"despite important efforts by many leading foundations, funding overall has gotten less equitable, not more. This means that cultural philanthropy is not effectively — or equitably — supporting our evolving cultural landscape."
So apparently, despite all our best intentions and our good will efforts, not only have we failed to make even a slight dent in the inequity of funding disproportionately going to the big, white, rich urban cultural organizations - at the expense of the smaller and rural organizations, especially those serving people of color, people with disabilities and the LGBT community. MORE of the total funding is now going to the largest cultural organizations, not less. So far anyway, all the efforts to the contrary have not yielded any substantial or measurable change from the situation five years ago. Indeed, from an equity standpoint, things are worse, not better.
Is it reasonable that after five years, we are not yet beyond the phase where we pay more attention to the issue, educate and talk among ourselves to move in the direction of a solution? Or is that seemingly slow plodding about right? Or is that delay unacceptable? What is the next phase then, and on what timeline?
The report also noted that this reality appears systemic and is embedded at the local level as well as a national situation. And thus even in diverse cities with a large culturally diverse population, and a substantial portion of the arts sector serving that group - still those populations and organizations get nowhere near an equitable portion of the total funding.
Of the ten cities the new report studied, only San Francisco achieved funding equity:
"The notable exception to the general patterns is San Francisco, where two decades of intentional and collaborative work to boost mid-sized and smaller cultural organizations and increase cultural equity — by both public sector funders and private foundations such as the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, James Irvine Foundation and Hewlett Foundation — has produced funding distribution patterns that more closely reflect the city’s demographic profile and the diversity of the local cultural sector. As a result of these intentional strategies, not only does San Francisco have more diverse nonprofit cultural groups per capita than other cities, those groups also receive a significantly larger share of arts foundation funding than their counterparts in the other urban areas we studied.
In San Francisco, approximately 32 percent of cultural groups have primary missions to serve communities of color, low-income communities, LGBTQ populations and disabled communities, and approximately 32 percent of arts foundation funding is allocated to such groups. (DataArts)"
But San Francisco is the exception. In consideration of the why and how of the national disappointing reality, the report notes that:
1. The decision making process of foundation funding allocation is principally in the hands of those older, white, upper class individuals who have always held that power. Even at the program level, there has been very little growth in diversity.
"because people with incomes over $100,000 are more than twice as likely to be white and urban than Black or Latino or rural, we can surmise that most of the high-end arts donors are white and living in cities. (U.S. Census). We also know that individual giving in the arts heavily favors larger institutions. In the ten cities Helicon studied, individual donations to larger cultural organizations — on average — were six times greater than contributions to organizations of color and those serving lower-income communities. (DataArts)."
3. The leadership of our cultural organizations also plays a role in funding allocation:
"These organizations have longstanding relationships with both individual donors and foundations (and sometimes overlapping board memberships), which help them attract and sustain generous funding for their work, but also influence donors’ views of what the cultural sector is and what warrants support. For these reasons, diversity in the leadership of larger cultural institutions is centrally important to achieving greater equity in cultural funding."
4. Corporate, government and board / trustee contributions all likewise disproportionately favor the larger, urban, white euro-centric arts organizations - likely for the same reasons.
So what do we do in the face of this challenge?
The report suggests that:
1. "The status quo tends to perpetuate itself. Without specific goals for change and timelines to achieve them, current patterns will remain the same or further deteriorate. People tend to resist change but at least in some instances, what might look like resistance to doing things differently may be due to a lack of clarity about how to move forward."
Resistance to the idea of funding going not to your organization, but to another - even if for the best of reasons - is not surprising. Organizations, like people, usually don't rush to embrace remedies to problems that may be at their expense. The principle of survival trumps altruism and even principle itself in many cases. I understand that focus and zeroing in on specific, concrete objectives may help to make it easier to move forward, but this isn't rocket science. If 50% of the arts organizations are smaller, serving nominally underserved communities, then equity demands somewhere near half the money goes to them. An under ten percent allocation to them is not equitable -- period. So the question is then: what formula for funding allocation is equitable, and how long do we need to successfully initiate that formula as the norm? (And I am not necessarily suggesting we reduce the funding challenges to a formula - I am just suggesting that if we are serious about getting to equity, then we absolutely must move from the current reality, and do so sooner rather than later).
2. We somehow get the wealthy donors to include equity funding in their giving strategies and provide leadership to move individual donors in general to expand their funding priorities. The report suggests foundation can help educate this class of donor.
While there is strong evidence to suggest that we still live in a society in which racism continues to exist and which negatively impacts a broad cross section of our society, the issue of equity in funding for the arts may be more of a class issue than one of race per se. The culture that silently works to perpetuate funding going to the largest, well heeled, euro-centric, white dominated urban cultural organizations is largely based on the good old boy network of wealth. The nouveau riche aspire to join the ranks of the elite who serve on cultural boards, support the organizations and donate their wealth, not necessarily because they favor those organizations over the smaller, multi-cultural underserved organizations that are denied an equitable share of funding, but because they wish to network with those that may provide them access to the world that helps them maintain their wealth and status, and be a part of the elite group that control and run things. And the reality of that universe is long standing. It's a club that people want in, and there is a legacy with major cultural institutions that this is one of the rarefied entry points. In some ways, it has almost nothing to do with the art, and everything to do with the social circles attached to the arts organization.
And that world, that mind-set exists in San Francisco as much as anywhere, yet in this city foundation leadership, concerted and coordinated efforts and the political will to do something about inequity in funding has made a difference. Can that same changed attitude and resolve be replicated elsewhere. Certainly it can. Will it? That's a much tougher question.
3. We commit more to collaboration and working together to address the issue.
Collaboration and cooperation are not only a good idea, they are likely essential to making much progress. But more important, and a likely necessary pre-requisite to working more together, is the will to make the changes. That will has to come from decision makers. I am not sure we have that will, at least not from top to bottom of our organizational structures. And without that will, I seriously doubt a report five years from now will report a much different reality.
All three of these strategies are valuable, but one has to question whether any of them are likely to change the reality.
I think the Helicon report is certainly right on one critical point: It will take courageous leadership by key foundations and civic / cultural leaders of wealth and power to initiate the change and make sure it happens. Someday, those on the bottom of the pyramid may acquire the wealth and power to force the change, but that day - much like the day when the country unifies on acceptance of more tolerant and embracing policies and practices, when political consensus on who we are as a people is apparent - is a long way off still. In the meantime, progress is made by leaders with vision and courage and the belief in, and commitment to, doing the right thing. That doesn't seem to be the current prevailing instinct.
And we must, it seems to me, focus on moving that leadership to act. That must be the focus, otherwise we are spinning our wheels.
There's a line in an Eagles song: "Things in this life change very slowly, if they ever change at all". Unfortunately, this sad report is a confirmation of that sentiment. I guess we take comfort in the knowledge that while change is slow, it is also likely inevitable. The tragedy is that while inequity continues, people suffer, damages are done, and it is harder to move forward on multiple fronts.
One hopes that we won't have to wait for wealth to transfer to the people of those communities who now suffer the inequitable distribution of funds, because while over a long term, that kind of transfer will likely happen to one degree or another, it may take a long, long time.
Read the whole report, raise the issues locally, and work to unify our sector to move in the right direction - towards equity. So that five years from now - equity in funding is more a reality.
Have a good week.