When the Wallace Foundation announced a massive $52 million investment for boosting arts engagement, we wondered if it would have a ripple effect across the philanthropy world. Would other foundations join the crusade? And what about patrons?
It’s been two years since Wallace’s announcement, and while foundations and patrons continue to profess an interest in engagement—who wouldn’t?—we haven’t seen that enthusiasm matched by consistently substantial funding initiatives.
All of which makes Susan and Stephen Wilson’s $1.5 million gift to Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art so interesting.
The Wilson Fund will endow the leadership position of the Block Museum engagement department, which oversees museum-wide education, programming, partnerships and communication efforts. The gift will also provide additional support for public programs and engagement between the museum and the larger Northwestern campus and community, including funding for youth educational programs.
Is the dollar amount particularly striking? Not really (although I’m sure the folks at Northwestern would politely disagree). Are the mechanics of the gift Earth-shattering? That would be a stretch. And is Block the only museum with an "engagement" or "outreach" department? Of course not.
Nonetheless, the gift does something relatively unique in an arts philanthropy space obsessed with engagement: It creates an engagement fund mandating the museum engage the community—and provides a roadmap for it to do so.
Lack of Direct "Engagement" Support Across the Board
While the last few years of IP arts philanthropy coverage is by no means a comprehensive database of all things engagement-related, we nonetheless haven’t reported on as many "engagement funds" as one would suspect.
The James Irvine Foundation actually wound down its Exploring Engagement Fund in 2016 in response to its larger pivot toward economic and political opportunity. And while foundations certainly want organizations to boost engagement, the goal is often subsumed within larger strategies like diverse hiring practices (e.g. Joyce Foundation and Mellon), a restructured grantmaking process (e.g. Dance USA), or an embrace of "museum tech" (e.g. Knight and Bloomberg).
Nonetheless, foundation support for engagement—direct or indirect—is more robust than that from individual patrons like the Wilsons and Alice Walton. Instead, individual patron support tends to skew more toward things like supporting a capital project or donating artwork. Does this mean patrons don’t care about engagement? Why, that would be ludicrous.
An Evolving Funding Area
I’d argue that the main reason why patrons don't directly support engagement—or, for that matter, "artists as activists"—on a level commensurate with foundations is that they lack the comparable administrative infrastructure and resources available to their institutional peers. It's easier to write a check for a new museum wing.
Similarly, since there aren’t many engagement funds out there in the first place, patrons can't export best practices to their respective organizations (assuming they have the time and wherewithal to do so).
Yet, this dynamic may soon change. Wallace has been unearthing exportable best practices to help arts organizations better engage audiences, and they’ve been cranking out many illuminating findings. It’s also why the Wilson gift is so interesting. Here’s a couple supporting an engagement fund and larger engagement architecture in real time.
And therein lies a kind of irony. The two key components of the museum’s engagement architecture aren’t paradigm-smashing innovations hatched from the brains of nonprofit consultants.
First, the gift enables a renewed commitment to successful partnerships. "Community collaborations," such as the Block’s long-term partnership with the Evanston-based youth development agency Youth Opportunity United, will be "expanded and deepened," according to Northwestern’s press release. And second, by endowing the leadership position within Block’s engagement department, the gift ensures engagement is embedded in the museum’s operations for perpetuity.
Engagement as an Unfunded Mandate
In the world of public policy, an unfunded mandate is a "statute or regulation that requires a state or local government to perform certain actions, with no money provided for fulfilling the requirements."
Arts organizations can relate. Every major funder encourages them to "engage," yet what organizations need, even more than best practices or clear definition of what constitutes engagement, is the peace of mind that comes with money. This is why the endowment component of the Wilson gift is interesting.
As such, Sue Wilson spoke confidently of the museum's future. "As Northwestern alumni, we have been excited by the work of the Block Museum in recent years to engage campus and community in teaching and learning experiences," she said. "Free and open to all, the museum is uniquely poised as a resource to serve wide audiences and bring diverse communities together through art and conversation."
Loyal Alumni Donors
As for the individuals funding the mandate, Sue and Steve Wilson graduated from Northwestern in 1970. Steve earned an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management in 1974, and subsequently built CF Industries Holdings, Inc. into a global leader in fertilizer manufacturing and distribution. He is the retired chairman and chief executive officer.
Sue, meanwhile, graduated with a journalism degree and had an eight-year public relations career. She has served as a volunteer at the Evanston Public Library, currently serves on the Board of Advisors of the Block Museum, and is a member of the Women’s Board of Northwestern. The Wilsons have provided support to the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools as well as Northwestern Athletics.
The Wilson gift is the second intriguing arts-related gift to Northwestern in the last few months. Alumna Jennifer Leischner Litowitz ’91 and her husband, Alec Litowitz, recently made a gift of up to $10 million to Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences to create a joint Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and Master of Arts in English degree program.