SCG's Back to the Future blog series is a collection of conversations with philanthropic leaders exploring the key trends that shape the contours of the future. This series aims to expand our thinking on various issue areas and provide funders with the insights necessary to maximize their impact.
Art is an essential facet of our culture and a key indicator of our societal well-being. But has the ubiquity of the arts caused philanthropy to deprioritize its funding? More and more, the arts are being left out of funding budgets, constricting their ability to be powerful tools of empathy and persuasion in our contemporary social movements.
To explore the state and potential of art in our contemporary moment, we held a session on “Funding the Arts for Social Justice and Economic Prosperity” at our 2019 Annual Conference: Foresight Philanthropy. To guide our conversation, we invited James E. Herr (Jim), Program Officer at Annenberg Foundation, and Vijay Gupta, Founder and Artistic Director at Street Symphony, an organization working with communities affected by homelessness and incarceration in LA County through performances, workshops, and musical artistry. Together, they explored the vital role the arts play in today’s world and how a new investment wave could accelerate underserved communities’ participation in the creative economy.
After the panel, we sat with Jim and Vijay to dig deeper into the importance of art as the lifeblood of social justice movements and critical opportunities for funders looking to strengthen their impact and collaboration with artists on the ground.
What is the function of art in a social justice movement?
VG: I believe that a lot of what we consider social justice work is intuitive for artists. In my mind, the artist is very much the modern-day shaman: we’re boundary crossers and cultural translators who can occupy the in-between, relational areas where we can share the stories of our hearts. Artists intuitively create spaces for cultural and human exchange.
You see this best when you’re making art in communities — especially communities that we are quick to throw away, disregard, or ignore — where the art is in the process of cultivating relationships. When I go to make music in a county jail or Skid Row, I'm fully aware that I’m a guest in that community and that it’s not my job to fix or rehabilitate anyone. I'm there to be present with them and to sit with their stories. Listening is restorative, not only for the person telling the story but also for the person receiving it. When we begin to understand that our hearts’ stories — the stories of communities — don't often come from a place of success, but from brokenness, that’s when healing begins. When we talk about the arts and social change, we're talking about coming together to deal with our painful experiences. Art happens when we tend to the things that make us the most fragile, the most vulnerable, the most human. Our job as artists is to create conditions where exchange can happen, where these rough narratives can provoke conversations and lead us into a space of healing.
JH: Art is the fuel that drives social justice, and it does that by achieving empathy. The funding framework that I developed plugs art into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the very bottom, you have basic needs, which for art, I consider the level of voice because the first innate need of any human is to have a voice, an outlet for expression. Next is the hearing level because once you've found your voice, it doesn't do you any good if you can't express your needs to another person. But just because someone hears you doesn’t mean they understand what you’re trying to say, so next is the level of understanding, which simply means that others comprehend your message. Finally, you get to the top level — the level of self-actualization — which is empathy. The goal of empathy is to get someone to feel what you’re feeling, what the community is feeling — and to achieve that, you must succeed at all the previous levels. For me, the artist’s goal is to guide us through all these levels until we reach that place of empathy.
What are the opportunities for artists and funders to strengthen their collaboration?
VG: I would like us to move away from the historical, hierarchical relationship between funders and artists. Examples of this include philanthropy’s emphasis on organizations to produce an end product, meet a set of metrics, or adopt a traditional, top-down model. Certain foundations will never work with me unless I’ve hired a full-time executive director and submitted my organization to internal restructuring. Instead of falling into this dynamic, let’s work collaboratively to reimagine the nature of capacity-building in a way that centers the artist's vision and adapts to a developing organization's needs. This collaboration could redefine how we think about the "right way to build an organization” and how we evaluate successful engagement in our communities.
Some funders will not abandon the conventional notion of success. And I say that very pointedly because success in my community almost always refers to someone leaving Skid Row. Success means that my organization doesn't have to exist anymore. Success implies that the work of a funder and artist will someday be done. I've learned that our work will never be done. That is why it is difficult when a funder asks for a demographic assessment or hard metrics that evaluate success. It is challenging to numerically capture the quality of the connection we are working to build throughout our engagements. This dissonance is fundamentally about how funding systems continue to be isolated and disconnected from the artistic product and the communities they’re supporting.
