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Regrets of a Former Arts Funder – Part 2

John R. Kilacky

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 national 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. 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.

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

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