Rethinking cultural philanthropy

If the arts sector is to survive and flourish, arts organisations need to broaden their public appeal and donors need to take a longer-term view, writes Diane Ragsdale

Then I left the Netherlands to move to the US, I encountered renewed interest in the 'American model': the indirect subsidy policy for arts and cultural nonprofits that encourages giving by private foundations, corporations and individuals. In the Netherlands, as in Britain, there are government cuts on the horizon and great hope appears to be pinned on private support to fill the anticipated gap. Yet arts leaders in the US have been claiming ad nauseam that the model is broken.

A staggering 41 percent of nonprofit arts organisations in the US were unable to balance their budgets in 2008 (up from 36 percent in 2007). Larger organisations were particularly likely to report deficits. ‘The model is broken’ is shorthand for a range of concerns surrounding the chronic undercapitalisation of nonprofit arts organisations in the US.

In order to create a more sustainable arts sector in the US – and, I suspect, in the UK – we need to see three shifts in the realm of cultural philanthropy. The first is the need for the arts to begin to matter not to the few but to the many.

The director of a philanthropic foundation in the Netherlands recently suggested that attracting significant resources from the private sector to replace the pending loss of government funding would require the development of a “culture of asking and a culture of giving”. The UK’s culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has echoed these sentiments: “It is not just about tax but about attitudes to asking and attitudes to giving. We are trying to change the whole culture of giving.”

These two capacities – to give and to ask – are ingrained in American culture. As difficult, wearying and competitive as it can be, there is rarely shame in asking in the US. Americans give, and many quite generously. Their motivations include friends and social networks, family traditions and values, civic duty, the tax code, entrepreneurialism and religious beliefs that encourage charity.

In 2009, 83 percent of philanthropic dollars totalling $307.75bn came from individuals, who gave most to their churches ($100.95bn) and to their alma maters and other educational institutions ($40.01bn). The arts, culture and humanities receive a relatively small percentage of philanthropic dollars (4 percent or $12.34bn in 2009), and that percentage is declining.

The arts and culture sector has, however, been losing its market share of philanthropy to other charitable areas since well before the current economic downturn. This is hardly surprising given that there have been double-digit rates of decline in participation for most fine arts disciplines in the US since 1982. Some organisations now appear to be paying the price for having long ago hitched their wagons to an upper-middle-class cultural elite and, in essence, disregarded the rest of their communities. This has been exacerbated by the evolution of many arts institutions' governing boards from ‘representatives of community’ to 'banks', so that they see the world through the lens of a narrow demographic.

There is no stronger argument for the value of the arts than an engaged public. Many organisations face deficits because they do not have a sufficiently loyal, broad or deep base of patrons. It may be possible for Britain to launch major initiatives with the largesse of a few wealthy patrons and to compel private support for the arts with strategies such as advancement campaigns, matching schemes or even future adjustments in the tax code. But these methods are not a substitute for patronage that stems from a sincere desire to see the perpetuation of individual arts organisations and the sector as a whole.

A healthier outlook

The second shift we need to see is one from preserving tall trees to fostering a healthy ecosystem. The characteristics and preferences of foundations and individual donors have influenced the shape of the arts and culture sector in the US.

Just as arts organisations risk declining in relevance if they disregard large segments of society, funders and influential donors risk perpetuating that irrelevance and creating homogeneity or instability in the sector if they disregard the arts community at large.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the US government provided significant direct support to many nonprofit arts groups. This encouraged artistic risk and the development of diversity, preservation, access and education initiatives. Not all organisations fared equally in the fallout from funding cuts in the 1980s and 1990s, however. Community-based, grassroots, artist-led, folk/traditional and culturally specific organisations – as well as smaller, alternative ones that support emerging artists and produce challenging works – have often struggled to sustain a sufficient base of individual donors.

In part, this is because these groups often serve a constituency that is unable to make large contributions. It is also because support from private foundations has tended to gravitate towards larger, high-profile 'fine arts' institutions. It has long been assumed that the plurality of the American model would result in a diverse arts community. The reality is that it has become increasingly difficult for certain groups to remain competitive in the battle for private charitable dollars. So, it would seem that governments cannot assume that society will dutifully fill the gaps.

