In the Face of Recession, What Are Arts Funders Doing?

A Snapshot View

Holly Sidford, Helicon Collaborative

As funders we have three main challenges: first, getting a handle on the extent and impact of the recession; second, exerting leadership — being bold, positive, and opportunistic without being insensitive; and third — and most important — asking ourselves the same tough questions that we are asking grantees: how do we slip the vice-like grip of old mindsets and behaviors and adapt so we increase our relevance, resilience, and meaningful contributions to our community?
  — Foundation President

This article summarizes interviews with twenty-two diverse arts funders conducted in late April and early May and incorporates results from electronic surveys of arts funders conducted by GIA (in January and May) and New York Grantmakers in the Arts (in March). It is part of GIA's effort to provide members with real-time information about the impacts of the recession on funders and the arts field as a whole. Related GIA initiatives include its Economic Turmoil and Change blog; regional and national conference calls; previous articles in the GIA Reader; and a report on funding projections from the Foundation Center (also in this issue of the Reader).

The people interviewed for this article include representatives of private, corporate, and community foundations; local and state arts agencies; endowed and unendowed funders; and those that fund in multiple sectors as well as those that fund only in the arts. We spoke with program officers, program directors, and presidents or executive directors reflecting local, regional, and national perspectives. This was not conceived as a comprehensive study, but rather a gathering of representative opinions which, taken together, may suggest current patterns and a future trajectory.


Private and public sector arts funders across the country are still reeling from the shock waves of the recession. While a few have maintained or even slightly increased their giving compared to last year, most arts funders have reduced current grants budget by at least 10 percent and some by as much as 80 percent. Most are projecting further reductions in the next two years. Those whose own grants budgets have not been severely reduced are nevertheless directly affected by their peers' cutbacks, as nonprofit arts organizations increase their pleas for special consideration in these difficult times.

Funders' reactions are varied and inventive, but most appear to fall into one of three categories:

  • Concentrating the cuts — making major reductions in this year's or next year's grants budget;
  • Spreading the pain — distributing reductions over several years to ameliorate the size or impact of cuts;
  • Rethinking the business — significantly reconfiguring programs and, in some cases, the entire focus of the arts program.

Honoring previous commitments is all funders' highest priority. Some are meeting their obligations by re-negotiating the terms of grants, loosening restrictions, or lengthening the payout schedules. In one case, a foundation has negotiated with a grantee to postpone payments on an endowment pledge, but is adding funds to the total pledge to make up for the lost investment income from that endowment.

Even as they cut ongoing programs or postpone other planned initiatives, a number of foundations have initiated special programs to address the emergency, supporting loans, technical assistance, convenings, and grants to encourage collaborations, mergers or closures.

Funders' opinions about the arts community's response to the downturn are complex. Many express great admiration for the agility and resourcefulness of arts organizations, and believe the arts groups have been smarter and more nimble than nonprofits in some other sectors. Most express great sympathy for the challenges facing arts organizations, recognizing that the recession is making it even more difficult for them to deal with pre-existing structural problems such as inadequate capitalization and dwindling audiences. The majority are not surprised that most arts organizations have not made major changes in their activity yet. As one noted, “It is very difficult to make big strategic shifts in such a murky environment. They don't have enough information to ground such decisions, and we should not be pushing them to make those decisions prematurely.”

A few funders outspokenly wish that arts institutions and artists would do more. In the words of one funder, “Our country has never needed what the arts have to offer more than now. Recessions represent a loss of confidence, even a loss of hope. The arts are an antidote to that. The arts give people perspective, a sense of possibility, joy and insights about the ways we have overcome pain and adversity in the past. In my view, too many arts groups are not responding right now to our country's crisis of confidence. They are locked into programs they decided on two years ago, which don't connect with what people are experiencing today. They are not relevant, and they behave as if they would rather die than change.”

Despite the very real challenges facing both foundations and the arts sector, funders are optimistic about the future and believe the long-term prospects are positive. They believe there is additional trauma ahead, and it is likely that numerous arts organizations will be forced to fold or substantially reconfigure themselves in coming years. But they also think that the groups that endure, while they may be smaller in size, will be tougher and more resilient in character.

