend on ticket sales and individual giving have to deliver the tried and true that their patrons love and recognize in order to develop a loyal base of potential patrons. Culture specific organizations may not have that patron base on a consistent level. -Unnamed arts administrator

    Jul 05, 2011
  • One of the problems with grants panels looking for a token culture-specific arts organization on whom to bestow their largess is that they select the group that, while exhibiting a definite cultual identity, still look more like the mainstream.The most authentic and rooted group may lose out to a group that blends their particular ethnic identity into a smoothie concoction of western Euro-based influences, thus making it more palatable and comprehensible to the main-stream grants panelists. In addition, arts groups based in a specific community may find it difficult to source private grants because business people in that community may not have any pattern of philanthropy with regard to the arts. In the Washington, DC area where I live, for example, numerous Indian dance professionals present all their concerts as fund-raisers for charities in India, which seems to be the only way they can get backing for renting the stage and creating a media PR campaign. Unless all proceeds are described as benefiting Indian charitable targets, it seems no one will buy tickets or become patrons of the event. A presentation of art for art's sake does not seem to fit into the community's approved set of philanthropic activities. Thus it is difficult for some arts organizations to provide matching funds for orgaizational grants they might recieve, so they end up subsidising their own grants. Grants for individual artists would be highly effective in situation like this to provide some space and time for these artists to grow and develope without having to move out of their community base and venture into artistic fusion, which might be more lucrative in the current grantmaking atmosphere.

    Jul 12, 2011
  • John, I am scheduled to sit on a community arts funding panel next month. I'm going to pass this article around before we meet. Thank you so much for your honesty and thoughtfulness. Lucie Faulknor

    Jul 13, 2011
  • Lucie, Hope your panel went well. Thanks for your comments. John Killacky

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Wonderful article. As a community arts director, performer, and consultant I have been on all sides of philanthropy and grants. I especially like the closing paragraph: "Finally, my last "philanthro-past" reflection: it is time to give up the false dichotomies and biases between professional/amateur, high/low, esoteric/popular, and contemporary/traditional. Instead, philanthropy should be investing in the cultural interests that allow people who live in our communities to lead more expressive lives." I agree for without encouraging, valueing and supporting the 'expressive and exploratory life' for all in society we end up with what we have today; barriers, lack of exposure to and limited points of entry to arts and culture for both emerging audiences and emerging artists. Out of the lowest common denomenator can emerge the greatest artists and the most appreciative audience member but without the initial relationship and access to arts and culture through a personal experience/connection neither person will evolve to either grace a stage or sit in a seat to watch. Thank you John Killacky for the great article. Terri

    Sep 22, 2011
  • I agree with the comments thus far that this article is excellent, timely and incredibly on-point. I especially appreciated the national and historical scope of the article--for me, it's nice to couple the parts that echoed the conversations on the ground in my city/state/communities with patterns across the country. I want to read this again article with about a dozen of my co-workers/friends/colleagues. Zayne

    Sep 22, 2011
  • This is an excellent article. What the author eludes to is very true. Cultural arts organizations have been struggling for years and it isn't getting any easier. I was an ED of an Asian American arts organization in San Francisco and the organization's budget barely grew over twenty years. Both funders and a portion of the public often question the relevance of ethnic specific organizations. When these cultural arts organizations aren't funded well, that means the staff is underpaid and overworked. On the flip side, many cultural organizations need to find ways to become more innovative and learn how to run like strong businesses so that they can gain the confidence of potential donors. Ly

    Sep 22, 2011
  • I've seen the other side of the unchanging budget issue. A former employer donated the same amount to the same few organizations for the ten years I worked there. Although he increased the price of his service (commercial printing) to his customers, he never seemed to understand the need to increase the level of his donations. With donors like him, it's no wonder some not-for-profits' budgets can't grow. Paul.

    Dec 09, 2011
  • admire the author's humble reflection and shared growth in wisdom. Having focused on multicultural education in my master's studies and being a passionate fine arts in education advocate, I have a great appreciation for this article. Thank you for sharing. Heidi

    Sep 22, 2011
  • Very provocative article--candid and timely too! Sandra

    Sep 22, 2011
  • John, No where is there mention in the discussion about the role of support from the community. Clearly, mainstream institutions have been in intense competition for board members and staff who bring expertise and resources that leverage insitutional growth and advancement. Smaller ethnic specific institutions serve as a training ground for this human capital, yet ( at the height of its development) competition from institutions offering higher salaries and business/social networking opportunities drain these resources. When affirmative action is part of an overall institutional commitment to reflect and attract a broader constitutency it is a good thing, but too often the commitment is marginal and trended towards tokenism. The impact of the above is that many groups are not in a position to attract or retain the talented staff they need nor the quality of board members that are required. Board members of smaller groups, while committed and offering a relatively high percentage of their financial resources in support, tend to have smaller pockets and few sources of leverage within their peer group ( business or profession) as compared to those on the Board of more established institutions. Also, the economic condition within the communities served by ethnic specific organizations, require going outside the community for major support. The notion that communites should support the institutions they value, is not realistic simply because of economics. Innovative thinking and alternative measures need to be tried to overcome this barrier. However, the pathway to sustainability should never be the model that is suggested by the Pew Cultural Data Study and other assessment tools that don't align with the many operating models that most ethnic art groups employ. The development of fairer, more reflective evaluative models that address the diversity of operational structures and missions would help level the playing field. Advancing the dialgoue you have started needs to rise to the level of foundations and corporations ensuring ethnic minorities serve on the grant guidelines and application review committees to contribute to a more earnest and balanced approach to funding the arts in America. Allan Edmunds

    Sep 25, 2011
  • Many good points here, many which I agree with. However, my experience has been that smaller arts organizations ask too little of their boards. I don't know who told me this, but I believe board have four responsibilities: Hire ED and AD Advise on policy decisions and implementation Raise resources Replace themselves. There are many ways any of us can do these things, raising resources may not mean being able to contribute substantial money yourself, but it should mean that you accept it is your job that you are responsible for raising money as well. I do think it is totally appropriate that a non-profit requires 100% participation by their boards for contributions, as well as actively soliciting others. This should not be the sole domain and responsibility of the development committee.

    Sep 26, 2011
  • An undeniable fact that is. Arts and culture no more hold the importance in public's life as much as it used to do.

    Apr 29, 2013

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