Joan Spero, President, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation: Investing in the Arts

October 4, 2006
Joan Spero, President, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation: Investing in the Arts

When tobacco and energy magnate James Buchanan Duke died in 1925, he divided his fortune between the Duke Endowment, which he established to serve the people of the Carolinas, and his twelve-year-old daughter, Doris. As she grew older and more independent, the young heiress was determined not to be defined by social expectations — which sometimes made her the target of criticism for her behavior and choice of companions — or by her wealth. At the same time, the inheritance allowed her to pursue many interests, including travel and the arts, and she amassed outstanding collections of Islamic, Southeast Asian, and European art. In addition to being an art collector, she also became a patron of the performing arts, and a performer in her own right as a pianist and singer in a gospel choir.

During her lifetime, Doris Duke gave away an estimated $400 million, often anonymously, and when she died in 1993 at age 80, her will reflected her philanthropic spirit, calling for the creation of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which was established three years later with a $1 billion endowment. The will was short on specifics, however, and did little to shape the new institution or provide its trustees with a clear mission or grantmaking strategy. Using the will and Duke's personal interests as guides, the foundation's board eventually established three grantmaking areas and later added a fourth. An obvious choice was the performing arts. The foundation awarded its first arts grants in 1997, and now, as it prepares to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has become one of the major performing arts funders in the United States.

Joan Edelman Spero, who was chosen to lead the foundation and its grantmaking efforts, does not have an arts background. Instead, fresh from a four-year stint in the Clinton Administration as undersecretary of state for economic, business, and agricultural affairs, she brought to the foundation experience in international affairs, business, and academia. Prior to her government service, she had been an executive with the American Express Company for twelve years and earlier served as ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. With a master's degree in international affairs and a doctorate in political science, Spero also has logged time as a professor at Columbia University, where she currently is a trustee. Her book The Politics of International Economic Relations, now in its sixth edition, continues to be taught in college-level economics courses.

As DDCF president, Spero directs the activities of the $1.8 billion foundation while also serving as president of several operating foundations created by Doris Duke, including the Duke Farms Foundation in Hillsborough, New Jersey, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Philanthropy News Digests poke with her in late August about the foundation's support of the performing arts and the evolution of its arts program over the past decade.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has had an arts program from its earliest days. What guidance did Doris Duke give the foundation's trustees regarding arts funding, and how was the program developed initially?

Joan Spero: We had two influences. The first was Doris Duke's will, in which she actually provided more guidance for the arts program than she did for other areas. Specifically, she said she was interested in assisting "actors, dancers, singers, musicians, and other artists of the entertainment world in fulfilling their ambitions and providing opportunities for the public presentation of their arts and talents." She didn't say how to do that, but it was clear to us that she was interested in the performing arts and in somehow helping individual artists.

In Doris Duke's will, she actually provided more guidance for the arts program than she did for other areas....

The second influence on the arts program here was Doris Duke's own life. We thought we should stay close to her particular artistic interests and then learn and grow from there. Doris was passionate about modern dance and had been an early supporter of Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey, and she had a personal relationship with Katherine Dunham, one of the founders of modern dance. She was also very involved with jazz, to the point of developing a jazz record label, and a lot of jazz musicians came to her various homes for jam sessions. She herself played piano — pianos were everywhere in her residences — and sang in a gospel choir.

Interestingly, the art forms of particular interest to Doris — and those on which we built our first arts program — were typically American. Jazz has born in the United States, and modern dance has deep roots here. Another reason to focus on what Doris was involved in was to show the world a side of her that people didn't know. They knew about the controversy over the will, but there was so much more to Doris Duke.

PND: Why did the foundation choose to fund performing arts organizations as opposed to individual artists, and national programs as opposed to regional ones?

JS: We had to think about our institutional capacity. At the beginning, I was the foundation's only employee. So our philosophy became "small staff, larger grants," and we still adhere to it. A small staff doesn't provide the capacity for making a lot of small grants, including those to individuals, but we still wanted to reach individuals and felt we could do so in two ways: by making grants to presenting institutions and by supporting re-granting programs at intermediaries like the New England Foundation for the Arts. Many of those re-grants do indeed go to individual artists.

We decided to be a national organization because of our size and capacity, but we started on the East Coast for practical reasons. A couple of months after coming to the foundation, I broke my leg and soon after that got Lyme disease, so I was incapable of traveling. And in the beginning, we simply didn't know the arts field deeply. Our first grants were made to some of the most visible and obvious leaders in our region. We awarded grants to the Joyce Theater and Jazz at Lincoln Center, both in New York City, and to Jacobs Pillow in Massachusetts. At that time, all three were established enough to have the capacity to handle the money but were still cutting edge, which we liked because that was very much Doris's style.

