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Regrets of a Former Arts Funder – Part 1

John R. Killacky

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

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?

*Part 1 and Part 2 were excerpted from a recent post on BlueAvocado.org.

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