Arts and money: National report criticizes limited diversity
A report in October on arts funding questioned how national foundations allocate their grants. In "Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy," the watchdog group National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy said money should be allocated more broadly. The repercussions are still being felt.
In a series of articles, the Beacon will look at what the report said, how local grant funding organizations work and difficulties in drawing sharp lines between organizations for the privileged and for the underserved. The NCRP has been in operation for more than 30 years, and its work includes its successful push for comprehensive financial reporting for foundations and its development of such alternative workplace giving funds as Earth Shares and Community Shares.
According to the report, only 10 percent of national foundation funding for the arts goes to groups that focus on minority and other underserved populations. It said 55 percent of arts grants go to the 2 percent of organizations that have budgets over $5 million. These institutions, said the report, "serve wealthy, white audiences ... whose attendance levels have been declining over the past few years."
The report was written by Holly Sidford, who for 30 years led and developed nonprofit cultural and philanthropic organizations including serving as interim diretor of arts and culture at the Ford Foundation. She issued a stern indictment of the status quo: "... philanthropy is using its tax-exempt status primarily to benefit wealthier, more privileged institutions and populations," she wrote. Sidford said she looked at budget sizes and audience makeup to designate which organizations were underfunded -- a five-month-long effort that required numerous subjective judgments.
The NCRP report generated much discussion among those attending the 2011 Grant Makers in the Arts conference in San Francisco last fall, according to Jill McGuire, executive director of the Regional Arts Commission.
But the national buzz hasn't resulted in direct examination at the local level. "I don't think there are any well-organized conversations in St. Louis," McGuire said.
And some who have looked at the report say it paints with too broad a brush. Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, wants to know about the programs that are funded, saying "without a clear understanding of the demographics of the populations served by specific arts projects, the story is incomplete."
A muddy picture
Sidford acknowledges that, saying, "The picture is very muddy both nationally and locally because there are organizations that have a Western European focus that are serving minority communities and there are organizations that are specifically about a culture or an art form that comes out of another background that are attracting white people."
In the St. Louis area, the primary organizations that issue grants in the arts are RAC, the Arts and Education Council, the Missouri Arts Council, the Whitaker Foundation and PNC Financial Services, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. All appear to exceed the 10 percent noted in the national report for funding minority programs.
Of the locally based funders, RAC, MAC and the Whitaker Foundation make their grant lists public. The biggest beneficiary? The St. Louis Symphony.
In general, the Symphony fits what Sidford called "cultural organizations whose work is based in the elite segment of the Western European cultural tradition."
But the St. Louis Symphony has a full menu of outreach options serving as many as 10,000 adults and introducing 40,000 children to the symphony every year. That outreach consists of community programs including four to five free concerts at Powell Hall each year as well as dozen others outside the concert hall. It also includes school programs that bring children to the Symphony and music programs into the schools.
On Feb. 6, the Symphony debuted a new program for Head Start preschoolers. Before the 3- to 5-year-olds made their first-ever trip to Powell Hall, they already knew what to expect, thanks to musicians who visited their schools for little Symphony 101, according to Maureen Byrne, the Symphony's community programs manager.
The Symphony has also worked with the IN UNISON program that began in 1992 and now includes more than 40 African-American churches. The IN UNISON Chorus, drawn from the churches, performs with the symphony and in other venues. Benefits to members of partner churches include discounts and such things as music scholarships. A Monsanto grant of $158,000 is restricted to IN UNISON use.
The goal of many of these efforts is to expand the audience, particularly among minority groups.
Another local example of a group that the report would see as elite but programs that serve diverse groups is found in PNC Financial Services' Arts Alive program, which distributed $500,000 in 2011. Portions of its largest gift, $60,000 for COCA's Family Series productions, was earmarked for an African "Cinderella" and free tickets for disadvantaged school groups. PNC's $40,000 grant to the Symphony included money for a concert that blends classical music with hip-hop and pop.
As Whitaker executive director Christy Gray said, it's difficult to tease apart mainstream from minority.
"If you're doing Katherine Dunham dancing but you're only doing it for white kids in a white community, or if the Symphony does white romantic composers from the 16th century, but only for African-American students, what does that make it?" Gray said.
That said, African-American groups tend to agree with the national report's conclusion that the status quo is insufficient for their needs.
Black Rep founder Ron Himes says, "Nobody is asking the question in any forum or arena that begs an answer as to why aren't we supporting this institution (the Black Rep) more, why aren't we lifting this institution up, why isn't this institution being supported like other major institutions?"
And Diadie Bathily, founder of the West African dance company Afriky Lolo, applauds the help he has received from the funding groups in applying, but says the amount of grant money received is low. "We are struggling," Bathily said.
In an interview with the Beacon, Sidford noted that increasing funding for institutions and programs that specifically engage minority audiences doesn't only benefit minorities; it benefits everyone.
"Folks who are Caucasian or Anglo-American in a global culture need to understand these cultures because they are part of the universe that we operate in," Sidford said. "We are willfully ignorant if we're not knowledgeable about them."
RAC's McGuire agrees that serving diverse populations enhances the area as a whole. "We need to engage the entire community; it makes the community stronger," McGuire said.
And having robust minority-focused arts institutions also helps attract professionals to St. Louis, according to BJC HealthCare community affairs vice president Debra Denham, who's involved in BJC's support of the Black Rep.
"We have to have a well-rounded community, and the arts are part of that," Denham said. "If you're going to get a fantastic nurse, physician any type of employee who's weighing their options about going to another city, it's important for their family and for their growth for us to have great arts organizations. The Black Rep is part of that."
Tomorrow: Sidford says a bigger pie is needed as local groups try to adjust to less money coming in.