What Does a Just Transition Look Like for Arts Philanthropy?

Just Transition provides a framework for all sectors and all people to move toward a life-affirming future even as our planet’s life support systems come close to collapse under this current paradigm. Funders have increasingly begun to grapple with Just Transition in philanthropy, and in this session, Quita Sullivan of New England Foundation for the Arts and Tiffany Wilhelm of Opportunity Fund shepherded a conversation about what this means for arts funders—including in their practices, policies and mindsets.

The definition of Just Transition offered by Climate Justice Alliance is “a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.”

In many ways, arts funders have a pivotal role in supporting the catalysts for disrupting the dominant worldview of an extractive economy—a worldview built on a colonial, consumerist, exploitative, and dehumanizing mindset. As one workshop participant put it, “Culture is at the center of changing our relationship to the world and each other. Art can show us the way forward. This should be something we are thinking about when resourcing the arts, putting narrative at the center.”

A Just Transition-centered approach to arts philanthropy can involve resourcing work that builds and amplifies values of cooperation and wealth-sharing, racial justice, and deep democracy. As other GIA sessions have shown, arts philanthropy can incubate and nurture radical experiments in modeling oppositional and visionary solutions whether through community-centered governance or culturally-rooted, holistic approaches to public health.

Looking further internally, arts funders and philanthropy as a whole are examining their sectors and institutions with an eye toward moving on the spectrum away from extraction to regeneration. This means confronting the fact that philanthropic wealth is directly derived from profit-driven industries built on the backs of exploited peoples and natural resources. Shifting away from this historic and present-day reality involves actively redistributing wealth and power—in funding, relationship to grantees, operations and more.

“Wealth was made with stolen resources on stolen land with stolen bodies,” said Quita Sullivan. “In decolonizing wealth, how do we use what we’re doing to recover ourselves, to heal ourselves, and as a way of going forward?”