The times may be a-changin’ but (no surprise) arts philanthropy ain’t

The Philanthropy News Digest recently sent me a bulletin with the headline, “Arts Funding Does Not Reflect Nation’s Diversity, Report Finds” which linked me to an AP Newsbreak article with the headline “Report finds arts funding serves wealthy audience, is out of touch with diversity”. My initial thought was, “Seriously? We need a report to tell us this?” The report, Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy, was produced by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and written by Holly Sidford.

Here are a couple paragraphs from the executive summary:

Every year, approximately 11 percent of foundation giving – more than $2.3 billion in 2009 – is awarded to nonprofit arts and culture. At present, the vast majority of that funding supports cultural organizations whose work is based in the elite segment of the Western European cultural tradition – commonly called the canon – and whose audiences are predominantly white and upper income. A much smaller percentage of cultural philanthropy supports the arts and traditions of non-European cultures and the  non-elite expressions of all cultures that comprise an increasing part of American society. An even smaller fraction supports arts activity that explicitly challenges social norms and propels movements for greater justice and equality.

This pronounced imbalance restricts the expressive life of millions of people, thus constraining our creativity as a nation. But it is problematic for many other reasons, as well. 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. It is a problem because our artistic and cultural landscape includes an increasingly diverse range of practices, many of which are based in the history and experience of lower-income and nonwhite peoples, and philanthropy is not keeping pace with these developments. And it is a problem because art and cultural expression offer essential tools to help us create fairer, more just and more civic-minded communities, and these tools are currently under-funded.

I am as discouraged as anyone by where many (but certainly not all) private foundations and wealthy individual donors give their support, and where they do not. However, my sense has never been that this behavior persists (and has perhaps become more pronounced as the demographics of the country are shifting dramatically) because the heads of foundations or the wealthiest donors in America were lacking a report explaining that too much of their money was going to arts organizations producing Western European ‘high art’ for white, upper middle class audiences.

The book Patrons Despite Themselves told very much the same story back in 1983 in its analysis of the ‘indirect’ system of funding the arts (that is, via the tax system rather than via direct grants from government). Feld, O’Hare, and Schuster concluded (among other things):

On balance, income to the arts is paid for disproportionately by the very wealthy and is enjoyed more by the moderately wealthy and the well educated. The demographic characteristics of the audience – the beneficiaries of the government aid – do not vary much across art forms. While the system tends to be redistributive, it is only so in a limited sense: from the very wealthy to the moderately wealthy.

Three of the recommendations in PDT regarding philanthropic decisionmaking are: (1) “decisions should reflect expertise in the subject”; (2) “public decisions in allocation of government support for the arts should reflect many varied kinds of tastes”; and (3) “arts decisionmaking must be independent of malign influence, that is, influence represented by narrow partisan politics or self-serving interests.”

We can see how much traction the authors had in the arts and culture sector with this message given the ‘elitism redux’ (and with more urgency) message in the new National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report.

This is why I find it ironic when funders throw their arms up in the air, discouraged by declining attendance at ‘out-of-touch’ symphony orchestras and other fine art forms. It would seem that the growing gap between these organizations and their communities exists in large part because they continued to find support and legitimacy from high profile foundations even as they were raising ticket prices and failing to update their programming and becoming increasingly ‘non-representative’ of their communities over the past 30 years.

Moreover, if we are wondering why this decades-old message just doesn’t seem to ‘stick’ and change behavior, it may be worth taking a moment to recognize the “alliance between class and culture” that emerged with the very development of our nonprofit arts system in the US: “High art” was meant to serve the needs of urban elites and the hierarchical distinction between “high culture” and “popular culture” was meant to distinguish not simply two forms of culture but the types of people that patronized these forms of culture (DiMaggio 1982).

We have (and have had) a cultural divide in the US and the arts continue to contribute to it – not all arts, but certainly a large part of the sector that is often heralded as ‘leading’, ‘excellent’ and ‘world class’. You don’t end up with the large majority of your audience being white and wealthy by accident. Nor do you end up with the large majority of your funding portfolio going to assist those organizations that are primarily serving those white and wealthy people, by accident.

This is by design, folks.

I by no means want to suggest that it is a waste of time to periodically document the fact that private funding for the arts continues to primarily support upper middle class white people. This is, perhaps, a message that needs to be transmitted continually if the situation is to change. And, as the report accurately suggests, this issue is becoming more acute as arts funding fails to keep pace with dramatic socio-economic changes that are occurring.

Indeed. Taking the message one step further, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that organizations whose value is reliant upon old institutions, old habits, and old social networks (centered around an old concept of ‘the cultural elite’) may very well find themselves on the wrong side of a cultural change in the years to come.

Arts organizations and their funders would seem to have a choice: be part of the change or fight to the death to uphold the dying system that for decades gave their work meaning. Perhaps their own survival (if not an interest in fairer and more civic-minded communities and a sincere desire to upend social norms and support social change) will ultimately prompt some of these institutions to change their behaviors?

