Why Did This Foundation Decide to Go "All-In" On the Arts?

In a recent post, we looked at how donations to arts nonprofits in Milwaukee remain 50 percent below pre-recession levels. The reason is simple: Foundations changed their priorities. The handful of foundations in the area dialed back funding to the arts and put their money elsewhere in an effort to transform Milwaukee into a "major league city."

Depressing, right?

Well, today brings some good news, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. In a move that's relatively unique in the arts philanthropy space, the Denver-based Bonfils-Stanton Foundation is narrowing its mission to focus almost exclusively on the arts.

Before we examine what prompted this shift, let's first look at the foundation itself. It has two main goals: enriching Denver's cultural life and landscape, and cultivating exceptional leaders and change agents. The foundation offers four types of grants: general operating support, project support, arts innovation grants, and capital projects.

About 10 years ago, the foundation allocated a little more than 50 percent of its grants toward arts projects. The rest went to programs in science, health, and human services. Then it saw its opening. Denver began to emerge as one of the country's more innovative and exciting arts hubs, yet the funding didn't keep up with the city's development. What's more, the Great Recession hit, and in its aftermath, very few Denver-area foundations seemed to be picking up the arts-funding slack.

Slowly but surely, the foundation began weaning non-arts grantees off the payroll and allocating more money to the arts. In late 2012, the foundation hired Gary Steuer, then Philadelphia's chief cultural officer, to make the transition complete.

Two things stand out, here. First, according to Robert Lynch, executive director of Americans for the Arts, Bonfils-Stanton’s move to focus exclusively on the arts is unique among foundations and "perhaps without precedent." Why is that? In our opinion, the shift can be partly attributed to market dynamics. Denver's art scene—and the city itself—is thriving. In this case, it's easier to hop on the train after it's left the station than to try and cultivate a vibrant arts scene from scratch. Denver has the wind at its back when it comes to arts, like a quite a few smaller cities these days that are attracting artists priced out of places like New York and the Bay Area.  

And secondly, due to Denver's success, Bonfils-Stanton can walk away from funding non-arts organizations without a heavy heart, since other foundations can pick up the slack. More money overall is flowing the Denver nonprofits then was the case a decade ago. 

All told, Bonfils-Stanton's shift is an intriguing counterpoint to its foundation counterparts in Milwaukee, who seem to think that continued funding to arts organizations will relegate their city to second-class status.