A Friend Indeed: What This Foundation's Giving Says About the Future of Arts Philanthropy

When you consider that private philanthropy is coming to play a greater role in civic life as strapped government agencies cut back, you might tend to think about mega-givers stepping forward with ambitious plans for public education or to build new public parks. Yet the arts is another field where private funders have come to loom larger in recent years—and that may increase in the future if the Trump administration succeeds in its quest to drastically cut or eliminate federal arts funding. 

But it's not just billionaire arts donors who are becoming more critical to sustaining the arts. It's also institutional funders, with some of those donors backing things that don't appeal to today's emerging philanthropists. 

Consider the ever-expanding role of the Shubert Foundation in the dance and theater fields.

In its 2014 grant cycle, the foundation doled out $22.5 million to over 200 nonprofit theater companies and over two dozen dance organizations. In 2015, it upped its payout to $24 million to 288 organizations, while in 2016, the total rose to $25.6 million to 506 organizations.

Continuing this trend, 2017's grant cycle finds the foundation awarding a record total of $26.8 million to 533 performing arts organizations across the United States. It marks the 37th consecutive year that the foundation has increased its giving. 

During that same period, NEA funding has drastically declined in real terms, and in some states like California, the drop in public funding for the arts has been even steeper. Shubert has not only become a more generous friend to those in the theater and dance space; it's become a more indispensable one.

But it's even more than that. 

For starters, Shubert's support is unrestricted, which is a rare and valuable thing. Also, the dance field in particular lacks the bountiful billionaire patrons that we're seeing more of in the visual arts and music fields. As a result, funders like Shubert play a disproportionately critical role.  

And as far as individual funding is concerned, the dance philanthropy space is dominated by a relatively small number of big givers who tend to focus pretty narrowly, missing organizations off the beaten path.

Elaine Wynn, Sanford I. Weill, Ronald O. Perelman, and Daria L. and Eric J. Wallach contributed to the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation's $25 million construction project. Jody and John Gottfried Arnhold, meanwhile, gave a $4.36 million gift to Teachers College at Columbia University with the goal of placing a certified dance teacher in every New York City public school. And Glorya Kaufman made a multimillion-dollar donation to create the Glorya Kaufman International Dance School at the University of Southern California.

These gifts are certainly impressive, but they obscure some inconvenient realities. The dance field lacks the broad individual donor base so critical to any robust nonprofit niche. And without grantmaking infrastructure, the handful of top individual donors in this space rarely allocate lots of smaller grants to groups across the country.  

And so we must frame Shubert's increasingly generous grantmaking within this context. It has carved out a niche for itself in a space that lacks robust private support, and the niche is expanding. 

The prognosis is a bit brighter in the theater space where we've seen a gradual expansion of the donor base. New York-centric patrons and alumni donors have been joined by newcomers like Qualcomm cofounder Dr. Andrew Viterbi, actress Diane Lane, and even a Powerball winner, one Roy Cockrum.

The Shubert Foundation has kept pace. Three years ago, it established the Shubert Scholars Program to provide scholarship assistance to students in graduate degree programs in theater arts. 

Shubert's record-breaking grantmaking may lack the fireworks of the big arts gifts we've reported in recent years, coming from a who's who of billionaires. But in some niches, especially dance, the influence of institutional funders like Shubert, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is enormous. And it's growing.