For themselves, funders hope that this crisis will teach arts grantmakers lasting lessons about humility, flexibility, and focus. “If we can be less bureaucratic and more responsive during this crisis, why can't we remain that way after the crisis?” asked one. Another observed, “If nothing else, this situation should wake all of us up to the importance of understanding nonprofit capitalization and the art of the long view. Maybe this is the beginning of the end of funders' focus on project grants, and the beginning of more appropriate and informed funding strategies genuinely tailored to each recipient's needs.”

Funder Actions in the Face of Recession

Interviews and survey results reveal some clear trends:

  • Significant reductions in private foundation endowments and public agency budgets. The average loss in endowment assets of arts funders appears to be in the 20-25 percent range, although some have experienced much greater drops — up to 35 percent for at least one. Public agencies have experienced equivalent or even greater cuts, approaching 50 percent in a few cases.
  • Concentrating the cuts, spreading the pain, rethinking the business. Each foundation is crafting its own response to the downturn. Some are shifting the basis of their payout — moving from basing it on an average over twelve quarters to basing it on four, if only for one year. This means steep reductions in grants this year or next, but a steadier course in subsequent years. Other foundations are trying to ameliorate the effects of their reduction in assets, in some cases exceeding their standard 5 percent payout practice or using lines of credit to sustain grantmaking levels and avoid invading endowment principal.

