Regrets of a Former Arts Funder

Feature Articles • By John R. Killacky • June 23, 2011  Appeared in the Blue Avocado

As Program Officer for Arts and Culture at the San Francisco Foundation, I and philanthropic colleagues often bemoaned how fragile many culturally specific organizations were. One person would wonder why there were so few financially stable African American arts organizations. Then a multi-voiced litany of woes would commence about how many Asian and Latino arts nonprofits were floundering in just as weak a state.

How was this possible in a community that has no “majority culture,” that has had a Hotel Tax Fund giving decades of operating grants to culturally specific arts organizations, and a Cultural Equity Program since 1993 created to redress inequities in funding?

And sadly, at the national level, arts organizations from disenfranchised communities are no more stable. Few African American, Latino, or Asian theater companies founded in the 1970s are still in existence, or if they are alive, they do not appear to be as artistically vibrant.

(For a definition of culturally specific organizations, we quote the Cultural Equity Program: “arts organizations that are deeply rooted in, and able to express the experiences of, historically underserved communities including Native American, Asian American, African American, the disabled, Latino, L/G/B/T, Pacific Islander, and women.”)

Other than Ailey, Jones, and King?

Remove the Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, and Alonzo King dance companies from the picture, and it’s hard to find many dance ensembles led by people of color that tour year-round and are economically viable. The Bay Area’s Ethnic Dance Festival lists hundreds of artists in its database, but few are paid for their artistry.

As changed demographics transform the country, we should be seeing a burgeoning renaissance for artists working within specific cultural traditions in communities of color. But where is that renaissance? Is our society so racist that these artists and organizations cannot thrive?

Separate tracks

In hindsight, many funders did not feel equipped to judge quality outside of their own world views and experiences. I know that was a problem for me. Excellence matters — and there was not a lack of artistic excellence — but what was missing were the multiple perspectives in philanthropy needed to judge excellence in culturally specific organizations.

As a result, a separate “other” track was created for these organizations, a kind of affirmative action track with far less resources. By creating this separate track, we may have unintentionally entrenched a two-tiered caste system.

In addition, support to culturally specific organizations often focused on administrative infrastructure building and considered artistic quality a lower priority. This was a mistake, resulting in further undercapitalizing artistic efforts.

Maybe philanthropy should have taken a page from venture capitalists’ playbooks, investing more deeply at a significant level over a five- to eight-year time frame, as well as offering a range of non-cash, value-added assistance by sitting on boards, mentoring, and coaching of senior managers, in addition to artistic support. This is not hands-off, outsourced grantmaking. Focus on the triple bottom line and then get out!

I wish . . .

In retrospect, I wish I had presented this kind of framework to the San Francisco Foundation trustees; instead I followed a dispersal method of distributing small amounts of money to as many organizations as possible. Even with miniscule amounts of money, grantees had to elucidate numerous outcomes and activities. Now that I’m a grantseeker again, I wonder if all that paperwork was necessary for grants averaging $12,000.

Another problem I now see was that support was often not tied to the marketplace: box office, tuition, and auxiliary income are crucial. I once attended a performance with a colleague doing a site visit. The work was stale and there were only six of us in the audience, still the group met my colleague’s requirements for funding. Longevity with diminishing artistry is not success.

Not all culturally specific grassroots organizations are aground. La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley and Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, both born out of a legacy of social activism in the 1970s, evolved programs: La Peña incorporating Hip Hop aesthetics and Galería expanding from a Chicano focus to a broader representation of the Latino community in its Mission District neighborhood. In Philadelphia, the Asian American Arts Alliance is developing a multi-tenant facility for a diverse array of organizations, not solely pan-Asian.

Art history of a different type

Federal arts philanthropy began in the 1960s Camelot-era to support large mainstream arts organizations. W. McNeil “Mac” Lowry at the Ford Foundation replicated Manhattan classical culture, granting $80 million to support regional theater, orchestras, and Balanchine-esque ballet companies. State funding agencies at first also supported a Eurocentric cultural paradigm.

I came into the nonprofit arts field in the late 1970s when shifts in government (NEA Inter-Arts) and foundation (Rockefeller & Wallace) funding began supporting media and contemporary interdisciplinary art forms. However, hindsight has shown us that postmodernism was just another strand of modernism, with little room for cultural pluralism.

Seeking to address inequities in funding distribution early on, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1971 established the Expansion Arts Program for “ethnic, inner-city, and rural arts organizations.” This program lasted until 1995.

