Staying Relevant: Here's Some Hope for Embattled "Legacy" Institutions

  Eileen_10/Shutterstock

 Eileen_10/Shutterstock

News out of New York City points to an intriguing model for "legacy" institutions questioning their place in the arts universe.

The model comes to us from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and its Lincoln Center Cultural Innovation Fund. This new pilot grant program, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, "encourages innovative strategies to catalyze greater access to, and participation in, cultural opportunities in the diverse neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx."

How is Lincoln Center—which many readers will know as a top-tier cultural institution located on Manhattan's swanky Upper West Side—extending its reach to some of the grittier parts of New York?   

Well, before I take a closer look at the program, some context is in order, as this new fund addresses two timely and impactful cross currents spanning the arts philanthropy space: First, the evolving role of imperiled "legacy" institutions; second, the desire of many funders to see arts institutions engage diverse audiences. Let's briefly start with the former.

As previously noted, legacy institutions are having a collective identity crisis. Stung by costly capital projects and beholden to a classical 19th-century model, many legacy institutions find themselves playing catch-up to their nimbler competitors in areas like the acquisition of contemporary art. And in a philanthropic landscape where more funders have pivoted toward equity issues, legacy institutions are re-examining their place in society.

According to a recent piece by Adrian Ellis in Apollo Magazine, "Many of the more established national foundations—Ford, Rockefeller, Pew, Gates, etc.—are edging politely but firmly away from what they now call 'legacy' institutions that cannot demonstrate a significant contribution to solving or soothing specific social or economic traumas."

Enter the Lincoln Center Cultural Innovation Fund. Winning initiatives in its inaugural grant round, announced last month, range from a new monthly live performance series featuring "transgender and gender nonconforming artists in the South Bronx" to "using the arts and the tenets of environmental and social justice campaigns to bring together residents and workers in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx."

The fund, in other words, corroborates the obverse of Ellis' theory: When a "legacy" institution supports initiatives that address "specific social or economic traumas," established national funders don't edge away. They reach for their checkbooks. Of course, this is hardly Lincoln Center's first foray into addressing socio-economic concerns. It's been in this game for decades, going back to 1975, when it created its education arm. And it's been pulling in grants for such work ever since, most notably a $4 million grant earlier this year from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.

At the same time, foundations are increasingly seeking ways to engage diverse audiences. This challenge is compounded by the fact that the most important financial lifeline for smaller museums—public grant dollars—is being cut. Adjusted for inflation, public arts funding is 15 percent lower today than it was 20 years ago.  

The Rockefeller Foundation is undoubtedly aware of these complicating factors. Rockefeller has been ahead of the curve in prodding legacy institutions to embrace socially focused causes and engagement initiatives. For example, last year, it expanded its support for an educational partnership to send public school kids to performances of Hamilton as part of their American history studies. 

Rockefeller could have selected a hipper and newer organization to manage a fund supporting cultural opportunities in Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Instead, it chose the Lincoln Center, whose first venue, the Philharmonic Hall, opened over fifty years ago. Why? According to Rockefeller, it was Lincoln's "steadfast commitment to building community-based partnerships and its expertise in designing and implementing impactful programs."

This is an important point. For all the talk of legacy institutions as calcified, red tape-strewn dinosaurs, they actually bring a lot to the table—like decades of strong relationships, a wealth of in-house talent, and fine-tuned programs. The fund shows institutions like the Lincoln Center needn't engage in radical creative disruption to effectively reach disadvantaged audiences.

“Cultural innovation has the power to energize and advance our communities. But to innovate requires resources and support—and that’s where the Rockefeller Foundation and Lincoln Center come in," said Rajiv J. Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The fund comes during a delicate time in the New York City arts environment. In early May, the de Blasio administration began a review the city's $178 million arts budget with the goal of providing additional funding to smaller institutions in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emeritus of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was blunt: "What is needed is more money—there is simply not enough."

And so the Lincoln Center Cultural Innovation Fund, which offers grants in a range of $50,000 to $100,000, is very good news for the city's smaller organizations. 

Coincidentally enough, the fund comes on the heels of a new $6 million program launched by the North Carolina-based William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, The Met, NYU, and 19 New York City organizations, which will explore how arts-based organizations can serve as "positive, relevant, and inspiring forces in the daily lives of diverse communities."   

Bottom line, here? Legacy institutions feeling a bit spooked about their ability to address social concerns and engage diverse audiences can breathe a sigh of relief. They're plenty capable of getting with the times, and there's a growing list of examples of long-established arts institutions that are doing exactly that.