How Does Boston's Art Philanthropy Stack Up With Its Peers?

Transparency in philanthropy is a two-way street. On one hand, the more foundations and organizations work to demystify the black box that is modern philanthropy, the better. On the other hand, as big data continues to transform the world of philanthropy, numbers don't lie. And sometimes, certain individuals, groups, or even cities may come across as not quite as generous as one would hope.

Call it the "name and shame" effect.

Take news out of Boston, for example. Here's the opening paragraph of a piece on the Artery, Boston's NPR station:

This city has long prided itself as the Athens of America, but when it comes to spending on the arts, a study released Thursday by the Boston Foundation suggests that we might want to refrain from patting ourselves on the back.

Ouch.

A report by Technical Development Corporation, a consulting firm for nonprofits, called "How Boston and Other American Cities Support and Sustain the Arts," compared spending in Boston to 10 other cities — Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. As the introductory sentence suggests, its takeaways were a mixed bag.

First, the good news. Bostonian audiences have some of the highest participation rates in the country. They're also willing to pay more than their peers. And perhaps most importantly, donors are especially generous.

Now for the bad news: First off, while donor rates are high, the funding is concentrated in the trifecta of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Fine Arts, and WGBH. Collectively, they account for 40 percent of the spending by the city's arts organizations. What's more, performing arts organizations "are less plentiful and less resourced in Boston than elsewhere, causing the city to fall to sixth place in per capita performing arts expenditures."

Lastly, according to the study, "limited investments by foundations, corporations and government may be preventing our region’s cultural institutions, especially small and mid-sized nonprofits, from realizing their fullest potential."

What to make of all this? While it would be nicer if funding were evenly spread across various organizations, it's also important to realize that Boston isn't New York. Nor is it Seattle. Nor is it Houston. Each city is different — culturally, demographically, financially — and drawing "apples to apples" comparisons between them is often a fool's errand.

For example, Boston's arts organizations may have fewer resources than other cities, but there's a reason for that — the city's historical heritage. The city includes 57 properties and districts designated as National Historic Landmarks. (Minneapolis, for those keeping track at home, has four.) In a world of finite funding, dollars inevitably flow to organizations that celebrate the city's rich history. Art organizations may suffer, but such is life when you share a home with the Freedom Trail and the Paul Revere House.

Secondly, while the study notes that other cities are more advanced in the areas of "cultural equity" or "inclusiveness," it also fails to call attention to the fact that Boston is home to more than 100 colleges and 250,000 college students from all over the world. Certainly, these colleges contribute to the city's cultural richness, right? Now, this isn't to say the study portrayed Boston as some sort of cultural wasteland, but by neglecting the huge role played by colleges and universities in the city's arts ecology, it fails to provide a more contextualized picture.

And it's hard to argue with the notion that limited investments by foundations, corporations, and government agencies might prevent Boston organizations from realizing their fullest potential. But the same logic can be applied to every other city in the U.S., as well.

Of course, the report isn't pointing fingers as much as reporting the facts. And that's certainly useful.

Speaking of other cities, this report reminds us of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance's 2015 Portfolio, which looked at the "cultural ecology" of 11 U.S. metropolitan regions, including the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, the Twin Cities, and Washington, D.C. Check out some key findings here.