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We're Going Where the Money Resides

Midrene Lamy, Sarah Khalid Dhobhany, and Keivanna Haylock

Midrene Lamy (Left), Sarah Khalid Dhobhany (Right), Keivanna Haylock (Bottom)

The arts community is deeply concerned about the current state of cultural philanthropy.1 Not only are they questioning the sources of the funds that support museums, but also scrutinizing the very foundations of modern philanthropy. By examining the current state of museum funding across the United States, as well as looking into leading cultural philanthropists and the rising generation of funders, we can find considerable alternative means of funding alongside the attempts made.

Private Patrons / Individual Giving: 

Private patronage of the arts is nothing new; many good things flow from this kind of philanthropic investment. Recently there has been a shift in the current state of how museums are enticing new private philanthropy in the arts. In light of the nation's changing demographics2, particularly in urban centers, and the aging of the baby boomers, museums are under increasing pressure to create younger and more diverse boards, and the growing pool of young patrons is just one of the resources available to train the next generation of trustees. Many museums depend on board members for as much as one-fifth of their annual budgets in the absence of significant public support.3 There is often a steep price to enter the boards, often millions of dollars, and they require annual donations of six figures to hold a seat.4 As in the past, members of those boards are usually either in the finance industry or derive their wealth from it. Donors gain membership into an exclusive cultural club, which others wish to join, and help arts organizations gain cachet and connections, which command the attention of government officials. Additionally, it gives them a boost in status, allows them to meet artists and curators, and gives them public recognition for giving back. However, an activist movement has emerged that has held a mirror up to this bargain, expressing concerns over the perceived greater good being served, regardless of who or what is considered "good." Over the past year, museums, and in particular their board members, have come under unprecedented pressure for the incoherence between the values they represent and the institutions they are supposed to represent. Increasingly, cultural organizations are being pushed to become more representative of the communities they serve as well. 

As the spotlight on private patronage continues to grow, museums are making a conscious effort to bring in new funders that represent a larger demographic. One of these initiatives is creating young patron groups.5 One of the most visible groups of its kind in the country, the Guggenheim Museum's Young Collectors Council organizes its annual party in the museum's rotunda. Due to its size and membership, the Council has been able to establish itself as a cultural mainstay for connecting with young art collectors, patrons, and enthusiasts, as well as advancing one's capital in the arts. Fees for participation in these groups range widely: New York institutions like the Young Fellows at the Frick Collection (with annual dues from $600 to $10,000). The Junior Associates at the Dallas Museum of Art has a membership fee of around $250 to $500. 

The most notable difference in this new generation of funders is that they no longer subscribe to the former models of passive philanthropy in which you simply give and nothing else. What young patrons want is to know that their philanthropy is making an impact on something tangible, this creates a stronger connection and inspires the patrons to continue giving. 

Young collector’s groups don't always produce a diverse group of patrons, and it requires a process and sensitivity to different perspectives and needs. There are more places cultivating young patrons for support than the major art museums. The Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York specializes in queer art, and was previously a nonprofit foundation. It became a museum in 2016 and has been seeking diversifying sources of funding ever since. The foundation established its first initiative, the Influencers' Circle, for young queer philanthropists, many of whom have joined the Global Ambassadors group, which in turn creates a larger donor network.  


Public Funding 

Public funding for the arts in the United States is administered by federal, state, and local governments. From the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to local government funds such as the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), these agencies distribute grants and services to arts and cultural organizations across the nation. Before the pandemic hit, the majority of states were expecting positive revenue increases to continue into FY2021. In 2020 alone, $1.47 billion dollars combined was appropriated to the arts by public funding. Many Americans have argued why their tax dollars have helped support artwork and artists they do not approve of. Much of the argument between the two sides boils down to two questions: Should the government subsidize the arts? Does it allow them to censor a work of art if so? One can recall the Giuliani vs The Virgin incident, where in 1999 British artist Chris Ofili debuted a controversial, dung-decorated painting depicting the Virgin Mary.6 Rudy Giuliani, who was then mayor of New York City, was so offended by Ofili’s painting that he froze City funding to the Brooklyn Museum and threatened to evict7 it from its city-owned building. The museum sued the city for violating its First Amendment rights. 

Giuliani’s threat was not unfamiliar territory—politically charged public controversy loomed large over museums in the late 1980s and during much of the 1990s. In 1989, New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato and North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms denounced Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ as vulgar and undeserving of federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The work depicted a photograph of an inexpensive crucifix in a container of urine. A few weeks later, Helms turned his attention to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, as they were about to open The Perfect Moment, a retrospective of the figure study, still life, and sadomasochistic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. He went so far as to send copies of Mapplethorpe’s photographs to each of the twenty-six of the joint congressional committee8, who were considering a penalty against the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting art deemed too dangerous and depraved to be looked at. Fearing protests and loss of funding, the Corcoran’s director decided to cancel the exhibition9 with less than three weeks to go before its opening. 

