How Are Funders Boosting Arts Engagement Across Diverse Communities?

We occasionally stumble across a news item that compels us to step back and take stock of the larger arts philanthropy landscape as a whole. Such is the case with news out of New York City, where an impressive cadre of funders joined forces earlier this spring to engage diverse audiences.

A new $6 million program launched by the North Carolina-based William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, The Met, NYU, and 19 New York City organizations will explore how arts-based organizations can serve as "positive, relevant, and inspiring forces in the daily lives of diverse communities." 

The gift, which I'll look at in greater detail a bit later in this post, speaks to the broader challenge of arts engagement and underscores the reality that while practically all major arts funders are committed to reaching diverse audiences, their approaches vary. Here I look at the breadth of this challenge and then hone in on the engagement strategies of different funders. 

Let's begin by laying out a premise that everyone can agree on. Given the litany of distractions vying for people's attention nowadays, arts organizations need to do a better job at engaging everyone, "diverse communities" or otherwise. The engagement challenge spans demographics, and that's because the very definition of the arts experience is changing.

Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, sums up the zeitgeist accordingly:

The pendulum has swung from the museum as a temple to the museum as active space, from a treasure box to a toolbox. Today's audiences are no longer looking for a cold, "white cube" museum experience. Instead, they crave warmer, shared experiences.

This evolution inherently demands greater engagement—and there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Different demographics present different obstacles to engagement. Programming directors at arts organizations, for example, are grappling with how to best engage millennials. They're plentiful, affluent, and incredibly busy. What's more, no programming decision exists in a vacuum. By tilting the scales toward millennials, organizations may alienate older and more generous baby boomer and silent generation donors.

Now let's zoom in a bit. What are the paramount obstacles inhibiting engagement with diverse communities? Some, like a lack of access to art events and financial constraints, are universal. Others may surprise you.

In September of 2015, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland published a study examining the challenges facing African American and Latino arts organizations. I'd particularly like to call out the authors' findings on the engagement disconnect for diverse audiences. "A lack of arts education in childhood, not surprisingly, is the leading factor that shapes arts participation and consumption in adulthood," the study says. What's more:

This proliferation of electronic options is particularly problematic for small- and mid-sized arts organizations...With lower real and perceived barriers to attendance, these electronic substitutes may prove especially attractive to African American and Latino audiences, who cite accessibility as a key obstacle.

Createquity, meanwhile, published a report titled "Why Don't They Come?" looking at the reasons why individuals with lower incomes and less education attend arts events less frequently than other demographics. 

According to the study, the main culprit isn't the internet, geographic location, or the perception that art events are inherently "elitist." It's television. Less-educated individuals spent twice as much time consuming television than all other leisure activities combined.

Of course, none of this is news to regional and national grantmaking institutions. But while they all believe in the importance of engaging diverse communities, and overcoming key obstacles to doing so, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Here's a closer look at what some funders are doing. 

Wallace Foundation: Engagement Spans Demographics

We can't talk about engagement without mentioning the $52 million elephant in the room—the Wallace Foundation's Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative. Slowly but surely, the foundation has been rolling out the findings on its BAS Knowledge Center page. For example, it most recently published a study on that other elusive demographic, the millennials, titled "Building Millennial Audiences: Barriers and Opportunities." 

Wallace is taking a far more expansive and cross-demographic view on audience engagement. Many of its findings can be applied to the "diverse audience" field, and I imagine the foundation will be rolling out additional targeted studies over the next year.

Joyce Foundation: Diversity Starts at Home

The Joyce Foundation is all-in on engaging diverse audiences. It funds a spectrum of projects from "systemic analysis of issues and policies that prevent sustained diversification" to "regularly nurturing and supporting artists and arts administrators of color."

Organizations looking to beef up in-house diversity and audience engagement efforts will want to take a close look at Joyce. The funder supports "cultural institutions with concrete measurable plans to substantially increase the participation of people of color through systematic analysis, interventions, and long-term change." 

