Accessing the Arts: What This Means for a Big Philadelphia Funder

MBI Images/shutterstock

MBI Images/shutterstock

The impact of arts funding can be difficult to measure, so you might think that such grantmaking would fare poorly in an era when foundations have become ever more eager to quantify their effectiveness. Yet that hasn’t been happening.

Instead, as we’ve extensively reported, arts funders have become more sophisticated about connecting their work to broader goals—especially local economic development and social justice. For arts funders operating in major cities—like the Barr, MacArthur and Rainin foundations—grants to arts organizations often support both an equity agenda and a drive to boost communities. Instead of backing away from the arts, big city foundations seem as committed as ever to this area.

After the MacArthur Foundation announced a strategy shift in 2015 to streamline its grantmaking, it pledged that it would stick with its local Chicago funding, particularly for the arts. And it has since continued to be a pillar of support for the city’s arts organizations. Meanwhile, as we’ve reported, the Barr Foundation has significantly stepped up its role in backing the arts in Boston over the past few years. Big urban foundations have stuck with the arts even as urgent new priorities have clamored for attention as a result of the 2016 election, especially the protection of immigrant communities.

Another example of a top funder staying the course on the arts is the William Penn Foundation, which plays a very important role in the life of nonprofits in Philadelphia.

In September, the William Penn Foundation announced $9.4 million in funding to 20 local arts and culture organizations in the city. This is a continuation of the foundation’s ongoing commitment to increasing access to high-quality artistic and cultural experiences, and it’s doing so by bringing these experiences into underserved schools and neighborhoods. Proximity and location play key roles in turning the idea of arts access into something real and tangible.

At the time, Leonard Haas, vice chair of Penn’s board of directors, said, “Art has the power to enhance our experience and engagement with one another and with the city, which is why we support the city’s arts and cultural organizations and efforts to ensure more people have access to these experiences.”

Within its Creative Communities portfolio, these 20 new grants fell into two funding categories: Arts Education and New Audiences/New Places. A total of $5.8 million of the latest commitment went toward arts education grants for partnerships with Philadelphia schools and to connect students with arts and culture groups in the city. Notably, these grants are for sustained, long-term support lasting three years rather than just a single year of funding. New arts education grantees include Opera Philadelphia, the Walnut Street Theatre, WHYY, and the Settlement Music School.

The remaining arts and culture grants from this round went toward Penn’s commitment for new audiences and new places. The funder set aside approximately $3.6 million in funds to support this cause and engage local residents in the arts by bringing artistic experiences right to them. Community-based projects, local relevance, and projects that enable audiences to tell their own stories have been catching this funder’s attention, lately.

Grants in the September round also went to Philadelphia Contemporary’s outdoor piers for performances at the Cherry Street and Race Street piers, Mural Arts Philadelphia’s series of three art projects over 10 weeks next year, and Theatre Exile’s 2019 and 2020 summer programs for free workshops and plays in South Philly parks.

Judilee Reed, Penn’s program director for Creative Communities, said:

By supporting this kind of work, we hope to help elevate local artists and organizations that reflect neighborhood-specific ideas and diverse perspectives to increase participation and community engagement. We believe deeply in supporting projects that reflect the communities in which they happen and ideas that address the ever-changing cultural landscape.

Reed was hired last fall to lead Penn’s arts and culture program after spending the previous six years as the Surdna Foundation’s Thriving Cultures program director in New York City.

In addition to these two arts and culture funding areas, Penn also supports the development of public spaces in the city to serve as platforms for expression. Unlike other William Penn Foundation giving areas, Arts Education, Core Support for Arts and Cultural Organizations, and New Audiences/New Places have unique review processes, which frequently include site visits and proposal review by an internal team of board members and staff.