A Reflection on Equitable Funding

Hello FAB community! My name is Trey, and New York City is my home for a brief ten-week period as I intern with Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc). Thereafter I’ll be traveling back to Stanford University to continue my junior year and pursue my major in International Relations with specializations in International Security and African Studies. On campus, I’m a director and performer with Ram’s Head Theatrical Society and the Stanford Mendicants. Most of my time is consumed by the arts. I’m passionate about arts education and access to creative space, so FAB’s work resonates with me quite a bit.

Much of my work at FAB has focused on cultural equity within New York City’s Cultural Plan Create NYC. My primary project, which will be posted to FABRIC in mid-December, is to comparatively analyze Cultural Plans from other domestic cities. One issue area that continually emerges in the Cultural Plans I’ve read so far is inequity in arts and cultural funding. Holly Sidford’s influential article “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change” made it crystal clear that the “majority of arts funding supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million.” Arts organizations working with underserved communities receive just a sliver of grant based funding: 10% to be specific. Arts organizations with a focus on advancing social justice are awarded a mere 4% of grant money.

How can arts and cultural activists most effectively counter this inequitable allocation of funding? About one month ago, I came across an approach for achieving cultural equity in a Createequity article. Createquity, an arts and culture blog, identified four frameworks in total, but I’d like to focus on the “Diversity Approach.” This approach states that rectifying the homogeneity of “mainstream” institutions (i.e. a “community’s big-budget nonprofit symphonies, art museums, [and] presenters”) can only occur by diversifying institutional leadership. In theory, this would promote a form of trickle-down cultural equity. Could diversifying leadership in foundations, philanthropic institutions, and grant-making governmental agencies lead to more equitable funding within the arts and culture sector?

My thoughts on equitable funding were further stoked at a cultural organizing workshop hosted by Arts and Democracy and NOCD-NY on November 12th. The morning began with a “mapping the room” exercise. Everyone in attendance had the chance to introduce themselves through a series of activities. The exercise was refreshingly unique and different from the usual stand-in-a-circle-and-speak practice that is a staple at workshops and conferences. Halfway through the introductions, Ron Ragin stood up. A self-identified Black, queer artist, and cultural organizer, they mentioned they had worked for grant-making foundations for 7 years. Ron said that their position within a philanthropic foundation allowed them to make decisions about the allocation of grant money and funding to support cultural equity. In that moment, I realized that Ron’s ability to find a seat at the table within a “mainstream” philanthropic institution was a form of interior advocacy. It was in line with Createequity’s “Diversity Approach” to achieving cultural equity.

photo1_blogpost1Photo Credit: Thomas Oesau 

After the workshop, I told a friend that this interior form of advocacy seemed like a promising step to achieving equity in arts and cultural funding. Essentially, interior advocacy happens when advocates and activists assume top leadership roles in philanthropic institutions and grant-making government agencies. These leaders would (hopefully) advocate for cultural equity when funding decisions occur at the highest-levels of decision making. More funding to smaller, community-oriented organizations will help grassroots movements thrive.

Historically under-represented individuals that are passionate about cultural equity should be better supported to find a seat “in the room where it happens,” to quote Hamilton. Leadership boards, program managers, philanthropic institutions, and grant-making governmental agencies should be more reflective of the communities they serve. This is not a particularly new or radical idea; nonetheless, I believe it would make a difference in the way decisions are made at the highest levels.

After further reflection, I realize this framework has a few key faults. First, it fails to acknowledge the many barriers to inclusion for people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ+, disabled individuals, and other marginalized identities. This is especially true when discussing access to employment and the training required to even be considered for executive roles and top leadership positions within mainstream arts and cultural institutions. Second, it sets a dangerous precedent of assimilation into dominant institutions at the expense of underrepresented and marginalized individuals. Why should people of color and minorities have to adapt to Eurocentric institutions? Will these individuals feel welcome, included, and respected in these institutions? Or will they experience discrimination based on their identities? The Diversity Approach and insider framework both assume that individuals typically excluded from decision making would want to be included in these institutions in the first place.

Ron’s introduction was the spark for this reflection post. His important position in philanthropic institutions was an example of the Diversity Approach. It is equally important to note that progressive leadership in grant making institutions is not a fix all. There has to be a combination of people demanding change in the streets and within institutions at the decision making table.

At the workshop, I noticed a significant number of artists and cultural organizers working within school systems. In order to support these artists and sustain arts education in all public schools in a given state, there must be adequate funding from the government. Arts education policy needs progressive leadership that is willing to advocate for arts and cultural equity. A legislator willing to fight for arts education in state and federal budgets has an enormously influential impact at the local level. At the same time, the activists, artists, and community organizers such as those at the workshop on Saturday are also a critical ingredient to supporting arts education. They are the vocal advocates on a daily basis. They are the ones teaching the lessons and supporting communities. But, they need support and resources. It is this synergy of top decision makers and local activists that is needed to support arts education at a macro-level.

On a more personal note, I believe this insider approach to enacting change is why I hope to work for the Department of State after graduation. It may be rather idealistic of me to think that I will be able to positively impact the bureaucratic, slow-churning mess of the federal government. I will try nonetheless.

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