On Funding for the Arts in the United States

Holly Sidford has written a report for the National Council for Responsive Philanthropy titled “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change.” Its central finding is that foundation giving to the arts tends to flow towards large cultural organizations:

Yet, the majority of arts funding supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million. Such organizations, which comprise less than 2 percent of the universe of arts and cultural nonprofits, receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. These institutions focus primarily on Western European art forms, and their programs serve audiences that are predominantly white and upper income. Only 10 percent of grant dollars made with a primary or secondary purpose of supporting the arts explicitly benefit underserved communities, including lower-income populations, communities of color and other disadvantaged groups. And less than 4 percent focus on advancing social justice goals. These facts suggest that most arts philanthropy is not engaged in addressing inequities that trouble our communities, and is not meeting the needs of our most marginalized populations.

If we begin from the premise that philanthropy is in many cases a kind of consumption — the purchase of social esteem, the exchange of economic capital for cultural capital, etc. — this makes perfect sense. 

Sidford also advances an explicit political agenda:

The reverberating impacts of the recession, the current political climate and the widespread hostility to government spending threaten prospects for arts and culture funding. These trends are shifting the funding landscape for all cultural groups, but they are most ominous for the artists and organizations based in and serving lower-income communities and other marginalized populations. The shifts in public sector funding have both immediate and long-term implications for the cultural ecosystem, particularly for the smaller, newer, edgier parts of that system and the artists and groups serving our least advantaged communities. Private funders cannot replace the role of the public sector, but public sector shifts make it important for private funders to reconsider the balance of their grantmaking in the arts.

One could also argue, however, that arts organizations that aim to serve lower-income communities should pursue means of achieving economic sustainability that don’t involve catering to the interests and sensibilities of the affluent, e.g., they might embrace for-profit models that force them to offer services of sufficiently high value that even the economically constrained will consider them worth paying for, at a cut-rate price. This could lend a useful discipline to the work of a cultural group, assuming its mission is to deliver services that people actually want to take advantage of. Social entrepreneurs could be deployed to help arts organizations devise effective business models, an alternative to an injection of funds that often requires expensive fundraising and oversight infrastructure. 

What we can safely say is that arts funding currently deployed to the largest cultural organizations might be better deployed elsewhere. This will require a shift in the perceived prestige involved in making donations in other domains, a process that has already begun. Educational philanthropy has expanded, and it has definitely grown in prestige, though there has been a fairly effective ideological counterattack from incumbent educational providers and allied interests. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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