Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy: Part II – Philanthropy and Experimentation

Note: This is the second of a multipart series on the arts and philanthropy. I hope these ideas are of interest and welcome suggestions and feedback. To view the rest of this series, click here.

When we left off last week, I noted that it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of the arts when we don’t all agree what it is, exactly, about the arts that makes them worth funding. Is it because they contribute to American cultural literacy, the idea being that people are somehow more erudite and interesting if they have a familiarity with what’s going on in various fields of artistic endeavor? Is it because supporting the arts in America means contributing to a body of American artistic work that we can all, as a nation, be proud of? Or is it about something more practical, like improving math and science test scores for kids, or promoting economic development in impoverished urban areas? Or is it about something completely different, like exposing underserved populations to an experience traditionally enjoyed by upper classes?

The RAND Corporation published a nice study a few years ago called Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Value of the Arts. The authors identified a range of benefits, ranging from simple individual emotions such as pleasure and captivation to complex public phenomena such as development of social capital and expression of communal meaning. One of the main points that the authors make is that the public dialogue about the arts tends to bias what they call instrumental benefits, such as improved test scores and learning skills, over intrinsic benefits like extended capacity for empathy and creation of social bonds. Think about that for a second: what can we say about these instrumental benefits as distinct from the intrinsic benefits? That’s right—the intrinsic benefits are really hard to measure! They are what my economics professors might call an “externality”—a force that undeniably exists but that cannot be represented in the model we’re using. So without a reliable objective standard to use as a measuring stick, one might ask, how can grantmakers in the arts properly judge the effectiveness of arts organizations in manifesting these outcomes?

This question really gets at one of the central paradoxes in arts funding. The process of applying for grants is supposed to be objective; otherwise funders might as well pre-select the grantees themselves, right? Applicants depend on a fundamentally meritocratic system that will allow them access to resources in exchange for a quality effort on their part. But making a decision is not as simple as collecting a bunch of numbers and plugging them into a formula. Assessing the “artistic quality” or “integrity” of an applicant’s work certainly doesn’t work like that; nor does evaluating the real impact on audiences of art that has a social or political mission. Even the numbers are not always our friends. Take attendance figures, for example: 800 casual listeners at an open-air concert may not be directly comparable to 50 viewers of an experimental dance show or 100 teenagers seeing a theater piece about AIDS.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers with this, but here’s what I can tell you about my own philosophy. I believe in the intrinsic value of the arts to do all of these things and more. Furthermore, competition between organizations that are engaged in the creation or presentation of artistic work is not an issue the way it can be for service organizations. Rather than divide the market, a high concentration of organizations and artists pursuing their passions will create cumulative network effects that expand the possibilities for all who are involved, from increased cultural tourism to higher land values, to more employment opportunities and a more creative and ambitious workforce. This is the great value in having a critical mass of organizations that contribute to an active “scene” in a particular area: it can go a long way towards redefining that locality as a creative, fun, and attractive place to be.

So if I’m an agency funding the arts, in some sense I’m not so incredibly concerned with the specific effectiveness of each individual organization I’m supporting. Of course you want your money to be used wisely, but it’s a good thing for the size of the art scene to be able to accommodate the full population of artists who want to work in your geographic area of interest; in other words, to grow according to the supply of artists, not audience demand. So it does not make sense, I would argue, only to fund the blue-chip institutions like the art museums, the symphony orchestras, and the major theater companies in hopes (for example) of lending international prominence and legitimacy to the community. Such a top-down approach potentially leaves out a much larger underground network of artists doing their best to scratch out a living with no institutional support, despite creating significant value for their local communities and economies.

Arts funders have traditionally been somewhat reluctant to support such scenes directly because of the difficulty evaluating their performance with precision. Most young, DIY, entrepreneurial arts organizations lack infrastructure and a certain professionalism of presentation, even if the art itself is top-notch. I feel, however, that an intense focus on objective evaluation in such cases is short-sighted, since the risk associated with the failure or ineffectiveness of any given organization is relatively small. Instead, funding agencies would do better to examine the effectiveness of the “scene” as a whole: i.e., to what extent prospective and current grantees are communicating with each other, creating employment opportunities (both artistic and operational), benefiting from synergistic partnerships, and generally contributing to the artistic profile and quality of life of the community as a whole. By adopting a less risk-averse strategy and being open to experimentation in their philanthropy, arts funders can better serve both the artist community and the public while embodying the most inspiring attributes of the field they are funding.

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One Comment

  1. will m.
    Posted November 10th, 2007 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I really like how you put the emphasis on the synergistic aspect of the arts. All true creative energy is enhanced by synergism. And while competition [the current dominant paradigm] can be stimulating to creativity in some cases [the ones that succeed, in a Darwinian sense], its’ primary effect is a depressive one.

    After all, a truly creative environment needs both a base of security from which to operate, to allow the creative ‘juices’ to flow, as well as a context of demand, whether economic or social, in order to stimulate productivity. And a programme of ‘broadcast seeding’ philanthropy can achieve both together, by widely distributing resources
    within an artistic community. First, a sensibility of prosperity is engendered among the artists and their friends and followers, allowing a greater overall output due to greater time and energy being released towards creative rather than simply survival work.

    Secondly, as your piece reveals, artists of all kinds feed off of each other, and support each other, without need of any other form of stimulation. This is well shown in any artistic scene, whether that of the music scene in Austin, or an artists’ colony in places like Rockport or Provincetown MA, or off the coast of Maine. And the greater the critical mass, so to speak, the greater the possibilities of synergy that exist.

    The main stumbling block for many arts philanthropists in this model, however, is that many are driven by a prestige and recognition motive. The higher the profile an organization they can sponsor, the more trophies they can place on the shelf. In order to shift towards the distributive model above, they have to learn to become driven by an altruistic motive of helping an entire community, whether or not any one piece of that community becomes prominent enough for their gratitude to ever be noticed by the larger world.

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