The Klarman Foundation Emerges as a Major Cultural Player In Boston

It’s become clearer than ever that the Klarman Family Foundation is really stepping things up in Boston. KFF is playing in the major leagues with key long-time philanthropic leaders like the Barr Foundation, and has tuned into the cultural needs of the city in a big way. 

A couple months ago, we wrote how the Barr Foundation is giving local arts a boost in Boston, but Barr certainly hasn’t been alone in this effort. Barr partnered with the Klarman Family Foundation to establish the cultural plan, initially funding research about how other cities provide a model for Boston. Both Barr and Klarman committed $700,000 each to Boston Creates to support this early planning work.

“I see Barr’s role as helping to set the table and not necessarily set the agenda,” said James Canales, president of the Barr Foundation. “We know Boston is a world-class city, and we talk a lot about the world-class educational and medical and arts institutions, but the notion of taking a broad, inclusive look at the role of arts and culture to create the kind of vibrant, engaged community we seek is something we’re really excited about supporting.”

Related: The Arts Are Thriving in Boston—Thanks in Part to This Foundation  

So what’s behind this joint partnership, and what’s it all about?

Basically, these two funders have teamed up to “provide cultural organizations the rainy day and investment funds they need to be nimble and proactive.” The Barr-Klarman Arts Capacity Building Initiative makes multi-year, unrestricted operating support grants to groups based on budget size and that focus on youth arts. But this partnership goes beyond traditional grantmaking. These grants are pretty flexible to begin with, but the funders’ support also provides training and technical assistance through an entity known as the Technical Development Corporation.

These are some of the big capacity building topics that the funders care about right now:

  • Capitalization
  • Artistic risk-taking
  • Using data for decision-making
  • Building audience demand
  • Audience diversification
  • Youth arts

Although still in the early stages, this initiative has proven to be effective thus far. During its first three years, evaluations showed that a majority of nonprofits supported by the partnership were on track to meet or exceed their financial and overall goals. Mid-sized arts organizations are the target here, as well as groups of various sizes that put a priority on art for the youth of Boston.

Here are a few examples of recent grantees:

  • Actor’s Shakespeare Project
  • Huntington Theatre Company
  • Museum of African American History
  • World Music/CRASHarts
  • Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras
  • Sociedad Latina
  • Youth and Family Enrichment Services

This past summer, Barr awarded 15 arts and culture grants totaling $2.6 million. This included two-year extended support grants to 13 organizations as part of the Barr-Klarman Arts Capacity Initiative Youth Arts Mastery Cohort. A great deal of Barr's arts and culture effort is focused on the parternship with Klarman these days, although don't forget that the public sector is very much in the mix in all of this; Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has prioritized boosting the arts. 

Among other things, Barr and Klarman are on the same page about encouraging nonprofits to innovate and step up their games. A big part of this is planning for the future, rethinking business models, and really diving into financial management. But these two funders also want to see groups take creative risks and engage audiences new ways. 

All in all, there is a high level of intentionality here about building a strong cultural sector in a city. Which is a good thing. A well-devised, step-by-step cultural plan can do wonders for arts in a city, and thanks to ongoing flexible commitments from these funders, Boston has become a model for other cities to follow.

Last year, the Boston Globe published a piece about assets rising at Boston’s five biggest family philanthropies. The Klarmans doubled their giving between 2012 and 2013 as the foundation’s assets grew by almost $100 million during that time. When KFF hit $446.8 million in assets, it solidified its place as Boston’s fifth largest family fund. Our hunch is that the foundation has kept growing since the last publicly available data. 

Seth and Beth Klarman intend to give away most of their wealth during their lifetimes, so they may not be as concerned as some other donors that dream of extending the life of their foundation’s giving.