At Surdna, Arts Funding With a Keen Eye on Social Change

The New York-based Surdna Foundation's mission is all about sustainable communities. And it defines that concept broadly, looking beyond environmental issues to include the economy and the arts.

We've written recently about Surdna's environmental funding and also what it's doing to make local economies work for more people. Here, we dig into what the foundation is up to with its millions in annual arts grantmaking.   


Surdna's Thriving Cultures program contains four main funding priorities, or "lines of work," as they are referred to within the foundation: Teens' Artistic and Cultural Advancement, Community Engaged Design, Artists and Economic Development, and Artists Engaging in Social Change.

Program Director Judilee Reed tells IP that there are two main organizing principles to the Thriving Cultures portfolio. One is to highlight and support work that illuminates the value of individual artists in their respective communities. The other is to support the entire sector of arts and culture "in ways that would drive equity and social justice as key dimensions of sustainability."

Of course, equity and social justice are also key to Surdna's work on the environment and the economy, and Reed says that Surdna doesn't see arts and culture as entirely separate from these other funding areas. Keep that in mind if you're approaching this place for a grant. Reed says that the perfect grantee (if there is such a thing) doesn't necessarily have to hit every single point on Surdna's entire list of grant priorities, but they do need to be crystal-clear about their individual goals and have, as she says, "deep clarity and intention around how they relate to community, how they relate to artistic excellence, and how they relate to the people of our concern, which includes people of color and those who live in low-income communities." Reed's program encourages proposals that explicitly connect with Surdna's other two funding areas.

These concerns make Surdna a pretty unique arts funder, and probably not the right fit for a great many arts organizations. Another reason the opportunities may be limited here is that Surdna doesn't have anything like the deep pockets of much bigger foundations. 

"We know we can't do everything," says Reed. "We know that specificity is the best way for us to approach our work, because we know we're not a high-volume funder. And because we're trying to work across the country, that specificity allows us to look at community scale."

The characteristics of how each organization relates to their community, what their intention is, and how they develop high-level artistic practice are all integral qualities Reed considers when reviewing grant requests and are all related to the specificity she's looking for.

"Some organizations have incredibly high levels of artistic practice or have really fantastic exhibitions or works on stage, but they may not have an explicit role with low-income communities, for example. These are layers of criteria that help us focus in on what a potential grantee might look like."

Reed believes art brings special qualities to issues of social change. She explains that Surdna is also very interested in addressing issues of cultural equity and cultural diversity, which can be seen as additional "funding frames" within the context of the foundation's larger social justice funding priorities.

Reed says that this thinking was a consideration of all the different forms of artistic practice from people of all races and cultures, and the recognition that some are much harder to support through philanthropic processes than others. She points out that a lot of the time when we think of social justice and social change, we tend to apply it to topical issues and whatever subjects make the headlines, such as criminal justice and immigration.

But we also recognize as an arts funder and as a team that has been working in the arts for a very long time that we also need to pay attention to those things that maybe aren't hitting the headlines. We need to consider that art and culture and the diversity of expression is as critical to sustainability as a healthy and fair economy or a sustainable environment.

Reed mentions the folklorist Alan Lomax and his assertion that cultural diversity is as important as biodiversity and how they are both essential elements to our life on earth. She also mentions UNESCO's guidelines for preserving language and intangible cultures as goals for protecting human rights, and says that Surdna is trying to situate its portfolio within this same set of ideas. Reed says:

When I think about what we're trying to do here at Surdna, I think we're trying to keep a sharp focus on what artists are doing and what they care about, and how it adds dimension and value to their communities. I think that we're trying to stay steadily focused on issues of equity and sustainability for those communities, whether that's directly through the arts or as a function of what the arts are trying to help achieve. And I think we would say we're not trying to solve everything.

Given all this, who exactly is pulling in grants from Surdna for work in the arts? Well, you can see the full list of last year's grantees here. Some of the biggest include:

  • The Center for Cultural Innovation, which got $450,000 to "implement a Creative Industries Incentive Network supporting artists and creative entrepreneurs in five California communities."
  • The First Peoples Fund, which got $600,000 to support "the entrepreneurial development of Native artists and building the capacity of organizations that serve them, and to galvanize support for art as an economic engine."
  • Springboard for the Arts, a Minnesota group which got $700,000, and works to "cultivate vibrant communities by connecting artists with the skills, information, and services they need to make a living and a life."
  • Youthspeaks, which got $750,000, to "develop the field of literary arts training for young people around the country."

Big grants like this from Surdna are unusual, and typically run for three years. Most of the foundation's arts grants are smaller in size. 

We should also note that Surdna does give some money to more familiar and mainstream arts organizations, such as Jazz at Lincoln Center, the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts, and the Cleveland Orchestra. As well, Surdna is a backer of ArtPlace America, the big funders collaborative advancing creative placemaking. 

Related: The Future Is Here: Artplace America's Latest Big Move on Creative Placemaking