    More than 25 percent of our interviewees are reshaping their arts programs altogether. Some are still in the planning process, but change for all of these private funders appears to be headed in the direction of “negotiated operating support” or long-term strategic partnerships — fewer, longer, and more flexible grants tailored to achieve greater impact. Most of these foundations began rethinking their approach prior to the recession; they all feel the economic downturn confirms their choices. “We want to get to a future that does not look like the past. We had to change our own construct first. The recession only reinforces our view that we need fundamental shifts in the way the nonprofit arts sector operates and how funders support leadership in this field.”
  • Existing commitments are the priority. To honor existing commitments, some grantmakers are postponing new initiatives and some are dropping pilot programs. Many are re-negotiating the length or terms of commitments but not adjusting the grant size. A few multi-focus foundations that have experienced significant losses have eliminated entire programs (the San Francisco Foundation ended its Social Justice Program, for example), but none we interviewed had terminated its arts program.
  • Projected cuts for 2009 grants vary from 5 percent to 80 percent; most expect further cuts in 2010 and 2011. Close to 60 percent of the funders who responded to GIA's May survey 1 have cut this year's grantmaking budget by 10 percent or more; 20 percent have cut their grants budgets by at least 50 percent. Approximately 40 percent have made no change in their grants budget compared to last year. Public funders appear to be experiencing greater losses than private funders, in a few cases exceeding 40 percent. Both private and public funders expect to see additional cuts after 2009, and some project additional cuts of more than 10 percent in each of the next two or three years.
  • Funders are re-negotiating current grants, relaxing guidelines, and giving priority to operating support. In response to requests from grantees, most funders are lengthening the term of existing grants and allowing project grants to be re-purposed for general operating support. Several are being less strict with their matching requirements. A number have simplified application procedures, reduced the materials required with applications, or expedited payments to help grantees with cash flow. Some are allowing organizations to adjust their payout policies on endowments or other restricted funds previously funded by the foundation.
  • Support for artists is firm. Those funders who provide fellowships and other kinds of support for artists are sustaining those programs, and in a few places increasing emphasis on artists' needs.
  • Fewer grants for capital projects. The majority of funders who make capital grants are suspending these programs for the present, or limiting these grants to small and mid-sized organizations “because they need our help more than the big institutions.”
  • Emergency responses. A number of foundations have launched special initiatives to help nonprofit organizations cope with the recession. Examples include San Francisco Foundation's Nonprofit Transitions Fund and New York City's Capacity Building and Oversight initiative. None of these initiatives is focused exclusively on arts organizations and — at this point — all appear to be initiatives of one funding source, not collaborative ventures. In addition, some arts funders are making special grants to national and local service organizations to boost assistance for both artists and arts organizations; these efforts are supporting consulting services, joint marketing initiatives, knowledge networks, and technical advice. Numerous funders indicated they have or will invest more resources in convenings for the field, promoting opportunities for arts groups and artists to gather, network, learn from each other and explore possibilities for collaboration or joint action.
  • Funders' strategies to cope with budget cuts include reducing the size of grants, turning down more proposals, consolidating funding programs, and not taking proposals from new applicants. The most frequently mentioned steps involve limiting the applicant pool and increasing the number of rejections. For many that have decided to restrict organizations' access to the foundation, it has been a wrenching decision. “Moving to an invitation-only process was an enormously difficult value decision for us, but we did it because we want to be clear with groups about their funding prospects and do not want to waste their time.”
  • Arts funding is steady relative to the funders' other commitments, but the case for support is getting harder to make. Where funding the arts is part of the donor's will or specific directive, obviously, sustaining arts grantmaking is not in question. But several funders we interviewed believe that the recession's impact is greatest on nonprofit sectors more heavily dependent on public sources than the arts (social services, education, and health, especially). In the face of this human emergency, their foundation boards and staffs are struggling with the rationale for arts support. Actions by some arts groups are not helping. “A number of arts groups appear to be making very cynical budget cuts—visibly eliminating their programs for poor youth or impoverished neighborhoods in a bid for ‘sympathy’ funding. This reinforces the perception that the arts are disconnected from, rather than integrated into, the lives of their communities.”
  • Administrative cuts and effects on staff. The majority of arts funders have reduced foundation expenses. In one case, administrative cuts have been the same as the cuts to the grants budget (25 percent), but most are more modest cutbacks that include freezes on hiring, travel, conferences, consulting contracts, memberships, and other administrative costs. All public arts funders reported layoffs of staff, but only about 20 percent of private foundations appear to have made staff cuts. While most funders are holding on to their jobs, the jobs are becoming increasingly stressful. “I recognize that we funders are a lot better off than most of the arts groups that come seeking our help, but the endless line of extreme need is truly debilitating. The anxiety and grief in the field is pervasive, and it affects us too.”
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Funders have upped their efforts to inform stakeholders about their current situation and likely future actions. This has included letters to constituents, posts on websites, increased email, more site visits to grantees, “listening tours” in diverse neighborhoods, and more frequent meetings and phone conversations with artists and arts organizations. Arts staff in one foundation has visited every one of its grantees. In addition, funders have increased communication with each other and are more regularly exchanging information about evolving conditions, responses, and good ideas.

Funder Perceptions of Arts Community Response

Broadly sketched, funders see arts groups responding in one of three ways: 1) proactively addressing the situation; 2) being cautious, cutting costs, and waiting for more information about the economy, ticket sales and funding decisions; and 3) semi-paralyzed.

The first group includes organizations that see this as an opportunity to re-imagine and re-organize their work, along with groups who are so embedded in their communities that they are not experiencing any downturn in audience or funding support. The second group includes the majority of arts groups, who are reducing expenses, cutting staff and programs, and monitoring income very closely but who are not making significant changes in plan. The third group includes organizations that think they can hold on through 2009 and are confident the situation will improve in 2010.

Views differ on how many of their grantees fall into each of these categories, but in general funders worry that arts groups are not responding quickly enough and that neither staff nor boards are being sufficiently responsive. “We were very surprised to see that the vast majority of proposals submitted for our January deadline did not reflect any recognition of the severity of the crisis. Only a few applicants suggested that they would be trimming their budgets in the coming year.” In the May GIA survey, one funder noted, “I have noticed a large number of cultural grantees that have huge gaps between what is raised and what is budgeted. They are not overspending; they have just not revised the old budget. Is there a conversation that should be happening with the board of directors?”

