Get Them While They're Young: A Unique Gift for High School Visual Storytelling

Back in May of 2014, we theorized that storytelling could be the "next big thing" in museum funding. Turns out we were limiting ourselves.

The funding area known as "visual storytelling" has permeated all facets of the arts philanthropy landscape as of late. Its reach is both wide—see the Ford Foundation's recent support of a storytelling "flex fund"—and deep. How deep? How about arts high school deep?

Which brings me to news out of Baltimore. Local philanthropists Mark and Patricia Joseph announced a gift of $3 million to make the School for the Arts the first high school in Baltimore—and one of the few in the country—to offer a film and visual storytelling program. It is the largest single gift the Baltimore School for the Arts has received, and the Josephs' most recent gift brings their total investment in the school to $5 million.

"It really will enhance the school’s reputation as one of the premiere high schools in the whole nation," said Mark Joseph, a founder and former chair of the board for Baltimore School for the Arts. "I think it will be a really exciting program, and great for the school and great for the city."

I can't help but agree. It isn't very often we come across such a program rolled out at the high school level. But let's cast aside terms like "reputation" and "exciting" for a second. What are some of the macro-level drivers behind this gift? Two immediately come to mind.

First off, as previously mentioned, is the growing consensus among donors that visual storytelling can be a powerful tool in addressing one of the biggest challenges across modern philanthropy—combating inequality. That was the logic behind Ford's "flex fund" support and it's fair to say most socially conscious donors would agree with its assessment.

Then there's another underlying driver behind the Josephs' gift—the benefits of a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to arts education. To that end, the program, which is designed to have students experience a balance between creative storytelling and technological expertise, prepares kids for the digital demands of college life and the professional world beyond. "Digital is clearly the future, and the school needs to be in the forefront of such efforts," Mark Joseph said.

One last point. Since "all philanthropy is local," I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that the Josephs' give comes approximately three months after the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund, a visual storytelling program requiring that all projects be produced in Baltimore, announced its inaugural winners. It also came over two years since the Stavros Niarchos Foundation gave a $5 million grant to the city's John Hopkins University to turn Baltimore into a "filmmaking mecca."

Given the fact that Baltimore-based funders are now funding visual storytelling at high schools, the whole "mecca" thing doesn't seem to be too far-fetched.