“Toward Greater Justice.” How Funders Are Supporting Artists in a Historic Moment – Inside Philanthropy

Brooklyn-based conceptual artist Russell Craig with portraits of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, part of his “Dark Reflection” series.

In June 2017, philanthropist Agnes Gund launched the $100 million, five-year Art for Justice Fund to support artists and advocates fighting mass incarceration in the United States. A year later, the fund awarded a fellowship to Brooklyn-based conceptual artist Russell Craig, whose “Dark Reflections” series consists of portraits of people impacted by failures of the criminal justice system.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Craig joined one of the earliest protests at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. He eventually took a break, went to his studio, and spent a few hours painting a portrait of Floyd. Since then, he’s also painted moving portraits of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor as part of the series.

Helena Huang, project director of Art for Justice, told me the fund supported Craig’s work in general, “but also specifically for ‘Dark Reflections.’ As you can see, it’s more relevant today than ever.”

Art is an important component of every social movement, and this one is no exception. Before 2020, arts funders like Gund were already looking to support artists as a way to advance social justice. Now, as Russell Craig’s story underscores, that approach has collided with recent events, taking on new importance.

Floyd’s death was the “breaking point” that “exposed conditions that were there for a long time,” said Alexis Frasz, co-director of the Helicon Collaborative. “Artists and cultural workers are calling for dismantling racism and cultural justice with a renewed energy.”

I reached out to a handful of foundations working in this space, asking if organizations had recalibrated their grantmaking or reengaged with past partners to support art emerging now. Some are staying the course as their grantees continue vital work, while others are releasing new RFPs, backing new projects, or even changing programmatic focus. Below is an overview of the role arts funders and their grantees are playing in this historic cultural and political moment.

A follow-up piece—also based on interviews with leaders in the sector—will take a longer view, exploring how philanthropy can cultivate art connected to social movements, while addressing deeply rooted funding inequities.

The Ford Foundation

Margaret Morton, director of the Creativity and Free Expression program for the Ford Foundation, told me that the program’s strategy centers the voices of artists, journalists, filmmakers and cultural organizations led by underrepresented communities, including people of color and people with disabilities.

“These are groups who have been historically marginalized, underfunded and unseen by virtue of inequality and by gatekeepers who prioritize European standards of art,” she said. Morton told me that the “current movement affirms that we’re on the right path and that our mission to invest in underrepresented voices across race, gender and ability is ever more relevant.”

She listed a number of arts-related grantees already working in the civic space, like Sins Invalid, For Freedoms, and the Center for Cultural Power, which developed a cultural strategy activation guide for artists and creators who want to “tell new narratives about communities of color and play a vital role in the fight for racial justice.”

Ford’s grantees have stepped up their advocacy in the wake of Floyd’s death. For Freedoms released “Make America Safe Again,” a video produced to shed light on the lived experiences of Black people in America. Meanwhile, Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes from the Field,” which discusses issues surrounding race, class and America’s school-to-prison pipeline, was made free to stream online.

Meanwhile, organizational grantees like the Apollo Theatre, New York Live Arts and The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and the Public Theater opened their lobbies as oases for protestors and activists needing water, snacks, restrooms and hand sanitizer. Others, including the Georgia-based Alternate ROOTS, are “talking about public funding broadly, and the potential to redirect city resources from policing toward arts and cultural organizations,” Morton said.

Particularly relevant right now is Ford’s Art of Change Fellowship, which launched in 2015 to explore the roles art and culture play in illuminating and addressing urgent issues of equity, opportunity and justice in the U.S. and globally.

“We had two rounds of the Art of Change Fellowship in 2015 and 2017,” Morton said. “Since then, we have incorporated the practice of raising the visibility of artists throughout our Creativity and Free Expression work, and will be announcing in the future an initiative to highlight the work of individual disabled artists, filmmakers and journalists that elevates disabled creators, and a project to help shift the narrative around migrant and immigrant communities.”

In early June, Ford launched its Ford Global Fellowship to connect and support the next generation of social justice leaders, including artists, who are advancing innovative solutions to end inequality.

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

It’s been a busy June for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. On the 11th, the funder announced it would boost its grantmaking from $300 million to $500 million to help struggling institutions during the pandemic. Five days later, it awarded $10 million in emergency grants to launch a new United States Regional Arts Resilience Fund in support of small to mid-sized arts organizations.

Then, as the month came to a close, Mellon announced it was adjusting its mission to prioritize social justice in all of its grantmaking. “This new social justice lens builds on Mellon’s historic focus on the arts and humanities by ensuring that they are accessible and empowering to all members of society,” Mellon’s statement read.