There is no consensus on which organizations are suffering the most. Some think the current economy is toughest on small organizations; some think the impacts are worst for the largest institutions. All agree that groups running capital campaigns are especially pinched. In many places, funders noted happily that ticket sales and admission fees appear to be keeping pace with last year or exceeding numbers from this time a year ago. Donations and contributed income, however, are down across the board. “I see organizations really struggling. They are trying to transcend their fear. They are trying to imagine smaller, re-invented organizations that they can still believe in. The widespread paralysis is a function of the lack of information. The world is saying, ‘Hurry, change.’ But so much is unknown. People don't want to make stupid decisions just to make decisions.”

Several funders volunteered their view that younger and smaller organizations appear to be some of the most nimble. They see these groups forging inventive partnerships (including with non-arts groups); creating new hybrid business models; disbanding their 501(c)(3) organizations in favor of working under the aegis of fiscal sponsors; and imaginatively balancing live and virtual modes of creating and presenting work, including engaging audiences in non-traditional venues such as restaurants, public parks, and private homes. There was agreement that an organization's size, age, and artistic discipline are less important factors in determining success than the organization's rootedness in the community and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Funders we interviewed who provide direct support for artists are defending these programs fiercely. Many view fellowships for artists as the analog to operating support for institutions and are giving priority to fellowships over other forms of artists' support. “Artists struggle in the best of circumstances and are harshly affected by any economic downturn.” But some also see opportunities for artists in this economy. Several noted that depressed real estate values are making it possible for artists to buy live or work space that was previously out of reach, and advances in technology are facilitating inexpensive, direct connections between artists and their customers and audiences.

In times of stress, collaborations are desirable but complicated. Funders we interviewed mentioned examples of organizations collaborating to address problems caused by, or made worse by, the recession. For example, a consortium of eleven arts groups in New York City is organizing to share equipment and other resources and to conduct joint marketing. In several places, theaters are merging their prop and costume shops. A number of funders have created special funds to encourage nonprofits of all kinds to consider collaborations, shared services, joint buying programs for supplies, health insurance and (in at least one case, energy), consolidations, or mergers. However, many funders we interviewed suggested that mergers in the arts are inherently problematic because each organization has a distinct artistic vision that resists combination with others. Some suggested that it might be easier for an arts group in one discipline to join with one in another discipline (dance and theater, for example, or theater and music) or to combine with a non-arts group than it would be for two groups in the same discipline to integrate.

What Does Adaptation Look Like?

For Arts Groups

We asked funders to describe the characteristics of the arts groups they think are adapting most effectively to changing circumstances. No one we interviewed had a definitive list, but these qualities were mentioned most often:

  • Courageous leaders, willing to ask tough questions about the relevance of their organization to its community, face the answers honestly, and take informed risk.
  • Relentless focus on core mission and strategic position, and on capitalizing the core mission (that is, secure the necessary financial resources for the core before funding any ancillary activities).
  • Clarity about the function of structures, processes, and products, and flexibility (even heretical flexibility) about the forms those functions take.
  • Powerful connection to and genuine engagement with community.
  • Forecasting ability and a keen interest in the larger forces likely to impact viability — economics, demographics, technology, audience behavior, capitalization, environmental sustainability, and community priorities.
  • Strategic thinking, capacity to learn from previous experiences (both positive and negative), and nimbleness in integrating change strategies throughout the organization.

Many we interviewed suggested that the arts organizations and artists who are faring best in the recession are those that had begun dealing with their changing external realities prior to the crash. These groups have been working for some time to address shifting demographics, new technologies, and audiences' increasing desire for genuine participation. One funder commented, “We know the economy will rebound, eventually. These other changes — technology, demographics, audience expectations — these changes are permanent.”

The ones that have been clear-eyed about money and about the limits of the current nonprofit business model are also better positioned for this economy. “The groups that learned from the 2001 recession and didn't bulk up during the subsequent boom are managing better than those that inflated themselves along with Wall Street and the housing market.”

