While the overall U.S. economy seems to be stuck in neutral, there are a few bright spots. One of them is charitable giving to the arts, which was up more than 5 percent last year.
But a new study cautions that much of that support serves audiences that are wealthier and whiter than the country as a whole.
Audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York cheered this year’s season-opening production of Anna Bolena. The Met has something else to be excited about: a record fundraising campaign.
For the year that ended in July, the Met brought in $182 million in donations, an increase of 50 percent more than the year before. General Manager Peter Gelb credits the Met’s new initiatives — like its HD transmissions to about 1,700 movie theaters around the world.
“The more we do that is new, innovative, and dynamic, and culturally worthwhile, the more attractive is it is to donors, whether they be foundations, corporations or individuals,” Gelb says.
The Met’s fundraising is particularly striking given that charitable giving to the arts dropped dramatically during the economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009. But donations to the arts are growing again at a healthy pace, according to the Giving Institute in Chicago.
“I know the economy is still struggling, but the stock market recovered to a significant degree in 2010,” says Peter Fissinger, a member of the institute’s board. “Those people who have significant assets may have returned to making major gifts to arts organizations.”
But a new study published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy raises some thorny questions about where that money is going.
“Funding for arts and culture is primarily flowing to larger organizations,” says Aaron Dorfman, who directs the NCRP, a watchdog group that monitors giving by foundations.
Dorfman says the majority of foundations giving to the arts goes to organizations with budgets of $5 million dollars a year or more.
“Most of your museums, symphonies, opera houses — large established cultural institutions that are promoting the European cannon,” he says. “The audiences for those institutions continue to be predominantly upper income and white. So what it means is that this funding is not really benefiting everyone in our society.
Dorfman doesn’t begrudge the fundraising success big institutions like the Met, but he says you don’t hear those kinds of success stories in this economy coming from arts groups operating in communities of color, or led by artists of color, for the most part.
One organization that’s having trouble attracting the attention of big foundations is Arts Engine, a non-profit in New York that produces and distributes small-budget films and documentaries.
Arts Engine distributed the short film I Am Sean Bell, about the shooting of a young African-American man in Queens, through its Media That Matters program.
“Our big focus is to get our films in the classroom, and to do it for free, and we couldn’t do that without foundation support,” says program manager Lauren Domino. “We couldn’t produce our DVDs to send to schools around the country. We wouldn’t exist without foundation funding.”
Arts Engine’s director Steve Mendelsohn says that funding has been harder to find for the last few years and that the grants they do get are getting smaller.
“We’ve been more successful attracting the attention of some of the smaller family foundations,” Mendelsohn says. “Some of the largest foundations have been much more challenging for us.”
Like the broader economic recovery, it seems that the turnaround in arts funding is neither as deep nor as even as everyone would like.