Will College Campuses Be the Next Frontier for Activist Art Patrons?

Yale university. PHoto:  Pete Spiro/shutterstock

Yale university. PHoto:  Pete Spiro/shutterstock

While 2017 saw arts funders stepping up support for "artist as activist" grants and social justice-oriented programming, we didn't see a comparable level of enthusiasm across the higher ed landscape. Recent news suggests that this may change in 2018.

Last month, jazz legend Sonny Rollins' gift to Oberlin College created the "Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Fund" to support "exemplary conservatory musicians and service efforts." And more recently came word that an anonymous donor gave $750,000 to the Yale School of Art to establish a new art and social justice initiative.

The initiative was created by the dean of the Yale School of Art, Marta Kuzma, as an acknowledgment that graduate art education "needs to play a greater role in looking at art through social, cultural and economic points of view." (Kuzma's position, by the way, is endowed by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.)

The donation will also help with scholarships, research, increased pedagogical offerings, student art production, and the "exploration of commonsense approaches to critical and collective thinking around public dialogue and social engagement."

I can see why the anonymous donor was drawn to Kuzma's vision. Art funders love to transform university classrooms and galleries into Petri dishes for their pet causes. Examples include the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Curatorial Studies Program, which prepares African-American college students for curatorial professions, and a gift from Northwestern University alumna Jennifer Leischner and Alec Litowitz that marries the fine arts and creative writing.

Given the prodigious amount of money flowing to activist projects across the larger arts sector, the Yale gift isn't a huge surprise—until you realize that this kind of giving isn't all that common at the university level.

Explaining the Lack of Activist Art Patrons

Why aren't more patrons supporting activist art programs on college campuses? 

After all, it's not as if institutional funders don't care about hot-button campus issues. The Lumina Foundation recently pledged $2.5 million to support racial justice work, and the Ford Foundation's higher ed giving, as one would expect, focuses on combating inequality.

But institutional social justice warriors are quite different from individual arts patrons.

Indeed, we've noticed a dearth of activist-focused patrons across the larger arts landscape. I've floated some theories as to why this is the case. 

Theory No. 1, while cynical, has a kernel of truth to it. Patrons are just like you and me. They have—how do I put this diplomatically?—egos. Cutting a check for a socially focused arts program lacks the ribbon-cutting pizazz of, say, funding a new museum wing.

Second, many patrons—but certainly not all—like measuring impact. Giving to a program that, to quote Yale's press release, explores "approaches to critical and collective thinking around public dialogue and social engagement" won't generate quantifiable metrics like boosting the total number of visitors to a museum.

Last but not least, individual patrons lack the administrative infrastructure available to institutional funders. It's easier for a patron to cut a check to a trusted museum than do the legwork of creating an activist program from scratch. 

A Laggard Among Laggards

I'd also argue that launching an activist arts program is more difficult at the university level than at a museum. The reason for this is simple: politics.

These are uneasy times on American campuses, and this unrest has affected how universities raise money.

Amherst College cited political correctness run amok as a reason why alumni donations are down. University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendif, withdrew a $3 million naming gift after it became apparent that the gift would rename the only building on campus named for an African American.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Griffin, when announcing a $125 million gift to endow the University of Chicago's economics department, lauded the school for rejecting "trigger warnings" and "intellectual safe spaces."

Higher ed donors may have egos, but they're not masochists. A poorly executed gift earmarked for "activism"—a loaded word if there ever was one—can generate unwanted publicity or alienate the larger donor community. It's understandable why some arts-focused donors have laid low.

It also may explain why, at least for now, the donor behind the Yale gift prefers to remain anonymous.

The Foundation Connection

Perhaps the most interesting detail of the Yale gift is the background role of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Earlier in this piece, I mentioned that arts patrons may be reluctant to hatch an activist arts program because they lack the requisite infrastructure to do so. Stavros Niarchos's involvement here, however subtle, provides one solution to this problem.

In February of 2014, the foundation gave Yale $5 million to create a permanent, unrestricted endowment to support "core priorities of the Yale School of Art," while naming in perpetuity the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Dean, the position occupied by Marta Kuzma.

At the time, the press release didn't mention things like "activism," "social justice" or "inequality" among its core priorities. But the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, along with many other funders—arts-focused and otherwise—have since given new attention to equity and social justice issues. Most recently, the foundation framed its $55 million gift to renovate the New York Public Library's Mid-Manhattan Central Circulating Branch as an effort to tackle inequality by boosting inclusiveness, diversity, and accessibility. 

A similar line of thinking undergirds the anonymous donor's gift to Yale's School of Art.

Commenting on the gift, Dean Kuzma said, it "represents a level of generosity that enables the Yale School of Art to address one of the most important issues in society today—equity in graduate-level education within which personal or social circumstances, race, gender, ethnic origin, or economic background, might in no way serve as an obstacle to higher learning."

We don't know if Yale's Kuzma will work with Stavros to address equity and accessibility across the school's curricula. We also don't know if the anonymous donor would have given $750,000 if the Stavros Niarchos endowment—$5 million and counting—had not been in place.

But it's safe to say Stavros Niarchos' existing relationship with the Yale School of Art school helped, and not just from a financial perspective. Publicity-shy patrons can find comfort in knowing that an established brand like Stavros Niarchos can absorb potential PR fallout resulting from an "activist" gift. 

Moving forward, patrons should keep a close eye on Yale's hybrid model, where a foundation, driven by social justice causes, helped to lay the financial and administrative groundwork for a campus initiative that merges art and activism.