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January 11, 2016 / Rebekah Seder, Editor

How funders can advance equity in and through the arts

By Rebekah Seder
Senior Program Manager
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

As the United States undergoes dramatic demographic shifts, there is a growing urgency for addressing historic racial inequities within our society. This is no different in the sphere of arts and culture. Research showing that more than half of the total philanthropic dollars for the arts flow to institutions with budgets of over $5 million – organizations predominantly focused on Western European artistic traditions and that often primarily serve white, wealthy audiences– reveal a need for a more equitable approach to funding the arts. This is an issue that funders nationally and here in our region are increasingly prioritizing.

Recently, local public and private arts grantmakers, gathering under WRAG’s Arts and Humanities Working Group, considered their own efforts to support the arts among diverse communities across the region. A number of strategies for addressing inequities rose to the top:

Reconsider application and report format: Extensive application and reporting processes can be an extra burden on organizations with few staff and resources. Allowing performances, events, portfolios, etc., to replace traditional written reports can help make the grant process more accessible to small organizations and for those that don’t have a lot of experience working with institutional funders.

Don’t get stuck on quantitative measures of impact: Impact is always a tricky question in the arts, and using typical metrics might not tell you much about how effectively an organization engages its audience or serves its community. For instance, a show at a big, sold-out venue might entertain a lot of people, but a performance in a more intimate setting might deeply impact a small audience. Getting out in the community and seeing organizations in action is a good way to witness impact first hand. (The importance of qualitative assessment will be further explored by David Grant, author of the Social Profit Handbook, at WRAG’s next Brightest Minds event on March 10.)

Be intentional about language: Words matter. Being intentional about the language used in application forms can help make funding opportunities more inclusive. If funding is limited to a particular jurisdiction, consider, for instance, the difference in meaning between “resident” and “citizen:” one of those words is much more exclusive than the other. Terms like “underresourced,” “underrepresented,” and “underserved” are often used to define communities that funders are seeking to support, but those descriptors don’t necessarily resonate with individuals in those communities.

Provide support beyond dollars (and project grants): General operating, capacity building, and multi-year support are critical for enabling organizations to grow and thrive. Besides providing financial support, however, funders can be of service to arts organizations as thought partners and as catalysts for new collaborations and partnerships.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways that philanthropy can support more diverse artistic communities and cultural practices – indeed, they are really just starting points for creating a more equitable arts ecosystem that reflects the incredible cultural diversity of our region.

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