Skip to content

#368 Funding Arts and Culture During COVID-19

March 31st, 2020

Richard Marker

Addendum: Not so surprisingly, just hours after this was first published, I began reading of webinars addressing the particular challenges facing arts and culture institutions. More to the point, I also saw certain politicians staking out the position that it is inappropriate for bail-out government funds to be available to this sub-sector. Hopefully this post will help articulate some of the dialectic regarding this realm.

In this post, I return to philanthropy-practitioner questions and practices – this time for those who fund in the Arts and Culture realm. As of this writing, I have not yet seen any larger discussion of this issue, although I anticipate that we will in the coming days and weeks. I welcome thoughts and reactions.

The question has been raised if it is legitimate or even ethical to continue funding in this area in the face of the overwhelming human urgency of COVID-19. COVID-19 is about life and death; arts and culture are about quality of life. What is a funder to think given that stark a comparison?

Similar questions have been raised in the past – during recessions, natural disasters, human caused disasters. “Compassion funding” – the very human and humane responses that we all feel at these times seems to weigh heavily toward an argument for a suspension of “quality of life” causes when so many are struggling with basic needs. Let’s get these people healthy or back on their feet and then we can get back to these “extras”.

That argument, though, is rebuttable. Even if one believes that the urgency of the moment outweighs the long term, it may be a short-sighted decision to discontinue all funding to this sub-sector. At the end of this thing, whenever it will be, we will need to re-engage and rebuild those organizations that add to the nature of what it means to be human, or perhaps better said: art and culture are not “additions” but essential.. Are we better off with shuttered centers and bankrupt organizations that would need to be created anew?

If history is any indication, the answer is that we should do what we can to sustain this sector, in some way, since gearing back up is much easier than starting back up.

The next question is: which ones? Is it more important to guarantee that the largest, wealthiest, most prestigious ones are kept whole since they serve the largest portion of the population on a regular basis? Or conversely, can we assume that those are also the organizations that do and will receive money from the deepest pocketed donors, governments, and endowments, so we should focus on the smaller entities that perennially exist on a more fragile financial base?

Part of the answer has to do with one’s funding style and priorities. For a “place-based” funder – that is, a funder whose giving priorities are primarily connected to a particular city or region, sustaining local institutions with which they have had meaningful relationships over time may be the most appropriate and compelling approach. One’s funding at this time may not be sufficient to keep the organization whole, but it may be enough to keep it alive. That support should involve cash, of course, but it may also include contracting for expertise in helping all regional nonprofits during times of enforced transition. A singe consultant may well serve to advise an entire cadre of at-risk institutions.

We know from past crises that there will be both consolidations and fall out. And there will be time for that down the road. But forcing those kinds of hard and strategic choices in a time of crisis is exactly the wrong time to force existential decisions. That is especially true in this particular time of COVID-19 when no one can know what kinds of earned revenue will be possible or when physical spaces will be open again. And no one can fully know what kind of economic downturn has begun.

The issue is more complex for the larger legacy institutions. Most of us were aghast to read that the Washington based NSO laid off its entire orchestra the same day it received a guarantee of an infusion from bailout funds. It creates a conceptual dilemma for funders: If we believe that those legacy institutions are national treasures that deserve taxpayer support, then we might argue that private philanthropy should be reserved for those institutions that don’t receive that support. But here, even with taxpayer funding, the leadership acted in what appear to be self-destructive ways, or at least, with severe myopia. Whatever the correct longer-term answer, it is certainly true that modest pocketed funders will not be able to make up the difference for those large legacy institutions. Better to leave their philanthropy to places where their funding will make a/the difference.

It has become fairly much the norm in the last two weeks for funders to agree to remove restrictions from existing funding, simplify their application and decision processes, speed up their payment of grants, and dig deeper into reserves. All of this applies to arts and culture funding as well – but with one additional caveat: funding should be built around the commitment by the recipient boards to keep their organizations alive – even if not whole -until, as we suggest above, the time is right to take the hard look at what we need to do to keep a robust arts and culture community functioning well into the future.

There will be very, very hard decisions ahead about which groups and institutions survive, consolidate, merge, or, sadly, close. But the option should never be to surrender our commitment to the quality of human experience as provided by the “arts and culture” sector. History has taught us no less.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS