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'Funding for the Arts' Month: Arts and Community Engagement

October 20, 2012

(Kyoko Uchida is features editor at Philanthropy News Digest. In her last post, she provided some background on the deteriorating situation in Syria through the lens of half a dozen foundation-sponsored publications.)

Irrigate_artshappenIn a commentary piece on Philanthropy News Digest earlier this month, Sharon DeMark, a program officer for the arts at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, argued for expanding the definition of arts engagement in grantmaking. While citing examples of arts institutions that are experimenting with new ways to attract younger and more diverse audiences, DeMark also noted that the lion's share of grant dollars goes to a handful of large, established organizations, and that there is ample opportunity for funders to identify and support smaller, lesser-known groups and individual artists.

One example mentioned by DeMark that elicited comment was the Walker Arts Center's recent Internet Cat Video Festival, which showcased short videos curated by an online community from among more than ten thousand submissions. "Think expansively, yes," one comment on DeMark's piece read. "Pander to the lowest common denominators and call it the arts, no." Fair enough, but if the subject hadn't been cat videos, would this kind of crowdsourcing be considered "pandering"? Whatever your view of cat videos, there are any number of contests in which the public are invited to vote for their favorite arts organization to receive funding; for example, five South Florida nonprofit arts groups currently are competing for votes via text message to win $20,000 in the first Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice Awards. While it goes without saying that online popularity contests are in many ways a flawed mechanism for awarding philanthropic support, they have been shown to engage more diverse audiences in the arts by giving them a say in directing support to less established groups and artists.

I believe in art for art's sake, but isn't support for broad participation in the arts important because it sustains us, not only as individuals but as a community? In other words, active engagement in the arts by more diverse audiences not only is a way to ensure the long-term sustainability of arts organizations, it also serves to strengthen community and social cohesion by enabling different segments of society to experience together how various cultures define, make, and enjoy art. To wit, the James Irvine Foundation's new arts funding strategy aims "to promote engagement in the arts for all Californians -- the kind that embraces and advances the diverse ways that we experience the arts, and that strengthens our ability to thrive together in a dynamic and complex social environment." Specifically, the foundation seeks to grow and deepen arts engagement among low-income and/or ethnically diverse populations that have been traditionally underserved by arts nonprofits; support new ways of creating or curating art, including via digital technology; and encourage the use of non-traditional spaces in art making.

As DeMark noted in her commentary, more grantmakers also are coming to recognize the role the arts play in economic development and community revitalization. As documented by Americans for the Arts in its Arts & Economic Prosperity series, the nonprofit arts sector generates significant revenues, both direct and indirect, for communities in which those activities take place. But it also contributes to a stronger sense of social cohesion. Indeed, according to Civic Health and Unemployment II: The Case Builds, a report from the National Conference on Citizenship, communities with a robust ecosystem of nonprofit organizations that engage directly with residents tend to have lower unemployment rates.

In exploring how a broader definition of arts engagement can help strengthen communities, we should also consider how arts participation affects educational outcomes. According to The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings From Four Longitudinal Studies, a report from the National Endowment for the Arts, socially and economically disadvantaged youth who are exposed to and involved in the arts earn better grades, graduate from college at higher rates, and are more likely to volunteer, vote, and participate in politics as adults than their peers with little exposure to the arts. Given that budgets for arts education in public schools are under pressure, support for broad participation at the community level in non-traditional venues and formats -- including inviting the public to submit art, curate the work of others, and vote for funding online -- is an essential element of philanthropic efforts to bolster community vitality and economic development.

What do you think about expanding participation in the arts as a way to strengthen broader engagement in the community? Does engagement in the arts foster economic resilience in local communities? And if it does, are private funders doing enough to make it happen? Use the comments section below to share your thoughts....

-- Kyoko Uchida

(Image: Irrigate, a partnership between the City of Saint Paul, Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and Springboard for the Arts)


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