Funding the Arts

How do we do it effectively in a democratic society?

The first entry in Philanthropy Roundtable’s Almanac of American Philanthropy is an encyclopedia-style look at the major achievements in American arts-and-culture philanthropy. I was engaged to write the section, as well as two forthcoming sections (on local philanthropy and nature philanthropy). The big picture was to provide a look at effective giving through American history, a look that would give today’s philanthropists insight into how to give their own money wisely.

A decision was ultimately made not to include introductory notes with each section; I had submitted some with mine but not all the authors had. I thought I would share them here and give readers a big-picture look at the trends I saw during my research.

The arts have benefited from organized philanthropy longer than perhaps anything else. Creators of “high” art from ancient civilizations to Renaissance Europe depended on support from “high” people—the aristocrats who had been bred to appreciate it. The Roman Coliseum or a street performer could survive on ticket sales or tips, just as movie or music stars can today, because they existed to entertain. The Parthenon or the Sistine Chapel, artistic creations with deeper meaning, could not. And so an elaborate system of patronage developed, in which the higher classes supported the higher art—sometimes because their members had developed genuine taste, sometimes simply because they knew they were supposed to. Patrons had varying approaches—sometimes they gave their artists (who often lived in their households) free reign to create; other times they maintained tight control over them. But the works of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and countless others exist, and survived, because of the support, display, and preservation they received from the higher classes.

With the colonization of the New World, new challenges arose. In a classless society, support for art had to come from new sources. The system for what to support and how to support it was less defined, as was even the kind of art that was deemed worthy of philanthropic support—and, indeed, what kind of art was being produced.

So what was an art philanthropist to do? What should effective art philanthropy look like? In the absence of an established system, American art philanthropy became as diverse and entrepreneurial as the self-made men and women who dominated its scene; and virtually any trend spawned a counter-trend. As a result, several paradigms can be seen throughout U.S. history that transcend both time and philanthropic source. Each is part of an ongoing exploration of how to effectively support the arts and worth the attention of new art philanthropists.

High art vs. low art.

America would produce rich people who had the money to support the arts, but money didn’t equal a particular kind of taste as it had before. Meanwhile, while America certainly produced great artists in the realm of high art, America became better known for its “low” art, and for blending the line between entertainment and art. Folk music, pop visual art, and especially jazz became as popular with philanthropists as with the millions who paid to enjoy them. A democratic society shaped by its popular culture meant greater interest in the art forms that made up that popular culture. Thus Preservation House in New Orleans was deemed worth saving, and digital animation at Brigham Young worth an investment. Yet philanthropic interest also remained strong in deep or beautiful things that the average American didn’t fully understand, both collected and created by Americans.

Past vs. future.

Thus perhaps the most obvious form of American art philanthropy, in strong contrast to the old patronage system, was preserving old art. The easiest, and most high-profile, way to support art was often to support institutions that displayed or performed classic works for the public—this was a particularly easy choice in a young country that had far less great art to its credit than the thousand-year powerhouses of other countries. So many of the largest donations went to the major art museums, opera companies, or orchestras; and finding ways to pass on the old to new generations became the project of many large grants like the Knight Foundation’s experiment with symphony orchestras. But a twist on the patronage system stayed alive as well, for the reason such philanthropy had always existed: the creation of new art.

Investment in art vs. investment in artists.

This interest in the creation of new art in a country far larger than the small city-states and nations that drove Europe or Asia’s art scenes over the centuries led to another divergence: the support of individual artists and the support of art as such. Thus some American philanthropists, like the Doris Duke Foundation, have experimented with different ways of finding and funding artists. Others have focused on producing generation after generation of new artists rather than finding and supporting existing ones; thus UCLA, Princeton, and other schools have received generous donations designed to take arts development further than ever before.

In this history of major achievements in art philanthropy, I have tried to do justice to each half of each paradigm, including doing justice to the philanthropic achievements before the Industrial Revolution that brought philanthropy into vogue, and to the significant investments that have been made in recent years which perhaps have not yet shown their full effects. That said, it is inevitable that both great art and great philanthropy has been omitted, and I look forward to the growth of this list in years to come.

One final note on methodology: you will notice a smattering of inclusions, such as historic buildings or historical museums, that don’t quite seem like art—Monticello, Old Sturbridge Village, Campbell’s collection of soup tureens. Perhaps some art can be found there, or beautiful architecture was involved in a building, but the significance of the philanthropy is more historical than artistic. During the creation of this almanac, it was decided to include these items in the art philanthropy section for the simple reason that they fit here better than they fit anywhere else. America’s history and America’s art history inform each other, and I hope the reader will enjoy this added dimension to the section.

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