Big Money to Help Another Set of Victims of Rising Inequality: Artists

Back in December, when Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a $1.7 million grant to create affordable spaces for the city’s arts organizations, I noted that the lack of such spaces had been on Bay Area funders' radars for quite some time. (Tragically enough, the plan was in the works long before the Ghost Shop warehouse fire that killed 36 people in the city's Fruitvale district.)

Quite a few local funders these days understand what's at stake when it comes to keeping cities affordable for artists. When cities squeeze out artists and other creative people, they can lose a big part of what makes them interesting and attractive to begin with. The Bay Area is ground zero right now for funder-backed efforts to preserve arts space, with the Kenneth Rainin Foundation an especially notable leader in this regard. 

Related: Funders Back More Affordable Art Spaces in the Bay Area. Will Other Cities Follow?

But the affordability challenge facing artists it isn't limited to top gentrifying big cities; it's a problem in many places, and the national group Artspace has long been a leader in tackling this challenge. Artspace began in 1979 with a local focus on affordable arts space in Minnesota and now has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans and Washington D.C. Its growth neatly parallels a squeeze on urban artists that's been rising steadily for three decades—and which has sharply accelerated in recent years as city living has come back into vogue, drawing legions of affluent professionals. 

Over the years, Artspace has received funding from a range of foundations. Two of its biggest backers are Kresge and Ford. 

Between  2009 and 2015, Ford provided Artspace with some $10 million in funding. Now it's come through for the group again, with a $3.75 million grant, its biggest to date. 

We've been following Ford closely since its pivot towards "combating inequality in all forms," and while shoehorning certain gifts into this rubric can be a little awkward—public interest technologists, anyone?—providing artists with affordable spaces is a no-brainer. Artists are another group that have been hit hard as top U.S. cities have turned into playgrounds for rich people, especially those in finance and tech. Meanwhile, Ford has a rich history of fighting for affordable arts space. Back in 2010, it launched a 10-year, $100 million initiative to "support a new generation of arts spaces." That effort was partly framed in the context of the tough times following the Great Recession. But if anything, a recovering economy has only made things worse for artists in urban areas.

Ford's hefty support of Artspace shows that it has no desire to reinvent the wheel. Cultivating affordable spaces is Artspace's core competency, and as we've previously noted, it's developed a secret sauce that includes, among other things, the need for organizations to build deep relationships with community leaders.

Ford latest grant will help Artspace build internal capacity, restructure a number of aging properties to ensure their long-term affordability for low-income artists, and launch a new fellowship program to support emerging leaders of color working at the intersection of arts and community development. 

While this gift can ultimately be summarized as one to support affordable spaces, I'd like to call your attention to the latter component in the previous paragraph—the new fellowship program and how it too aligns with Ford's efforts to combat inequality.

Back in September of 2015, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland published a widely-cited study examining the deep financial, structural, and infrastructure-related discrepancies between "mainstream" and "diverse" (e.g., African American and Latino) arts organizations.

At its core, it's a study in inequality. For example, the authors cited the lack of funding of diverse organizations by individual donors as "the most important single statistic in the study."

Fortunately, the study also provided a series of recommendations to help diverse organizations remedy these disparities. And lo and behold, two of these recommendations—more management education to plug skills gaps and cultivating leaders attuned to their communities—align rather nicely with Artspace's Ford-funded fellowship program to support emerging leaders of color.

We'll let Elizabeth Alexander, Ford Foundation's Director of Creativity & Free Expression have the last word here. "Artists can inspire people and drive social change, but the infrastructure for arts production in many communities remains fragile," she said. "Artspace is an unparalleled leader in developing affordable space and empowering thousands of artists and arts organizations across the country, from Hawaii to Native and Indigenous territory to El Barrio in New York City."