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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.
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.