As Hopes Rise for Criminal Justice Reform, This Fund Keeps the Grants Flowing

photo: corgarashu/shutterstock

photo: corgarashu/shutterstock

Over the summer, I spoke with Helena Huang, project director for the Art for Justice Fund, the $100 million initiative launched by the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund.

Huang laid out the fund’s overarching goal accordingly: “Changing public policy lies at the very heart of our strategies to end mass incarceration.”

A few months later, in mid-November, President Trump announced his support for bipartisan legislation, dubbed the First Step Act, that would loosen sentencing laws. Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that the “endorsement of federal criminal justice reform legislation by President Trump is a modern-day ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment.”

The bill’s trajectory represents an encouraging—and incredibly rare—instance in which the priorities of philanthropists and politicians of both parties overlap. While the role played here by major funders like the Arnold and Koch foundations is well known, there’s been less attention to work by arts funders like the Art for Justice Fund and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to end mass incarceration.

Recently, the Art for Justice fund announced its cohort of fall 2018 grantees that share “a common goal of reforming and shifting the narrative around America’s criminal justice system through the transformative power of art.”

Grantees include the Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Youth, a new network working to eliminate the sentencing of young people to die in prison, and Mural Arts, a leader in innovative public art projects based in Philadelphia that will launch the “Art for Justice Hub.” A full list of grantees can be found here.

“From advocates to artists, storytellers to policy experts, each of our grantees is helping to dismantle an unjust system and culture that preys on vulnerable communities,” Gund said.  

Time is of the Essence

The new cohort caps an incredibly busy stretch for the fund, which launched in the summer of 2017.

In its first round of grantmaking, the fund allocated $22 million to 30 criminal justice reform groups and education and arts initiatives, with a focus on literary organizations such as writers’ workshops and theater groups. The next round, announced in late June of 2018, emphasized support for women and children.

Since its inception, the fund has awarded over $40 million to over 100 grantees. That’s a lot of money in a short amount of time for an arts initiative, which is exactly how the fund’s architects envisioned it. As a time-limited five-year fund, Art for Justice aims to “disrupt the main drivers of high prison populations,” according to Huang.

In a landscape in which we’re conditioned to expect new philanthropic funds to exist more or less for perpetuity, Art for Justice’s limited timeframe underscores the time-urgent sense of opportunity around criminal justice reform, a point Huang made while commenting on this latest cohort: “We are at a unique moment in time to drive meaningful, long-term change. This is why the Art for Justice Fund exists: to support the work of artists and advocates to seize this moment and accelerate the movement.”

Key Components

Funder interest in using the arts to drive social change is hardly new, but it’s exploded in recent years. Still, the Art for Justice Fund stands out, and it’s worth stepping back to consider what makes the fund unique and the degree to which its design has contributed to its success thus far.

The first key component is obvious: money. Lots of it. Gund seeded the fund with proceeds from her sale of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Masterpiece” to Steven A. Cohen for $165 million.

The second key component is the involvement of the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. As the Bridgespan Group has pointed out, individual donors tend to lack the infrastructure, relationships and expertise needed to make “big bets” to drive social change. Gund’s partnership with Ford and RPA altered this equation. Its strong framework—with a focus on public policy and clear metrics of success—explain why nearly 30 additional donors contributed to the fund after its inaugural round of grantmaking.

Zooming in further, according to the fund's press release, grantees “supported the successful effort to automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions in their past in Florida.” The fund also supported the Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative, known as Issue 1, in Ohio, which would, among other things, defelonize drug possession. The initiative received financial support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center, and the Open Philanthropy Project. While this effort fell short, the victory in Florida was truly significant, paving the way for the re-enfranchisement of 1.4 million residents with criminal records in that state.

Meanwhile, the stars have rarely been so well aligned in Washington, D.C., for criminal justice reform, although at the time of this writing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t commit to a floor vote for the First Step Act. The Washington Post reported that it was unclear if the bill’s proponents had the votes.

It isn’t easy for Republicans and Democrats to agree on anything these days. But by focusing on mass incarceration, the Art for Justice fund is attacking a problem where there’s been growing political consensus.

It probably wasn’t easy for Agnes Gund to part with “Masterpiece,” but her timing could hardly have been better. Among other things, this is a compelling story about vast wealth sitting on the sidelines of social change—in some cases, literally hanging on the walls of Park Avenue apartments—that can have a real world impact if deployed with intelligence and urgency.