Feb. 2, 2016 10:11 am

Here’s how the current state of arts funding is promoting cultural inequality

A recent story in The Atlantic explores why there's a lack of funding for community-based arts organizations. Meanwhile, in Philly, the Knight Foundation just granted $2.5M to an opera festival.

Buy arts supplies for Philly public schools or buy antiques for this opera set?

(Photo by Flickr user Steven Pisano, used under a Creative Commons license)

When the National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965, it was formed with a mission to make arts funding more inclusive by bringing capital to the previously-overlooked community organizations supporting the arts in neighborhoods across the country.

Over 50 years later, it’s become clear that the NEA has failed to deliver on that mission.

It’s not the NEA’s fault — the endowment’s power has fluctuated over the years, thanks to politicized budget cuts. As a recent Atlantic story points out, those cuts created an opportunity for individual donors and foundations to step up and keep the arts alive.

Read the full story

But the art those funders are keeping alive is happening in opera houses, not neighborhoods. And those opera houses, the author writes, have become akin to “exclusive country clubs.”

Consider the Knight Foundation‘s most recent arts grant: Last month, the foundation doled out a $2.5 million grant for Opera Philadelphia‘s “innovative” opera festival set to take place in September 2017.

What if, instead of granting $2.5 million to one opera organization hosting a festival for the wealthy, the Knight Foundation granted $250,000 to 10 organizations bringing arts programs to Philadelphia’s underserved neighborhoods? How about $125,000 to 20 grassroots organizations fueling arts education?

It’s not like it hasn’t been done before.

Here in Philadelphia, the NEA played a role in funding dance nonprofit Philadanco  enough to get the dance organization some attention from “local agencies and private foundations that had previously ignored them,” according to The Atlantic. But nowadays, public funding for the arts is minimal: Only four percent of all arts funding came from public sources.

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Per the Atlantic piece, people in “minority, disenfranchised, and rural communities don’t usually have access to millionaires and billionaires who they can cultivate as donors.”

Cuts to public funding for the arts have triggered a systemic imbalance in arts funding across the country. Wealthy donors are funding art for the wealthy.

But hey — at least we’re getting a swanky opera festival.


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