Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

An Act of Faith: Why Should Philanthropists Fund the Arts?

An Act of Faith: Why Should Philanthropists Fund the Arts?

Few things make so deep or immediate an impression or can dramatize the human condition so forcibly as a piece of art, yet it's an area where funders are reluctant to tread. We asked a number of funders who support the arts and a number of arts organizations and artists from around the world to answer just one question: "Why should philanthropists fund the arts?" Their answers suggest that the reasons for support resist narrow classification: the arts are neither just a minority interest for those with money to spare, nor simply a means to achieve social change for those who do not.

According to Farai Mpfunya of the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe, "[T]he arts offer a unique way of appreciating the creative potential of the human mind, the innovative capacity of ideas, products and services, immensely benefiting humanity, often in immeasurable ways."

Most of those we spoke with had something similar to say, yet art and culture remains a difficult "sell" for many funders.

Why Don't More Funders Support the Arts?

It's difficult to measure the impact. Where are the tangible returns of the arts? If it's difficult to assess other kinds of projects – those which have an expected causal link between efforts and outcomes – it's even more difficult to measure how an art project works on the imagination and emotions of its purveyors and consumers, and whose effects are unpredictable. The only measurable is body count – getting more people to participate in the arts or enjoy them as spectators.

Some of the funders we polled see access to and involvement in the arts as a major part of their mission. Jackie Netto of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in Sri Lanka says,"The show-stoppers have been the projects that take art to audiences that would otherwise never be exposed to it."

But Ruwanthie de Chickera of Stages Theatre Group, also in Sri Lanka, sees the question of visible returns as an obstacle for some funders: "It is easier for people to feel the 'results' of their generosity when they deal with material things. Support education and give children school books, support health care and build a hospital ward, help eradicate poverty and build someone a house….These are all things that stand the test of time which continue to be monuments to one's generosity."

On the other hand, Rania Elias of the Palestinian Yabous Cultural Centre argues that the arts can have tangible impact. "Philanthropic money directed to the arts can influence economic and neighborhood growth and maturity," he says. "Some in the private sector have already come to this conclusion and collected great return on that investment. Arts revive communities and reinforce the economy, create an active and vibrant society, and enhance safety."

There are more urgent things to support. Many believe that art is secondary to the more urgent concerns of our time. Ruwanthie de Chickera remarks that the arts are very low on the list of worthy causes to put money into, mainly because funders see better uses for their philanthropic dollars, particularly critical issues such as poverty, education, and health care.

Evelyn Iochpe of the Iochpe Foundation in Brazil counters, "It is worthwhile to commit to the arts even in a world where we still struggle with hunger, because in such a brutal world, we need the space for thought, for reflection, for criticism."

And, as we'll discuss below, many of our respondents agree with her.

Funding the arts is like building one's own pyramid. Ruwanthia de Chickera also hints at a self-serving element that can be prevalent in funding for art and culture. "Building an art foundation seems to mean building one's own pyramid," says Iochpe, who dubs this sort of activity "artketing," while Rania Elias notes that "some might see it as investment in prestige – especially if the result is their name being engraved on a new wing in a museum or a concert hall."

Arts funding is elitist. The idea persists that arts funding promotes so-called "high" art and culture – classical music, opera, ballet – and mostly serves to help the already-privileged enjoy their privileges. Undoubtedly, some of it does, but it doesn't have to. Even if you don't subscribe to the philosophy that art can be anything, almost everyone understands that "the arts" is much more than Swan Lake, the Mona Lisa, and Shakespeare's plays.

Consider Lia Rodrigues' description of the founding of the Centro de Artes da Maré in Rio de Janeiro, the first cultural center in the Maré slums. Maré is an area of around 132,000 inhabitants, effectively controlled by three different drug-dealing gangs. In common with many of Rio's slums, the area is rarely found on maps of the city and is practically unknown to most Rio dwellers, partly as a result of deliberate municipal government strategies. "We built this space in Maré not just for the company but for the whole community. It is a common asset. To be based in Maré," she adds, "is certainly a political decision. It means going against this trend of exclusion, invisibility, and empty

Why Philanthropists Should Fund the Arts

For arts organizations the world over, funds are in short supply. "In Brazil," says Rodrigues, "there is no real funding program for culture." 
The same is true in Sri Lanka, says Jackie Netto. "Whether it is art for art's sake, or art for social change, Sri Lankan artists have limited access to resources. Nor are there established structures or organizations that support them."

