Inspired by Success: Why These Funders Are Bankrolling a City-Centric Art Exhibition

Guided by the "ROI mindset," arts funders are increasingly drawn to programs that boost engagement, speak to pressing social concerns, and create a more immersive art experience.

So when a program based on the West Coast seemingly cracks the code, we shouldn't be surprised that a foundation 1,700 miles away might decide to fund a similar effort on its home turf.

Inspired by the Los Angeles-themed omnibus event "Pacific Standard Time," a new arts initiative, "Art Design Chicago," will debut in 2018 in the Windy City. It will look at the Chicago's influence and achievements across disciplines since the late 19th century.

Initiated and largely funded with a $6 million commitment from the Terra Foundation and $1 million from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Art Design Chicago is a joint effort of more than 40 organizations and will feature some 25 exhibitions and hundreds of public programs. Another $1 million is being raised from smaller donors.

"We felt there were too many undiscovered stories in Chicago art," said Elizabeth Glassman, the Terra Foundation’s president and chief executive, who was to announce the initiative in early April.

"Pacific Standard Time," the inspiration behind the new exhibition, has achieved a mythical, rock-star status since its launch in the fall of 2011.

The Getty Foundation-funded initiative aims to "explore the connections between Los Angeles and Latino/Latin American arts and culture." Its next phase, "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA," is slated to run September 15, 2017 and through January 31, 2018. 

The Terra Foundation wasn't the only funder bewitched by the exhibition's spell. Last August, I looked at the Hammer Museum's Mohn Awards, funded by Jarl and Pamela Mohn. Totaling $150,000, the awards are granted for "artistic excellence to a Los Angeles artist featured in the museum’s biennial, Made in L.A. 2016."

Sound familiar? It should. Jarl, the CEO of National Public Radio and a supporter of public radio in Southern California, was inspired by "Pacific Standard Time."

The "Pacific Standard Time" exhibit's allure can be traced to two factors. First, its deceptively simple credo for finding the elusive Holy Grail of community engagement: Keep it local.

We saw this phenomenon play out back in February when the Thompson Family Foundation gave a record $10 million gift to the Museum of the City of New York. The gift wasn't earmarked for a new wing or visitor's center, but instead for the museum's New York at Its Core, an ambitious, 8,000-square-foot exhibition designed to explore 400 years of New York City history.

The Terra Foundation was also likely drawn to the inherent practicality of the "Pacific Standard Time" model. No new mega-wings needed, just the strategic allocation of resources to partners institutions and a laser-like focus on local artists and issues.

In fact, Getty recently added 24 cultural institutions to its official list of participating exhibition spaces. The list included some refreshingly unusual non-museum recipients like the L.A. Promise Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to preparing L.A.students for success, and the Los Angeles Unified School District. 

Which brings me to the final aspect of "Pacific Standard Time" that likely appealed to the Terra and Richard H. Driehaus foundations: the initiative's scalability.

The model gives planners in Chicago a bit of room to improvise. While the L.A. exhibition looks at connections between the region and Latino/Latin American arts and culture, Art Design Chicago appears to cast a wider net.

Programs include a retrospective in June 2018 of the African-American painter Charles White, organized with the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a show in September about the Hairy Who, the influential group of artists who came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s.

And while the events and exhibitions will take place in Chicago, organizations from around the world are encouraged to participate. (The Terra Foundation, while based in Chicago, has an additional center in Paris.) The Terra Foundation will award publication grants, expected to range from $3,000 to $10,000, and academic program grants for up to $25,000. 

"We don’t want this to be something where everyone brings out some Chicago art and we all applaud,” Ms. Glassman said of the shows. "We wanted deep dives."