Corporate Funding/Sponsorships 

A partnership between the commercial sector and museums can offer a lot of benefits, including opening up new audiences and brand association. Corporations of all sizes can achieve a high level of exposure through corporate sponsorship.10 For nonprofit organizations, corporate philanthropy shows employees and customers that the company cares about the causes they care about. The implementation of corporate philanthropy programs and keeping employees informed about these programs would allow organizations to make a greater positive impact on the world by supporting charities as chosen by their employees, benefiting nonprofits as well as the greater social good. 

Throughout 2013, Uniqlo partnered with MoMA to host Uniqlo Free Friday Nights, and in 2014, the company launched SPRZ NY, a fashion collection that featured MoMA designs. In addition to bringing more people to these museums, the long-term and fruitful partnerships have also helped bring the museum to more people. At times these collaborations can assist museums in becoming more visible to a different demographic than they normally encounter. It creates mutually positive publicity for both the museums and the companies sponsoring the event.  

Philanthropic Foundations 

Grantmaking is one of the most common means of charitable giving, and arts and culture tend to be popular issue areas for philanthropic foundations. In 2018, giving by the approximately eighty-six thousand active private and community foundations in the United States rose 4% to $80.7 billion. Among the largest grantmaking operating foundations in the United States, overall giving was down 2% among a matched set of funders; however, arts and culture funding was up 7%.11 Arts and culture remained among top foundation funding priorities ranking fifth following human services. 

Current trends show that philanthropic foundations have focused their resources on relationship building, technical assistance, capacity building, collaboration, innovation, and donor involvement. In response to the decreases in public funding, especially for arts education, funders are also encouraging their grantees to become more market-based—focusing on tickets/subscriptions and fee-for-service as core revenue streams, and increasing the role of the artists and arts organizations in cross-sector issues.  

Facing the challenges of the pandemic and social justice movements in the United States, foundations have worked through new strategies and shifted their focus. In June 2020, the Ford Foundation pledged to nearly double its grants in 2021 from $520 million to $1 billion.12 The MacArthur, Kellogg, Mellon, and Doris Duke foundations joined Ford's campaign. The initiative included a $7 million relief fund for arts and cultural organizations. 

Incremental Changes 

Cultural institutions are inherently expensive. They will continually rely heavily on major donors and funders to operate their facilities, programs, and exhibitions. Although there are plenty of protests and criticism from people on the outside, ethical philanthropy is an internal conversation we don’t seem ready to openly have. Endowments are critical and it’s very hard to say no. Due to those heavy dependencies, any deep digging into major donors most likely will lead to some rotten roots. The real question here isn’t the future of ethical philanthropy but is ethical philanthropy even possible? Museums and cultural institutions are starting to look into more transparent approaches in efforts to avoid the public shaming that occurs when the sources of their funds are unearthed. 

The young feminist organizers at FRIDA exercise this transparency by challenging and transforming traditional philanthropy. They hold themselves accountable by calling out the social injustices of their donors. They let people know the money they received is unethical and why they will proceed with accepting it. The motives of their Resource Mobilization Ethics Policy13 were created in response to a large donation from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It is common knowledge that Scott’s fortune stems from her connection with a company that social justice activists villainize for its unethical business practices. FRIDA has come to terms with the fact that it will be negligent to the communities they serve by turning the money down but will not grant philanthropists whose sources contradict their values the opportunity to quietly donate and hide. 

The latest social justice movements due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the murder of George Perry Floyd Jr. has both sides of philanthropy having more complex conversations about their impact. The International Council of Museums is actively redefining the word museum. In the past, its definition centered around conservation, exhibition, and education. Now, a new alternative language being considered focuses on dialogue, diverse lived experiences, the dignity of humans, and equity.  

Some major funders such as the Melon and Ford foundations heard this call and have been holding cultural institutions they sponsor accountable to their DEIA initiatives for several years now, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. They are among other major funders14 supporting the American Alliance of Museums 2019 initiative, Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion.15 Another DEIA approach funders are taking is rethinking the specific focus of their philanthropy. The Terra Foundation has expanded its interest and is now more supportive of contemporary art.16 The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs simplified its applications. More inclusive changes include rolling deadlines and points of contact for questions. The most notable change for cultural institutions seeking funding is the option of submitting applications online, where in the past some major funders only accepted notarized post-dated hard copies. 

The progressive shift in focus, language, and the lowering of barriers is significant to the goals of ethical philanthropy because it makes the process of seeking funding less intimidating. Smaller museums and cultural institutions that may not have the capacity and resources compared to larger institutions are hopefully feeling more empowered and encouraged by this loosened grip to ask for the money they need to create change. 

These are incremental changes that hopefully years from now philanthropists and cultural institutions can look back on and can say had a big impact. With that said, the reality is philanthropy is relationship-based and the foundation world operates in a way that isn’t very flexible. Although there are efforts to make it more inclusive and “clean,” philanthropy will always have a direct connection with capitalism. Major donations from the wealthy and wealthy trustee board members still count for and maybe will always be the reasons museums and cultural institutions can stay open. So what can we do about that? There’s no question about the positive impact museums and cultural institutions have on various audiences. The Brooklyn Museum received a large donation from the New York City Mayor’s Office for capital improvements. This investment will improve their infrastructure, energy efficiency, and reduce their climate impact. Those most affected by climate change are people of color living in less wealthy communities, but an increase in government funding can result in more bureaucracy. Also, at times government funding will need to be matched by fundraising which then leads museums and cultural institutions back to major donors.  

