In New York for my book launch, I did some of the things I usually do: walked the streets endlessly on my way from one meeting to another, connected with old friends, wondered what exactly it says about “civilization” that we are increasingly expected to get along without public restrooms….
I walked crosstown from NYU with a friend who remarked on how quiet the parks were on that warm day. May 8th, Parks and Recreation regulations took effect that defined performers as vendors for purposes of restricting them to certain areas, requiring permits and invoking fines. It’s not clear how vigorously the regulations will be enforced: a short time before the new policy was to take effect, Manhattan Borough Commissioner William Castro of the Department of Parks and Recreation told performers not to worry. But—evidently remembering a 2011 crackdown that proved costly to them in both financial penalties and loss of liberty—many seem to be deciding not to test the waters.
The day before, a friend recounted a speech in which outgoing Ford Foundation President Luis Ubinas described a visit to his old neighborhood of Bushwick. Ubinas (whose tenure at Ford has been marked by an obsession with bricks-and-mortar that absorbed a lot of funding that had formerly gone to flesh-and-blood) listed all the things that had disappeared from once-familiar streets—a bodega there, a pool hall there, and so on. My friend said the audience of community activists and artists leaned forward in anticipation, expecting him to mourn the loss of culture and character. But they stopped nodding when Ubinas smiled and exclaimed at how “safe” the neighorhood had become.
As I travel around the country, I hear an unpredented number of complaints from community-based and socially conscious artists alarmed about the funding situation. It’s never been good: for a long time, common practice has been to focus on fairly short-term, project-oriented grants, in effect giving people enough resources to chase the next grant, but seldom enough to catch the kind of stability that must underpin a sustained and sustaining presence. The irony is thick, because the level and quality of activity are high: in New York, for instance, the artists and groups rising to the challenge of strengthening social fabric in the post-Hurricane Sandy period was truly impressive (listen to a podcast by Caron Atlas of Arts & Democracy for a vivid account). Every week brings news of another coalition or collective pooling of wisdom and resources despite the funding drought. But what you can’t do with ad hoc enthusiasm is nourish that sustained and sustaining presence we need. Instead, most of these efforts rise temporarily, blaze for a while, and fall quickly.
The situation—like the increasing constriction of public space—is rapidly devolving into another story of haves and have-nots. The lucky few these days have won generous ArtPlace grants for a variety of place-based projects: developing a particular stretch of real-estate as a cultural corridor, creating a festival, major public art installations, new cultural centers both temporary and permanent. ArtPlace’s main shtick is “creative placemaking,” which means many things to many people, but is generally defined as valuing artists’ and arts organizations’ place in making communities vibrant, both culturally and economically. Many of the grantees are well-respected, creative organizations. This year’s grants range from $33,000 to $750,000, with quite a few clustering around $200,000.
ArtPlace is the flagship initiative of former National Endowment for the Arts Chair Rocco Landesman in collaboration with the Ford Foundation under Ubinas, now joined by Bloomberg Philanthropies, The James Irvine Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The William Penn Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation, The Surdna Foundation, and two anonymous donors. There’s a loan fund underwritten by a bunch of banks, and a cluster of federal agencies are involved too (although the Endowment is the only source of significant federal dollars).
From many funders’ perspective this is a great thing: it demonstrates cooperation and common goals; it’s a big bang project, adding to donors’ glory by attracting tremendous attention; it enables very large grants relative to the arts funding field. Not incidentally, it insulates all the funders from exposure, since if a project fails, no single funder is tainted by it. And of course for the recipients, it’s a great thing too.
Most of the same qualities carry the opposite meaning for those who didn’t win this particular lottery: it draws funds to the scale of organization deemed able to absorb hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single project; and by consolidating decision-making, it effectively reduces diversity in grantmaking as well as the available funds for other types of projects, especially risky ones. By cocooning funders from making more independent and diverse choices, this kind of initiative influences the entire field to move in that direction: That felt good: what should we join hands on next?
People in New York pointed out that three of the biggest pools of money supporting community-based arts work there went on hiatus during the last year, shutting down applications while they pondered the future. Again, from many funders’ perspective this is a salubrious sign: reflection is good, they say, and it’s hard to argue with that general principle. But people who’d relied on those scarce pools of money to support vital work remarked that they hadn’t heard any reflection from those funders about the impact on the field of taking a pause at roughly the same time. I was told of impacts like this: groups that are widely considered to be effective and worthy trying to continue without a single significant grant in the course of an entire year.