To see this goal play out at the recipient level, Joyce provides financial support to Enrich Chicago, an organization focused on increasing the number of people of color in arts administration positions and making arts programming more available to marginalized communities across Chicago.

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Cultivating Diverse Talent

Mellon's Arts and Cultural Heritage program seeks to "nurture exceptional creative accomplishment, scholarship, and conservation practices in the arts, while promoting a diverse and sustainable ecosystem for these disciplines." And so Mellon's grantmaking tends to focus on the young and mid-career individuals, many of whom hail from underrepresented communities, within these ecosystems.

We see this most forcefully play out in the museum space. Mellon launched a fellowship program back in 2014 with the goal of diversifying the curatorial field at a handful of major U.S. museums. Since then, bolstering parity in the field has remained a top priority. In March of 2017, for example, the foundation commissioned a series of case studies to help museums improve diversity and inclusivity in their staffing practices.

Mellon also nurtures creative accomplishment within the performing arts field. A gift to Nashville Symphony's Accelerando music education program prepares gifted young musicians from underrepresented communities to pursue music at the collegiate level and beyond. And in early 2017, Mellon made a multi-year grant to the Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth with the goal of removing barriers to "music mastery" for young instrumental musicians from underrepresented communities.  

Mellon's strategy suggests that an organization's ability to engage diverse audiences is only as strong as the individuals, developed at a young age, that make up what it calls "sustainable ecosystems."

Ford: Engagement and Social Justice Are Intertwined

What kind of work is Ford doing to boost arts engagement across diverse audiences? In describing its arts and creativity work, Ford aims to build more "equitable leadership and staff" at arts institutions—echoing its work across the New York City museum space—and to create "more opportunities for audiences to engage with social justice art and media." As far as that latter goal is concerned, Ford wants to make sure that "social justice-focused content and artistry is available to a wide range of audiences, including those in traditionally underserved places."

Among other things, Ford funded a review of the diversity of the boards, staffs, and audiences of cultural organizations in New York City that was undertaken by the de Blasio administration and published in 2016.

The study speaks to one of the main recommendations for African American and Latino arts organizations from the DeVos study: Attract great leaders that can navigate the ever-changing cultural sector. It also underscores a kind of trickle-down effect whereby diverse management leads to more diverse and engaging programming. We see this idea undergird the Mellon Foundation's efforts to boost diversity in the museum world as well as in the grantmaking philosophy of the Joyce Foundation.

James Irvine Foundation: After the Pivot

Before recently pivoting to combat economic and political, Irvine was a leader in promoting arts engagement in diverse communities in California. In early 2016, Josephine Ramirez, a portfolio director who had previously led the foundation's arts program, spelled out the post-pivot grantmaking implications for arts organizations: "In the future arts nonprofits would be considered only for grants that fit our initiatives to expand economic and political opportunity. The reality is that fewer organizations will receive arts-related grants from Irvine than in years past."

So where do things currently stand? Irvine will continue to provide multiyear grants to the 16 New California Arts Fund recipients. The fund aims to support organizations in "building their capacity to sustain arts engagement for a diverse public." That said, Irvine will not be adding new grantees to the fund moving forward. The foundation also wound down its Exploring Engagement Fund. On the bright side, Irvine plans to step up its efforts in "building the field of organizations that are making changes to bring about more substantive, sustainable arts engagement" with diverse and low-income Californians. Like the Wallace Foundation, it plans to publish and share new research around best practices in arts engagement.

Moving forward, according to Ramirez, "Irvine’s evolving focus provides potential for building on arts engagement work by allowing more opportunity for cross-disciplinary grantmaking—deeply embedding creative and artistic expression in potential solutions to the challenges faced by young adults and families in or near poverty."

