Win-Win: A Legacy Arts Institution Finds an Ally for Social Impact—And Funders Respond

Carnegie Hall. Photo: DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock

Carnegie Hall. Photo: DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock

I recently framed the Lincoln Center Cultural Innovation Fund as Exhibit A in how legacy institutions can appeal to donors increasingly drawn to programs that address major social challenges. 

I now bring you Exhibit B, courtesy of Carnegie Hall. It recently announced that its Weill Music Institute and the Los Angeles-based Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network have partnered to launch a national initiative focused on the "intersection of arts and youth justice."

The Create Justice initiative will work to generate a national network of arts and justice leaders dedicated to "fostering strategies that empower the nation's most at-risk youth to reach their full potential through opportunities in the arts." Building on a forum held in March, the effort will include additional meetings to be held in September in Los Angeles and in March in New York City.

While legacy institutions may feel a bit uneasy given established national interest in nimbler and more socially focused competitors, Carnegie's initiative affirms a theory I floated after the Lincoln Center announcement: When a legacy institution supports initiatives that address "specific social or economic traumas," established national funders like Ford, Rockefeller, Pew or Gates don't edge away. They reach for their checkbooks. And so do other kinds of donors, too. 

The Carnegie gift comes with a funding twist. Unlike the Lincoln fund, which received support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Create Justice is bankrolled, in part, by a European billionaire and corporate funders. 

Create Justice is a part of Musical Connections, a program housed at the Weill Music Institute. Lead support for Musical Connections is provided by Nicola Bulgari, an Italian businessman, and his wife and Italian costume designer, Beatrice. Major funding for Musical Connections comes from MetLife Foundation and United Airlines; additional donors include Ameriprise Financial and JMCMRJ Sorrell Foundation.

Create Justice is supported, in part, by an anonymous donor.

The Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, meanwhile, lists the Annenberg Foundation, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, and the Weingart Foundation among its many "Contributing Partners." If the latter funder rings a bell, it's not a coincidence—Weingart recently revamped its grantmaking to focus more on combating inequality.

And so the Create Justice initiative contains many of the common themes currently permeating the arts philanthropy space, namely legacy institutions partnering with socially focused upstarts and funders embracing the arts as a means for driving social change.

I'd like to drill a bit deeper into two additional areas of overlap: the initiative's focus on disenfranchised audiences and the issue of incarceration.

Funders seem united in a desire to transform the static, observational arts experience into one that is immersive, reciprocal, and engages diverse audiences. The Create Justice initiative fits neatly into this model. "The arts are about inclusion, connection and community,” said Sarah Johnson, director of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. “We have seen firsthand the transformative power of the arts in the lives of youth involved in our programs."

Similarly, the Lincoln Center Cultural Innovation Fund aims to boost participation in, cultural opportunities in the diverse neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx. And 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." 

It's worth noting that "legacy" institutions aren't new to this game. Lincoln, for example, has been tackling socio-economic concerns since 1975, when it established its education arm. But with Carnegie, Lincoln, and the Met all signing on to new initiatives across the past six months, there's a palpable sense of momentum at play. Things are clearly picking up across the larger "legacy" space as a whole.

Also consider the consensus-driven social problem that lies at the heart of Create Justice, youth incarceration. "As a nation that values our young people, there’s too much at stake to not consider creative solutions that forge a more positive path for our kids," said Johnson. 

Indeed, given the Ford Foundation's Art for Justice Initiative, plus the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's Artist as Activist program, the issue of incarceration as a whole has emerged as an area of common ground for large and small arts funders. 

Kaile Shilling, executive director of Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, hits on this convergence, noting, “It’s quite radical that both venerable and grassroots arts organizations across the country are addressing youth justice issues as part of their core mission."

The reasons for this convergence aren't hard to see. Mass incarceration has reached epidemic proportions. Indeed, it isn't very often you see the Koch Brothers and the ACLU agreeing on an issue. The Carnegie press release notes that while youth incarceration rates have declined by almost 50 percent since 2003, the U.S. still incarcerates more children than any other nation, with a youth incarceration rate five times that of the next-highest country. In an arts philanthropy climate where funders want to address pressing social issues, linking up the arts with criminal justice reform seems like an obvious move. 

Which brings me back to the role of legacy institutions.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Laura Callanan, the founder of Upstart Co-Lab, about social entrepreneurship and impact investing in the arts, and we hit upon this idea that legacy institutions need to adapt in order to stay relevant in a socially focused funding climate. 

"A lot of legacy companies... have figured out that they cannot innovate so easily within," she said, and the same can be said for large legacy institutions. One possible solution for such institutions, she argued, is to "invest in venture capital funds and keep a watchful eye on where the really fresh ideas are being hatched—from entrepreneurs, inside start-up companies."

Recent news out of New York isn't too far off the mark. Rather than innovate from within, the 126-year-old Carnegie Hall partnered with the far younger Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network around an area that's attracting widespread concern, proving that when it comes to addressing pressing social challenges, legacy institutions are meeting on the start-up's turf, and not the other way around.