Study highlights underfunding of Southern arts, social justice sector

Study highlights underfunding of Southern arts, social justice sector

The nonprofit arts and culture sector in the South is seriously underfunded and the funding that is available is inequitably distributed, a report commissioned by Ignite/Arts Dallas at SMU Meadows School of the Arts and AlternateROOTS finds.

Based on interviews with grantmakers, artists, cultural activists, and community organizers, many of whom work with Black, LGBTQ, Indigenous, and other marginalized populations, the report, Freedom Maps: Activating legacies of culture, art, and activism in the U.S. South (39 pages, PDF), examined the practices and informal infrastructure that support the arts and culture in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. 

According to the report, many Southern practitioners work at the intersection between art, culture, and social justice work and are aware of the importance of building on the region's tradition of cultural organizing. At the same time, according to 2017 Foundation Center/Candid data, the arts sector in the South receives only $4.21 on a per capita basis in philanthropic support, compared with nearly $8 in the West, $9 in the Midwest, and more than $16 in the Northeast. The report also found that between 2015 and 2017, the 12 percent of arts and cultural organizations in the South that had annual budgets of at least $10 million received between 49 percent and 62 percent of total foundation funding for the arts, leaving a large majority of arts groups in the region to rely on other funding sources. As for public arts funding, state arts agencies in the South awarded about $0.50 on a per capita basis in 2016, while 9 percent of grants and only 2.5 percent of grant dollars awarded between 2007 and 2016 went to individual artists and 27 percent of grants but only 15.1 percent of grant dollars went to non-metro-area grantees.

When asked about the ecosystem of support for arts and cultural work, interviewees cited a number of challenges, including the "invisibility" of Southern arts and culture, the lack of flexible funding, the lack of technical assistance, and the marginalization of folk and traditional arts more broadly. Practitioners also cited non-infrastructural challenges such as racism, economic injustice, the urban-rural resource gap, lack of available space, and cultural worker burnout — many of which overlap the very issues that artists in the region are seeking to address. 

"Entrenched structures of oppression, combined with a chronic lack of philanthropic and public investment in local cultural organizations and artists," the authors write, "have led Southern artists to build alternative systems of mutual support, resource sharing, and collaboration." That "solidarity economy" includes exchanging goods or services, presenting work in non-traditional venues, networking to share opportunities and support, and forming cooperatives to secure arts spaces. 

At least half the interviewees said funders looking to support work at the intersection of arts, culture, and social justice in the South should focus more on relationship building, investing time as well as money, not acting as "gatekeepers," and building trust. The authors' recommendations for philanthropy include listening to and learning from those on the ground, funding existing community groups and institutions, supporting the development of local artists on their own terms, and making long-term investments in support of infrastructure and organizational capacity.

"Listen to the people and the community and the work that you are trying to help with instead of going in with your own preconceived notions about what needs to be done and what needs to be funded," says filmmaker and cultural organizer Audria Byrd  in the report. "[B]e mindful about the work that you're funding and the way that you're funding people. Be careful that that does not reinforce the inequality that I'm assuming you want to end, or remedy. And also, invest in structural long-term changes, at least as much as you're investing in short-term band-aids."

(Photo credit: Freedom Maps)