Funders also observed that organizations and artists that have a clear niche and are providing a unique service seem to be doing better than those with vague identities or programs indistinguishable from their competitors. “The groups that did genuine competitive analysis and scenario planning before the recession are in much better positions now than those that didn't.”

For Funders

Many of the funders we interviewed suggested that philanthropic organizations must adapt now too, especially those that are likely to experience sustained reductions in their grantmaking. The people we interviewed were not uniform in their opinion about what adaptation looks like in arts philanthropy, but several noted that funders — like arts groups — need to adjust their practices to changing circumstances. As one said, “With a 5-10 percent cut, you can pretty much keep doing what you've been doing. Above a 10 percent cut, you'll have to change either your goals or your methods, or both. And whatever you do with the remaining resources should be worthy of the pain you endured by cutting. The new construct needs to be meaningful and inspiring.”

Well over half of the group we interviewed believes adaptation for funders means paying greater attention to the interplay of social and creative purposes, and ensuring that arts groups have a base of community support that will sustain them. Said one, “Both funders and arts groups need to be more comfortable blurring the professional-amateur line. Our communities are looking for something that the arts can provide. But people are not looking for that “something” through the traditional delivery mechanisms, that is, by attending events controlled by arts professionals. People want to be involved, they want to really participate.”

Not surprisingly, the funders who started revamping their arts programs before the recession were the most vocal about this opportunity, stressing the need to be clearer about foundation mission (“no more pity grants”) and
more flexible about grantmaking strategies (“fewer short-term project grants, more long-term partnerships for negotiated outcomes”). One put it very succinctly: “We need to understand BOTH what constitutes a sustainable institution AND what constitutes a supportive environment for unsustainable institutions. Many groups are worthy and important but shouldn't live forever. How do we encourage intelligent capitalization and — as appropriate — shorter life spans?”


The current situation suggests some longer-term implications for funders and arts groups. This includes both harsh realities and unexpected opportunities.

Harsh Realities
Most grantmakers we interviewed think the economy will not fully recover for at least three to five years. A few foundations expect their grants budgets to have rebounded by 2011, but the majority worries that the economic picture will not substantially improve before 2012 or 2013. Given that most foundations make their grants based on a three-year rolling average of assets, the negative effects of the downturn on foundation payouts may extend substantially beyond the point of economic recovery.

All the funders we interviewed think more arts organizations are going to go out of business or be completely reconfigured in the years ahead. As one funder noted, “Lots of organizations can make it through twelve months of severe constraint. Few can make it through thirty-six months of that.” Several of the funders we interviewed take the position that downsizing the sector may not be all bad. “The sector is either overbuilt or under-resourced, or both. We don't need any more arts groups with limited audiences balancing their budgets on the backs of poorly paid staff. Some pruning may be in order.”

It's worth noting that none of the private funders we interviewed discussed the possibility of voluntarily spending down their endowments and going out of business.

All agreed that even if the U.S. economy is fully recovered in five years, the picture for our sector will not return to what it was in 2007 due to changes that will occur in the intervening years — including shifts in public policy, public priorities, and capital markets as well as constantly evolving developments in demographics, technology, and environmental consciousness.

Opportunities for the arts
While acknowledging that it is very difficult to change behavior in the midst of a crisis, the funders we interviewed think that an extended recession may propel arts groups to rethink some of their basic assumptions and this may have positive results. Many of the concepts that guided the development of the arts sector in the twentieth century were antiquated before the recession, and seem even more so now. “For forty-plus years, we have believed that if you're not growing, you're dying,” said one person, “and that artistic mission is separate from and more important than social mission. These and other ideas we have taken for granted no longer align with evolving circumstances.”

Shifts in philanthropy and audience behavior, exploding numbers of nonprofit arts organizations and commercial arts options, and inexorably rising costs are undercutting the business model of many arts organizations, and the current economy is exacerbating these challenges. But several funders think there is opportunity in this situation. One funder quoted a grantee, who said, “Arts groups have been saying their business model is dead for some time, but not doing much about it. Now's our moment to really rethink.”