What I hear about funders in other places that have taken similar breaks is that when they reopened applications, they were inundated. No surprise, with fewer and fewer funders out there as more of them quit the business; radically refocus on a new flavor of grantmaking; or become operating foundations (an occupational hazard in which frustration with making grant guidelines more and more prescriptive out of excessive confidence in their own way of seeing things leads to funding their own bright ideas rather than taking applications and hoping grantees will actualize them). Then the inundation tends to motivate them to pull the wagons in tighter. And so on.
A major reality of grantmaking in the U.S. is that funders tend to be big on self-examination, that guidelines and processes change fairly frequently, but that tracking grant recipients year after year shows a fairly consistent loyalty to what are sometimes called “client groups.” Their leaders are part of a program officer’s or executive’s inner circle, often socialize with the funder (or at least meet up at the conferences and presentations that mark the philanthropic year), have received reliable funding long enough that stopping feels untenable.
There are fairly obvious counter-arguments to all my points, of course: private philanthropy rests on funders exercising choice with minimal constraint or accountability (or they might not do it at all); New York’s taxpaying citizens have the right to choose their own soundtracks as they travel about the city, free from the pleas of buskers. Program officers, who are mostly conscientious and motivated by the desire to do good, and who are understandably prey to the distortions that result when everyone wants to please you so you’ll give them money, have the right to advocate for their best judgment of value. In the absence of a significant public funding presence for culture, we ought to be grateful that private patrons step in at all—and so on, through the entire doxology of private property and its entitlements, which emits a strong whiff of common sense. Of course I could then counter with the public trust on which the tax exemption rests, the right of free expression and so on. But you get the point.
What disturbs me about all these stories—which seem to me versions of the same story about whose power shapes public and private cultural policy—doesn’t turn on some principle, but on the privatization of public space and social goods and the public sector’s role in that, serving a privileged sector before the public good. Do we really want our cities to be shaped by those whose definition of safety means sanitizing street life? Do we really want to devolve public cultural policy to private donors with a defensive stance and an aversion to risk? Do we really want to grant the tax exemption to a philanthropic sector that doesn’t trouble to consider the impact of significant choices on the groups it has supported?
Well over a decade ago, following a fairly significant spate of funding cutbacks tied to market losses, the Rockefeller Foundation commissioned my then-partner and myself to take stock of arts funding around the country and report back. The gloomiest scenario we described back then has pretty much come to pass: a marked decline in the number of funders, funding opportunities, and grants, and given the anemic level of public funding in the U.S., a starvation diet for many artists and organizations doing socially engaged work. Today—though I hope I’m wrong—I get the feeling that those in a position to assess the situation don’t much care to do it. It’s kind of the privatization of public troubles writ large: each foundation aware of its own assets and challenges, its own timetables, its own client groups and pressures, and no one looking out for the commonwealth.
Back then, there was a fairly straight line between the stock market’s impact on foundations’ endowments and cutbacks in their giving. Most foundation boards are concerned with their own perpetuity, so they give only the minimum amount required by law (five percent of their net investment assets), often based on the average of three years’ figures. Economic conditions were a factor in foundations’ pullback a few years ago too, just as was true with corporate layoffs that came at the time of the subprime mortgage meltdown.
Corporate profits went skyrocketing, but instead of rehiring laid-off workers and reinvesting in equipment and infrastructure, they used the money to enrich stockholders and executives. Foundation endowments mostly aren’t doing quite so well. But things are somewhat better, yet few have expanded their giving to address the shortfalls faced by nonprofit organizations. Some explain such things with recourse to psychology: even though they are more secure, they look at the past and fear the future, which leads to holding back when help is most needed. (See this article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, for instance).
I usually glimpse a silver lining. Indeed, people tend to scoff at me when I say I’m not an optimist. I tend to reply that they mistake me for one because I continue to see the vast potential in our world even when it is not currently being realized. I see it here too: the unquenchable desire to share our stories, to sing them with our own words and voices; the deep knowledge embodied in so much current arts and community work of culture’s power to heal not only the human heart but the hurt places in our frayed social fabric; the determination of so many artists to keep on despite a starvation diet. But whether the subject is the constrictions of the Parks and Recreation Department, the Ford Foundation’s definition of safety, or funders’ failure to seize a vibrant moment in community cultural development, I also wonder whether it will be undone by the neglect, self-regard, and short-sightedness of people whose job should be to help it flourish. That would be very, very sad.
Lazy Lester’s“You Got Me Where You Want Me.” “You know the way I feel/there is something in my heart that I can’t conceal.”