When the Arts Faced a Threat in This City, Here's How Funders Rallied

 photo: anekoho/shutterstock

photo: anekoho/shutterstock

So far, President Trump's plan to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities has yet to materialize. Quite the opposite, actually: Under the 2017 budget agreement hatched by Congress in May, the NEA, the NEH and the Smithsonian all received funding boosts.

Chalk up another win for arts-loving "swamp" creatures!

But while the NEA may have received a short-term reprieve, the feds are but one piece of a larger funding puzzle. Zoom into local communities and you'll find starker evidence of governments in retreat and private funders filling the gap in real-time.

Consider, if you will, the situation in Philadelphia, where the city government's retreat was especially severe.

"Doomsday" for Arts Education

In June of 2013, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission approved massive cuts in funding in what critics referred to as "The Doomsday Budget." Cuts included mass faculty layoffs, reduction of materials and athletics programs, and the complete elimination of arts and music programs.

Four years later, Peter Dobrin, the Philadelphia Inquirer's culture writer, surveyed the city's music education landscape and convincingly argued that funders sufficiently rose to the challenge, pointing to city's web of innovative music education programs, including:

  • Play On, Philly!, launched in 2013 with seed money from Carole Haas Gravagno and the Lenfest Foundation.
  • The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra's Tune Up Philly, which receives support from Impact100, a women’s giving collective.
  • AristYear Philadelphia, which will pay 12 arts teaching fellows in area schools with a high percentage of children from low-income families. The Knight Foundation has supported both Artist Year Philadelphia and Play On, Philly!

Knight is only one of many influential funders active in the city. William Penn Foundation has doubled down on arts education, allocating more than $12 million over the last four years—"up considerably from the $2 million to arts education it gave in the previous four years," says Dobrin.  

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, meanwhile, recently awarded more than $2.5 million to a new program called the Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth.

Other examples include the Neubauer Family Foundation, which, in tandem with other local organizations, is "working to figure out what arts education programs are here already to determine what’s needed" to “better align the arts education ecosystem across the city." 

Not too shabby. How did it happen?

Most obviously, the city's financial woes were so calamitous that, funders, most of whom already had extensive footprints in the city, had no choice but to respond en masse. Samuel Johnson's old adage applies here: "When a man knows he is to be hanged, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

That being said, there's far more to Philadelphia's success than the threat of (figurative) imminent hanging.

Music Education—And then Some

First, consider that in many cases, we're not talking about your standard music education programs.

Play On, Philly!, for example, is billed as "music for social change." Its 2017 summer programming included anti-child obesity and "active play" programming at neighborhood recreation centers. And by embedding fellows in communities through a year of in-school service, ArtistYear Philadelphia garnered additional funding and recently went national, adding school districts of Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado and Queens.

This is no coincidence. More than ever, funders tend to support arts experiences that are immersive, experiential, and drive positive social outcomes.

Appealing to the ROI Mindset

Now, consider the supporting role of big data in framing the arts as a means for driving social change. 

Play On, Philly!'s pilot collected data to show that students in the program improve their self-perceptions, academic motivation and school attendance, all while learning to play and perform a musical instrument. At the same time, many other American cities are experimenting with ways to strengthen arts education, generating an ever-growing body of research around best practices.

Funders, increasingly beholden to this ROI mindset, are more inclined to cut checks when backed by compelling data. For proof, look no further than the Neubauer initiative, whose interactive map comparing needs and desire between schools, and explores "approaches that have been successful in other cities."

Stakeholder Collaboration

There's also an impressive degree of strategic consensus and goal-setting among stakeholders.

To the former, all involved parties agree that access and equality is the key. Funders, more than ever, intuitively rally around this idea. Breadth is important, as well—"the net must be cast wide to capture all the talent out there," said Dorbin. Music education shouldn't be just for future Julliard students. "It has to also be for those who will end up on the other side of the proscenium—as listeners, board members, and donors."

As far as goal-setting is concerned, Frank Machos, executive director of the office of the arts and academic enrichment for the city's school district, said the priority is to bring weekly sequential arts instruction to every student in kindergarten through fifth grade. This kind of arts-education-for-all goal setting resonates with funders, and Machos is bullish. "I'm pretty optimistic that we can meet that in three to five years," he said.

Good News—and Bad News

Philly is by no means out of the woods. While the Philadelphia School District recently reaped a $65 million annual windfall thanks to the city’s reassessment of commercial properties, the district still projects a massive deficit of $714 million over five years. 

But it does have three things in its favor. First, as a major U.S. city, it has an extensive network of philanthropic support. Rural areas often lack such a luxury, which make them, perversely enough, the regions most adversely affected by cuts to federal arts funding. As VIA Art Fund President Bridgitt Evans recently noted:

On the margin, and in the areas where funding for the arts is probably most vulnerable, there will be fallout. The artist in small-town, middle America, whose only hope of getting their local musical or art exhibition funded—one whose ambition perhaps outstrips their current level of funding—was the NEA, will be forced to let go of their dreams and ideas.

Second, while funders remain beholden to the ROI mindset, stalwarts like Knight and Mellon don't need to be reminded of the unquantifiable value of the arts with towering stacks of spreadsheets. They're a sympathetic bunch. They get it.

Lastly, even if Philadelphia gets its financial house in order, it would be wishful thinking to expect city officials to fully reinstate public funding for arts education anytime soon. With foundations ably filling the gap, city planners now have the political cover to turn their attention to other areas of concern.

And therein lies the familiar "good news/bad news" dimension of philanthropy's anti-Doomsday largesse: public funding for the arts, long considered the domain of, well, public funders, can end up shifting to private donors after they've stepped forward—and end up holding the bag.