"A Goal of Justice." Behind a Push for Racial Equity in Arts Funding

photo:  Anton_Ivanov/shutterstock

photo:  Anton_Ivanov/shutterstock

If I had to predict the top arts philanthropy trend for 2018, it would be institutional funders' intensifying efforts to boost equitable funding and access to the arts. 

Dr. Dorian Burton, assistant executive director of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, summed up the challenge accordingly: "Philanthropic efforts in the arts must make a fundamental shift from charitable gifts that exclude to justice-oriented giving that creates equitable access for all."

Many funders agree with Burton's sentiments, but the consensus usually ends there, as funders invariably employ different strategies to address this challenge. Some rely on diversifying a museum's management, while others double down on programming. Meanwhile, few agree on what cultural equity looks like in practice. How does an organization define and measure success?

It's complicated and important stuff, which is why I considered myself fortunate to speak with Justin Laing, Managing Partner of Hillombo LLC.

Laing co-founded the Pittsburgh-based organization to "lift black perspectives, negotiate and build alternatives to systemic racism and capitalism, in the memory of our ancestors, for the benefit of black people." Hillombo partners with community development organizations that are "building power by engaging community in planning and strategy," and works with primarily white-led arts organizations on issues of racial equity.

Laing spent 11 years working for the Heinz Endowments as senior program officer for arts & culture, served on the board of Grantmakers in the Arts, and was the chair of its Thought Leader Forum on Racial Equity. He is also a commissioner on Pittsburgh’s Equal Opportunity Review Commission and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. 

He's currently working on public projects like the CAPA Enrollment Justice Project, which seeks to boost equity across Pittsburgh’s public arts schools, and #ArtsinHD, which addresses gentrification in historically African American neighborhoods.

In other words, he's been tackling racial equity in the arts, engaging diverse audiences and promoting "accountable and effective philanthropy" his entire professional career.

Here's a recap of our conversation.

"Hacking European Supremacy"

"I guess a challenge I am thinking about right now is, how do we build a financially sustainable model for a business hacking European supremacy in the arts and nonprofit sector?" Laing said.

To fully contextualize this statement, I'd like to call your attention to a 2015 study by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland examining the challenges facing African American and Latino arts organizations. 

"Diversity in the Arts: The Past, Present, and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies" surfaced many stark inequalities across the sector, most notably a relative lack of funding for diverse organizations by individual donors.

Laing readily admits that "we are not alone" in trying to change the larger narrative, though his perspective and "class position and history" allows Hillombo to partner with a "range of people, including program officers and foundations that are also looking to rethink and reform how they engage these questions, particularly through a variety of ways of sharing power with grantees."

A second and related challenge is "European supremacy’s intersection with arts and capitalism in the public sector. Whether state arts funding, a public school for the arts or the way arts and creativity play out in challenging/assisting gentrification in a predominantly African-descended neighborhood, I see the public sector imitating the private sector in how it estimates African-descended culture vs. European-descended culture."

In working with a primarily white audience, Laing readily acknowledges the importance of a balanced approach. "The unique challenge," he explained, "is how to both keep a comfortable level of power where the shoe is not on the other foot in terms of resource shortages and share power enough that people don’t become incredibly frustrated and want to tear the structure down."

Is the Sector Getting Less Diverse?

We then turned our attention to a recent study from the Helicon Collaborative and the Surdna Foundation. It found that while arts foundations and nonprofit leaders are increasingly aware of diversity, arts funding is actually getting less equitable. I asked Laing if the finding corresponded with what he's seeing on the ground.

Laing found the takeaway to be surprising. "Maybe this is because I was a part of demonstrating the philanthropic system’s increased diversity awareness, both as a program officer for the Heinz Endowments and as a Grantmakers in the Arts board member, and I think that helped me develop a more optimistic view of what was going on.

"If I think about Pittsburgh, it's conceivable that philanthropic capital is growing with the passing on of very wealthy people, and yet this new capital available for grantmaking is not interested in diversity. In this way, it's not that less money is going to diversity, necessarily, but rather a lower percentage of it."

As for the study's finding about rising overall awareness about diversity issues in arts philanthropy and nonprofit leaders, Laing cautions that its hard to know what's going on. While there's certainly a lot more focus on racial equity in the foundation world in general, that doesn't necessarily mean that many more grantmakers are now truly keyed into diversity challenges within the arts sector.

"Accountable and Effective Philanthropy"

With the ROI mindset and "effective altruism" pervading arts philanthropy, I was drawn to Hillombo's call for more "accountable and effective philanthropy" on its website. I asked Laing to elaborate.

"I made an attempt at defining philanthropic accountability in an article I wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review called 'Grantee Inclusion: a Step Towards Mutual Accountability?' In thinking about accountability, I like the frame of Andreas Schedler, where accountability has two elements: answerability and enforceability.

"For now, I am leaving enforceability alone because philanthropy does not operate in an environment in which I or seemingly anyone can enforce rules that hold it accountable... however, answerability does seem to have some potential as a reform, and that is for philanthropy to both inform grantees as to what it is doing in their sector and explain its choices."

Rather than measuring success by checking off boxes or crunching numbers in a spreadsheet, Laing argues that effectiveness must be "judged against intent." As such, Laing believes that as currently constructed, four of modern philanthropy's intentions are to:

  • Keep capital in the hands of the European-descended capitalist class.
  • Put capital in the hands of European-descended grantees who are generally in support of this class.
  • Do all of this while spending a very small portion of the total value in the endowment on nonprofit labor that produces a narrative of the donor’s good intentions.
  • Provide some psychological benefits to "all of us involved in fighting the good fight."

While Laing considers modern philanthropy to be "successful at keeping capital in the hands of the capitalist class and those who reflect their values, like large museums and large symphonies, it is not totally effective at creating narrative about the capitalists’ good intentions outside of the narrative it itself is producing.

"We think collaboration with community can help philanthropies to do a better job at creating a positive narrative about their work in community, but should do so at the expense of some of the other goals. This trade-off seems necessary, because it seems that the intentions of large, institutional, European-descended philanthropy are in contradiction. This is what comes up for me if I think about the term 'effective.'"

Expanding "Who Has Power" in Philanthropy

Recent Inside Philanthropy coverage has looked at a wide range of equity-building efforts from various organizations, including institutional behemoths like Ford and the Walton Family Foundation, urban "legacy institutions," and individual patrons like Agnes Gund.

Again, we're talking about an incredibly expansive space, here, and while there's no "one size fits all" solution, I nonetheless asked Laing share his thoughts about how best to engage diverse audiences and give a voice to historically disenfranchised demographics in the grantmaking process.

"Diversifying their own audience in terms of grantees and their own staff and board is where I think the most fruitful work can come," he said, echoing the work of institutional funders like Ford, the Joyce Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

He also proposes structural reforms like implementing advisory boards where grantees are interviewed about grantmaking direction, evaluations conducted by grantees with the support of a professional evaluator, and grantees presenting on the grantmaking strategy with foundation staff at conferences or leading subcommittees of a grantmaking strategy.

Laing admits few of these proposals are, at least superficially, "transformational." Nonetheless, when implemented in tandem, they can expand "who has power in philanthropy, so that we can create much broader and deeper reforms to the sector."

And therein lies the challenge moving forward. Laing argues that philanthropy has traditionally exacerbated the arts equity gap, and as things currently stand, it's still part of the problem. It's also, by definition, part of the solution. 

Looking ahead, he frames the challenge accordingly: "How can philanthropy be a place where we redesign the way our culture engages the capitalist classes in order to build a system of wealth redistribution that has a goal of justice, rather than the unjust goals we have now?"