Can the Arts Counter Islamophobia? This Funder's Making That Bet

When Doris Duke first took up philanthropy as a young heiress and socialite in the 1930s and 1940s, Americans worried about a very different set of foreign adversaries than they do today. Now, through its Building Bridges grants program, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) is committed to finding common ground between American Muslims and non-Muslims through the arts. 

More precisely, the four-year-old program is a project of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA), a subsidiary of the bigger foundation. Every year, the Building Bridges program awards about $1 million to $3 million to creative projects that showcase Islamic culture and societies in a positive light. Announced recently, DDFIA’s 2016-2017 Building Bridges grants disbursed over $1.7 million to 11 organizations, with a focus on museum-based projects. 

It goes without saying that these are uncertain times for American Muslims, who have been subject to a rise in hate incidents through 2016 and into this year. According to Building Bridges senior program officer Zeyba Rahman, “prejudice and division had a banner year.” 

As a major arts funder with a significant grantmaking track record in dance and theater, DDCF has the know-how and connections to deliver on Building Bridges’ promise of cultural connectivity. While well-endowed funders like Open Societies and the Omidyar Network combat hate directly, Doris Duke’s arts initiatives take an alternative but complementary angle. 

In our previous coverage of Building Bridges, we noted that in the absence of sympathetic treatments of Muslim issues from the Hollywood mainstream, arts and theater projects can be Muslim Americans’ sole venues for fair cultural representation. But the U.S. remains, in many ways, a culturally segregated country. Muslim-inspired arts and theater need to travel beyond liberal cities to avoid preaching to the choir.

Building Bridges’ 2016-2017 grants do a fair job of reaching out. The music organization Bang on a Can will use its $300,000 toward a traveling festival featuring Muslim artists that will tour Appalachia. Duke University’s Duke Performances program received $150,000 to engage Southern Americans with Muslim cultures. And the Museum of Durham History in North Carolina got funding for an exhibition on African American Muslims’ local contributions.

Other Building Bridges grantees this year include the Boston Center for the Arts, the Center for Asian American Media, the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Fells Point Creative Alliance, the Lincoln Center Theater, MDC Live Arts, and the Young Writers Project in Burlington, Vermont. 

Importantly, a $300,000 DDCF grant also went to the Proteus Fund to support media training for Muslim community leaders and other spokespeople who’ve recently entered the national stage. The initiative, a partnership with ReThink Media, is funded under Proteus’ Security & Rights Collaborative. We've written about Proteus' work in this area before. This funding intermediary has been a leader in combating negative stereotypes about Muslims in recent years, ramping up these efforts after Trump began his campaign in 2015, fueling Islamophobia with his public remarks. Proteus has received DDCF support in the past for its Security & Rights Collaborative, along with funding from powerhouses like Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundations.