Philanthropic best practices in arts and culture remain underexplored relative to other sectors of private funding. If funders are looking for best practices, it’s easy to become lost amidst varying objectives, rationales, and methodologies. For arts funders, attempting to apply financial measures such as overhead costs, or even criteria such as numbers of people served, can be frustrating and fruitless endeavors because impact can be immeasurable or delayed, innovation and creativity similarly incalculable, and aesthetic tastes subjective.

Added onto this quandary are the devastating adversities and distresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially on unprotected and insecure workers. Arts organizations are facing some of the most difficult challenges right now. According to an American for the Arts survey, an estimated $14.6 billion had been lost by the sector as of November 2020, with 62,000 arts workers laid off and another 50,000 furloughed. By Q3 of 2020, 63 percent of artists were unemployed, with a higher figure for Black, Indigenous, and other artists of color (69 percent versus 60 percent for white artists). Freelance musicians in particular have been hit significantly harder than those employed by large institutions, or those who are unionized. These large figures are hardly surprising given the impossibility of live performances when venues are closed (or when they are opened, with much reduced capacity).

This post does not seek to provide a philosophical argument in favor of arts funding — much has been written on this topic already. Rather, I want to make the point that right now, amidst both a catastrophic pandemic and calls for reformed funding practices (especially in support of BIPOC communities), philanthropic giving to arts and culture provides a unique opportunity for funders to reevaluate their funding, evaluation, and decision-making processes.

Arts evaluation is perhaps, by nature, subjective in more ways than other areas of grantmaking. Artistic excellence is harder to define and measure than, for example, vaccine efficacy, standardized test score improvement, or voter registration numbers. This evaluation comes on top of the already subjective nature of grantmaking writ large, as well as the fact that social networks of first-degree connections matter tremendously in who gets funded and how much they get funded. Operating in this context, for some of the wealthiest donors and foundations, a multi-million-dollar check to an elite arts organization is easier to write than a thousand-dollar check to a smaller organization doing excellent artistic, cultural, and social work.

Why is that the case? Which aspects of a funder’s grantmaking decisions contribute to that ease? The orders of magnitude in a monetary sense can be dizzying, but what can we say of impact?

One way for funders to tackle these questions is to reconsider the role of “experts” and “expertise” in their grantmaking. In my recent book, Ask the Experts: How Ford, Rockefeller, and the NEA Changed American Music, I discuss the importance of challenging our assumptions about who possesses expertise (spoiler: it’s not just those who graduate from prestigious schools) and expanding our definitions of expertise to include experiences and skills. I also argue that we should be cautious when our consultation of experts is too heavily reliant on limited social networks (e.g., the dangers of only “black tie connections” from the Met Gala), and that social capital is very unevenly distributed throughout society. The pattern of exclusive and elitist arts funding after the Second World War showed the perils of such taken-for-granted approaches.

Read the full article about the art of philanthropy by Michael Sy Uy at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.