PND: How has your arts program changed over the past ten years?

In its first year, 1997, the arts program made four grants totaling $5.8 million; in 2005, we made nine grants totaling $18 million....

JS: In its first year, 1997, the program made four grants totaling $5.8 million to the three organizations I've already mentioned, as well as to the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina. In 2005, in contrast, we made nine grants totaling $18 million. Much of the credit for the success of the program belongs to Olga Garay, whom we recruited in 1998 and who developed the program over a number of years. Among other things, Olga, who has moved on to other endeavors and recently won a special citation Bessie Award from Dance Theater Workshop, hired program officer Cheryl Ikemiya, who is still with us. And this past July, Ben Cameron, from the Theatre Communications Group, became our new program director. There has not been a significant amount of staff turnover in our first ten years.

In our grantmaking, we consciously tried to avoid the "flavor of the month" mentality. As we developed our internal capacity, we learned and evolved — and the budget for the program grew. And while the program has changed over time, several aspects have remained in place since the early years. We continue to support leading large and mid-sized institutions that commission, develop, and tour work; and we provide endowments and other types of grants for programming and other activities. We've focused heavily on presenting institutions, and last year we launched a college and university presenters program because colleges and universities are increasingly providing resources for commissions and opportunities for artists to interact with students, faculty, and academic communities. So we have a strong presence on campuses.

We also complemented our grantmaking to presenting institutions through re-granting to individual artists. Supporting Creative Capital's grants for performing artists, the New England Foundation for the Arts' National Dance Project, and Chamber Music America's jazz programs has enabled us to reach many artists in innovative interdisciplinary performance, dance, and jazz, for example. But as we began to look at theater, we realized it has its own set of challenges and issues. So we worked with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which had long experience with theater, and with Theatre Communications Group to launch the New Generations Program in 2000, a theater initiative that we collaboratively developed from the ground up.

We listen to leaders in the field to find out what the needs, gaps, and issues are and then design programs around what we've learned. Our staff knows the field and each person is hired for his or her expertise, but working in a foundation insulates staff from the day-to-day realities of life in the arts. As a result, we want them to reach out to expert practitioners in the field. Again, having a small staff obliges you to work with others. Our arts staff meets frequently with potential grantees, is active in arts and culture policy meetings and roundtables, and monitors work in the field through attendance at arts events. That said, we often convene advisory groups and use peer panels to guide us in funding decisions; we work with intermediaries and national service organizations to engage entire fields in dialogue and help administer our programs.

PND: How important are endowments?

Because we insist that endowment grantees match our contribution, organizations are able to leverage our money and grow....

JS: Because an endowment helps strengthen and stabilize an institution, provides artistic freedom, and allows institutions to experiment — all of which is very much in line with Doris Duke's thinking — endowment building became part of our grantmaking philosophy early on. Because we insist that endowment grantees match our contribution, the organizations are able to leverage our money, to approach new and traditional supporters, and grow. For instance, we gave one organization an endowment grant of $1.5 million at a time when they were having financial difficulties. We felt they had the institutional capacity, and the board capacity, to be the steward of an endowment and to grow it, and our grant helped them leverage other support. So an endowment allows you to leverage resources and grow, but that doesn't mean that every institution can or should have one. Because we've learned that some institutions have other needs — cash reserves, programmatic support, infrastructure support, or new initiative funds, for example — we don't have a "one size fits all" approach to grantmaking.

PND: Do you allocate roughly the same amount to each of your four program areas?

JS: The three original grant programs — performing arts, medical research, and the environment — receive almost the same amount. In 2005, grant approvals for performing arts totaled $18 million, and that was roughly the same in the other two areas. We also have a child abuse prevention program, established in 2000, that has a budget about half that size.

PND: What factors do you expect to influence the development of your arts programs in the future?

JS: We do regular program-wide evaluations — stepping back, convening experts, and asking not only how are the programs working, but are we funding the right areas? Is this where the real needs are now? How can we refine this? Have we got it right? — and we plan to evaluate our arts program at the end of this year. We have funded a series of field-wide discussions in theater, and are currently funding similar conversations in presenting and dance, just to make sure that we're still current in our understanding of the field. It's important for us to be responsive to the field, as well as to bring our own discipline, intelligence, and wisdom to our grantmaking.

PND: Do you consider Doris Duke's residences and art collections at Rough Point in Newport, Rhode Island, and Shangri La in Honolulu visual-arts components of your arts program?

