"New and Meaningful Connections." A Legacy Institution Taps Artists Committed to Social Change

photo:  Susanne Pommer/shutterstock

photo:  Susanne Pommer/shutterstock

Last year, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, in partnership with the Met, NYU, and 19 New York City organizations, launched a $6 million program to explore how arts-based organizations can serve as "positive, relevant and inspiring forces in the daily lives of diverse communities."

Commenting on the partnership, Dorian Burton, assistant executive director of the Kenan Trust, summarized the prevailing donor sentiment accordingly: "Philanthropic efforts in the arts must make a fundamental shift from charitable gifts that exclude to justice-oriented giving that creates equitable access for all."

The trust recently announced the lead component in this initiative, the Civic Practice Partnership. Through this "collaborative residency program for New York artists committed to social change," choreographer and performance artist Rashida Bumbray and multimedia visual artist Miguel Luciano will work with the Met to develop and implement "vital, ambitious collaborations" between the museum and their geographic communities of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and East Harlem, respectively.

An additional component of the initiative, the Civic Practice Seminar, will engage a group of individuals who work in cultural fields in a five-month experiential learning program. 

It's yet another example of funders supporting "legacy" institutions that use the arts to address social challenges, boost access across historically underserved populations, and, to quote Burton, give "creative voice to individuals to combat broken systems while building bridges across lines of difference."

Like all developments in the complex world of modern arts philanthropy, further context is required. Therefore, I'd first like to step back and explore the challenges facing legacy institutions in the current arts philanthropy climate.

Legacy Institutions at the Crossroads

As previously noted, legacy institutions are having a collective identity crisis. Stung by costly capital projects and beholden to a classical 19th-century model, many institutions find themselves playing catch-up to their nimbler competitors.

Consider recent drama involving the Met. Last year, the museum shelved plans for a $600 million southwest wing dedicated to modern and contemporary art and instead focus on replacing the skylights and roofing system above its European paintings galleries. 

Capital projects, of course, are always hard, but in a philanthropic landscape where funders have pivoted toward equity issues, they're getting even harder. Optics matter. Why, detractors argue, given the pressing challenges facing the city's underserved communities and arts organizations of color, are museums, sitting on multi-billion-dollar endowments, embarking on $600 million renovations in the first place?

The Met, of course, can provide an intelligent answer to that question. But it will be a difficult argument to make given funders' growing interest in "justice-oriented" arts giving (to quote Burton again).

Indeed, this line of thinking has also made its way to the office of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. Last year, his administration began a review of the city's $178 million arts budget with the goal of providing additional funding to smaller institutions in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emeritus of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was blunt: "What is needed is more money—there is simply not enough."

A recent piece by Adrian Ellis in Apollo magazine lays out the fundamental challenge facing legacy institutions.

"Many of the more established national foundations—Ford, Rockefeller, Pew, Gates, etc.," Ellis wrote, "are edging politely but firmly away from what they now call 'legacy' institutions that cannot demonstrate a significant contribution to solving or soothing specific social or economic traumas."

This isn't to say legacy institutions are blind to "social or economic traumas." In fact, many have been ahead of the curve. The Lincoln Center, for example, has been in this game for decades, going back to 1975, when it created its education arm. And it's been pulling in grants for such work ever since, most notably a $4 million grant last year from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.

Nonetheless, Ellis' statement rings true. Legacy art institutions have been swept up in the larger anti-inequality push sweeping modern philanthropy. As such, they need to justify their existence by framing the arts as a means to address pressing social concerns. 

It all sounds reasonable in theory. But what's a lumbering and antiquated legacy institution to do in practice?

For an answer—which foreshadows the Met's new Civic Practice Partnership—let us turn to my chat with Laura Callanan a while back, founder of Upstart Co-Lab, a nonprofit that seeks to create "opportunities for artist innovators to deliver social impact at scale."

Commenting on the organizational factors that can hamstring a legacy institution's ability to pivot towards socially-focused arts programming, Callanan said:

A lot of legacy companies—not arts organizations but for-profit companies in all kinds of industries—have figured out that they cannot innovate so easily within. So they start or invest in venture capital funds and keep a watchful eye on where the really fresh ideas are being hatched—from entrepreneurs, inside start-up companies. This might be an idea for the large cultural institutions.

