Bush Foundation Reboots: A Look at Its Plan to Catalyze Arts-Based Community Development

As we all know, big change at big foundations is a fact of life. But that doesn't mean it's a painless or seamless process. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The most relevant recent example comes to us from the Ford Foundation. As IP readers know, Ford's "The Art of Change" initiative, which promises to  significantly alter how the foundation funds the arts, compelled us to encourage Ford president Darren Walker to "swing the axe" hard to streamline its operations and allocate larger grants to fewer organizations. 

While Ford represents the kind of foundation that seeks to change the philosophical direction of its arts giving—in that case, by focusing on urgent issues of equity, opportunity, and justice in the U.S. and around the globe—there are other examples of foundations whose support of the arts seems to vanish, when in fact they simply changed names and funding mechanisms.

Take the Bush Foundation. Its popular Bush Artist Fellowships Program, which awarded 15 artists each year $50,000 in unrestricted funds, was eliminated in 2010. People wondered if it would come back. It didn't. As a result, since 2010, Bush lacked "a program that was specifically designed to support the arts community and artists," according to Allison Barmann, the foundation's strategy and learning vice president.

It reminded us of what happened in Southern California, where a controversial restructuring of the San Diego Foundation resulted in a new funding paradigm—an initiative called WELL (Work Enjoy Learn Live)—placed "arts and culture" under "Enjoy," alongside recreation and physical activity.

But as disillusioning as the elimination of the fellowships program may sound, Bush continued to support the arts, albeit under different auspices, namely its Community Innovation Grants, Bush Fellowship Program, and Minnesota Community Pride Awards.

This is all well and good, but at the end of the day, perception can be just as important as reality, particularly in the world of arts philanthropy. The foundation gets this, and it's been making a concerted effort as of late to pivot back toward a high-profile commitment to the arts.

First off, Bush appointed Erik Takeshita to a newly created position overseeing arts-based community development efforts. Secondly, the foundation is establishing deep ties with 16 regional arts organizations through its Community Creativity Cohort, each of which netted an unrestricted grant of $100,000. (We recently profiled one such winner, Fargo, ND's Theatre B, here.)

Cohort members meet twice over the next six months—the second gathering takes place in August—and they journal about their experiences in community engagement, leadership development, and racial and economic equity, the three areas Bush will focus on when designing new arts-related programs and initiatives in the not-too-distant future.

Give the Bush Foundation credit. Rather than impetuously re-immersing themselves into the arts funding landscape without doing proper due diligence, they wisely stepped back and called in regional partners in the field to help provide critical guidance and direction and tapped a seasoned professional to oversee it all.

As Barmann notes, "We’re looking at the role of art in advancing communities and the work of communities, and the problems they’re trying to solve in communities, and using arts and artists as a part of that."