JS: Yes. Rough Point and Shangri La are both historic houses and museums. Shangri La houses Islamic art, while Rough Point houses Doris Duke's European fine arts and decorative arts collections. She wanted both properties to be open to the public and also for Shangri La to be made available to scholars and students. We have had artists-in-residence there, along with art historians and experts on textiles and Islamic tiles.

PND: Do you have other plans for making her collections more accessible to the public?

JS: We're expanding our Shangri La program and have just hired a full-time curator. We also recently mounted our first exhibition from Doris's textile collection — featuring suzanis, embroidered material from the Caucasus, a traditional art form that she loved 8212 at the East-West Center in Honolulu. We're thinking about touring portions of Doris Duke's Islamic art collection outside of Hawaii.

In addition, we have all her belongings, letters, and architectural drawings and are now creating an archive. We delve into the materials both systematically, going through and trying to catalog everything, and episodically, researching a particular aspect of Doris Duke's life for a specific reason, such as an exhibition. For example, after we awarded a grant to Jacobs Pillow, the staff wanted to know about Doris's funding of dance; that's when we found the Katherine Dunham letters, and eventually we gave a grant to the Library of Congress to preserve her papers and artistic legacy.

We've also transferred twenty original films for preservation purposes that contain footage of Doris in Hawaii and at Shangri La, including during its construction. And we're conducting oral histories with people who knew Doris. Although our archive is still a work in progress and is not likely to open to the public or researchers for many years, the academic in me hopes that someday someone will use our archive to write a serious biography of Doris Duke, or maybe a series of articles, based on the facts.

PND: Earlier you mentioned partnering with the Mellon Foundation, and you've partnered with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Surdna Foundation. How do grant recipients benefit from funder collaborations, and what is the benefit to funders themselves?

JS: Collaboration brings more resources to the table, and support from major foundations provides a certain credibility or legitimacy that can help an organization raise other funds. There's also an intellectual richness; the Mellon people had a lot of knowledge about the theater, and we were happy to piggyback on their experience. The same was true with the Surdna Foundation and its focus on arts and education.

Collaboration makes us better grantmakers and enables us to bring others to the table....

Collaboration makes us better grantmakers and enables us to bring others to the table. To me, what is special about the programs we created with Mellon and the Surdna Foundation is that we designed them together, with input from leaders in the field, and developed them from the ground up.

PND: Many arts organizations are struggling to attract a more diverse, younger audience. What advice can you offer them on how to accomplish that?

JS: The purpose of art is to reach people — different kinds of people — and having a diverse audience enriches the art, making it more interesting and more relevant. So expanding an audience isn't just about paying the rent or bringing in more people to support programs. Organizations expand and diversify their audience in different ways, depending on their community; their approach also has to be in keeping with what they do as a performing arts group, rather than simply a big marketing project. Effective organizations know how to do that. Our early grants to Jazz at Lincoln Center, when it was a baby organization, helped it broaden the audience for events at Lincoln Center as well as expose more people to jazz.

At the same time, arts groups have to keep in touch with what's going on in the world around them, and then reach out to both diverse and new audiences, including younger audiences. Because they grew up in a technology-saturated world, younger audiences are very different from older audiences. Younger audiences want entertainment on demand, accessible in different ways, and that's one of the reasons subscriptions for many organizations are declining. So arts institutions need to think creatively about finding new supporters, and I believe the successful ones will. Smart organizations are creating new marketing strategies, changing programs, rethinking organizational structures and board composition, and thinking creatively about the impact and possibilities of facilities — all in an attempt to reach new audiences.

PND: How committed to arts funding is the foundation?

JS: We are committed to being a national funder in a sector in which there are increasingly fewer national funders. I find myself worrying about the decline in real dollars available through the National Endowment for the Arts and the erosion of support from other funders, though. The good news is that many of the successful arts organizations are cultivating relationships in their own communities with local foundations and individual benefactors.

PND: What have you learned about arts funding that you wish you had known when you started out ten years ago?

JS: I knew nothing when I started! My professional background prior to coming to the foundation was in an area altogether different, but I quickly learned to turn to very smart, knowledgeable, and experienced people in the field. I commissioned papers on what was going on in jazz and modern dance, and I asked former colleagues to help me. It's important not to try and do it all yourself. At the foundation, that's been our philosophy all along.

PND: If you had one piece of advice for arts organizations on how to obtain funding, what would it be?

JS: Do good work and be in touch with your constituencies. The two are interdependent.

PND: Well, thank you for speaking with us.

JS: You're welcome.

PND writer Alice Garrard spoke with Joan Spero in late August. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact PND editorial director Mitch Nauffts at