Two To Tango

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

This same collision of charged issues and loose conjecture can be found in the public perception of funders' agendas. One of the regular complaints I hear these days is that The Funders want artists and organizations to use art to address social problems like homelessness and gangs. I don't think anyone who funds the arts is actually interested in that, but you can't deny that funding is affected by trends and by the zeitgeist. Right now, words like "community," "diversity," and "outreach" are important to many funders. But why?

For one thing, some funders (especially corporations) saw what happened to the NEA--with its alleged offenses against community standards--and became nervous. To avoid those ugly, no-win attacks, many businesses now focus on programs that directly affect their employees or the towns in which they do business. So application materials now ask how artists plan to serve those folks, which helps corporations know what to say when stockholders and customers complain, "Why are you raising my prices/lowering my dividends by giving away my profits to these weird arts groups?" It's a fair question.

On the public front, new language and requirements turn up because public funding has become completely politicized. So application materials ask not only what you're doing, but which communities (read: voting blocs) will find meaning and value in it. Voters have the same concerns about their taxes that stockholders do about dividends. Still a fair question.

Finally, on the private front, foundations periodically decide to examine the impact of their programs and clarify their intentions. This turns up in new application materials with new guidelines, which inevitably reflect some of the goals and standards of the surrounding society.

All of these changes in arts funding reflect a fundamental fact: Every giving program, except those belonging to individuals, has a reporting structure. A while ago, it might have been enough to give money to the arts because, well, the arts are nice, they enrich our lives, etc. Back then, the force at the end of the line didn't take much notice of the arts. But the arts aren't just nice anymore, and the purposes of giving are many. The bottom-line constituencies are increasingly nosy and noisy.

Reflecting this shift, giving programs have become increasingly stringent about trying to support applicants that "fit" what the foundation is trying do, be that nurturing younger choreographers, or helping a theater company to hire a permanent support staff. For intensely practical reasons of application-volume and fairness, it's the "fit," more than any intense scrutiny, which determines funding decisions. Although quality (that much beleaguered aesthetic concept) matters, it is seldom the sole factor. Giving programs are not like a discerning curator who knows that the thumb in your painting was lifted from a painting by a student of Raphael. They're more like a shopper with a fairly specific list who goes into Target wanting only baby supplies and steadfastly refuses to be lured into the sale in sporting goods.

Yet artists are understandably reluctant to concede that their program is not compatible with a foundation's mission. And so, like Cinderella's incredulous sisters, they try to shove their feet into the figurative glass slipper. This masquerade can strip integrity from the process while ultimately serving neither party. A foundation is told only what applicants think it wants to hear, and risks losing touch with an artist's actual needs. And successful applicants risk winning money for projects that are actually distractions from the true goals they've never disclosed.

Sadly, there is no funders' cabal to blame for this muddle of confused intentions. We don't get together to plan a new world order or manipulate the social structure or even conspire about an old theater downtown. As with conspiracy theories about the government, once you look closer, you've got to conclude that nobody is that smart.

Neal Cuthbert is the Program Officer for the Arts at the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis.

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