One Grantmaker's Plans to Reverse a Steady Decline in Arts Funding

Back in early 2015, the San Diego Foundation restructured its grantmaking model, arguably diminishing the arts in the process and contributing to the departure of Felicia Shaw, the foundation's longtime Director of Arts and Creative Economy.

You could hear a collective "gulp" coming from the city arts community.

A year and a half later, the foundation's support for the arts remains strong; it just announced the five winners of its Creative Catalyst program, which award artists with $10,000 to $20,000 fellowships and partner with nonprofit arts and culture mentoring organizations.

According to the foundation's site, fellowships require the development of "new work or advancement of existing work over a 12-month period that includes extensive community engagement and culminating project exhibitions or performances for all San Diegans to enjoy."

So everything turned out just fine, right? More or less, yes. Lord knows it could be worse. Then again, it could be better.

To see what we mean, let's travel back in time to 2011. That was when a woman named Felicia Shaw (that name seems to ring a bell, doesn't it?) launched Creative Catalyst as a pilot program with the help of a startup grant from the Irvine Foundation. The program gave a total of $285,000 to 15 artists in 2012.

The total amount of funding awarded this round, meanwhile, stands at $100,000, as each of the five winners walks away with $20,000. And therein lies the crux of the "it could be better" sentiment. As the San Diego Union-Tribunenoted, "the overall dollar amount and number of recipients have dropped steadily" since Creative Catalyst's inception.

What's more, the foundation awards a ton of stuff across all sorts of vectors. "Arts, Culture, and Humanity" is one of 11 categories in the foundation's Social Impact Areas program. There are many moving parts under the hood and finite dollars to go around.

But who's to say that the trend can't be reversed?

According to the Union-Tribune, the program adheres to a "pooled philanthropy" model whereby "donors not only write checks but take an active interest in the outcome." What's more, the San Diego Foundation contacted people who’d attended previous Creative Catalyst events and raised enough to continue through 2020 and awarding grants roughly every 18 months.

And when it comes to the actual number of grants the Creative Catalyst is willing to dole out, Jill Hall, co-chair of program makes a convincing case for a "less is more" approach: "I felt, very confidently, that it would be better to do three cycles of five artists each, than to do one year with 15 artists. It raises the level of the work. It makes the grant more prestigious. It makes it a tighter cadre of artists."

Earlier this year we wrote another piece on the San Diego art scene. Dr. Andrew Viterbi, the Italian-born co-founder of Qualcomm and philanthropist announced a $5 million gift that will create the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director Fund at the Old Globe Theater. At the time, Dr. Viterbi hoped the gift would "encourage other philanthropists to chip in to support the theater."

A similar feeling of cautious optimism can be found at the San Diego Foundation. When asked by the Union-Tribure if she would expand the Creative Catalyst program to previous levels if more money could be found, Hall said, "you always dream."