If only there were a futures market in the arrogance of foundation presidents, I would have broken the bank this week.
On Sunday, the New York Times ran an article about the changes major foundations are making to keep up with Bill Gates’ mega-philanthropy. In it, the Rockefeller Foundation’s new president dismisses all that came before her in order to aggrandize her own contributions, which include eliminating the most far-sighted and useful cultural funding division ever maintained by a major American foundation:
One program Dr. Rodin pointed to as an example of the shift at the foundation was its status as an underwriter of Spike Lee’s documentary on New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke.” The foundation has used the film to create 20- to 30-minute DVDs on poverty in America, part of a curriculum developed by Teachers College at Columbia to teach high school and college students.
“Maybe our creativity and culture program would have thought about funding a Spike Lee movie, but I doubt it,” Dr. Rodin said, referring to the arts program she eliminated. “We didn’t really have an education program that would have thought to create these materials. It was only because we’re constructing initiatives now that we can do this kind of thing.”
I’m not a huge fan of foundations. Ideally, I think it is better to tax the rich and use the public sector to redistribute funds for the public good. A lot of private money is awarded—which has the effect of reducing tax revenues because of our laws on tax-deductibility—to silly projects or irrelevant ego-boosters. But given the current nature of our society and government, in practice, private philanthropy often does more than public to make a difference, and when it does, I honor that contribution.
You can go way back in philanthropic history to see Rockefeller’s footprint—sometimes clumsy, sometimes nimble—on American culture. A half-century ago, Robert Gard’s pioneering work in community cultural development and his 1955 classic book Grassroots Theater were rooted in a Rockefeller grant. From my perspective, Rockefeller’s main achievement in the last quarter-century was to come out early and strongly for cultural equity, making a huge legitimizing statement by supporting artists of color and other diverse characteristics before the term “multicultural” had even become common.
Too bad Dr. Rodin hasn’t read her own foundation archives. There are too many important media makers supported by the Rockefeller Foundation to list here, so I’ll just mention a few in the early years: in 1988, Mexican American filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, Hopi filmmaker Victor Masayesva, Jr., and African American filmmaker Charles Burnett; in 1989, the late, great Marlon Riggs (who did so much to break barriers and was so bitterly vilified for it by the right) and Chris Choy, one of the pioneers of Asian American cinema; in 1992, Native American filmmakers James Luna and Chris Spotted Eagle and Iranian American filmmaker Simin Farkhondeh. And so it goes, for over 400 names of comparable diversity, as well as consistent support for many types of accompanying educational material for curriculum and community use.
The list for its performing arts grants is equally impressive, from 1992 support to Bill T. Jones’ work on AIDS to 1993 support for Repertorio Espanol and 1994 support for a collaboration between Roadside Theater, based in Appalachia, and New Mexico-based Zuni-language theater Idiwanan An Chawe.
Ours is a time, to borrow Carlos Fuentes wonderful expression I love to quote, of “cultures as the protagonists of history.” Old-paradigm thinkers like Dr. Rodin, who haven’t grasped this astounding fact of history in the making, parade their ignorance, believing it to be some sort of wisdom. What a shame and disgrace that a philanthropy which has done so much good should now be led in this fashion!
More than ten years ago, I published an essay on philanthropy, “Let Them Eat Pie: Philanthropy a la Mode,” in Tikkun magazine. This was an “emperor’s new clothes” treatment of the foundation world, and because it was so rare to see foundations’ nakedness exposed, the essay created a sensation. It is still probably the most widely reprinted thing I ever wrote: “Let Them Eat Pie” was published in just about every philanthropy newsletter and shared like samizdat by just about every progressive foundation staffer around.
At the time, my husband and I were consulting partners, working mainly with cultural organizations and funders. Before I submitted the essay for publication, I shared the text with a few friends who knew the field. Without exception, they warned me against publishing it. “You’ll never eat lunch at a foundation again,” they said. I thought that was a price I could afford to pay. I gritted my teeth and prepared to be excoriated.
But what actually happened is this: a few weeks after the piece ran, we got a call from a program officer at the Rockefeller Foundation, someone we’d known for several years. “That was an interesting essay Arlene wrote,” she told my husband. “How would you two like to evaluate some of our programs?” That was a huge learning for me: I saw that my friends had internalized a sense of foundations’ power that led to intimidating and silencing themselves, corroborating the assertion that self-censorship is our most widely practiced social policy.
Still, I tortured myself a bit over the question of motive. Did Rockefeller want us because we had a reputation for excellence? Because we’d staked out a claim to honesty? Because it would make them look good to invite critics into their house? Because of that old mafia saying, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?” In the end, we secured the foundation’s commitment not to censor our work—a commitment that was consistently honored—and plunged ahead.
Over several years, we evaluated most of Rockefeller’s arts programs, conducting highly participatory research that yielded a wide view of what was working and what needed work in each area. And as we reviewed mountains of reportage and documentation, this much came clear: that although money doesn’t create culture, money strategically invested can help midwife the birth of a new cultural paradigm. By no stretch of the imagination did Rockefeller funding create the dawning realization that we have entered a new era, when cultures—rather than kings, armies or economies—are the force that drives history. By no stretch did Rockefeller funding bring about the realization of the essential equality of cultures, nor of diversity as our greatest asset, rather than our greatest problem. But the foundation—or more correctly, the strong-willed and acute individuals who filled certain roles in its cultural programs—made a huge difference in helping those realizations to surface and take visible shape.
It’s good to evaluate and revise when change is needed. Like every major foundation, Rockefeller has made expensive mistakes. (Some of which it blithely stands behind, despite costs that dwarf its entire investment in cultural funding. Just read a little grassroots commentary on Rockefeller’s “golden rice” genetic engineering investment to learn how far well-funded hubris can sink.) But when visionary, ethical and committed program officers were given some scope to invest in culture, the foundation was widely respected and hugely influential, and the ripple effect reached far and wide.
One of those evaluations we produced focused on community cultural development. The aforementioned program officers decided to invest in turning it into a book that could be of use to the field. That volume became one of the most widely used texts in academic and community programs across the country. I wouldn’t claim that a single book can create a cultural shift, but that volume and the other work people were doing to document and deepen this field of practice unquestionably had an effect; for one indicator, consider that there were no U.S.-based academic programs in community cultural development when we conducted that evaluation, and now they are springing up everywhere like mushrooms. When it went out of print, New Village Press commissioned me to create a new book incorporating the same foundational material and adding just as much in new topics, stories and resources. When you read what people have had to say about New Creative Community, remember that the Rockefeller Foundation planted the seed to make this work possible.
You might want to drop the New York Times a line too.