When governments and development agencies support the arts, it is often in the service of economic interests, South Africa playwright Mike van Graan suggests. "Freedom of creative expression is often made subject to political and economic interests," he adds. "It is against this backdrop that philanthropy in support of the arts and artists is necessary to promote and defend independent artistic expression and distribution."

Promoting discussion of sensitive issues in conservative societies. Funders tend to shy away from the sensitive, the controversial, and the political. The Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust takes the opposite course, says Netto. "We believe that arts (and culture) can be the vehicle for change…when other forms of expression are suppressed."

It is one of the ways, she believes, that discussion of sensitive issues such as gender-based violence can take place in conservative societies. Since 2001, a quarter of the trust's funds have gone to support arts projects.

Chris Stone of the Open Society Foundations makes the same point. "In closed societies," he argues, "the connection of artists and their audiences upholds freedom of association and the exchange of ideas in circumstances that otherwise would not be possible."

For Stone, investment in the arts is a good way of building societies whose difficulties are mediated through discussion rather than violence. "Philanthropic investments in the visual, performing, and literary arts are a powerful means of fostering societies where dissent flourishes, skepticism and criticism thrive, and speech – not violence – is the primary instrument of politics."

Changing attitudes. "When change happens, one component is always cultural change," notes Ruby Lerner, president of Creative Capital. "You can change legislation, but if people's hearts and minds don't change, true progress cannot be made."

Understanding and shaping our world. Many of the people we talked with see the arts and artists as playing a role in helping people explain their lives and circumstances and guiding them through an exploration of solutions. As Omar Al Qattan of the A M Qattan Foundation puts it, "A people may be hungry and destitute, or simply troubled and violent, but only when they know why they are so, will they be able to change their condition."

"Art can help us re-imagine our past and present, and transform our future," says Jane Trowell of Platform UK, a group of artists, researchers, and campaigners working on social and environmental justice issues. "Supporting the risks associated with contemporary art practice…is the key to expanding the pool of ideas essential for the health, and the survival, of an evolving culture," says Mel Chin of Operation Paydirt.

In a world with increasing inequality, says Arundhati Ghosh of India Foundation for the Arts, with "no dearth of wars within and across nations in the name of religion, race, language and ethnicity," freedom of expression is continuously at stake, "The arts enable us to explore ways of thinking for ourselves, connecting us together through shared experiences – to question, resist, build. Through the arts, an individual's struggle finds voices as many create common spaces to imagine a collective future. The arts make us human. Social urgency is the most crucial reason why the arts must be supported."

Shawn van Sluys of Musagetes in Canada takes his starting point in the root of the word philanthropy, meaning "love of humanity." "That's a pretty basic criterion for the work of supporting people, projects, and organizations in sectors that are in the business of improving life for all people," he argues. It also provides the most compelling argument for philanthropic funding for the arts. "As a form of inquiry into our ordinary lives and the world around us," he adds, "the arts lead us to see ever greater possibilities for ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environments."

Marion Potts of Malthouse Theatre in Australia adds, "In funding art, philanthropy funds our ongoing ability to define and shape our world."

The relationship between the arts and social change. It would be wrong to conclude that funders – much less artists themselves – see the arts as simply a means to a social end. The relationship between the arts and social change is a much less straightforward one. "Everything we are doing is part of an artistic creation, as well as a political stance in the world," says Lia Rodrigues. Even funders whose principal purpose is social change seldom see the arts as simply a form of social engineering, she notes.

Shawn van Sluys cautions against assessing the impact of the arts in quantitative ways just to satisfy change agendas. "We must eschew the reduction of the arts to mere instruments of social change, measured through the calculus of an overemphasis on rational thinking," he says. "Since philanthropists love humanity, they must play the long game and support artists and organizations for their capacity to help us think deeply, critically, and beautifully."

The Switzerland-based Oak Foundation has no "complex theories of change linking art to social justice," says its president, Kathleen Cravero-Kristoffersson, but its trustees do believe that there is a connection and feel strongly that everyone should have access to arts and culture. "We don't know if these grants will change the world," she notes. "We do know that they bring joy and beauty into the lives of children and families for whom both are in short supply. And that's enough for us." The foundation's grantmaking has included support to Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts in New York City to create new public spaces and wider access to their live events; Fondation Resonnance in Switzerland, which offers classical piano concerts in hospitals and old age homes; and the Courtauld Institute and Prince's Foundation for Children and the Arts in the UK, which connect young people in low-income neighborhoods to the creative arts and art history.

