When funding the arts, tangible feedback is difficult to ascertain aside from naming a theatre, etc. As such, it keeps donors away. They feel like their money can make a bigger impact in other areas. That’s fine and likely true. Another major criticism of arts funding is that major problems like homelessness, hunger, disease—all deserve funding above the arts.
I agree. But philanthropy is a two-way street, and I try to focus on donors as individuals. They have causes that they care about—maybe music pulled them through a difficult time or theatre helped get their child back on track at school. Our money and our causes are deeply personal and donors have to be passionate about their causes if they are going to feel rewarded by their giving and continue making a difference.
If arts funding is how someone wants to get started, then that’s how they should get started. Discouraging giving because we feel that at a bird’s eye level it’s misguided is extremely shortsighted. Once people see what they can do for a cause they love, they want to do more—that could mean giving to those other causes down the road, and all because they got started giving to a theatre program that meant a lot to them personally.
Having dispatched the challenges, I want to revisit the title: Philanthropically Funding the Arts. How can one fund the arts in ways that measurably promote the welfare of others? I would first recommend adjusting our thinking about what it means to fund the arts. We have a tendency to think of arts and culture at the highest level—the Metropolitan Opera House, the Lincoln Theatre, and Broadway all come immediately to mind. If you choose to support those institutions, I won’t discourage you, but be prepared to contend with the issues I’ve outlined. It might feel difficult to make a difference, and the perceived elitism is most prevalent the higher up the scale we move.
I would argue that arts and culture are more powerful the closer we get to the community level. There are local level arts groups who are trying to do creative, interesting things to bring culture to their communities and share it with the people within those communities. They are drastically underfunded and overlooked by arts philanthropists.
If you want to philanthropically fund the arts, your goal shouldn’t be personal accolades but to increase the ability of people to make art and a living and increase accessibility to art for everyone in your community.
Your options at this level become almost limitless. You could meet with local performing arts groups to learn about their projects and what they need; fund a summer arts education program with volunteers from various disciplines; create a writing co-op for aspiring novelists, playwrights, poets, and screenwriters; sponsor a monthly gallery show with local artists and open it to the public; provide a local filmmaker the resources they would need for a documentary or project you support; revitalize a studio or stage space and rent it out to local troupes or artists cheaply or for free.
The difference your giving could make for these projects is so much more enriching and potentially rewarding than adding to the endowments of already well-funded institutions. The work you would be doing is without question promoting the welfare of others. Your gift would be in the service of equity and access for those artists and for your community. This is how you should philanthropically fund the arts.
Whether you’re hoping to get involved with philanthropy in the arts and culture space, or an arts nonprofit seeking impactful donors for long-term funding, my expertise can help get you started in the right direction. I can connect the ideal donor with the perfect organization. Donors and organizations alike can learn a lot from my free assessments. For donors: Make Your Legacy Count. For charities and nonprofits: Attracting the Right Donors?