Embrace Change: A Funder Guides Arts Organizations to Work Differently

 Romolo Tavani/shutterstoc

Romolo Tavani/shutterstoc

The last time we checked in on the Barr Foundation, the regional funder had announced a new series of grants aimed at strengthening the field of journalism.

Given the fact that Barr is known for its focus on education, the arts, and climate change—mainly with support for Boston area nonprofits—its foray into uncharted waters on a somewhat national scale was another intriguing byproduct of the “Trump Bump” coursing through the journalism funding landscape.

More recent news finds the Barr Foundation making a big move in the arts, one that's also in sync with some important currents of the moment. 

Barr announced the launch of its Arts Amplified initiative, a $30 million, six-year capacity building effort focused on "powerful art and bold leadership by Massachusetts arts organizations to create more vibrant communities." The initiative’s 15 partners will "explore the confluence" of four concepts that Barr considers vital to the future of arts organizations—artistic excellence, relevance, risk-taking and civic leadership. 

While I encourage you to click here for Barr’s definition of each term, I’d like to call out one concept in particular, “relevance."

"Relevant art," according to Barr, is "cognizant of social, political, and cultural contexts—it speaks to people by addressing their realities, hopes, and fears." Participating organizations like Jacob's Pillow, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Huntington Theatre Company are "unafraid to question cultural orthodoxy" and "consider contemporary issues to be important content for their programming."

Barr’s online press release also included a video of E. San San Wong, director of Barr's Arts & Creativity portfolio, expounding on "the importance of art that addresses contemporary issues."

Sound familiar? It should.

Connecting art and social change is the hottest issue in arts philanthropy at the moment. Funders can’t agree on much, but there’s a growing view that the arts should benefit society. This outlook manifests itself in many forms.

Patron Shelley Frost Rubin, through her philanthropic vehicle A Blade of Grass, has been funding socially engaged artists since 2011. Meanwhile, institutional heavyweights like the Knight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies have supported creative placemaking and public art projects to strengthen communities. And more recently, collector Agnes Gund and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation have turned to the arts to reduce the U.S. prison population

Conceptually speaking, embracing the view that the arts should be a means for positive social change is easy enough. The hard part comes when organizations—particularly established museums or less nimble "highbrow" outfits—recognize the need to engage more on social concerns, but lack a playbook for successfully making the pivot. Where should they start? What is the proper level of risk tolerance? How does proposed programming—to use Barr’s definition of "relevance"—acknowledge "social, political, and cultural contexts?"

Herein lies the value of Barr’s Arts Amplified initiative. 

The first year of the initiative will find organizations assessing their strengths and weaknesses. With assistance from consulting firm TDC, participants will work with Barr to co-design strategies and "expected outputs," while engaged in an "ongoing conversation anchored in the notions of excellence, relevance, risk-taking and civic leadership." Moving forward, Barr will remain an "active learner" alongside all participants, supporting the 15 organizations with risk capital as they experiment and evolve.

The initiative marks the latest development in the Barr Foundation's evolution from an anonymous giving operation to an increasingly sophisticated and influential foundation.

A few years ago, the foundation undertook a major strategic refresh. According to president Jim Canales, stakeholders asked, "Where can Barr have the greatest impact over the next seven to 10 years?" Stakeholders sought to create impact across Barr's three main interest areas of the arts, education, and climate change.

As result of the exercise, Barr's newly-named Arts & Creativity program homed in on three strategies to "engage and inspire a dynamic, thriving Massachusetts." They included "advancing the field’s capacity to adapt, to take risks, and to engage changing audiences in new ways; fostering opportunities to connect the arts to other disciplines and sectors; and activating public support for the arts."

Soon after, IP's David Callahan spoke to Canales for further context. There were two main takeaways from their conversation. First, no seismic changes were on the horizon; Canales reaffirmed the foundation's three core issue areas. Second, Canales put the region's collective mind at ease. Barr’s "commitment to Boston won’t diminish in any significant way," he said.

By allocating $30 million to help 15 Massachusetts-based organizations "amplify arts' impact," Barr hasn't deviated from the script. But while it's sticking to a general plan, it also seems intent on raising the bar for its grantmaking and staying on its toes in a turbulent moment. "Unless we're questioning what's happening now," said E. San San Wong, "then we're not actually moving forward as a society."