 Poster designed by adbusters for #OccupyWallStreet.



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  1. says

    Holly Sidford turned me onto this brilliant Alexander Stille op-ed that ran in the NY Times a couple days ago.

    He discusses the paradox that as the US has become more inclusive it has also become more elitist and why this, perhaps, makes sense.

    It immediately made me think about all of the efforts aimed at ‘inclusivity’ in the arts, which are basically about trying to get people that are not in the cultural elite to appreciate and have access to the art that is preferred and legitimized by the cultural elite. It is inclusive and at the same time strengthens and reinforces artistic & social hierarchies/inequalities (high art valued by the cultural elite is valid; other types of culture valued by other types of people are not).

    • Joy says

      This is such an important point! Diversity does not mean including people from different backgrounds on the condition that they assimilate completely into the dominant culture. And I want to scream whenever I hear people talk about “bringing theatre/art to x community.” story-telling and art-making are universal human impulses–we have to broaden and enrich our artistic institutions by cross-pollenating. Bringing different people together around a shared impulse for aesthetic, imaginative, and intellectual exploration in a spirit of respect for the many different ways that urge is expressed.

  2. George Emlen says

    While I admit to being part of the cultural (though not economic) “elite” by virtue of playing to overwhelmingly white audiences, I have to question the either/or premise of your thesis. Do our major “elite” museums not mount major exhibits on the arts of Africans, Native Americans and indigenous peoples from around the globe? Don’t our most imaginative composers like Osvaldo Golijov weave all sorts of cultural strands (including white European) into his work? Don’t major dance companies draw heavily on hip-hop and Broadway productions on the vernacular? Isn’t this discussion more nuanced than haves vs. have-nots? I think I need real examples of the ways in which the our stratified system of privilege is being maintained through arts funding.

    Thanks for a provocative discussion.

    • Natasja Koole says

      In a lot of cases it’s not so much a case of what’s on offer but where it is on offer. A recent survey amongst Dutch teens showed that although the cultural interest was there, they felt very uncomfortable to actually go and see what’s on offer. They were unsure whether they would fit in, basically. I don’t think it’s a big leap to make that same assumption for -part of- the more adult audience as well. So if there’s a perception of a place being a bastion of the cultural elite, just changing the programme to suit a broader audience on its own won’t work. Then it only will make the existing audience maybe a bit more knowledgeable, feel more adventurous. And that might even widen the gap further; other types of culture are included into what is considered ‘high art’, but the people who those types stem from still feel excluded because they don’t share the understanding what the ‘high art’ is to begin with.

      I recognise what Diane said about the efforts at inclusivity in the arts in the different validations over the years for cultural policies. It did all begin with the ambition to elevate ‘the people’, which in itself says enough. Though validations varied over the years, the notion of a distinction between high and low arts was – with maybe a brief exception in the 70s- hardly ever challenged.

    • says

      Do you really think that these “elite” institutions, who you feel are creating experiences about different ethnic backgrounds, are doing so in an effort to try and include said ethnic backgrounds into their “elite” institutions? The majority of American history has been written by the white man, and consequently when men of European descent tell the story of a historically oppressed ethnic group, they are doing so from a very perpendicular perspective compared said ethnic groups.

      Therefore what do “you” have to offer “me” in terms of a story that I can see as truthful? What can “you” offer “m”e that truly speaks to my cultural trials, tribulations, and triumphs? Why do white people think that doing a show that uses hip-hop is actually a tribute to the black race? It is more of an insult, a slap in the face. It is akin the story of Elvis. Let an African American say that Elvis stole rock and roll from the aesthetics of soul music, and that would almost cause white people to riot. From the black perspective, so many of our cultural underpinnings have been adopted and/or stolen from whites, only to have whites take unfair “ownership” over cultural developings that were truly rooted in the black / African experience.

      Just because the “elite” like to try and create cultural experiences that differ from theirs does not mean that they can effectively mount an experience that can truly speak to an ethnic experience. Whites defining a museum exhibit tends to display, and tell a story that tends to suit the white populations cultural understanding of that era.

      Now let me also say, that I do think it is important that the elite make an effort to try and understand cultural differences. I do think it is important for whites to try and bridge the gap between different ethnicities. But the fact of the matter is, the money of whites goes only to whites because money to blacks (or other ethnicities) is a scary proposition. I mean, how many elites what to give a elite museum a large sum of money, put an African American in charge of curating an exhibit that highlighted black historical figures that truly reflected the the black sentiment of the 60’s, for example?

      Yeah, it’s okay if it was filled with the Martin Luther King’s and the Rosa Parks. But would you allow an elite museum to curate an exhibit of The Black Panthers, Malcolm X, The Nation of Islam, Huey P. Newton, Black Muslims, Nat Turner or any other black figure that spoke strongly against white violent oppression? And that spoke strongly supporting protecting oneself and meeting violence with violence if necessary?

