Arts and Culture

Partnering for Equity in the Arts

Issues of access, privilege, and chronic underfunding combine to drown out too many voices.
Black and white photo of a man of color sitting at the front of a crowded room playing the drums.

In early 2014, Ars Nova Workshop had more than 10 years of experience hosting concerts and events, relationships with world-renowned jazz and experimental artists, access to performance spaces and audiences, and name recognition well beyond Philadelphia. But it was limping along on a shoestring budget – its founder and executive director, Mark Christman, still worked full-time elsewhere to support himself.

The William Penn Foundation asked NFF to help Ars Nova get financially strong enough to qualify for its grants. With the foundation’s support, NFF consultants, Christman (now the full-time director), and Ars Nova board members embarked on a three-year project to dig into and stabilize the nonprofit’s finances. In 2017, William Penn awarded Ars Nova a grant – plus a bonus for its good financial health.

Achieving financial strength and adaptability is a top concern for many nonprofits, but certain arts and culture nonprofits face an additional funding challenge: Those that are smaller, rural, led by people of color, or primarily serve people of color have historically been underfunded in comparison to larger, urban and suburban organizations – which tend to be led by, and serve primarily, white people. In the cultural conversation, this dynamic can serve to further amplify the voices most heard and drown out others.

One recent study found that most foundation funding goes to large arts organizations – those with budgets of $5 million or more. Data from NFF’s 2018 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey add detail to this picture: 47 percent of responding large arts organizations serve mostly white clients and only 3 percent are led by a person of color, versus 41 percent and 16 percent, respectively, for smaller nonprofits. Only 7 percent of responding large arts nonprofits exclusively or primarily serve low-income people, compared to 22 percent of small and mid-sized arts nonprofits; 7 percent of large arts organizations serve clients in rural areas, versus 28 percent of smaller organizations.

NFF’s work with arts nonprofits directly addresses these broader inequities as well as the specific challenges each organization faces. For example, the Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative (COHI), the latest chapter of a partnership between NFF and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, specifically supports arts organizations that face systemic funding barriers due to factors like race, geography, and market disruption.

“Common funding practices, like only giving large grants to large organizations, maintain the current situation in which organizations of color do not get their fair share of funding,” said Claire Knowlton, Director, Advisory Services at NFF. “COHI demonstrates one way that foundations can make large grants to small organizations, helping to strengthen their voices with which they share their stories.”

“Art is a medium to have a conversation, and I think that’s ultimately what we do. We have these larger conversations and talk about broader issues in our community,” said Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, Executive Director of Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), a COHI member that supports art rooted in the Chicano/Latino experience. The initiative’s capital and consulting have helped MACLA focus less on maintenance and more on mission. “We’d been in this mentality of making-do,” Helstrup-Alvarez said, adding that new doors and HVAC repairs have made MACLA’s home more secure and energy efficient, while a marketing consultant is helping artists reach new audiences.

A group of people dancing, clapping with their hands in the air.
Photo Credit: Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA)

COHI work includes:

NFF also administers the $1.1 million Mellon Loan Fund for Mellon’s small and mid-sized arts, heritage, and cultural grantees. These zero-interest loans can be used to bridge funding gaps, weather financial setbacks, and carry out new strategies, giving these organizations access to capital they might not otherwise see due to their size. Since the Fund began in July 2009, more than $3.8 million has been loaned to 40 organizations across the country.

Learn more about NFF’s work to improve the long-term financial health of arts and culture organizations, including this initiative supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Read more about our work in the arts and explore arts and culture data from the State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey.

Interested in applying for a loan? Click here to learn more about NFF's financing options.

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