Funders Move to Level the Playing Field for Arts Groups

Should an obscure muralist be just as eligible for a grant as a high profile dance troupe or a popular musical ensemble? And should a community group from the Dominican Republic be able to find as much support as one from Japan or a Native American tribe?

A group of diverse and influential arts funders in New York City thinks so and it's pouring money into making it a reality. Five local foundations kicked in a combined total of nearly a million dollars to ensure that cultural groups of all sizes and in every borough are acknowledged for their contributions and can get support. 

“New York City’s arts landscape runs the gamut from youth muralists in East New York to traditional Indian dancers in Forest Hills to major tourist attractions in Manhattan,” said Kerry McCarthy, NYCT’s Program Officer for Arts & Historic Preservation.

The Booth Ferris Foundation, the Lambent Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the New York Community Trust, and the David Rockefeller Fund are the powerhouses behind this funding and they’re encouraging other donors to join as well.

But this new initiative isn’t just about promoting arts and culture in New York City. There are plenty of other high-profile foundations funding such programs all the time. Equity is at the heart of this new five-foundation collaboration. And the NYC Cultural Agenda Fund falls in line with Mayor de Blasio’s commitment of making the city more equal.

Equity has been a big part of the Mayor’s strategy for New York City, perhaps most obviously in the city’s park system. Mayor de Blasio and Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver recently launched a $130 million Community Parks Initiative to invest in 35 under-resourced public parks located in New York City’s densely populated and growing neighborhoods with higher-than-average concentrations of poverty.

It's no surprise that city leaders and top funders are also thinking about equity in the city's cultural scene. 

One of the main goals of the new fund is to take arts and culture groups a step beyond their performances, exhibitions, and publications. The hope is that by strengthening cultural programs, cultural groups will begin working together in other areas of social support, such as youth development and affordable housing. By touching on these larger issues, perhaps more opportunities for a wider range of funding will open up as well.

The foundations that have joined forces make an interesting combination as well. The New York Community Trust is the obvious elephant in the room. And practically no collaboration in New York is complete without the name “Rockefeller” thrown in.

The $207+ million Booth Ferris Foundation is a New York City-specific funder of the arts, K-12 education and civic affairs. The Lambent Foundation emerged from the past philanthropic work of the Starry Night Fund, which was founded in 2002 as a donor-advised fund. Since then, the progressive funder has invested in social justice endeavors for arts and culture, women and girls, racial justice, human rights and progressive movement building in New York City, New Orleans, and Nairobi. Robert Rauschenberg was a celebrated artist in the 1940s and 1950s, and his foundation fosters his philosophy that art can change the world.

The NYC Cultural Agenda Fund is expected to make grants of more than $700,000 over the next 18 months. The foundations began meeting with advocates and arts and culture leaders in the community several weeks ago and grant will begin rolling out before the end of the year.