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Funding Disability Arts

October 09, 2017

The following post is part of a year-long series ;here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center's work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the emergence of private philanthropy globally; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning foundation, nonprofit, or changemaker in the twenty-first century. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Fudning for disability artsThe stage has been set for a new and vibrant era of funding for disabled artists and disability arts. A spate of innovative programs — Dance/NYC’s Disability. Dance. Artistry. Fund, Alliance for Artist Communities’ Creative Access Fellowship Program, and the Apothetae and Lark Playwriting Fellowship, among others — are putting new dollars into art made by and with disabled people and raising the bar for the broader philanthropic sector.

With CreateNYC, released this summer, the City of New York established the first cultural plan in the United States with disability-specific strategies for expanding cultural access, including a new fund for disabled artists, cultural workers, and audiences. In this and other ways, the city is modeling the kind of leadership that is urgently needed at all levels of government.

Because they embrace disability as a positive artistic and generative force, these efforts are already generating value. They also represent a shift in arts philanthropy, where the exclusion of disabled people is entrenched and where niche disability-specific funds largely have been limited to facility improvements or programs focused on the therapeutic and educational benefits of the arts. And they are demonstrating how, by funding the field of disability arts and its workforce, philanthropy can move the whole creative sector forward — and, by extension, drive social change.

The moment is rife with opportunity. On the one hand, there are opportunities for more expansive disability-specific funds. Indeed, a new generation of disability arts organizations and fiscally sponsored projects is primed for capacity-building investments, and there are critical gaps in funding for disabled artists along the artistic development continuum, from public school classrooms to professional studios and stages.

At the same time, it is incumbent on philanthropy to develop intersectional strategies that consider disability within and across arts funding portfolios rather than in isolation. While philanthropy has made some important strides in its commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in the arts, more explicit and holistic work needs to be done to address disability.

Money matters, but success in funding disability arts depends on more than money. It requires that funders think and work in new ways, including training their decision-makers in disability aesthetics and disability rights; improving their facilities and communications to ensure equitable access for disabled applicants and grantees; and overhauling their data-gathering practices to better understand inequities in funding and track progress over time.

To effectively expand the pie of financial resources and drive shared goal setting, learning, and accountability, collaboration at multiple levels also is needed. This includes collaboration involving public and private arts funders organized by creative discipline, topic, and geography — local, regional, national, and international.

Second, funders traditionally focused on the arts and funders focused on disability matters need to focus on opportunities to work together and define and achieve common objectives.

Third, and crucially, it is time for philanthropy to adopt the disability rights concept of “nothing without us” — ensuring that no practice be established without the direct involvement of the affected group. This includes efforts to diversify boards, staff, and grant review panels to correct for gaps in disability representation and leadership, as well as a greater focus on relationship building with service groups like the new Disability/Arts/NYC Task Force, which helped shape New York City’s new cultural plan.

Finally, there is a critical role for funder affinity organizations such as Philanthropy New York and national organizations like Grantmakers in the Arts, which can do more to move the needle with respect to funding by demonstrating best practices to their members, cultivating partnerships, and delivering relevant field advocacy, research, communications, training, and convening.

As a proud ally to disabled artists, I call on funders to join the movement to advance disability arts.

Lane Harwell

(Photo credit: Merry Lynn Morris)

Lane Harwell, executive director of arts service organization Dance/NYC, where he administers the Disability. Dance. Artistry. Fund. The fund, which was established with leadership support from the Ford Foundation and additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, builds on recommendations from Dance/NYC research and convenings. For more posts in the FC Insight series, click here.

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