To lessen this distance between philanthropy and communities, I would like to see funders get more involved in the artist's process by showing up and serving in the same ways that artists help. For example, I’ve begun inviting funders to attend our events in Skid Row and have asked them to participate by assembling the hygiene kits we donate to the community. When this happens, the fact that they give money becomes incidental to the fact that they showed up. This involvement is so meaningful to me and the communities I serve. I sincerely believe that our funders can benefit from the same thing that our audiences crave: real human connection. I want to create an organizational system where the funders are acknowledged for their humanity first and their capacity to give second.
What opportunities are available to philanthropy in arts funding?
JH: Currently, there’s a trend to fund social justice movements and organizations from the advocacy side, but not from the art side. This shift has eroded a lot of today’s art funding. But you can’t separate the arts from social justice movements. My hope moving forward is that we reframe art and access to the arts as a social justice issue.
I would also like to see more momentum around school districts not providing arts education the way it should be. The California state education code mandates that students from K-12 have arts education every single day. The reality is that less than 40% of the schools even offer it once a week. How many hundreds of thousands of students are not getting what they are legally entitled to? This lack of access disproportionately affects students of color in underserved communities more than affluent white communities. Arts education then becomes a social justice issue because we’re exacerbating inequity by not giving all kids equal opportunities. We need to continue funding arts education programs in K-12 to provide our students with lifelong expression opportunities. And not only is it essential for personal development, but 21st Century workforce skills require abilities that an education rooted in the arts can provide, namely: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. We’ve seen some success, even though it often feels like we’re pushing this rock uphill to get districts to implement art programs. With that in mind, it might be time we pursued other policy options to make this happen. I think funders should be leading and supporting these efforts.
VG: Funders should also pay attention to policies that restrict charitable giving. Aspirationally, I'd also like us to radically reconceptualize what the arts could look like if we adopted funding models similar to the unrestricted funds we provide for venture capital investments in the tech industry. We're willing to invest $20 million on an app that might be bought by Facebook tomorrow, but we're not ready to give that same money to artists who've been working in their community for 30 years. I'm personally committed to pushing policy changes that will cultivate and support these artists.
How can artists leverage technology in their efforts?
JH: I think social media is a place where people are finding their voice. And to be clear, by voice, I do not necessarily mean physical voice. Technology is playing an essential role in giving voice to artists and voice to movements. I’m inspired by the artists who have integrated technology into their practice to amplify their message and experiences. The better you can use these tools to communicate, the louder your message will become.
VG: That’s true. Every year I host a Facebook fundraiser for Street Symphony, and it turns out to be one of our most fruitful fundraisers of the year. Of course, part of it is my visibility, but the rest is the amplification I get from my fellow artists all over the country. Technology helps us decentralize the way we think about distance and build coalitions a little easier. We need to embrace technologies that allow us to create, track, and bolster our daily artistic practice.
What aspirations do you have for the future of art funding?
JH: I would like funders to understand that the arts are not superfluous. Art is in everything we do. Art is present every single moment of the day. Everything around you right now is the end product of a creative process. We must keep providing opportunities for expression. It's an essential part of finding our voice and moving all of us to a place of empathy.
VG: I want to paint a picture of what it looks like to me. Every year, Street Symphony presents a sing-along of George Fredric Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” in Skid Row. Many of our performers are either currently experiencing homelessness or have experienced it previously. This experience is significant because when “Messiah” premiered in Dublin in 1742, it raised enough money to release 142 men from prison. Later, when they held similar concerts in hospitals in London, it is said that they were so successful as fundraisers that the hospitals wanted to patent this piece of music.
What’s striking is that when it comes to funding classical music, there's a long history of individual patrons, like King George II, who came to “Messiah” concerts in the 1740s and helped raise funds for communities. Seeing the funder in the room weeping collectively with the musicians and community members, that’s the vital connection we should be aspiring to create. “Messiah” and all the most incredible pieces of music came from the intersection of support, inspiration, and practice. I would love for funders to shift from the idea of using their funding to build a product toward seeing themselves as vital parts of the community,