Questions to Ask Before Addressing Scale

Posted by Judi Jennings On December - 5 - 2012

Judi Jennings

Does size matter? Of course it does. But is this the right question to ask first?

How about approaching the question of size by first asking how arts, culture, and philanthropy advance positive social change? And how does size relate to equity?

Size matters locally and globally, but arts and culture drive change regardless of the size. Maria Rosario Jackson’s recent report on Developing Artist-Driven Spaces in Marginalized Communities convincingly argues that arts and culture create community identity, stimulate civic engagement, and affect neighborhood economies directly and indirectly.

Writer and cultural organizer Jeff Chang argues that “where culture leads, politics will follow” on national and international issues.

As a place-based grantmaker, my theory of change is that local people make the most appropriate and lasting advancements when they have the necessary tools and resources.

Allied Media Projects (AMP) in Detroit is a great example of place-based social change. AMP argues that “place is important” and “Detroit is a source of innovative, collaborative, low-resource solutions.”

Honoring local culture does not mean working in isolation. MicroFest USA, for example, led by the Network of Ensemble Theatres, is looking at how art and culture can create healthy communities in Detroit, Appalachia, New Orleans, and Hawaii. The idea is that performance-based learning exchanges like this can connect artists, activists, cultural workers, and thinkers working locally and nationally.

So given the power of arts and culture to transform place, the question of scale becomes asking what is the best size for the time, place, and purpose? Deciding the most appropriate size then becomes more about engaging participants as active agents of change rather than applying a de-contextualized concept of scale.

Finding the right size, not necessarily achieving the largest scale, is the key. I would argue that decision is best made by the people doing the work and not by funders.

As a social justice funder, I question how the current buzz about scale relates to equity in arts and cultural funding. The 2011 National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) report on arts and culture funding documented that 2% of arts and cultural organizations with budgets of $5 million or more receive 55% of the funding awarded by large foundations.

According to the report, this concentration of foundation funding  with large organizations meant that in 2011 only 10% of arts and culture grants of $10,000 or more reached underserved communities. Creating healthy ecosystems for large, medium, and small arts and culture organizations, as well as for individual artists, cultural workers and tradition bearers to engage all kinds of communities means thinking more deeply about appropriate scales.

More information is needed about the impact of smaller grantmakers before we can fully understand all of the complexities about how size matters. A recent report released by the for-profit Foundation Source shows that 98% of the 80,000 non-operating private foundations in the United States have assets of $1 million to $50 million. Over the previous four-year period, these small foundations accounted for 42% of private foundation support nationally and gave away double the minimum required by the IRS.

Yet how much do we, as members and supporters of the arts and culture field, know about the successes and challenges of these small foundation and the scale of change they are choosing? Grants of less than $10,000, for example, were not included in NCRP report on equity in arts and culture funding. This missing information could change the picture of equity and inform the discussion about scale.

Having honest conversations about appropriate scale is not about large funders and big organizations versus smaller funders and community-based organizations, or “us against them.” Instead these conversations are a great way to inspire creative thinking and honor many pathways to positive social change.

In thinking about scale and how arts and culture philanthropy matter, it is important that many voices and varied perspectives are considered.

Please join the conversation and add your comments and viewpoints on what questions to ask first about why size matters.

2 Responses to “Questions to Ask Before Addressing Scale”

  1. Pam Korza says:

    With so much attention right now to place and the role of arts and culture in “placemaking,” the notion of right sizing to local context and resources has much value. I see it echoed in several blogs in the salon. It’s crucial, I’d agree, to begin to get a fuller picture of the impact of smaller grantmakers and grants to understand the impact of work at smaller scales, for example, the cumulative or ripple effects of a small organization or sustained program over time. Some focused discussions with Grantmakers in the Arts, the Foundation Center, Council on Foundations might help us to begin to collect data that isn’t just focused on the large grantmakers and large grants. Thanks, Judi, for your insights!

  2. Thanks, Pam. Yes, I do see a theme of questions and new thinking about what is appropriate scale. Maybe this would make for an interesting web conference organized by GIA and/or AD?

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.