Earlier this year, the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace issued a report, Framing the Discourse, Advancing the Work: Philanthropy at the Nexus of Peace and Social Justice and Arts and Culture, that highlighted the synergy between the arts and social movements around the globe — and the general reluctance among funders to fund arts initiatives with a social justice component, and vice versa.
Recently, PND spoke with Moukhtar Kocache, the report’s author, about some of the challenges foundations face in funding "social-change-through-arts" initiatives and what can be done to change the existing dynamic. Kocache is an independent civil society, nonprofit, and philanthropy consultant whose areas of expertise include arts and culture, media, gender equity, social justice, and cultural activism and change. From 2004 to 2012, he was a program officer in media, arts, and culture at the Ford Foundation.
Philanthropy News Digest: What are the arts uniquely able to do in situations where liberties have been eroded and freedoms suppressed that more traditional advocacy activities are unable to accomplish?
Moukhtar Kocache: The arts are ubiquitous wherever human beings come together in common cause. I have yet to see, in our own time, a social movement that did not sing, dance, paint, make theater, and record its activities. The arts are closely associated with our notions of identity, self-determination, and healing. The challenge is how to develop the strategies, mechanisms, and tools needed to get to the next level, the level at which targeted interventions that amplify the role of the arts in social change processes are conceived and implemented. So, rather than ask what the arts can do that traditional advocacy can't, I would suggest thinking about questions such as, What forms of art are most suited for a particular type of social change cause? And at what stage and through what process can the arts help people coalesce around and amplify their response to a specific social issue or reality?
Today, artistic creation and artistic processes are extremely responsive to the challenges confronting all of us as citizens of a global village; rarely these days do we see art that does not, in some way, address a social or political issue that resonates with a broader constituency. Indeed, the arts often play a role before, during, and after periods of social change, informing and galvanizing communities and even societies through the various stages of social transformation. So, it's important to think more broadly about how we as a society understand the realm of art, because that will help us tailor and design social interventions with more nuance and precision.
Consider, for instance: civil rights-era protest songs; an artist-organized campaign to shut down a supermax prison; young women learning to make and screen short films about their marginalized role in society; a community working with artists and architects to redesign and rehabilitate public housing; victims and perpetrators of genocide engaged in making theatre together; children creating art in refugee camps; and so on. It's a short list, but it demonstrates how diverse activities that fall under the rubric of "art" can be, and how, at various times and through specific mechanisms, these activities help communities to heal, feel proud, build social cohesion, create new narratives, and mobilize for or against an issue.
PND: You write in the report that, despite growing interest in "the symbiotic relationship between art, self-determination, cultural democracy and social justice," arts funders and social justice funders remain reluctant to support "social-change-through-arts" initiatives. What are the reasons for that reluctance?
MK: Arts funders would say, "We do not fund social change," while social justice funders would say, "We don’t fund the arts." But this binary dynamic has meant that a wealth of learning and opportunities for impact has been missed and that a lot of grassroots creativity in marginalized communities is not being harnessed for social change. Part of the problem has to do with limited resources and capacity at the funder level where, for many grantmakers, supporting something new often is seen as too experimental, too risky, and/or a distraction from more "serious" and conventional funding strategies. Foundation staff also tend to feel ill equipped to venture into fields where they have little expertise, even though most people understand, at both a visceral and intellectual level, the power of the synergy between the two types of funding. I believe, however, that with time, foundations will become more versed in both the arts and social justice traditions, and that that will lead to more knowledge and a greater willingness to experiment among funders on either side of the funding divide we are talking about.