Sure enough, the Civic Practice Partnership follows this exact roadmap by looking outside the four walls of the Met to tap the expertise of socially focused artists with strong connections to historically underrepresented neighborhoods.

Callanan's comment also prompted me to ask if we'd start to see "places like the Met putting up seed funding for fledgling artist outfits in places like Bushwick." Turns out the hypothesis wasn't too far off the mark, as the Met's new Civic Practice Partnership focuses on Bedford-Stuyvesant and East Harlem.

Affecting "Systematic Change"

Now that we've surveyed the state of affairs from the perspective of legacy institutions, I'd like to look at the funding side of the equation. 

A cadre of niche funders have been exploring the connections between the arts and social justice for quite some time. These funders have typically supported individual artists and nimbler, more socially focused upstarts, rather than legacy institutions. 

Seven years ago, Shelley Frost Rubin founded A Blade of Grass to "better understand how artists can illuminate and engage with social issues, expand the relationship between art and life, and build new audiences." A year later, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation launched its Artist as Activist program, which now focuses solely on projects that "address the intersections between race, class and mass incarceration." 

Then came the Ford Foundation's 2015 pivot to exclusivley "combating inequality in all its forms," including through its arts funding. Consciously or otherwise, other funders soon followed Ford's lead. In the process, some, like the Irvine Foundation, placed the arts on the backburner.

On the other hand, some foundations took the opposite approach, integrating the arts into a revamped strategy focused on social equity issues. The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust is a case in point. 

The North Carolina-based funder, which was founded in 1966 and made $28 million in grants in a recent fiscal year, has traditionally kept a low profile, focusing on higher education. The foundation funds projects in four states: Florida, Kentucky, New York and North Carolina.

A cursory survey of its previous arts philanthropy, like a $5 million gift to fund renovations to the University of North Carolina at the Chapel Hill music department's performance hall, provides few clues to its subsequent work in New York City. It's only when considering the trust's recent strategic shift that the latest developments come into sharper focus.

Last year, the trust joined a growing number of funders giving attention to racial equity issues by investing $5 million in Louisville, Kentucky, to support work with young black men touched by community violence. The initiative is one of three "portfolios" listed in its 2017 annual report. No. 2 is a rural health initiative based in Kentucky. No. 3 is its NYC Arts Collaborative.

“The common denominator in these pilot projects is determining if, and how, systematic change can be affected," the report read. As for the NYC Arts Collaborative, the report said, "At a time in the country’s history where issues of race, class, gender, power, and privilege are more contentious than ever before, the arts provide a powerful vehicle for reflecting on and responding to these currents."

Leveraging Institutional Assets

All of which brings me to the final takeaway from Kenan's support for the Met's Civic Practice Partnership and Civic Practice Seminar.

For all the talk of legacy institutions as calcified, red tape-strewn dinosaurs, they actually bring a lot to the table—like big audiences, decades of strong relationships, a wealth of in-house talent, and fine-tuned programs.

"The Met not only serves as a space for creativity and inspiration, it also has a deep commitment to generate new and meaningful connections directly in our New York City ecosystem of neighborhoods," said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the Met's Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education.

The Kenan Trust clearly agreed. Nor are they alone.

The Rockefeller Foundation recently funded the Lincoln Center Cultural Innovation Fund, which "encourages innovative strategies to catalyze greater access to, and participation in, cultural opportunities in the diverse neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx."

Commenting on the latter gift, Rajiv J. Shah, foundation president said, "cultural innovation has the power to energize and advance our communities. But to innovate requires resources and support—and that’s where the Rockefeller Foundation and Lincoln Center come in."

It's also worth repeating that, as cynical as it may sound, in a politically charged, anti-inequality era, legacy institutions need to be aware of optics. This is why so many people were angered by the Met's new admission policy earlier this year. Why erect financial barriers to access for the people who can least afford it? How does the policy, to quote the Kenan Trust's Dr. Dorian Burton, create "equitable access for all?"

It seems rather counter-productive.