The philanthropic arts inequities that Helicon’s new report Not Just Money underscores with data are contributing to our widening social and political divisions, and exacerbating our inability to achieve a healthy national unity.
In communities where there has been economic and social collapse — often compounded by a history of economic exploitation — a vibrant culture with ample opportunities for artistic expression of, by, and for its people creates the conditions for sustainable, bottom-up development. Art is a first-responder in these communities: homegrown cultural expression helps community members convey their ideas, unbound their imaginations, and believe in their ability to lead change. A people’s own art brings pride and hope where there is often despair.
Too often, programs designed by private foundations to serve distressed communities are uninformed by the voices and opinions of people who live in these fragile ecosystems, and cause more harm than good. A straightforward solution to this problem is to increase the amount of fieldwork that foundation board members, guided by staff, undertake to understand — on the community’s own terms and with its residents’ robust participation — the nature of life in these places. As the report points out, these distressed communities lie primarily in inner city and rural areas, where funding disparity is most dire.
I believe such diligent fieldwork will help foundation leadership understand what civil rights leader Bayard Rustin understood in 1965 during a similar period of national disunity: we must build grassroots centers of power. While fieldwork will undoubtedly show that informed and sustained philanthropic investment in these community cultural hubs is a fundamental necessity, the bottom line return for this enlightened philanthropic resoluteness will be visible, multi-dimensional, and meaningful improvements in the life circumstances of disenfranchised people.
Dudley Cocke is the artistic director of Appalachia’s Roadside Theater, the professional theater wing of Appalshop, in Whitesburg, KY. He has served on three private foundation boards.