Dance/USA: Restructuring Grantmaking

Change be slow at the foundation level. It's not as if funders can simply flip a switch and say, "Presto! Now we'll boost engagement across diverse audiences!" It's a complex process. 

In 2013, Dance/USA, in tandem with a consultant, Suzanne Callahan, began work to restructure its operations and grantmaking with an eye toward better engaging diverse audiences. The organization diversified its board and staff and spoke with other arts organizations nationwide around the issue of diversity. It found, for example, that minority groups didn't apply for funds in the past because of what Callahan called a "Catch-22." "You have to be a certain size to be eligible, and you must have paid staff," Callahan said, effectively shutting out smaller organizations that were not members.

Dance/USA removed the membership requirement, lowered the budget threshold, and streamlined the grantseeking process. The net result? A funder better attuned to diverse organizations and in turn, the engagement needs of diverse audiences.

Wells Fargo: Diverse Engagement to Complement Business Strategy

You may be surprised to see Wells Fargo listed alongside arts powerhouses like the Wallace and Ford Foundations. That surprise is justified. Corporate funders are relatively less active in the arts philanthropy space. But Wells Fargo is an exception. As one of Americans for the Arts' "Best Businesses Partnering with the Arts in America" honoree, the bank's support of the arts aligns with its ongoing strategy to cultivate a deeper appreciation of the African American experience.

It has provided programmatic and financial support to the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and the Houston Museum of African American History and Culture. It is also a founding donor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

While Wells Fargo may be an outlier, the dynamic is slowly changing. As this piece illustrates, corporate donors are warming up to arts-related philanthropy. The catch? Organizations need to dial up art's capacity to drive community or social change.

Kenan Trust: A New Entrant in an Increasingly Crowded Field

Last but not least, let's return to the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, whose $6 million engagement initiative, launched in tandem with assorted New York City institutions and spearheaded by The Met and NYU's Tisch School of Arts, catalyzed this discussion in the first place.

The gift embodies the prevailing zeitgeist of the times. The Met and NYC will document the cohort's engagement activities and share best practices, echoing the work of the Wallace and James Irvine Foundations. It also casts a Ford-like wide net; participating organizations include the Harlem School of the Arts, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and "legacy" institutions like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Lincoln Center.

Then there's the underlying spirit of the initiative, articulated by Dr. Dorian Burton, assistant executive director of the Kenan Trust. "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," he said. "We believe the arts are core to giving creative voice to individuals to combat broken systems while building bridges across lines of difference."

This sentiment fits squarely within the evolving framework, seen most notably in the recent grantmaking of Ford, Irvine, and others to build a bridge between the arts engagement and social justice.

The fact that Kenan has looped in "legacy" institutions is a bonus. As repeatedly noted here on IP, national grantmakers are "edging politely but firmly away" from those institutions, specifically in New York City, that cannot "demonstrate a significant contribution to solving or soothing specific social or economic traumas."

Kenan's gift flips that assumption: When legacy institutions frame the arts as "a vehicle for social change," to quote Burton, national grantmakers come closer.

And while we don't know the trust's actual contribution to the program's $6 million price tag, it nonetheless represents, according to the Met, a "significant expansion" of Kenan's work to "help cultural organizations to deepen their relationships with communities."

Looking Ahead: Strong Funder Interest, But Greater Clarity Needed

We expect that engaging diverse audiences will remain a huge priority for arts funders moving forward—in particular, funder interest in public art and creative placemaking, approaches that embed an engagement arts experience within diverse communities, shows no signs of abating. And as previously noted, corporate donors are ramping up arts giving with the condition that organizations drive community or social change. Add it up, and it's no surprise that new funders like the Kenan Trust seem eager to enter the fray. 

But questions remain. Most notably, what, exactly, is engagement? For all the talk about it, engagement can still be a nebulous concept. As funders increasingly embrace an ROI mindset, organizations need to establish firm guardrails around what constitutes successful engagement, particularly across diverse audiences.