There's a Disparity in Arts Funding Along Racial Lines. How Can It Be Fixed?

A recent piece in the Pennsylvania-based news outlet PublicSource looked at how minority artists and organizations in the Pittsburgh region struggle to navigate labyrinthine grant application processes erected by well-intentioned foundations. 

The net result is a disparity in arts funding that research suggests isn't relegated to the Pittsburgh region. Nationally, only 6 percent of minority organizations receive comparable funding from individual donors to organizations serving mostly white patrons, according to Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), which evaluates how equally grants are distributed.

At a time when foundations like Wallace are spending big bucks to maximize audience engagement, what root causes account for this discrepancy? And what can foundations do to close the funding gap? Let's start with the first question.

The answers—or lack thereof—point to a highly complex environment, varying intentions, and strong opinions. At the most fundamental level, the PublicSource piece addresses the issue of discrimination. Janet Brown, CEO of the GIA, says the inequity experienced by minority artists is not a result of conscious discrimination, but rather a "struggle to get into the funding pipeline, to get the kind of ability or staff, [and] to fund their artists. The larger organizations scoop up all those folks." 

Brown's sentiments echo those of a recent DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland study examining the challenges facing African American and Latino arts organizations. It suggests that these organizations lack the resources to retain exceptional in-house talent, who inevitably flock to better-paying jobs at larger organizations, often situated in big cities. What's more, their lack of resources stems from an inability to secure significant support from individual donors. And since there is a finite number of institutional donors, and their gifts are generally limited in size. 

It's a "chicken or the egg" kind of phenomenon. Do these organizations lack big donor dollars because they lack the necessary in-house fundraising infrastructure? Or is their lack of this infrastructure due to the lack of big donor dollars to pay for it?

Devos calls this big-donor shortfall "the most important single statistic" in its study.

The PublicSource piece, meanwhile, cites artists within the Pittsburgh community who have a slightly different perspective. Artist Vanessa German sat on a few grantmaking panels in the area, and according to PublicSource, was "taken aback by the resistance to deliberately spread the word about funding to a diverse group of people." 

For example, in one group, German suggested they market to minorities. In response, the white panelists told German they were "worried the efforts would disenfranchise white male artists." German's experience speaks to one solution floated in the PublicSource piece: Foundations should create more diverse grantmaking panels. 

Now, all that being said, most foundations remain committed to equitable arts funding. The PublicSource article notes that the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, for example, created the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh fund—profiled in IP here—in 2010. 

Ttalk to some minority artists, though, and they'll tell you foundations sometimes overthink this issue by relying too heavily on awarding grants to artists who consciously embrace their ethnicity and culture. And so you have this strange scenario whereby a foundation will tell an African American artist they aren't sufficiently embracing their black identity. Here's Pittsburgh painter Christine Bethea: "I am black, but that's not what my art is always about," Bethea, 59, said. "[The foundations] don't do that to a white artist; they don't make them pick an aesthetic." 

Bethea's thoughts echo another finding from the DeVos study—the seemingly counterintuitive idea that multiculturalism can actually harm artists of color. As we noted in our piece on the study:

Individual donors don't consciously ignore diverse organizations out of spite or prejudice. Rather, many donors "would rather give money to a white theater doing a black play than a black theater doing a multiracial play," said Michael Dinwiddie, president of the Black Theatre Network. Diwiddie attributes this to "the perverse notion we have in this country that people are being reverse racist by creating their own cultural institutions." 

Lastly, the PublicSource article points to another trend we're seeing—not just across the arts sector, but the entire philanthropy space: Artists and organizations, regardless of color, want flexibility akin to general operating support for individual artists. 

Anne Mulgrave, manager of grants and accessibility for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which formed the Pittsburgh Coalition for Racial Equity in the Arts as a way for artists and funders to discuss the equity issue and potential solutions, said local artists felt they weren't receiving sufficient funding for "general opportunities" to improve their art. For example, Mulgrave said, an opera singer needs funding for voice lessons before she can travel to a national competition.

Needless to say, we'll file this story under "to be continued." But in the meantime, we encourage you to check out a related story out of Pittsburgh. Back in September 2013, the August Wilson Center, the venerable African American institution, was in foreclosure and millions of dollars in debt. Then three local foundations stepped up to the plate.

See more articles by Mike Scutari.