Big Fish, Big Pond: A Look at Some Recent Annenberg Arts Grantmaking

 photo:  Jerome Obille/shuttterstock

photo:  Jerome Obille/shuttterstock

This summer, I've come across two interesting items in the visual arts space, both involving the Annenberg Foundation.  

The first found Annenberg awarding $300,000 last month to a Seattle-based arts nonprofit called Amplifier to launch an art-driven protest campaign to "save democracy." Second, the foundation awarded Los Angeles' Music Center a $3 million grant to advance arts education.

Given the fact that Annenberg is looking for collaborative solutions to complex problems, its support of the arts as a vehicle for social change and arts education makes perfect sense. Annenberg is certainly dialed into the big trends permeating the arts philanthropy landscape at the moment.

But regional context is important too. Annenberg operates in what many consider the country's most vibrant arts region, and I'd argue that a closer look of its giving in relation to its Southern Californian peers can also be instructive.

The Los Angeles philanthropic scene is booming. Expansion brings segmentation, and with it, greater specialization. Consider what's happening in the Southern California visual arts space. The Davyd Whaley Foundation opened its doors last year to support an "over-looked gap in LA's art philanthropy," namely direct support for individual artists. And the Mike Kelley Foundation has been ramping up its efforts to support small arts organizations in LA.

If these developments find funders drilling down into specific arts niches, Annenberg is instead going in the opposite direction, expanding its purview and in the process, fortifying itself as an important center of gravity—arts-related and otherwise.

Back in March, it launched AnnenbergTech, a new initiative to link the city's vibrant and growing tech sectors with local nonprofits. The ultimate goal here is to advance social change through "innovative approaches through collective action by a cross-section of stakeholders, rather than isolated efforts by single organizations."

This context is helpful in considering Annenberg's recent arts gives. Consider its support to Amplifier. The organization's mission is to "function as a vehicle for social change, cultivating collaborations with various artists and movements in order to 'amplify' their messages."  

Similarly, Annenberg has provided support for LA's Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network. The network recently partnered with Carnegie Hall to launch a national initiative focused on the "intersection of arts and youth justice."

Meanwhile, its three-year grant to the Music Center will be used to create a new initiative called the Annenberg Next Generation Arts Education Program. According to the center, the program is designed to “motivate students to think creatively encouraging them to be innovative thinkers who are prepared to work strategically in today’s global economy."

I'd argue that this isn't your typical arts education give. As repeatedly noted here on IP, with arts education once again on the chopping block, more work is needed to expand the body of evidence illustrating its benefits. The Music Center's strategy of linking arts education kids' subsequently success in the "global economy" is both unique and badly needed.

Again, these gifts are aligned with the current arts philanthropy zeitgeist. But Annenberg has no plans on being pigeonholed. It retains a penchant for more conventional and naming gifts in the museum world and supporting organizations such as the LA Opera company, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the LA County Museum of Natural History Foundation. 

Bottom line here? With total assets last valued at $1.66 billion, Annenberg won't be abandoning conventional organizations anytime soon. That said, arts organizations should be aware of changes afoot. This is a funder that seems to have an increased interest in collaborative projects that advance social change in its home state and beyond.