Staying the Course: This Gift is Good News For "Legacy" Arts Institutions

Photo: lincoln center education

Photo: lincoln center education

The recent imbroglio over the naming rights to Lincoln Center's concert hall generated a lot of press, but in a way, it also acted as a soothing distraction from far more fundamental challenges facing large "legacy" institutions.

As I recently noted in a piece on the "artist as activist" boom, national grantmakers seem to be "edging politely but firmly away" from "legacy" arts institutions that cannot "demonstrate a significant contribution to solving or soothing specific social or economic traumas." Meanwhile, in another trend we've written about, quite a few of today's emerging individual donors tend to embrace some degree of effective altruism—avoiding the arts altogether as they tackle problems like malaria or animal welfare.  

These shifts in funder behavior pose major challenges to big, lumbering institutions established during earlier times—back when the gatekeepers of philanthropic wealth were more friendly to what now seems like the increasingly quaint idea of art for art's sake.

One way that legacy institutions have maneuvered in this new era is by coming up with new programs and initiatives that engage disadvantaged communities in their cities. We've written about the ambitious efforts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in this regard, along with what other arts organizations have being doing. 

Meanwhile, Lincoln Center has been working to show wider societal impact for many years through its educational wing, Lincoln Center Education (LCE). And, recently, that work got a nice boost in the form of a $4 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation. The gift will provide $1 million per year for four consecutive years, beginning with 2016–2017 and will strengthen the LCE's "classic"—as in "not explicitly focused on solving a social problem"—arts education programs.

The foundation earlier gave $4 million to LCE back in 2013 to support a rebranding effort and the rollout of new programs. This effort led to two major changes. First, a name change. The Lincoln Center Institute became Lincoln Center Education. Second, its mission evolved. Whereas the institute was focused on higher education, visual and performing arts, and cultural institutions, the newly branded Lincoln Center Education focused on K-12 arts education, teacher training, and arts education, and consultancy.

In retrospect, the center's re-branding effort appears prescient. It came approximately 24 months before Ford's pivot towards combating inequality and the August 6, 2015 debut of Hamilton—two signal events that (unscientifically) turned the "legacy" arts landscape on its figurative head.

Since then, the LCE has reached more than 125,000 students, families, and educators primarily through school and community programs. Its annual season produced more than 300 events per year, featuring 30 artists and ensembles from around the world. And approximately 500 low-income families received $5 tickets to performances on the Lincoln Center campus each year.

The Sherman Fairchild Foundation was clearly pleased with the progress. The grantmaker, based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is the charitable foundation of Sherman Mills Fairchild, the American businessman, investor, inventor, and founder of more than 70 companies. Fairchild left most of his $200 million estate to his foundations upon his death in 1971.

RelatedSherman Fairchild Foundation: Grants for Higher Education

The new $4 million infusion will build upon the LCE's successes from the past four years by—and I'm quoting Russell Granet, Executive Vice President of LCE here—“Preparing students for their academic and professional lives through imagination, innovation, collaboration, and problem-solving, all of which are vital skills in our current society.”

At the expense of reading too much into Granet's quote, I nonetheless found it instructive. He didn't drop some of the common "artist as activist" buzz-phrases like "solving pressing social challenges" or creating "vehicles for conversation about current events and culture at large."

Instead, he embraced the more traditional arguments around the benefits of an arts education, proving two things in the process. One, "if it ain't broke don't fix it." There's an ever-growing body of evidence suggesting that the arts benefit society regardless of its ability solve intractable social problems. And two—and this, dear "legacy institution" readers, is the good news—this that line of reasoning still resonates with grantmakers like the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.