In 1984, the California Arts Council was mandated “to target resources toward multicultural arts organizations,” and developed Multicultural Arts Development Programs for “culture-specific and multicultural artists groups/collectives and arts organizations” which ran from 1985-2003. Similar programs were established at state and local agencies nationwide, as well as at select foundations.

However, with 40 years of these kinds of programs, why have they had so little impact in shoring up and diversifying the arts ecosystem? Why have philanthropic interventions been so ineffective? Despite years of technical assistance and organizational development funding streams, why are so many culturally specific organizations essentially dry-docked?

Culturally specific arts have to evolve, too

Many culturally specific creative organizations founded in the 1970s were centered on an identity politic of its core artists. While essential in its time, this focus ultimately limited an organization’s potential as time, issues, and the political landscape changed. Artists, too, constrained themselves if art practices were myopically identity-based.

So much aesthetic change happens from the fringe; history continually bears this out.  Therefore philanthropy should always be seeding the future along multiple frontiers. But after awhile, if an artist or artist organization does not get traction in its community, then perhaps aesthetic Darwinism should prevail.

What about mainstreaming?

There have been many artists nurtured in culturally specific, grassroots, and alternative organizations that have mainstreamed in recent years. With Philip Kan Gotanda produced by American Conservatory Theater, Naomi Iizuka at Berkeley Rep, Marcus Gardley at Arena Stage, Luis Alfaro at Magic Theatre, Ping Chong at Oregon Shakes, and Culture Clash at the Taper, are culturally specific organizations still necessary?

Yes, indeed! These artists’ considerable successes do not mean that no further attention to diversity is needed. In fact, without small and emerging culturally specific organizations to allow artists to find their initial stage legs, I worry about subsequent generations realizing their potential in larger venues.

In the past few months, I have sat on government and foundation grant review panels. In both instances, review criteria and panelists focused on stability and sustainability, perpetuating the old caste system. In an outcome-based evaluative structure, ambiguity was not rewarded. And in both panels, I heard, “Need is not a criteria.” Well, yes it is and should be, if we are ever to let new groups into the privileged patronage circle.

Under-investment in artists

One study (Leveraging Investments in Creativity 2003) found that 79% of all grants to individual artists were under $10,000, 66% were under $5,000, and sadly, 50% of all grants to artists in this country were under $2,000. This has had a two-fold effect: new work is seriously underdeveloped and artists have to subsidize their art, reinforcing a class structure.

A San Francisco Foundation study by Joan Jeffri (2004) showed that 63% of the Bay Area artists surveyed earned less than $7,000 from their art practice, and only 43% stated their income covered arts-related expenses.

Since 1995, when the NEA stopped supporting individual artists (except literature fellowships and honorifics in jazz and folk arts), there has been a fundamental distrust and discounting of artists in philanthropy.

It is time to reverse this and provide artists adequate time, money, and other resources. Focusing support on individual artists may be particularly pertinent for culturally specific art practices that do not lend themselves to organizing within the 501(c)(3) nonprofit construct.


While at the SF Foundation, I partnered with the East Bay Community Foundation in a commissioning program that funded 116 new projects involving a diverse array of 181 artists. A second program supported documentary projects in early production phases.

When setting up these programs, I reminded the trustees that not all projects would come to fruition. For many venture capitalists, there is a rule of thumb regarding start-up investing. It suggests that on 1/3 of your investments you will lose all of your investment. On another 1/3 you may make or lose a little. The other 1/3 is where you make your money, and one or two is probably where the bulk of the return is. Unfortunately, this kind of risk-taking would seem foolhardy to funders.


There is a crisis here, as arts funding remains disproportionately skewed toward the classical behemoths. With organizations like Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Opera imploding because of structural deficits, I worry that precious philanthropic resources will be further diverted to maintaining what was, instead of capitalizing a more representative future. By merely preserving the past, we fail as cultural stewards and act irresponsibly.

Finally, my last “philanthro-past” reflection: it is time to give up the false dichotomies and biases between professional/amateur, high/low, esoteric/popular, and contemporary/traditional. Instead, philanthropy should be investing in the cultural interests that allow people who live in our communities to lead more expressive lives.

This would truly be representative arts philanthropy.

John R. Killacky left the San Francisco Foundation in June 2010 to become the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont. He is former executive director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco) and former performing arts curator of the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis). He is shown here with Shetland pony Pacific Raindrop.

Thanks to the Flynn Center for the collage of artists, the photo of the Mingus Ensemble, and for their season schedule cover.

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