While Cravero uses the words "beauty" and "joy," others speak the language of human rights. Mike van Graan, for example, talks of the "fundamental human right of individuals to have access to the arts and to participate in the cultural life of their community." Most see art as a good in itself, which can produce other "goods."

This is why Evelyn Ioschpe sees art education as so important: "Through it we can guarantee a school that speaks deeply to the child and involves all her senses. We need brains, but we need even more sensibilities to make this and our future world a livable place."

Part of that wider universe. None of the people we talked with see art and culture as something distinct from the rest of life, a diversion from the dour business of living. Omar Al Qattan makes this point eloquently: "Art is part of culture, and culture is that wider universe containing what we see and hear, smell and eat, renege and accept, analyze and consume, and hate and delight in every day."

Ruby Lerner adds, "No matter what philanthropists or foundations seek to support, they can find their missions manifested in cultural form, whether it be a documentary film or an art installation."

Why Philanthropy Must Fund the Arts

Not only should philanthropy support the arts without blushing; in the view of some of our interviewees, it must do so. In societies where artists criticize the state of things, there may be no alternative source of funding. In addition, suggests Omar al Qattan, "there are many societies where the very principle of sharing our wealth, even for something as essential to survival as health or education, is still not accepted," and that is even more true of cultural life. Until and unless this changes, he says, "only philanthropy, or revolution, whichever comes first, will be able to fill the gap."

Leonard Vary of Australia's Myer Foundation is equally emphatic that philanthropic support for the arts is imperative. More money is being given away than ever before, he observes. This is going to help find more cures for disease and alleviate poverty and want, and yet these things persist. Why? Because money alone "can't help us navigate our anthropological adolescence," he says. "We need more than money. We need new ideas. We need creativity. We need compassion. And understanding. We need language and we need empathy. Money won't teach us these things, but art and artists will.

"So we have to fund it," he says. "We don't have a choice. If we're to survive, we have to support the arts and artists."

Spanish artist Fernando García-Dory also uses the language of need. "The Anthropocene needs to define a new paradigm in order for human species to survive. This involves a total reconsideration of art and the artist's role beyond contemporary arts establishments and the limited market and recognition system."

Can Philanthropy be a Partner in Transformation?

For Mel Chin, the real question is not whether philanthropy should support the arts, but "can it also become a partner in transformation, by being a critical partner — providing means for connections, collaborations, and expertise with the artist to build the capacity to respond to the 'storm clouds' of our century."

The view that funders can be allies is also held by García-Dory, who sees alliance with like-minded, resourced supporters as crucial to his "total reconsideration" of art and artists. "We need those who have an influential position or who have successfully operated in the current economic model, to share in this crucial quest," he says.

Jane Trowell expands on this theme. "For us it is important that the philanthropists we work with share this commitment and work with us towards joint ends. The most fruitful funder relationships flourish when ideas and creativity flow in both directions."

There is another side to the coin, however, Trowell warns. "Philanthropy is a fertile part of supporting arts and social change, but not at all costs." Support from the wrong source can be inhibiting as well as damaging to reputation. "The Tate has been under sustained fire since the Deepwater Horizon disaster for taking money from BP; the National Gallery and Science Museum promote Shell through sponsorship. This kind of corporate arts funding prevents transformation instead of enabling it." What is important, she adds, is shared vision, ethics, and values between funders and grantees.

Art for All Our Sakes

In funding the arts, philanthropists need not be afraid that they are fiddling while Rome burns, exalting the inessential at the expense of the indispensable. As our interviewees pointed out, artists have been and will continue to be critical in interpreting the world for us, denouncing its defects, and proposing alternatives for us to explore. In the words of Marion Potts, "art allows us to experience possibility."

And through the beauty and exhilaration they offer, the arts can lift us out of a condition that might otherwise be scarcely tolerable. Not a bad return on anyone's investment. If this is impossible to prove, it's almost equally hard to doubt.

"I can't get away from the constant anguish of asking myself if my work is worth it," says Lia Rodrigues. It's something that many funders probably also ponder, but the constant self-questioning is what keeps artists at the forefront of imaginative and intellectual exploration. In the end, as Ruwanthie de Chickera says, "It's an act of faith, for sure, but there is nothing more inspiring to an artist than someone's faith in the value of their work. It is what keeps us going."