When Funders Pivot Towards Combating Inequality, Where Do The Arts Fit In?

Earlier this month we asked, "Did Darren Walker start a philanthropic revolution when he pivoted the famous and influential Ford Foundation to focus exclusively on combating inequality in all its forms?"

The answer depends on how you define "revolution." To Mao Tse-tung, a revolution "is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery." Fair enough. But Mao's exhortations notwithstanding, we can't help but sense real momentum given the changes we've written about at the Irvine Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trustall of which are pivoting towards work that aims to address issues of equity. 

As the dominoes fall, though, we've been wondering what all this means for arts funding, since some of the same foundations now giving more priority to equity have also been key arts funders. Another backdrop for this question is the rising pull of effective altruism among many emerging donors, especially from tech, who aren't interested in backing symphonies when they could be fighting inner city poverty or malaria. 

As more big foundations get focused on equity and more emerging donors fixate on dire problems, is arts funding in trouble? Well, we don't want to overstate things—it's a huge funding field, after all—but the reality is that the arts have lately taken some hits. 

Irvine is a case in point. Earlier this year, foundation President and CEO Don Howard proclaimed that "as we move forward, we will focus on expanding economic and political opportunity for families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty." The reasons behind this evolution will sound familiar:

At the core of our exploration has been the recognition that, in a time of unprecedented wealth, we are collectively failing millions of California families who are working hard but still struggling with poverty. That calls out for a new focus and effort by all the institutions that help shape our economic and political lives: governments, business, nonprofits, faith communities, and, yes, foundations.

A couple of months later, Howard provided an update on the foundation's site. Irvine, he said, was exploring two specific areas of grantmaking that will "lead to initiatives focused on the need for greater economic and political opportunity for families and young adults who are working hard but struggling to get by." These two areas are "Career Readiness" and "Living-Wage Work."

This is the same Irvine Foundation, of course, that has long has been a huge proponent of the arts in California. And so we can't help but wonder: where does Irvine's pivot leave the arts?

The foundation anticipated this question. In a blog post earlier this year, Josephine Ramirez, Irvine's Portfolio Director, provided some useful context around the grantmaker's evolving arts strategy. First off, while a majority of Irvine's 2016 grantmaking dollars will go towards existing program commitments, Irvine is moving away from certain program areas—including the arts—as it focuses more on initiatives related to its new goals. It's doing so in the very state where emerging donors, namely the techies, are especially lukewarm to the arts. 

The Irvine transition comes into sharper focus once you take a closer look at some of the recipients of a round of grants announced August 31st.

Three grants, for example, fall under the new and aforementioned Career Readiness and Living-Wage Work initiative. Another grant is part of the foundation’s emerging Voice and Influence initiative aimed at increasing the ability of low-wage workers to improve working conditions and express their political will.

That said, the arts did get a piece of the $7.7 million pie. Irvine will grant $450,000 over two years to the Los Angeles Master Chorale Association as part of its Exploring Engagement Fund to support Big Sing California using advances in live-streaming technology to enable thousands of Californians to come together throughout the state to connect with others through a shared singing experience.

Yet the long-term prognosis for the arts looks a bit more ambiguous. According to Ramirez, "in the future arts nonprofits would be considered only for grants that fit our initiatives to expand economic and political opportunity. The reality is that fewer organizations will receive arts-related grants from Irvine than in years past."

(For fun, we visited the Exploring Engagement page on Irvine's site. It read, "As of March 30, 2016, we are no longer accepting applications." It felt like we walked up to an abandoned storefront and saw a "Closed" sign hanging from the window.)

All that being said, hope is not entirely lost. Moving forward, the foundation—while subtly acknowledging the current "artist as activist" trend permeating the visual arts space—is "exploring how to best draw upon our arts knowledge and networks to benefit working families and young adults who are struggling with poverty. With your help," Ramirez said, "we are excited about figuring out how the arts and creative expression can play a role in that endeavor."

What's more, the foundation has a template in funders like Ford, which believes that strong visual storytelling can be an effective tool in combating inequality.

This, of course, may be of little consolation to California-based arts nonprofits or, for that matter, those based in the other 49 states. Who's to say other foundations won't follow Ford and Irvine's lead?