More Real-Time Engagement In Action: Two Foundations Embrace Identity and Race

There's an old adage in the consulting world—by the time the consultant's report hits the client's desk, it's already obsolete. That's because conditions on the ground are always changing. A report that took a year to compile and pulls six-month-old data may as well reference the Stone Age in our current philanthropic climate. 

Recent news recalls that adage: The Wallace Foundation aims to spend a whopping $52 million on identifying ways that arts organizations can expand audience engagement.

Clearly, Wallace's efforts are worthwhile. And while the nonprofit arts landscape is constantly evolving, we're confident that many organizations can take some (most?) of Wallace's eventual takeaways and apply them to their daily lives. 

That said, it's also instructive to keep an eye out for interesting audience engagement efforts unfolding in real-time. Take developments out of Saratoga Springs, New York, where the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation helped create a three-year, $1.2 million initiative at Skidmore College’s Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. 

The foundation’s contribution to the grant amounts to $840,000, while the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Skidmore College have provided a total of $360,000 in matching funds. In essence, the initiative will boost audience engagement through the perspective of "identity and race." And how, precisely, will it accomplish this? Glad you asked. The initiative will:

  • Enable original scholarship on works of art recently acquired by the museum by artists such as Nayland Blake, Willie Cole, and Lorna Simpson.
  • Develop new courses that "cross disciplinary lines and use collection objects as the catalyst for conversations and innovative curricular development."
  • Invite visiting artists and scholars to interact with faculty, staff, and students in the form of talks, workshops, performances, and exhibitions.
  • Allow for new initiatives, including a documentary and research project that will highlight more than 1,500 works in the museum’s collection. 
  • Fund the creation of a digital archive that will be free and accessible to all.

Is their plan earth-shatteringly innovative and unprecedentedly "outside the box?" Not really. But that's not the point, is it? What counts is the degree to which the museum can engage existing and new audiences, and equipped with over a million dollars, Tang seems well on its way.

The gift also falls squarely in line with the funding priorities of the two grantmakers. Mellon remains committed to addressing the lack of diversity in the curatorial world, while a 2015 Ellsworth Kelly Foundation grant supported the conservation of the Tang Museum's collection and established the museum’s first endowment for conservation.

Meanwhile, other real-time experiments in audience engagement continue apace throughout the arts philanthropy world. One vector that's been especially ahead of the curve is theater. Case in point: The Theatre Communications Group, whose Doris Duke-funded Audience (R)Evolution program, recently identified eight organizations with particularly effective audience-engagement strategies.

What's more, some of these strategies, in our humble opinion, can be adopted by non-theater arts organizations. Click here and take a look for yourself.

See more articles by Mike Scutari.