Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ford Signals Major Changes for Arts Landscape

In the future, we may very well look back on Darren Walker’s announcement of the Ford Foundation’s shifting program parameters as a seminal moment, marking the day the golden age of art for art’s sake had clearly slipped away. Ironically, it was Ford, amongst others, who seeded the environment for the full flowering of that idea as an organizing principle for arts organizations and artistic creation. Importantly, Walker reaffirmed his support for the arts, noting, however, that arts-makers and presenters will need to follow a different path to receive funding:

[]Ford, which started Lincoln Center in 1958 with $25 million in grants, won’t abandon its support of the arts, according to Mr. Walker. But to catch the grant maker’s attention, artists, filmmakers, and choreographers will need to focus on social justice and challenge "dominant narratives" that perpetuate inequality.
Ford’s announcement that it will only fund activities that address inequality follows a growing trend by public and private funding bodies to shift their focus to broader societal issues. The impact of this trend on arts organizations is monumental; the inherent value of the arts is no longer axiomatic, leaving arts organizations that want to thrive with the task of rediscovering or reaffirming the value they provide their community. This is, by no means, a diminishment of the importance of the arts nor should it per se suppress the quality of the art we create. Past experience with such strategies, like the WPA's Federal Project Number One, successfully funded important works of art while employing large numbers of artists.

In this new framework, the arts are only one of a number of vehicles available to accomplish other societal imperatives. Whereas in the past 50 years, there was great support for the arts qua arts as a sign of the heights of the accomplishments of our society, there has been an ongoing trend to redefine the cultural landscape and, therefore, the role the arts play in accomplishing broader societal goals. For arts organizations going forward, this only accentuates the need to understand and have a strong sense of their community engagement, so as to maximize the value they deliver when considered in this new paradigm. Arts organizations that do not make this shift, from considering their role as solely creating and presenting exciting art to relating such activity to benefiting other community aspirations, will find it more and more difficult to generate the necessary funds to sustain themselves.