Earlier this year, the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace issued a report, Framing the Discourse, Advancing the Work: Philanthropy at the Nexus of Peace and Social Justice and Arts and Culture, that highlighted the synergy between the arts and social movements around the globe — and the general reluctance among funders to fund arts initiatives with a social justice component, and vice versa.
Recently, PND spoke with Moukhtar Kocache, the report's author, about some of the challenges foundations face in funding "social-change-through-arts" initiatives and what can be done to change the existing dynamic. Kocache is an independent civil society, nonprofit, and philanthropy consultant whose areas of expertise include arts and culture, media, gender equity, social justice, and cultural activism and change. From 2004 to 2012, he was a program officer in media, arts, and culture at the Ford Foundation.
Philanthropy News Digest: What are the arts uniquely able to do in situations where liberties have been eroded and freedoms suppressed that more traditional advocacy activities are unable to accomplish?
Moukhtar Kocache: The arts are ubiquitous wherever human beings come together in common cause. I have yet to see, in our own time, a social movement that did not sing, dance, paint, make theater, and record its activities. The arts are closely associated with our notions of identity, self-determination, and healing. The challenge is how to develop the strategies, mechanisms, and tools needed to get to the next level, the level at which targeted interventions that amplify the role of the arts in social change processes are conceived and implemented. So, rather than ask what the arts can do that traditional advocacy can't, I would suggest thinking about questions such as, What forms of art are most suited for a particular type of social change cause? And at what stage and through what process can the arts help people coalesce around and amplify their response to a specific social issue or reality?
Today, artistic creation and artistic processes are extremely responsive to the challenges confronting all of us as citizens of a global village; rarely these days do we see art that does not, in some way, address a social or political issue that resonates with a broader constituency. Indeed, the arts often play a role before, during, and after periods of social change, informing and galvanizing communities and even societies through the various stages of social transformation. So, it's important to think more broadly about how we as a society understand the realm of art, because that will help us tailor and design social interventions with more nuance and precision.
Consider, for instance: civil rights-era protest songs; an artist-organized campaign to shut down a supermax prison; young women learning to make and screen short films about their marginalized role in society; a community working with artists and architects to redesign and rehabilitate public housing; victims and perpetrators of genocide engaged in making theatre together; children creating art in refugee camps; and so on. It's a short list, but it demonstrates how diverse activities that fall under the rubric of "art" can be, and how, at various times and through specific mechanisms, these activities help communities to heal, feel proud, build social cohesion, create new narratives, and mobilize for or against an issue.
PND: You write in the report that, despite growing interest in "the symbiotic relationship between art, self-determination, cultural democracy and social justice," arts funders and social justice funders remain reluctant to support "social-change-through-arts" initiatives. What are the reasons for that reluctance?
MK: Arts funders would say, "We do not fund social change," while social justice funders would say, "We don't fund the arts." But this binary dynamic has meant that a wealth of learning and opportunities for impact has been missed and that a lot of grassroots creativity in marginalized communities is not being harnessed for social change. Part of the problem has to do with limited resources and capacity at the funder level where, for many grantmakers, supporting something new often is seen as too experimental, too risky, and/or a distraction from more "serious" and conventional funding strategies. Foundation staff also tend to feel ill equipped to venture into fields where they have little expertise, even though most people understand, at both a visceral and intellectual level, the power of the synergy between the two types of funding. I believe, however, that with time, foundations will become more versed in both the arts and social justice traditions, and that that will lead to more knowledge and a greater willingness to experiment among funders on either side of the funding divide we are talking about.
PND: In your experience, what do funders tend to prioritize when the artistic and social justice elements of a project collide?
MK: Increasingly, funders are constrained by shorter funding cycles and both internal and external pressures to show tangible results. In general, we are seeing less willingness among foundations to fund movement-building, process-oriented work that aims to change cultural values; this is true both for social justice and for arts funders. But this type of work, which is crucial in terms of building momentum at the grassroots level and driving more permanent, systemic change, requires long-term funding and a certain willingness to tolerate risk.
Unfortunately, when the artistic component of a project is described by grantseekers or understood by funders as being separate from the goals of a social change initiative, it often is sacrificed to the more "essential" elements of that initiative. In such cases, the arts are typically seen as little more than a messaging or branding tool and not as a rich font of knowledge with its own set of practices, processes, and strategies that can help shape our conception of and scenarios for social change.
PND: One challenge the report highlights is the lack of metrics to assess the extent to which an arts initiative contributes to social change. As the philanthropic sector becomes more data-driven and measurement-focused, are you worried that the difficulty of measuring the impact of the arts will cause funders to look elsewhere?
MK: The arts sector needs to develop its own methods and mechanisms to help assess and evaluate its activities and outputs. When a sector does not develop its own metrics, it can expect to have other standards and methodologies imposed on it. Although I have philosophical and political reservations about measurement-driven evaluation and program design, it goes without saying that we, as a field, need to do a better job of illustrating, demonstrating, and conveying the impact of the work we do. It's a challenge for many fields, but arts and culture have been shielded and excused from having to come to terms with data-driven and measurement-focused evaluation systems. Now, I'm not saying we should be talking about a single system to measure our impact; in fact, it's imperative that we create evaluation methodologies that address the range of activities, functions, and forms that fall under the umbrella of the "arts." But professionals in the field need to lead this process, and they need to learn from other fields that are farther down the evaluation road. Everything is measurable and can be quantified; it's a matter of embedding an evaluation framework that makes sense into the project from its earliest stages and integrating the framework into your overall strategy.
PND: How should funders rethink their engagement with initiatives that advance social change and the arts?
MK: It's essential for funders to understand that there is a diversity of artistic interventions, to develop the ability to see where they best fit into the development and implementation of an initiative with a strong arts and social change dimension, and to realize that different types of funding and skill sets are needed at different stages of an initiative. When social justice funders come across an arts-focused initiative, they often panic. Sometimes they're right to do so, but I would urge funders to look at the individual stages of a project and try to determine where they could help while advancing their own mission and priorities. In many cases, those stages follow a predictable pattern: exploration/research, production/construction, exhibition/presentation, activation/education.
Other important factors for funders to consider include the issue being addressed, how interactive the process is, and how engaged the target population is. Funders should align their support with these factors and stages, while keeping in mind their own expertise as well as that of their grantees and their communities of practice. While many social justice funders are uncomfortable about getting involved in the production or presentation phase, for example, they might turn out to be interested in and perfectly suited for the research, process, or activation/education phase.
Finally, I think funders need to pay more attention and do a better job of supporting the dissemination of projects and ensuring that their funding for any stage of the project is leveraged in terms of education, learning, and debate. I feel that too many well-made, powerful, and informative projects struggle to make an impact on public discourse and the broader conversation around social justice and peace. And I really see it as an opportunity for both arts and social justice funders to collaborate and promote a sense of shared responsibility around their common goals and objectives.
— Kyoko Uchida