One grantmaker framed the situation this way: “What does a business model based on relevance and resilience look like? Can the arts field learn to accept the idea that death is a part of life and that every human endeavor has a natural life span? I think we should develop the concept of a living will for arts organizations (and other nonprofits), and develop funding programs that help organizations live a full life and then go out of business gracefully.”

A number of funders see expanded possibilities for the arts as a result of Barack Obama's election. Opportunities include jobs for artists in expanded national service programs, new roles for artists and cultural leaders in foreign policy and diplomatic efforts, and refreshed commitment to arts education at state and local levels. Organizing and mobilizing for these outcomes is challenging, but the returns could be significant.

Opportunities for funders
The funders we interviewed criticized many of their own past behaviors as overly hubristic, directive, and bureaucratic and discussed ways the economic crisis could result in positive change in funding practices. Many hope that they can hold on to the flexibility and responsiveness that they have demonstrated in the wake of the recession. Others suggested this is a time for arts funders to master the fundamentals of nonprofit capitalization and be more responsible about the way they invest in arts enterprises, making fewer short-term project grants and more holistic investments in both individual institutions and collaborative endeavors. Still others suggested that this upheaval may result in a shift away from institutional subsidy in favor of greater focus on creation of work and engagement of audiences.

Regardless of their position on what should change, everyone we interviewed asserted that this is a rare moment to invest in genuine transformation and not to prop up the status quo. One summarized the thoughts expressed by many: “We need to align both the business models of cultural organizations and our philanthropic practices with contemporary reality, especially the reality of demographic change, climate change, and the cultural and political dimensions of plurality.”

Priorities for Action

It's clear that arts funders are stressed and most do not see this as a moment for bold action or large-scale change strategies. Some seem almost chastened by recent events and wary of any suggestion that funders have “the solution” for arts organizations or that grantmakers should do anything more than hold onto what arts funds they can and remain as responsive as possible to the field's needs. It may be that we must wait for the true crisis to pass before new thinking can distill and new approaches can be tested.

But while we wait for the economy to recover, we can lay some of the groundwork for the next phases of arts philanthropy and the cultural sector's development. From our interviews, we detected a growing appetite among funders to think in fresh ways and support meaningful change, including different nonprofit business models. We see five priority areas for action:

Taking our own medicine
Funders and cultural organizations differ from each other; they have different missions, different roles, and different resources and challenges. But we heard repeatedly that funders should heed the advice they are giving grantees. Are funders relevant? Are they giving up some of their institutional ego to achieve greater community purposes? Are they affirmatively collaborating with other funders and partners? Are they using technology effectively to diminish costs, increase effective communication and spur their own creativity? Engaging young people in their work? Genuinely assessing the demographics of their communities and reaching diverse populations consistently?

Capitalization and hybrid models
The nonprofit arts business model is shaky, for many reasons. One important reason is that the practices of both nonprofits and funders have not recognized that there are different kinds of money (in the Nonprofit Finance Fund's terms: build, buy, and burn capital) and a financial diet too rich in project grants erodes the fundamental viability of any nonprofit organization. A commitment by more funders to better understand and respect capitalization principles in their grantmaking, coupled with more open-minded exploration of ways funders can support hybrid and alternative financial models, would increase responsible practices in the future. A corollary to this is the need to adequately capitalize collaborative ventures. There are real and substantial costs involved in cooperative endeavors such as joint ticketing systems or consolidated back office functions. In times of fiscal constraint, these costs present prohibitive barriers to entry for even the largest institutions.

Leadership development — board and staff
John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote, ”Change comes not from men and women changing their minds, but from the change of one generation to the next.” Whether they are younger people assuming leadership for the first time, current leaders now postponing retirement because the recession has ravaged their retirement savings, or corporate sector leaders transitioning into roles in the nonprofit world — future nonprofit arts executives are going to need a rapidly evolving combination of entrepreneurial, administrative, community organizing, and communication skills. In addition to all these positive capabilities, our boards and staffs will also need what John Keats called “negative capability… the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” 2 They will need to understand and celebrate the very essence of art. Our training programs need to anticipate tomorrow's creative world.

