Inside Philanthropy, From Issues to Engagement: A Funder's Latest Round of Social Justice Arts Giving

Photograph of Carmen Papalia conducting a presentation on his work. [image description: a number of chairs are laid out in a square formation, they have metal tops, people are gathered around the table listening to Carmen who has a straw hat and a red shirt on]

Photograph of Carmen Papalia conducting a presentation on his work. [image description: a number of chairs are laid out in a square formation, they have metal tops, people are gathered around the table listening to Carmen who has a straw hat and a red shirt on]

One of the byproducts of any growing niche of philanthropy is increased diversification, and the burgeoning field of grantmaking to advance social justice through the arts is no exception.

To see this phenomenon play out in real time, we turn our attention to New York City, where the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation recently awarded grants to 60 organizations "aligned with art and social justice" to fund day-to-day operations as well as programming and exhibitions. The grants vary in amount between $5,000 and $20,000, with the total reaching $777,000.

The foundation established the Art and Social Justice initiative in 2015 with a mission to use "art as a tool for advocacy and creative change, inclusive community engagement, and the promotion of greater civic participation and public discourse."

The foundation obviously isn't alone, here. We've seen many funders, including A Blade of Grass, the Surdna Foundation, and Creative Capital enter the increasingly crowded "activist art" space in the past few years. Over time, each funder's strategy has come into sharper focus.

In 2016, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation announced its Artist as Activist program would focus solely on projects that "address the intersections between race, class and mass incarceration."

Similarly, last year Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and collector Agnes Gund launched the $100 million Art for Justice Fund to safely reduce prison populations, strengthen opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, and help people affected by the criminal justice system.

And last October, the Ford Foundation announced that its #ArtofChange fellows would focus on the specific theme of "exploring freedom and justice in America."

So how does the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation Art and Social Justice initiative fit into this ever-evolving continuum?

For starters, the foundation approaches this work at the organizational level, rather than the level of an individual artist. And a closer read of its press release underscores a heightened interest in engaging "at-risk communities." In a statement, Sara Reisman, the foundation’s executive and artistic director, said:

With so many at-risk communities under pressure, we were compelled to support smaller organizations whose work is responsive to the current political climate, models experimentation, and offers sustained engagement. We also wanted to ensure that high caliber artistic programming is made available to communities who are not conventionally served by arts philanthropy.

Reisman hits on two important and timely themes, here.

First, the plight of smaller and diverse organizations has been well-documented. Most notably, these organizations receive comparatively less individual support compared to their larger counterparts. The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation is acutely aware of this reality, and its Art and Social Justice initiative provides these organizations with a critical financial lifeline.

Second, her concerns around boosting engagement equity comport with what we're seeing across the larger funder community.

Dorian Burton, assistant executive director of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, summed up the zeitgeist: "Philanthropic efforts in the arts must make a fundamental shift from charitable gifts that exclude to justice-oriented giving that creates equitable access for all."

Large "legacy" institutions have responded in kind, rolling out programs aimed at diverse neighborhoods and audiences. In this sense, the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation shares a lot in common with, say, the Rockefeller Foundation. Both grantmakers want to provide engaging programming to traditionally underserved communities.

We've been reporting on Art and Social Justice initiative winners since the Rubin Foundation launched the program in 2015. In the intervening years, we haven't seen a profound thematic shift in terms of the foundation's decision-making process.

Arts organizations are no doubt comforted by this, as the foundation remains committed to providing grants to art and culture nonprofits across New York City's five boroughs. This year's winners include the Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art, the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

The foundation is also tuned into what's keeping executive directors at small arts organizations up at night. Last year, it awarded grants "at a time when funding is imperiled and the core social issues these organizations address—xenophobia, Islamophobia, LGBTQ rights, racism, criminal justice, income inequality and women’s rights—are more critical than ever, given the current political climate."

Fast-forward to 2018. President Trump is still president. The political climate remains turbulent. And life for a small arts organization—despite Mayor Bill de Blasio's best efforts—hasn't gotten much easier.

Meanwhile, on a related note, I've written often about how a growing focus on social justice in the arts by funders large and small has led some legacy cultural institutions like Lincoln Center to pivot in the same direction, with new initiatives to engage underserved communities.

But not everyone has gotten the memo. In March, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will implement a new admission policy. For visitors from outside New York State, there will be a mandatory admission fee: $25 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students. Admission for all children under 12 and members and patrons will still be free. Residents of New York State, meanwhile, will need to show some form of identification.

Commentators, educators and artists remain united in their outrage. Many of the city's neediest visitors, they argue, may not have proper identification. Others may be reluctant to show the identification they have. And a segment of visitors traveling from outside the city may not be able to afford the $25 fee.

The optics here are certainly striking.

While funders like the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation are working to boost equitable access to the arts, one of the world's greatest institutions is erecting barriers for the exact demographic donors purportedly want to serve.

And while the arguments against the Met's new policy are both self-evident and numerous, I'd like to home in on one in particular made by art critic Holland Cotter in the New York Times.

The "economic ruling class, for its part, could, and should, contribute to an open-door cultural policy," Cotter said, before pointing to an applicable precedent. Thanks to the donations of a single patron, the Bronx Museum of the Arts began offering a free admission program that continues today.

The patrons in question were Donald and Shelly Rubin.

By Mike Scutari, Feb. 6, 2018. Read more at: Inside Philanthropy