The third desired shift is one of focus, from projects to people and from short-term to long-term cycles. Author Mark Slouka describes the drama of American education today: "It's a play I've been following for some time now. It’s about the increasing dominance – scratch that, the unqualified triumph – of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value. It's about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production."

Discussing one of the victims in this drama – the humanities – Slouka highlights the approach of Danielle S Allen, former dean of the humanities at the University of Chicago: "[She] patiently advances the argument that the work of the humanities doesn’t reveal itself within the typical three- or five-year cycle, that the humanities work on a 50-year cycle, a 100-year cycle."

In the US and elsewhere, there is a similar push for short-term successes and measurable outcomes in the arts and culture sector, a field that, arguably, exists to support the lifelong development of artists and people’s long-term relationship with the arts. In recent years, we have experienced a renewed interest in 'strategic' grant-making, this time with a ‘venture philanthropist’ spin. While this may work for those seeking the efficient creation and distribution of mosquito nets in the developing world, it seems ill-suited to building and sustaining institutions that are meant to develop humans’ capacity to create and find meaning in the arts.

Few funders in the US appear to have the trust, lack of ego and long-term vision to support organisations patiently. Because there is little long-term support for the arts, and because ticket revenue is a critical source of income, the American model encourages a focus on short-term gains. Valuable long-term objectives, such as sustaining investment in artists, developing repertoire and advancing particular art forms, often get lost.

Likewise, the preservation, critical discourse and documentation of work for the benefit of current and future audiences, artists and scholars tend to be neglected within this model. The same is true of programmes aimed at providing hands-on education and arts experiences and those that seek to foster aesthetic, cultural or socio-economic diversity.

It takes time for artists to mature and to create great works of art, and for the value of the arts to society to be realised. For the arts to do the work that only the arts can do, both organisations and those who would fund them must nurture initiatives long enough for them to yield fruit.

While the US model may be failing, I remain optimistic: we have barely scratched the surface in exploring the potential that internet-based tools have to enable new approaches. This includes the capacity for organisations to collect and share data in the interests of better understanding the arts landscape. The internet can enable new forms of collaboration and grassroots approaches to constituency building, increase engagement and allow for thousands of small gifts to be made in lieu of, or alongside, a few very large gifts. It enables greater representation of the community’s interests and can reduce the resources needed for fundraising.

These ideas may or may not be entirely relevant to the situation in Britain, but I would suggest that they raise a deeper question: the need to look carefully at the beliefs about causality that underpin current and proposed models of arts funding so as to ensure that they are (still) valid in today’s environment.

Diane Ragsdale is studying for a PhD in cultural economics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. You can read the full essays by Diane Ragsdale and John Knell as well as other provocation papers about issues affecting the arts sector on the State of the Arts conference website.

Bright idea

When Sharon Turner FRSA began volunteering at Calvin Donaldson, an inner-city school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she was shocked to discover that the walls were bare, there was no visual arts component in the curriculum and many pupils had never even held a paintbrush.

Turner worked with local Fellows and volunteers to develop the idea of a Saturday Arts Academy, which would take place on school premises and would enable pupils to learn about – and try – different artistic skills. With the help of funding from RSA Catalyst, she has run seven 'Art with Dad' events, a school-wide art competition and a workshop at Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum. Four more events are planned for the first half of this year.

While Turner is delighted with the response from the pupils – event attendance has soared from 12 to 47 – she admits that there are challenges.

"Chattanooga has the 11th highest crime rate in the nation for cities of 100,000 people or more, and most of that crime is in the school’s neighbourhood," she says. "A lot of pupils suffer from behavioural problems, so we’ve been pleased to see some of them taking responsibility, and even showing leadership, as the initiative has got under way."

The project aims to generate enthusiasm for art while promoting a strong social network in a community that has been severely affected by crime and drugs. "As many of the children have grown up without fathers, we’re trying to involve men from the local community in the project," says Turner. Since the school does not have a strong parent-teacher association, the goal is to create a culture in which parents recognise that their input is valuable.

In an age when funding for arts is thin on the ground, Turner has met with relative success. She attributes this primarily to RSA Catalyst, which propelled the project forward by helping her to attract matched funding from local organisations. Clear communication also helped. "When you’re asking for funding, don’t just tell potential sponsors your idea, give them a plan with measurable targets," she advises. "Document everything so you can show donors what you’ve done with their money."

To apply for Catalyst funding, visit the Catalyst fund pages.