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Philanthropy in Museums
Where Do We Go From Here? 

Omolade Olubowale,
Sebastian Pierre,
Tritia Lee,
Emmanuel Woolard,
Sydney Murphy


America’s arts and cultural sector has been one of the hardest-hit industries from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. With a full stop on key revenue streams such as admissions, events, and retail sales, museums are left in a situation in which their dependence on charitable giving and philanthropy is greater than ever. Fortunately, many individuals and institutional donors have stepped up during this time, demonstrating generous support for the arts. However, an issue arises as we start to see how disproportionately these funds are distributed. There are major disparities within arts funding that continue to exacerbate America’s social and economic inequality.

Arts funding in America comprises 24.4 percent from the government, 36.5 percent from charitable giving, 27.6 percent from earned income, and 11.5 percent from investment income. Under this framework, 55 percent of the funds are directed toward large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million. This means that more than half of the sector’s total revenue is directed towards less than 2 percent of America’s arts nonprofits. Artists of color and organizations established by marginalized communities are most affected by this disparity, which leaves them without the resources and support they justly deserve. The nonprofit industry has become another avenue for the management and policing of resources within marginalized communities. The transfer of capital through such means does not lead to the transfer of power. Donors still pick who and what they fund. 

Even within institutions, the amount of funding a department or a program receives differs greatly in scale. By making restricted gifts, donors remain the decision-makers in how funds will be used. If they have a specific program or an exhibition that aligns with their passions or vision, their funds are likely to support such initiatives. Philanthropy in the art world is heavily tied to money, power, and influence. Giving is political and reflects inherently on the donor. In turn, a cycle is created with landmark institutions with bigger names, endowments, and legacies. The donors’ network expands with their influence. Unfortunately, this is not just a reality of museums. Most aspects of society function within the confines of influence and power. 

Culturally specific museums, as well as artists of color, do not have the same range of social networks that their white peers have, and ultimately the capital that comes with them. When culturally specific institutions and artists of color have to rely on capital that has been systematically deprived from them to preserve and guarantee the future of cultural artifacts and artistic practices, how can philanthropy make it easier and not harder on them? 

To resolve these issues, museums must start practicing equitable fundraising efforts that ask bigger questions about how arts economies function, and how they are valued. Here we provide four major strategies for museums to consider and implement.

ONE: Donor-Centric Model to Community-Centric Model

Historically, fundraising and philanthropy have often followed the donor-centric model—with the focus being on who the donors are, what their interests and preferences are, and how to cultivate them further. While this is still an important aspect of the work, its prevalence causes several problems:

  • It creates a situation in which nonprofits are competing with one another rather than working together.
  • It ignores the voices of the communities served.
  • It further excludes the most vulnerable cultural workers, especially those with the least social and economic capital.
  • It incites a creative economy in which the cultural value of artists and their work are determined by the economic value they generate.

Developing and executing a community-centric model that is grounded in advancing racial and social justice puts the communities at the center, and prioritizes the entire community, encourages collaboration, and promotes diversity. 

Abolition framework can help frame what the future of institutions can be. In 2020, such teaching has been brought into mainstream consciousness as the country questions and grapples with the history and future of the carceral state. Abolition, defined by abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore is, “about the presence, not absence. It is about building and sustaining life-affirming institutions.” We know what we do not want from art institutions, but do we know what we want? 

TWO: Accountability 

Most large museums and cultural institutions boast beautifully worded mission statements and commitments to diversity, especially when confronted with public scrutiny. Take the Public Theater’s “official goal” to become 7 percent less white by 2023, for example. In her recent Nonprofit Quarterly article, “How White People Conquered the Nonprofit Industry,” Anastasia Reesa Tomkin highlights the absurdity of this underwhelming commitment by restating the fact that if and when this hypothetical goal is met, 50 percent of its staff would remain white while serving a significantly more diverse community. The issue here isn’t the intellectualization of structural oppression of racial sensitivity training or diversity discussions, it is that these discussions are presented as progress itself. They allow senior leadership to simultaneously pat themselves on the back while remaining completely complicit. We can not conflate talking about the work with doing the work.

