Takeaways From a Campus Gift That Marries Fine Art and Creative Writing

Northwestern. Credit:  Eugene Moerman/shutterstock

Northwestern. Credit:  Eugene Moerman/shutterstock

A recent post surveying the arts writing landscape found a surprisingly robust field filled with funders ranging from stalwarts like Creative Capital and the Andy Warhol Foundation to new entrants like the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

One of the reasons foundations are bullish on arts writing is because it provides students with an alternate career path beyond the conventional teaching, administrative, and "starving artist" track. Now comes news that this reasoning is resonating with individual donors.

Northwestern University alumna Jennifer Leischner Litowitz ’91 and her husband, Alec Litowitz, made a gift of up to $10 million to Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences to create a joint Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and Master of Arts in English degree program. The Litowitz Creative Writing Graduate Program, which merges "the artistic training of the M.F.A. curriculum" and "critical thinking generated by the work toward the M.A.," will be the "first program of its kind at a top-tier university," according to the school.

The program will position M.F.A.-M.A. students "alongside the thriving undergraduate creative writing community at Northwestern" and provide undergraduates with the opportunity to "work with graduate students as members of the same literary community."

Here's why I find this approach to be particularly intriguing.

Get Them While They're Young

Scan recent gifts in the arts writing space and you'll find that most funding, like the Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant Program, flows to established arts writers. And while the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation's Rabkin Award broadens the applicant pool by considering writers working in the public media—as opposed to the academic press—it nonetheless recognizes professional writers with published work.

The Litowitz Creative Writing Graduate Program, on the other hand, gets budding writers while they're young. (The philanthropy buzzword here is "intervention point.") And while the program isn't exclusively devoted to cultivating visual arts writers per se, it certainly gives students a leg up, not only through its interdisciplinary curricula, but by providing practical, real-world experience.

To the latter point, Northwestern’s TriQuarterly magazine, founded in 1964, and TriQuarterly.org, launched in 2010, will provide hands-on editorial experience for the M.F.A.-M.A. students, preparing them for careers as editors and managing editors of prominent literary journals.

The school's verbiage should comfort reluctant parents: The program will "expand students’ skills and employment prospects with a shorter path to completion than a Ph.D. in creative writing." 

Add it all up, and the gift is the latest example of donors embracing the real-world benefits of a liberal arts education. There's no longer any debate, really: A liberal arts education fosters better scientists, doctors, and, hey, maybe even hedge fund managers.

The Hedge Fund Connection

Alec Litowitz is founder and CEO of the Evanston, Illinois-based hedge fund Magnetar Capital LLC. A private company, it has roughly $14 billion in assets under management. Litowitz holds a J.D. and an M.B.A from the University of Chicago and a B.S. degree in Mathematics and Anthropology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jennifer Leischner Litowitz, meanwhile, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences with a bachelor of arts degree in English literature in 1991.

As noted in our funder profile, the couple moves their philanthropy through the Litowitz Family Foundation. Giving focuses on human services, arts and culture, and education and youth, mainly in the Chicago area.  

The couple's recent gift to the Evanston-based Northwestern comes on the heels of previous support for the university’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and other areas.

The new Litowitz gift backs an underrepresented and somewhat novel corner of the liberal arts field. We don't see many gifts merging the fine arts with creative writing, regardless of the donor's background. (That said, Litowitz isn't the only financier with a soft spot for the university arts experience. A few months back, Steve Zide, senior advisor of private equity at Bain Capital, made a $10 million naming gift to Boston University's new theater complex.)

The idea that hedge fund managers would support the liberal arts may seem, at least on the surface, counter-intuitive. After all, the finance world is built on data and metrics, and if we're to believe conventional wisdom, the "arts experience" is notoriously unquantifiable. One financier particularly smitten by data is Alec Litowitz, who famously helped to spearhead a six-year, billion-dollar quantitative effort to optimize Magnetar Capital's investment strategies.

On the other hand, it's hard to dispute the intuitive value of a liberal arts education and the "arts experience." And it's worth noting that quite a few of the people in finance went to liberal arts schools and majored in subjects like history and political science—or even English. Bruce Kovner is a great example; he spent time at Juilliard before eventually find his way to finance and becoming a billionaire. 

A Growing Niche Field and the Power of the Patron

As noted in my survey of the large arts writing space, demand is surging, thanks to the contemporary art boom. Meanwhile, some funders are creating demand even when it's not immediately apparent: Last year, various foundations banded together to pay the salary of a Boston Globe music critic for 10 months.

And institutional funders in this space continue to pump out grants. Last December, the Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant Program awarded $695,000 to 20 writers in amounts ranging from $15,000 to $50,000. The total funding represented a 12 percent increase over its 2013 cycle.

But major donors can often write the kinds of big checks that don't come from foundations. The Litowitzes' gift provides support for the director of the new creative writing program, as well as staff, graduate fellows, visiting professors, conferences and travel expenses, special events and other activities, and will also expand the study of drama, film, music, art and dance at Northwestern.

The gift is also roughly 14 times the size of Warhol/Creative Capital's latest grant cycle.

Much like our oft-repeated tidbit that Steve Cohen has more money than all but three of the largest foundations in the United States, the contrast here underscores how individual donors can edify—and in some cases, rapidly eclipse—an institutional foundation's multi-year investment with the stroke of a pen.

The gift also points to the growing influence of alumni donors bearing mega-gifts in the higher university landscape where giving at the middle of the "gift pyramid" has lagged.