Why Did Five Groups Create a Trust to Fund New York City Arts Organizations?

At the expense of applying the laws of college-level economics to the very different world of nonprofit arts funding, we'd nonetheless like to propose the idea that arts communities and their constituent players aren't immune to the dynamics of supply and demand.

So when we came across news that five foundations are pooling close to $1 million to create the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund, we had two questions. One: The New York City arts community needs more money? And two: Why is this the case?

But before we take a closer look at the backstory, let's first look at the details of the plan. The new fund, created and funded by the Booth Ferris, Lambent, and Robert Rauschenberg Foundations, the New York Community Trust, and the David Rockefeller Fund, aims to "develop a cohesive agenda for cultural policy, and promote equity within the sector." The fund plans to make grants of more than $700,000 over the next 18 months and of course, additional funders are encouraged to join. 

The goal, according to program officer Kerry McCarthy, is to "bring groups closer together and inspire arts groups, foundations, and government to work together to make sure small and large arts organizations continue to thrive in every corner of the city." Perhaps most tellingly, McCarthy noted that the new fund "echoes Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to equity."

That was our "ah ha" moment.

As we all know, de Blasio was catapulted to the mayor's seat thanks to his "tale of two cities" campaign theme, which resonated across the country. Therefore, we can't help but surmise that the foundations behind this trust believe that there's an unequal allotment of funds across the city. 

The press release didn't provide any corroborating evidence, but it's nonetheless interesting to consider. Do arts nonprofits in the Bronx, for example, see less proportionate funding than their counterparts in Brooklyn? Do theater nonprofits receive less proportionate funding in the city than, say, those in the visual arts sector? 

A web search did reveal some further context, albeit within the realm of public school arts education. A 2014 report by the city's comptroller's office found that 28 percent of schools lack a full-time certified arts teacher, while 20 percent have no arts teacher at all, including one out of seven middle and high schools. This shortage is particularly acute in low-income neighborhoods. More than 42 percent of these underfunded schools are in the South Bronx and central Brooklyn.

Ultimately, the motive behind the trust's creation was the unequal allotment of arts funding across the city. And funding, of course, comes from both private and public sources. Therefore, this development can be considered as another example of private forces stepping in to bail out public entities.

Better still, we don't see why this model can't be emulated elsewhere. After all, what's stopping foundations in other cities from surveying their arts landscapes, identifying gaps, and pooling their resources to remedy these gaps?

(That's a rhetorical question, by the way.)