Where’s the $500 million fund for the arts?

Row X by Hannah Grannemann

Last week, four big name funders, MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and the Knight Foundation, announced a $500 million initiative called Press Forward. The goal of the fund is to support the local news sector (both nonprofit and for-profit) to revive and modernize local news. Funds will support infrastructure for community-centered news, new journalistic practices, increasing diversity in newsrooms, and new business models.

I shook my head reading about Press Forward. Not because I don’t think it’s a good initiative, which I do. I felt disillusioned because it wasn’t an announcement about Arts Forward, a $500 million investment from private philanthropy to revive and modernize the nonprofit arts. It’s obvious that the arts need to make a similar transition as local news, but there’s no coordinated half-billion dollar fund for the arts. Arts Forward doesn’t exist. Why?

It feels even worse when you look at the full list of funders and recognize that the same large foundations funding Press Forward also support the arts: MacArthur, Knight, Ford, Hewlett, Carnegie, Sloan, Henry Luce, McKnight. I’m not pointing this out to call these funders out. I’m pointing this out to say that these are exactly the funders who are the likeliest candidates for making a big, sector-wide investment.

If these funders, who know our sector inside and out, and have supported it at the highest levels for many decades, aren’t stepping up, it’s not because they don’t know the challenges. We haven’t persuaded or inspired them to create an Arts Forward fund, and that’s our fault.

Press Forward could be a model for the arts. It’s exactly the kind of investment that the arts could use: part stabilization, part innovation incentive, part infrastructure, all towards a public benefit to reinforce in some of our country’s core values of democracy and free speech.

Local news outlets have been hollowed out and closing everywhere as readership dropped and the bottom fell out of advertising revenue driven by the spread of the internet. Journalism is a people-heavy business that needs writers, editors, and myriad staff with specialized skills and a deep commitment to the work. Being on the ground and knowledge about community matters.  Local news needs to find a new business model after the one that has been working for a long time stopped working.

Sound familiar?*

The rationale for the Press Forward fund, as described in the public announcement and media coverage, is:

  1. There is an urgent and compelling reason to invest in local news because the lack of local news has a negative impact on everyday people in our country. A paucity of local news allows government corruption to flourish and disinformation to flow, threatening the functioning of democracy.
  2. There are existing, concrete solutions that the foundations think have a good chance of making a difference. According to the vision statement on the Press Forward website, these include internal practices, focusing on community needs in deciding what news gets published, and accessibility of news.
  3. The funders are confident that there are grantees that will be ready to use the funds starting next year.

If Press Forward is the baked cake from a recipe for inspiring funders to make a significant investment in transformational change – an urgent need, available solutions, and organizations to enact the solutions – does the arts sector have the ingredients? Those of us working in the arts would say that we do. Yet funders are not rolling out announcements about a transformational level of funding to save and transform our sector so it can continue providing essential services for our society to heal and thrive.

In my view, it’s the first rationale about an urgent, compelling need that is weakest. The arts are falling short on making the case that the arts nonprofit sector is important enough to the broader society to rescue, rework, and shepherd to its next phase.

It’s significant that the Press Forward fund is not framed as a bailout for local news, as the requests for big funding for the arts have been framed. Talking about a bailout makes us worry about throwing good money away. Nor is it a plan to scrap everything and start from the ground up, which is too drastic. It’s a forward looking approach to keep the best of the past and make changes in journalism that will matter to everyday people for the good of our democracy.

Unfortunately, staff layoffs, shortened seasons, and closing companies in the arts quickly became yesterday’s news. What’s needed now is an above-the-fold story that inspires broad support from both the general public and decision makers with significant resources.

Would it be possible for the arts sector to come together and make a cohesive, powerful, and – most importantly – effective and persuasive case for an Arts Forward plan? And do it quickly before all the skilled talent leaves the field permanently, the interdependence of the arts ecosystem falters, and we reach the bottom that local news reached? I hope so.

*I see several commonalities between the crisis in local news and the challenges in the nonprofit arts sector:

  • Revenue comes from multiple streams from both the users (readers or audience/visitors) and third parties (advertisers or funders/sponsors).
  • The business model and financial models have experienced large and sudden shifts in the last 25-ish years that have caused a shrinkage of the sector and necessitated huge changes in the process by which work is produced and the work itself.
  • Changes in the business and financial models have largely been caused by changes in technology and consumer preferences. For news, the internet and expansion of free information and no barrier to entry for anyone who wants to write and share their ideas. For arts, competing entertainment options from streaming and video games and other sectors such as restaurants providing engaging entertainment to fulfill the desire for shared social experiences.
  • The sector operates in both the private and non-profit sectors, though news has been largely private sector with a growing non-profit presence over the past two decades.
  • Both news and arts have struggled to develop diverse workforces even though they claim it is a priority.
  • Both news and arts claim to be essential to our society in the areas of having an engaged and educated citizenry.
  • The credibility of the work depends on trust in the process (not just the product) of the work in both cases, both from people working in the field and its audiences.

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