Whenever we mention racial equity in any industry, we must discuss accountability. Museums have well-intentioned commitments to diversity, but what exactly constitutes “success” in relation to these goals, and whose job is it to ensure their achievement ? The community must be able to hold the institution accountable for its proposed plans in order for real change to occur, and these accountability-based initiatives are a great foundation.

First, museums must develop public programs in conjunction with the communities they aim to serve—this protects the community from savior complex–fueled programming. Next, the goals of each program need to be clear, concise, and measurable, while incorporating detailed deadlines. These measures define the metrics for success within any given program and make it easier for the public to understand how the program supports the institution's mission. Finally, the people supporting the institution must be connected to its progress. This means that whoever donates money, time, or services should at the very least receive timely updates on how their contribution was put to use, and how close the institution is to reaching its stated goals.

Perhaps this involves creating an internal self-auditing process, a team of consultants, or even an advisory committee made up of local community leaders. Communities being served deserve not only to have their voices heard, but also the ability to make changes when they aren’t. 

THREE: Diversifying Donor Pools

The pandemic's financial impact on museums has sparked a push for reshaping fundraising within these institutions. Historically, museum boards have catered to a very small demographic of donors, typically providing minimal access to people from diverse backgrounds. According to the American Alliance of Museums’ 2017 Museum Board Leadership report, 46 percent of all museum boards in the United States are 100 percent white. This illustrates the urgent need for reenvisioning who is chosen to make institutional decisions and begs the question of where museum funds are sourced.

Board diversity can help promote inclusive methods for future donor cultivation and creates space for community voices within organizational planning. Before museums can diversify their donor base, they must acknowledge their shortcomings and identify possible barriers to change. These barriers may include implicit biases about donor groups, a lack of knowledge about the community the museum serves, and limited access to board and leadership positions for non-white staff. Making room for community-based donors encourages museums to be more intentional about their philanthropic efforts and can lay the groundwork for developing healthier relationships with the community. Expanding institutional diversity efforts to include donor pools is crucial, especially in art museums where funders can directly influence major institutional decisions such as exhibitions, future acquisitions, and programming. 

Now more than ever, museums should be considering the financial power and ingenuity that a diverse team of donors would bring to the galleries. Striving toward diverse donor pools is a way to hold museums accountable. The additional financial resources from diverse funders can equip museums with new, meaningful partnerships and avenues for giving back. Encouraging museum development and leadership staff to diversify their donor pools is only half of the battle. Implementing a strategy and taking action are key to seeing results. 

FOUR: Diversifying Leadership Staff

Amid the pandemic, there needs to be an investment in recruiting diverse talent. This investment goes beyond the act of listening. With diverse leadership staff, an organization can provide a broader perspective to a multitude of communities. 

There must be intention and purpose when inviting diverse voices to allow for authenticity—they are integral to protecting, retaining, and advocating for diverse talent.

There must be actionable ways to measure the hiring and retention of diverse leaders and employees. Retention is often the most difficult to achieve because many organizations harm and alienate employees of color. This especially rings true if the organization is predominately white. Marginalized communities are often not included in conversations about the future of an organization. 


While social and economic inequalities are ever-present in American society, America’s arts nonprofits are in a unique position to correct these issues. Arts nonprofits are not owned by or bound to an individual leader’s vision in the way a more traditional business might be. They are founded with missions, and in the case of arts organizations that mission is to preserve a culture and serve a specific community. Art institutions’ funding models and internal structures should mirror that mission and the community that is being served should determine the metric for success. 

1. Holly Sidford, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change (Washington, D.C.: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2011), https://www.ncrp.org/publication/fusing-arts-culture-social-change.