Slight Change of Plans: A Grantmaker Unexpectedly Dials It Back

In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader instructs bounty hunter Boba Fett to take Chewbacca and Princess Leia to his ship.

This angers Lando Calrissian, who proclaims, "That wasn't part of the deal! You said the wookie and Leia would stay under my protection!" To which Vader replies, "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."

The exchange reminds us of what's currently happening in the Seattle arts scene.

The Stranger recently reported that Shari Behnke, the prominent Seattle philanthropist who, in 2012, founded the New Foundation and opened a Pioneer Square gallery in 2014, would be shutting down the art gallery and laying off its staff next month—right in the middle of an ambitious year of planned exhibitions. Benhke cited family illness as the reason for "simplifying" the foundation.

The Seattle arts community responded with a great deal of empathy and concern. But some also lamented, like The Stranger, which criticized "the effects of the whims of wealthy." 

And so the decision speaks to a deeper problem across the philanthropic arts space. The funder-organization partnership is built on explicit and implicit agreements. Nonprofits grow accustomed to the status quo. They become conditioned to expect things. What happens when a funder decides to unexpectedly "alter" the deal?

Let's step back and get a handle on what's happening with the New Foundation. Prior to Behnke's announcement, it seemed as if the foundation had the wind at its back. As we noted a few months ago, it announced a new $100,000 prize—dubbed the 100K Prize—that reflected Behnke's main philanthropic interests: supporting artists, empowering women, and catalyzing social change. 

And while fellow Seattle-based philanthropist Paul Allen has received a lot of grief for his own flighty forays into the arts, Behnke's influence has been more dispersed and impactful, particularly across the experimental arts space—which is precisely why the community is so concerned. The biggest blow is the closing of the foundation's free Pioneer Square gallery. As The Stranger notes, the gallery "became a focus because it was the public face, and because it presented the most ambitious of the foundation’s enterprises. The gallery has exhibited important artists from outside Seattle and provided a free art library of books and periodicals open to all. There aren’t really other art libraries or bookstores that are accessible to non-students in Seattle."

What's more, the foundation used the gallery to galvanize a civic and national program in 2016. That program began with the announcement of the 100k Prize. If there's any good news to be gleaned from Behnke's announcement, it's that the prize—and the funding that comes with it—will continue.

Nonetheless, the practical ramifications behind the gallery's closing are jarring. Commenting on the closure, New York-based artist Martha Rosler, who also happens to be the first recipient of the 100K Prize, said, "I’m befuddled, I’m concerned, I’m uncertain about where we’re going from here, but I feel really bad for people who’ve had their jobs terminated in an instant, and for people who were expecting more [art] to come—the audience, and of course I feel terrible for Shari."

And then there's the symbolism involved. We all know that philanthropy ultimately boils down to dollars and cents, but symbolism matters, particularly for a space that the community viewed as the epicenter of Seattle's experimental arts scene. 

Oh, and did we mention The Stranger claims the foundation has "no plan" for ongoing sustainability?

Add it all up, and one can understand why the city's arts community feels a bit "shellshocked." Many became comfortable—or is the word complacent?—in their relationship with the foundation. Like most philanthropic partnerships, it was a relationship built on spoken and unspoken agreements.

And though Behnke's personal challenges weren't a complete secret, if you read the Stranger piece in its entirety—something we highly recommend, by the way—you get the sense that certain members of the community are silently channeling their inner Lando Calrissian, claiming, "That wasn't part of the deal!"

Of course, a tendency to unexpectedly alter one's philanthropic efforts isn't a recent phenomenon, nor is it limited to whimsical rich people. Less than a year and a half ago, the Penn Foundation abruptly cut funding to the Philadelphia dance community, which according to choreographer and dancer Melanie Stewart was like "cutting off the legs and cutting out the heart." Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation's much-hyped pivot toward combating inequality had its cadre of current grant recipients sweating bullets.

Conversely, last year Denver's Bonfils-Stanton Foundation did an about-face and decided to narrow its mission to focus almost exclusively on the arts.

Ultimately, in the absence of mind reading or Jedi mind tricks (you knew that was coming), organizations can only prepare for the worst by diversifying their donor bases so that, if at all possible, their funding eggs are in multiple baskets. 

Which brings us back to our final Star Wars reference. We realize it isn't good PR to compare any foundation to Darth Vader, but the concept of artistic license is something that we take very seriously. Besides, it came from a place of genuine concern, not judgment.