Mellon President Elizabeth Alexander told Artnet News that while the pivot had been in the works since she took over two years ago, the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests “only further confirmed the unhealed racial crisis in this country.” Alexander said, “This moment for the strategic rollout has come at a time for the country where it seems very clear in a much more widespread way that we all need to be thinking very sharply about how the work that we do contributes to a more just society.”

Foundation officials said the shift “will involve some public rebranding” and old and new applicants for grants will be evaluated based on “how their work will contribute to a more just and fair society.” The pivot coincided with the announcement of a $5.3 million program to distribute large, curated collections of books to prisons across the country. Alexander said Mellon would begin ramping up funding to public libraries, community archives, and university and research libraries.

“There won’t be a penny that is going out the door that is not contributing to a more fair, more just, more beautiful society,” Alexander told Artnet News.

Art for Justice Fund

“Artists and advocates in the Art for Justice community have long centered racial equity and addressed anti-Blackness in their work to end mass incarceration,” Huang said. “They understand deeply that the status quo criminalizes Black people and traumatizes us all.”

The Ford Foundation is responsible for the Art for Justice Fund’s grantmaking strategy, which focuses on bail reform, sentencing reform, and reducing legal barriers to reentry for people returning from prison.

Huang told me the fund is offering “unprecedented flexibility to our grantee partners, awarding over $14 million in new grants to 47 people and organizations, welcoming new allied donors to the fund and leveraging new dollars, and releasing a new RFP designed to supplement loss of income and support art and advocacy collaborations.”

The RFP explicitly cites “the killing of an unarmed, handcuffed African American man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police officers,” and issues a “clarion call: an end to state-sanctioned violence and racism against Black people.”

As a side note, Gund first launched the Art for Justice Fund roughly a year after the New York City-based Robert Rauschenberg Foundation announced its Artist as Activist program would similarly focus on projects that “address the intersections between race, class and mass incarceration.” In mid-February, however, a representative informed me that the Rauschenberg Foundation halted that program and has no plans to revive it in the future.

A Blade of Grass

In 2011, philanthropist and cultural leader Shelley Rubin founded A Blade of Grass (ABOG) to “better understand how artists can illuminate and engage with social issues, expand the relationship between art and life, and build new audiences.” The organization is a nonprofit that gives grants as one component of its work.

While ABOG announced its 2020 Socially Engaged Art fellows prior to George Floyd’s death, program director Prerana Reddy told me that the recipients’ work aligns with the organization’s “long history of supporting artists working on issues of criminal justice and the systematic racism inherent in policing and prisons.”

Reddy cited 2019 fellow Shaun Leonardo, whose exhibition, “The Breath of Empty Space,” features “drawings of news photographs surrounding violence against Black men that questions a singular image’s capacity for truth-telling.” The exhibition was slated to be shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland in June, but was canceled in March after local Black activists and some of the museum’s staff members objected to it, according to the New York Times.

In early June, Leonardo revealed the cancellation in an email to his followers and accused the museum of censorship. He told the Times that his decision to speak out “was in reflection of what I saw as empty messaging coming out of primarily white art institutions” since the death of George Floyd. On June 7, the museum’s director, Jill Synder, posted a public apology to Leonardo. Twelve days later, she resigned.

“In socially engaged art,” Reddy said, “it is not about just making work about social injustice, but using art to challenge existing systems of power in some concrete way.”

Reddy also cited ABOG fellows the Black School, an experimental art school that uses socially engaged art and Black history to educate Black students, students of color, and allies in becoming “radical agents of social change.” In the wake of the pandemic and uprisings around George Floyd’s murder, the school has been using its residencies with youth apprentices at the Bronx Museum of Art and Wing Luke Museum in Seattle to build solidarity between Asian American communities experiencing xenophobia due to COVID-19 and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. 

From an operational perspective, Reddy said that ABOG has found that “our fellows are really wanting a chance to connect with other members of their cohort and to think through next steps with each other. Therefore, we are thinking about producing less public programming, and generating more opportunities for internal networking and strategizing for public actions as crucial for this particular moment.”

Reddy told me the organization is also planning to use A Blade of Grass Magazine to “showcase a wide range of artists and cultural producers who are directly confronting institutional racism and state violence.”

Open Society Foundations

Open Society Foundations has a long history of “supporting individuals and organizations working toward racial justice, including those who do so through artistic practice,” said Culture and Art Program Director Rashida Bumbray. This includes grantees like Soros Equality Fellows Alexandra Bell and Favianna Rodriguez; Soros Justice Fellow Samora Pinderhughes; Moving Walls Fellows Ruddy Roye and Dread Scott; and Soros Arts Fellows Bouchra Khalili and Laurie Jo Reynolds, “as well as grantee organizations working to shift culture like the Pop Culture Collaborative,” she said.

