Two To Tango

The courtship between artists and foundations is filled with sweet talk, deception, and intrigue

For several years in the late 1980s, I routinely received a polite rejection letter from a large high-tech corporation which was then in the habit of giving money to local arts organizations. The fact that Artpaper, a monthly art and culture magazine that I then directed, had never sent in an application was beside the point. This was a pre-rejection, a courtesy rejection, even: "Dear Mr. Cuthbert: Just in case you were even thinking about asking us for money..." I assumed Artpaper was on some list of organizations titled: "Do Not Fund Under Any Circumstances!" I imagined a mysterious cabal of funders meeting to decide whose fate would rise and whose would fall. The experience was a strange footnote to the process of getting "free" money from foundations and other giving programs. It kept the process shrouded in mystery, guesswork, and anxiety.

Moving from a struggling nonprofit magazine to the McKnight Foundation's arts giving program, where I administer $6 to $7 million in grants every year, I've seen life from both sides of the funding fence. So I of The Funders was clearly tainted by Artpaper's tenuous finances. I knew that we were trying to do too much with too little money. And we were producing a periodical that got into topics--political, social, and aesthetic--which made funders uncomfortable.

But things slowly got better. We had a kick-ass business manager. We improved earned income through increases in subscriptions, newsstand sales, and ads. We received a couple of multiyear grants. We controlled our spending. Our editorial team won a few awards. Things moved from perpetual panic to mere ongoing anxiety. I began to feel less dependent on funders and less desperate in general as I came to feel more in control of our own fate.

Then I took a job at the McKnight Foundation. The second thing that surprised me about foundation work (the first being that I got hired) was that it consisted mostly of reading, listening, talking, thinking, and writing. It had no real glamour.

Though the subject matter is interesting and I encounter art all the time, the work itself is the same paper-shuffling a lot of office workers do. I spend my days on the phone, at my computer, or in meetings.

The office is in a nondescript downtown Minneapolis building. Take away the sign on the door and it would be difficult to tell what business this is. It could be an insurance company or an accounting firm. No piles of money on the floor. No chart where certain organizations are circled and others X-ed out. No staff limousine. No secret handshake.

I also quickly realized that my job depended on other people's efforts. Funders assist or take advantage of other people who make good things happen. By law, foundations have to give away at least 5 percent of their assets each year, on average. So in very real ways, foundations need applicants as much as applicants need foundations. Had I realized this when I was asking for money, I wouldn't have been so nervous. Still, to say that funders don't--or shouldn't--have influence is to deny reality.

Though it's an oversimplification, think of arts nonprofits--a dance company, a visual arts collective, your local theater company--as retail stores. Funders are their few big-spending customers. The big customers get more attention than do the regular customers, and their effect on the bottom line is overestimated. If the store is healthy, they are only part of its economy. But because it may take 1,000 regular customers to equal a funder's buying power, their importance gets distorted. Add a hint of desperation to the grant-seeker, and the distortion field around a funder becomes pretty strange.

A recent example of this phenomenon involves McKnight and the fate of the Shubert Theatre, the long-dormant Block E landmark that has been slated for either relocation or destruction. To return to our retail analogy, the Shubert is a situation where a new store wants to open. With the Orpheum and State theatres in the neighborhood, though, there's a lot of marketplace turmoil: Some see the new store as competition, others hate the very concept. Whether the store will open at all depends on several factors, one of which is the big-spending customers--the funders. Will they be interested? Are they buying?

Where facts are scarce, speculation thrives. Since the Shubert's future came up for debate a year ago, one rumor reported that McKnight--and I, personally--would sue the city if the Shubert were demolished. Another had it that McKnight was going to pay for the Shubert's relocation to another site. From here, the allegations multiplied: McKnight would cover the Shubert's operating costs; McKnight had already made a substantial commitment to the theater. All of these theories reached our offices as factual statements made by credible individuals. None had any basis whatsoever in any form of truth.

The reality of the situation is that McKnight doesn't file lawsuits over historic buildings. We don't take positions on public policy decisions. And we don't offer to pay for projects in advance of seeing a proposal. And it's the board, not me, that actually makes funding decisions. In every case, some party was using the perceived weight of a foundation to try to sway an argument. And so speculation and conjecture run rampant. When I was running a nonprofit, I played this game, too. It was fun.

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