Dynamic adaptability and a typology of transformation
Some arts organizations seem to be adapting to the changing twenty-first century environment much better than others. What are the qualities that distinguish those that are adjusting successfully from those that are faring less well? What are the conditions that promote responsive and responsible change? We know that one size does not fit all, and there may be important differences in how adaptation manifests itself in different kinds of organizations. But can we develop guideposts for change that will give arts organizations the help they need to eliminate dysfunctional behaviors and embrace appropriate adaptations, or — maybe in more and more cases — close their business with dignity?

A new Administration, a new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts with a background in the for-profit sector, our rapidly shifting national demographics, the growing appetite for personal engagement in the arts and proliferation of entertainment options, and a renewed appreciation for the fragility of many nonprofit arts organizations — all these and other signs point to the need for new, and different, policy discussions about arts and culture and their role in the twenty-first century.

Central to the new policy discussions should be an effort to better link the arts, in Bill Ivey's words, “to broad public purposes and the right of citizens to lead vibrant expressive lives.” 3 We must overcome our sector's tendencies toward institutional self-interest and self-preservation, and imagine a new, more encompassing vision whose central value is enabling individual and community creativity and fulfillment, not defending the status quo. As one of the funders we interviewed put it, “Our working framework has been focused on the ecology of professional arts institutions. We are now examining whether we should be focusing on a broader ecology of nontraditional arts providers and venues that offer access to multiple modes of engagement in artistic experiences.” This broader ecology must include the growing population of hybrid artists and organizations that are re-defining the role of art and creativity in economics, civil society and community development — pursuing what hip hop journalist Jeff Chang calls the “creative communities approach,” that produces a “rigorous and vital alternative to both neoliberal and neoconservative versions of change.” 4

The traditional divides — between the intrinsic and instrumental value of the arts, between nonprofit and commercial, between high brow and low brow, between professional and amateur, between science and the arts — all these divides are being blurred by modern life, global economics, and advances in neuroscience. Our imagination about cultural policy needs to keep up with, or better yet anticipate, the future.


When genes and the environment pull in opposite directions, environment wins.
— Derek Bickerton 5

Metaphors are powerful pathways to insight, and many of us are struggling to find the right metaphor to illuminate our current experience. Is this recession like a drought? A forest fire? Plate tectonics? A major market correction? A kind of fin de siècle change in consciousness? A real rupture with the past or just a bump in the road? We each have our own interpretive construct, and one metaphor is unlikely to encompass all the dimensions of our experience.
But my current favorite is evolution. There is no judgment in evolution. Creatures don't prosper because they are good, or die out because they are bad. They survive, and thrive, because they stay aligned with, and relevant to, their habitat. Or they find a more hospitable niche in which to live. Evolutionary theory teaches us that adaptability, not strength or intelligence, is what improves the longevity of species. Evolution also teaches us that organisms play a role in their own development, both changing their environments and then being changed by them. As linguist and evolutionary theorist Derek Bickerton says, “Around every animal there is an envelope of potentiality, of things they're not specifically programmed to do but that they can do somehow, if they have to in order to stay alive.” 6 Species that don't adapt to shifting circumstances — don't tap their envelope of potentiality — will tend to fade. Maybe not immediately; maybe not for a long time; but eventually the environment either reshapes organisms, or kills them.
Martin Luther King, Jr. phrased it so eloquently: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” The arc of history also bends toward the alignment of species and habitat. And that goes for all the works of human species, including human institutions — both cultural and philanthropic.

Holly Sidford is president, Helicon Collaborative.


  1. GIA sponsored an electronic survey for its members in early May. Seventy-eight funders responded out of a pool of 290.
  2. As quoted in Jonah Lehrer, Proust was a Neuroscientist, 2008.
  3. Bill Ivey, Arts, Inc., 2008.
  4. Jeff Chang, “The Creativity Stimulus,” 2009.
  5. Derek Bickerton, Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, 2009.
  6. Ibid.