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Arts funding lacks diversity

Monday, October 10, 2011 | 8:25 a.m. CDT; updated 10:22 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 10, 2011

WASHINGTON — Billions of dollars in arts funding is serving a mostly wealthy, white audience that is shrinking, while only a small chunk of money goes to emerging art groups that serve poorer communities that are more ethnically diverse, according to a report being released Monday.

The report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, shows foundation giving has fallen out of balance with the nation's increasingly diverse demographics. The report was provided to The Associated Press before its release.

A large portion of funding goes to more traditional sources such as museums, operas and symphonies. But recent surveys show attendance at those institutions is declining, while more people are interested in community-based art initiatives.

"We've got the vast majority of resources going to a very small number of institutions," said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. "That's not healthy for the arts in America."

According to the study, the largest arts organizations with budgets exceeding $5 million represent only 2 percent of the nonprofit arts and culture sector. Yet those groups received 55 percent of foundation funding for the arts in 2009. Only 10 percent of funding went to underserved populations. However, the study's author acknowledged the report might not account for every dollar granted to help reach diverse audiences at larger institutions.

The study is meant to encourage funders to provide grants for a broader range of groups so programs can be more relevant and effective.

Otherwise, the "pronounced imbalance restricts the expressive life of millions of people," the study said.

The study cites 2010 census data that shows non-white populations have grown in every region of the country since 2000, adding that "our country has never been so diverse." More than a third of the country is comprised of people of color. In four states, white people are no longer the majority.

But philanthropy hasn't kept pace with the change.

"It is a problem because it means that — in the arts — philanthropy is using its tax-exempt status primarily to benefit wealthier, more privileged institutions and populations," wrote the report's author, Holly Sidford.

The study was to be released Monday at a conference of Grantmakers in the Arts in San Francisco.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has made waves in recent years by challenging foundations to make a bigger impact by devoting more resources to serve disadvantaged groups. It has issued follow-up reports on the health sector and education philanthropy. An upcoming report will address the environment.

Current arts funding patterns have roots that date back to the 19th century, the report found. Early cultural philanthropists focused on building institutions to preserve the Western European high arts, creating symphonies, operas and museums to validate America's position as a world power and serve an elite audience.

Funding patterns have been slow to change, even though attendance at such institutions is down.

Still, the study is not meant to discourage funding for traditional symphonies, operas or museums. Rather, Dorfman said funders should make sure they are supporting projects at those institutions that will include a broader audience.

At the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York, the report's message ties in with the foundation's mission for the past 20 years to fund diverse arts programs that address social justice issues. Maurine Knighton, who leads the foundation's arts and culture programs, said changing the way foundations give grants is possible but will take time.

"You are dealing with shifting demographics that are fairly recent," and foundations will have to make a deliberate effort to catch up, Knighton said. "It's just a different way of considering how to be most effective with our grant dollars."

Other foundations were reluctant to comment on the report before its release.

Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and an expert in turning around struggling arts organizations of all sizes, said many large foundations seek to fund diverse groups. Kaiser said diverse arts groups he consults with often need to diversify their funding sources.

"The biggest issue for arts organizations of color is that they have been overly reliant on foundation and government funding," he said. Such groups "really need more individual donors, not just foundation donors."


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