Title: Leverage Lost: The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era
Author(s): John Kreidler
Publisher: The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society (republished in Grantmakers in the Arts Reader)
Topics: Nonprofit sector, arts philanthropy, arts sector history
Methods: Historical analysis and review
What it says: In Leverage Lost, John Kreidler examines the history of the nonprofit arts sector and distinguishes between three eras: the Pre-Ford Industrial Revolution (to 1957), the Ford Era (1957 – 1990), and the Post-Ford Era (1990 – publication of the article in 1996). The first stage is characterized by individual proprietorships as the dominant model for arts creation and growth in public participation in arts. Kreidler ties this growth to several large scale changes taking place in American society, including the rise of public education, increasing prosperity, demographic shifts towards a larger and more urban population, increased leisure time, and changes in societal values towards greater public expressiveness. Kreidler also notes that arts production in this era and the next was enabled by the willingness of artists to work for less compensation than professionals in other sectors. Towards the end of this period, new technologies like film and television increased the competition faced by live performance groups and high art organizations began to adopt the nonprofit model, primarily funded by a mix of ticket revenues and donations from individuals.
Kreidler’s analysis of the period from 1957 to 1990 focuses on the arts grantmaking strategy of the Ford Foundation, led by vice president W. McNeil Lowry. The Ford Foundations’s entry into arts grantmaking took place against the backdrop of the cold war, and the growing sentiment that America needed cultural products of higher quality to complement its economic and political might. Ford made investments designed to revitalize major arts institutions, enhance arts schools, establish and advance regional nonprofit arts organizations, and create national arts service organizations. The Foundation used a strategy of matching grants and time-limited funds designed to leverage additional arts funding from other sources. Kriedler identifies Ford’s strategy, and its subsequent adoption by other institutional funders around the country, as the main catalyst of the massive growth of the non-profit arts sector in this era. The article also notes that staff from the Ford Foundation also played in a role in advocacy for the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts, which uses similar leverage strategies in its own grantmaking to this day.
In Kreidler’s view, The Post-Ford Era (1990 to publication of Leverage Lost in 1996) is characterized by rising labor costs within the sector and an inevitable end to the growth of institutional arts funding. Kreidler attributes the decline in cheap labor to the increasing salary needs of arts professionals as they age, as well as higher earnings expectations of younger workers.These reversals, accompanied by apparently decreasing demand for the services of nonprofit arts organizations, lead Kreidler to ask whether the nonprofit arts model is viable for the long term. He predicts an eventual decline in available funding and subsequent numbers of arts nonprofits, with small and medium sized organizations hit hardest.
What I think about it: A piece of well-informed commentary rather than a rigorous research study, Kreidler’s article puts the current system of nonprofit arts funding into needed historical context, reminding us how recently it was developed, and that the conditions that led to its rapid growth are not necessarily permanent. Kreidler constructs his historical narrative around the importance of a single actor, the Ford Foundation, which is compellingly articulated if not conclusively proven.
His description of trends in the current era seem to be based mostly on personal experience and observation, and are also deeply specific to the particular moment the article was written. Many of the major reversals in factors like leisure time, prosperity, and societal values he touches upon have not come to pass to the extent that he predicts. None of this detracts from the value of providing historical context for the sector, or from Kreidler’s main point that the strategies and conditions that successfully jump started the growth of nonprofit arts movement will not necessarily be sustained indefinitely.
What it all means: Kreider’s historical analysis and his discussion of the nonprofit arts sectors as a dynamic system make this a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the future of the arts in America. While not all of his commentary on trends in the mid-90s remains relevant, the major questions he raises about the future of the nonprofit model and the ability of the funding community, or any central actor, to exert leverage on the scale of the Ford Foundation in the 1950s remain central to health of the arts ecosystem.