Activism Ascendant: More Funding for Arts Organizations Supporting "Positive Social Change"

Upon reading that the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation announced the 2017 grantees for its Art & Social Justice Initiative, I thought not of Donald Trump, but of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why's that, you ask?

Simple. The primary driver behind the Rubin Foundation's grant—the idea that artists should be catalysts for social change—is gaining more currency across the arts philanthropy field, much to the detriment of evergreen institutions like the Met.

In a recent piece in Apollo Magazine, Adrian Ellis noted that national grantmakers are "edging politely but firmly away" from "legacy" institutions in New York City that cannot "demonstrate a significant contribution to solving or soothing specific social or economic traumas."

This development is at least two years in the making.

Back in 2015, the Ford Foundation drew lots of attention by pivoting toward inequality, a shift that reshaped its arts funding, among other areas. But the "artist as activist" boom—as noted in this piece, which listed a half-dozen funders active in this area—has been a team effort. 

What's more, the "artist as activist" space is a fluid and heterogeneous one. Some funders cut checks to individual artists. The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's Artist as Activist program, meanwhile, focuses on the single social issue of mass incarceration. And others, like the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, support organizations.

The foundation launched its initiative in 2015. We covered its inaugural round of winners last year, and a look at this year's 47 New York City-based recipients—compared to 46 in 2016—suggests the foundation hasn't radically deviated from the script.

The grants, according to the foundation, "will have a significant city-wide impact on the NYC arts community at a time when funding is imperiled and the core social issues these organizations address—xenophobia, Islamophobia, LGBTQ rights, racism, criminal justice, income inequality and women’s rights—are more critical than ever, given the current political climate."

Recipient organizations "exemplify the Art and Social Justice initiative’s areas of interest—arts education, art in service and community centers, artistic activism, community-based museums, expanded cultural access, public art, and emerging artistic practices."

Organizations range from museums to grassroots organizations, including the Laundromat Project, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), the Queens Museum, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and The Arab-American Family Support Center.  

Like last year, the foundation will also bring together grant recipients at The 8th Floor—the foundation’s exhibition and programming space—for workshops, panels, and events. These events will allow organizations to engage with each other and the public to build and strengthen their work and sense of community to promote social justice through art.

Which brings me back to that "legacy institution" known as the Met. It recently announced it would delay construction on a $600 million wing and instead focus on replacing the skylights and roofing system above its European paintings galleries. When asked whether the delay was the result of an inability to come up with a major lead gift, Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Met, skirted the issue somewhat, saying, "We’re very confident about raising funds for this project when the time comes."

Contrast this to the energy of funders embracing art as a means for social change. The difference is rather stark. What's more, there's a new administration in Washington, and if we're reading the tea leaves correctly, issues like xenophobia, Islamophobia, LGBTQ rights, and racism will only become more urgent for funders like the Rubin Foundation over the next four years.