Representation on the board of trustees is notoriously limited.17 Ethical philanthropy in that realm moves at an incredibly slow pace but there are some significant positive alternatives occurring. The Queens Museum put out an open call for a new Young Trustee member in November 2020. This was an application on their website for someone who is seeking a seat on their Board of Trustees in hopes they can bring their experiences and skills to help shape the future of the institution. There are wealthy musicians of color like Swizz Beats at the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art recently welcomed contemporary artist Julie Mehretu to the table. 

The bottom line is more diverse and alternative18 representation will lead to less gatekeeping and will ultimately lead to more ethical philanthropy. Museums and cultural institutions that are already doing this work need to give others the fear of missing out on the amazing impact their philanthropy can have on social justice movements, equity, and human dignity. Investing in the arts doesn’t always have to be limited to an elite group of people seeking to clean up their unethical practices. The solution to resolving unethical philanthropy doesn’t always have to be shutting the museums down. Ethical philanthropy is possible. Small incremental changes will chisel grime away, chip by chip. These modest changes will have a huge impact on the relationship between philanthropy, cultural institutions, and the audiences they serve.  


[1] "Arts Funders Forum's Research: A Look At What We Learned," Arts Funders Forum, September 24,  2019, artsfundersforum.com/news/our-findings-2019.

[2] American Alliance of Museums, “Museum Board Leadership 2017: A National Report,” American Alliance of Museums, September 13, 2021, aam-us.org/2018/01/19/museum-board-leadership-2017-a-national-report/.   

[3] Robin Pogrebin, Elizabeth A. Harris, and Graham Bowley, “New Scrutiny of Museum Boards Takes Aim at World of Wealth and Status,” New York Times, October 2, 2019, nytimes.com/2019/10/02/arts/design/whitney-art-museums-trustees.html.   

[4] Jessica Jacolbe, “Are Museums' Young Patron Groups Meeting Calls for Diversity?,” ARTnews, November 16, 2021), artnews.com/art-news/news/state-of-museum-young-patron-groups-diversity-1234610239/

[5] Jessica Jacolbe, “Are Museums' Young Patron Groups Meeting Calls for Diversity?

[6] Allison Young, "Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary," Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed August 4, 2022, smarthistory.org/chris-ofili-the-holy-virgin-mary/.

[7] Abby Goodnough, "Giuliani Threatens To Evict Museum Over Art Exhibit," New York Times, September 23, 1999, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/arts/092499brooklyn-museum.html.

[8] Richard Meyer, “The Jesse Helms Theory of Art,” October 104 (2003): 131–48, jstor.org/stable/3397585.  

[9] Barbara Gamarekian, "Corcoran, To Foil Dispute, Drops Mapplethorpe Show," New York Times, June 14, 1989, nytimes.com/1989/06/14/arts/corcoran-to-foil-dispute-drops-mapplethorpe-show.html.  

[10] J.J. Charlesworth, “The Ethics of Sponsorship in Art: Is There Such a Thing as Bad Money?,“ ArtReview, December 17, 2018, artreview.com/ar-september-2018-feature-aesthetic-judgement/

[11] Reina Mukai, “Foundation Grants To Arts And Culture In 2018: A One-Year Snapshot,” Grantmakers in the Arts, 2021, giarts.org/foundation-grants-arts-and-culture-2018-one-year-snapshot. 

[12] "Ford Foundation Announces Sale And Pricing Of Landmark $1 Billion Social Bonds," Ford Foundation, 2020, fordfoundation.org/news-and-stories/news-and-press/news/ford-foundation-announces-sale-and-pricing-of-landmark-1-billion-social-bonds/. 

[13] “Returning USD 10 Million that We Owe to Our Communities,” Deepan Ranganathan, FRIDA, March 23, 2022, youngfeministfund.org/money-is-political/. 

[14] “Museum Leadership Remains Predominantly White in 2018, Study Finds,” Artforum, January 29, 2019, artforum.com/news/museum-leadership-remains-predominantly-white-in-2018-study-finds-78507.

[15] “Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion,” American Alliance of Museums, December 6, 2019, aam-us.org/2019/12/06/facing-change-advancing-museum-board-diversity-inclusion/. 

[16] “Terra Foundation Awards $2.5 Million to US Arts & Culture Organizations for Permanent Collection Projects,” Terra Foundation for American Art, May 4, 2021, terraamericanart.org/2021/05/04/terra-foundation-awards-2-5-million-to-us-arts-culture-organizations-for-permanent-collection-projects/. 

[17] Robin Pogrebin, “It’s a Diverse City, but Most Big Museum Boards Are Strikingly White,” New York Times, August 22, 2017, nytimes.com/2017/08/22/arts/design/new-york-museums-diversity-staff-boards.html. 

[18] “How To Create Diverse Boards—Culture Change Guide,” Arts Council England in Conjunction with ewgroup, 2017, artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/How%20to%20create%20diverse%20boards_0.pdf.