The funder launched the Culture and Art program last year to “address the aesthetic, political and capacity needs of arts leaders, individual artists and cultural activists, while supporting sustainability for a global network of locally led cultural organizations and initiatives that work at the intersection of culture, art and social change.”

“Every movement has had artists as part of the movement,” Bumbray told me, “if not at the forefront. Patrisse Cullors, artist and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, is a prime example, as are artists like Simone Leigh, Hank Willis Thomas and Nicholas Galanin who are creating new monuments or engaging with monuments that mark histories of white supremacy. It’s also significant to see so many Black photographers continuing to put themselves in danger and self-financing their work to document and memorialize the demonstrations.”

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

On June 4, the Knight Foundation announced that it would partner with O Cinema and Magnolia Pictures to make films focused on influential civil rights leaders like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison available to watch for free in eight cities, beginning on June 7. Each screening is followed by a virtual conversation around ways to support social justice reforms and anti-racism initiatives in local communities. Knight will cover the rental fees for viewers.

“Informed, equitable, inclusive and participatory communities are as essential to a strong democracy as an informed citizenry,” said Alberto Ibarguen, president of Knight Foundation, in a statement. “The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is a terrible affront to that ideal—and this weekend is a reminder of how tough it will be to rise to the moment. But our democracy depends on our willingness to try.”

On June 19, the foundation launched “Discovery,” a weekly show exploring how arts and artists build informed and engaged communities. In the first episode, Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts, spoke with Michael O’Bryan, community development researcher, about how the arts and artists have a unique role in addressing systemic issues in communities.

Knight’s communications VP Andrew Sherry told me the funder has supported “artists who have been involved in this work in the past, and some of whom have been involved with recent Black Lives Matter art, most recently Georgie Nakima, who painted the street art in Charlotte.” Nakima was an inaugural Knight Foundation Celebrate Charlotte Arts winner in 2019.

Compton Foundation

The San Francisco-based Compton Foundation, which is slated to wind down at the end of 2027, supports creative writing and filmmaking that prioritizes the intersection of art and social and environmental change.

Executive Director Ellen Friedman told me that many of the foundation’s grant partners have “jumped in with both feet” as protests began to unfold across the country, citing the Center for Cultural Power; People’s Action, a national network of state and local grassroots power-building organizations; and The League, a “social impact collective” that works with artists and other influencers.

The foundation previously funded Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. A piece by Gia Kourlas in the New York Times looked at King’s new video series, “There Is No Standing Still,” which Kourlas described as “a poetic, poignant response to the times, from the coronavirus pandemic to the death of George Floyd in police custody.”

“We think King’s vision as an artist transcends the specifics, and his work is a statement in support of social justice and transformation,” Friedman told me. “He reaches a different audience than traditional organizers do and reaches people at a deeply emotional level through his work,” which also focuses on the climate crisis.

Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation

Shelley Rubin is also the co-chair of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, which established its Art and Social Justice initiative in 2015 with a mission to use “art as a tool for advocacy and creative change, inclusive community engagement, and the promotion of greater civic participation and public discourse.” The foundation also repositioned The 8th Floor, a philanthropic space established by the Rubins in 2010, to function as a platform for artistic expression and discourse.

On June 19, Executive and Artistic Director Sara Reisman published a letter on the foundation’s site, writing, “In the last six years, we have organized exhibitions and programs presenting projects by artists—many of them working in other fields, like activism and education—whose work is deeply engaged with questions of social justice. We are committed to making our space—The 8th Floor—a forum for free expression through art and discourse, a space for listening, for difficult conversations with the aim of changing both minds and policy toward greater justice.”

Creative Capital

Back in 2016, Creative Capital President Ruby Lerner affirmed the funder’s commitment to “artist-activists” who are engaging some of the “most significant and hotly debated issues of our time.” Three years later, I spoke with her successor, Suzy Delvalle, about supporting arts-related activities that drive meaningful social change.

“Undoubtedly, art addressing social justice is really standing out in the field at the moment, and that’s just the nature of how artists adapt to what’s needed,” she said. Art “can actually do something to push the issues that our political institutions are not doing enough to address: climate change, mass incarceration, poverty, identity, and racial equity, to name a few.”

On June 3, Creative Capital issued a statement saying it stood “with artists using their platforms to galvanize community, activate critical dialogue, and bring beauty into this world.” The statement included an extensive list of groups and nonprofit organizations “leading the movement for racial equality,” including a reading list of stories from the magazine Burnaway’s archives about artists’ responses to racial injustice and white supremacy, a petition demanding more equity in American theater, and videos from Artist Relief focused on physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Around the same time, Creative Capital announced that Delvalle will step down from her position on September 1, 2020. She will continue to serve in an advisory role for the remainder of the year.