      “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Frederick Douglass

      Unfortunately I am not offering up any solutions to the problems we face. It makes it hard to post this post because I think if we can point out problems we should offer up solutions, but race relations ain’t no joke :)

      Please don’t take this as an attack. I just know that we all have a long way to go in understanding each other, no matter what creed, color, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, or cultural background we come from.


  3. says

    Diane, thanks for digging into this subject, a version of which we have discussed on many occasions, including during the Mellon Foundation’s Orchestra Forum. The work of the Forum, the League, and various other forces have helped orchestras begin to shift focus from the singular concentration of resource in “artistic excellence and quality” to a greater investment in community service and education. Not all orchestras are moving at the same rate and there remains much, much more work to be done, but the change is as undeniable as it is under-reported.

    Before going further I would simply affirm the importance of supporting community based and culturally specific organizations and even suggest that there is synergistic relationship between them and large western canon organizations. The NCRP presents this as a zero sum problem, take from one to support the other.
    One fact that surprises people is that more than 60% of the 32,000 concerts given annually by League member orchestras are specifically dedicated to education or community engagement, for a wide range of young and adult audiences. Another positive trend is the increase in partnerships between orchestras and other arts organizations and agencies that serve communities in need. Thirteen orchestras across the country are combining instrumental instruction with social justice in disadvantaged neighborhoods, through programs based on the transformational El Sistema music program from Venezuela, partnering in every instance with community-based organizations. The South Dakota Symphony recently toured the state to perform on three Lakota reservations with a newly commissioned orchestral work by a Lakota composer. And orchestras in Pittsburgh, Knoxville, Madison, and St. Louis have collaborative partnerships to bring music to special-needs communities.

    A number of assumptions about the music orchestras play are also outdated. The good news about the canon as it is presented in the U.S. is that it is growing to include more works from immigrant populations. Beginning in the 1980s a generation of young Chinese composers arrived in America with a unique passion for the Western orchestra as a platform to incorporate Chinese instruments and sonorities. Latin American composers, after a long hiatus, are returning to orchestra programs in the form of a fresh young generation of composers. And it is common that performances of such works are accompanied by partnerships with respective community-based cultural organizations.

    The fact is that orchestral music is a unique art form that speaks powerfully to people of all backgrounds and income levels. Interest in live performances, recordings, and playing classical instruments has deep roots in Latin America, so it is not surprising that the League’s 2009 Audience Demographic Review analysis by McKinsey forecasts that Hispanics will increase their share of the total live classical audience from about 12% to 20% by 2018. Classical music is growing at an extraordinary rate in Asia and is now being explored in the Middle East, with composers from these regions adding influences from far beyond Western Europe. Or perhaps most succinctly, as someone blogged recently on the NPR site: “You better let Gustavo Dudamel know that he’s a master of the white “European canon”, so he can find something better to do.”

    Finally, The National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) in 2009, showed that 45% of the classical audience is from households with total annual income of less than $75,000. This is a far cry from the picture often painted in the media. By the way, it should also be noted that 90% of the League’s adult member orchestras have budgets under $5 million, therefore qualifying as “small” according to the definition used in the NCRP report.

    America’s orchestras, (and, I suspect, opera companies and theaters) have all been transitioning from a single minded focus on the excellence of the performance or art work, to paying greater attention to the value created for the community. To succeed we must work hand in hand with those artists and marginalized communities that help enrich our art form and generate new access points for audience engagement. We strongly support foundation investment in culturally specific and community-based arts activity, but do not believe, as the report suggests, that this must go hand in hand with less support to larger organizations. Both large and small arts organizations should be supported, recognizing their unique capacities to serve the circumstances and needs of their communities.

  4. says

    The class warfare being played out and amped up in Washington D.C. and across the country is trickling down to the arts over time. Will the arts be seen ultimately as only for the “elite”? How do we combat that perception?

    The crowd funding models out there these days are part of the answer. If the big donor checks are disappearing, gearing your fundraising towards Main Street folks who can give a little (but in big numbers if they care about you and your programming) could wipe out this elitist perception on a local level, city by city. Everyone will be invested.

  5. says

    “You don’t end up with the large majority of your audience being white and wealthy by accident. Nor do you end up with the large majority of your funding portfolio going to assist those organizations that are primarily serving those white and wealthy people, by accident.

    This is by design, folks.”

    This very poignant statement, something that if I, being a black male, were to utter, would result in me being labeled a “rabble rousing trouble maker”. And if I were to make such statements to many of my white colleagues, you know what type of questions I would get? “What proof do you have of that?”

    So I must say that I am glad to hear a white person state what many minorities know to be true in life, but haven’t taken the time to fund a research to “verify” their “suspicions”. Yup, this is all by design.


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