These are interesting times. It seems no matter what industry or field you’re in, there’s uncertainty on the horizon. The arts are in the heart of it, as President Trump’s FY2018 budget proposes eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, an important independent federal agency supporting the arts. But the same uncertainty clouds several fields and disciplines as changes in policy and funding priorities of the new administration become clearer.
For example, climate change and environmental issues are suffering as the US withdraws from the Paris Climate Agreement; healthcare organizations are awaiting clearer details of how their industry will be restructured as the administration works on the American Health Care Act; immigration issues are front and center of public discourse as bans on citizens of certain countries entering the US navigate the legal system; and even the scientific community at large is making an effort to justify its work through the March for Science, among other movements.
More than ever, these various disciplines are looking to philanthropy to assist them. Some have already answered the call. Michael Bloomberg, for example, recently promised to pay up to $15 million to the United Nations to cover the US’s contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement through his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The good news for arts organizations is that corporate support for the arts comes primarily from philanthropic sources. According to Business Contributions to the Arts: 2017 Edition, a new benchmarking report from The Conference Board and Americans for the Arts, nearly 90 percent of companies contributed to the arts through either a corporate philanthropy or foundation budget. Marketing and sponsorship budgets were also a popular source for a large minority of companies (41 percent), but clearly the opportunities for funding in the arts exist in corporate contributions.
So, arts organizations are already in the right position to maneuver for a bigger part of the philanthropic pie, but they face a number of challenges—not least the fact that competition for philanthropic funds is likely to intensify. In addition, many of the protests against these policy and funding changes come in the form of artistic expression. Take, for example, comediennes Katie Rich and Kathy Griffin, both of whom tried to articulate their opposition to Trump through jokes, but went too far. Or the venerable Shakespeare in the Park in New York City, which recently put up a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that depicted the title character as the President and portrayed his assassination.
These examples have faced public outrage and ultimately financial repercussions. Rich was fired from her post as a writer on Saturday Night Live, CNN fired Griffin as the co-host of its New Year’s Eve broadcast, and—significantly for this piece—Delta and Bank of America withdrew their sponsorships from Shakespeare in the Park.
Protests don’t come much more powerful than when delivered through art, but as the arts enter a heightened competitive funding environment against any number of other social issues, will artists be forced to stifle their creativity to attract funding from businesses that are increasingly nervous about entering the firing line of an unconventional administration?
Measuring the impact of the arts is another major challenge for arts organizations, particularly as companies place increasing importance on knowing what is being achieved through their donations. Currently, the strongest case for arts impact is the economic impact it creates, as outlined by Americans for the Arts in its latest report, Arts & Economic Prosperity 5. Companies find this important—when asked what statement explains the effect supporting the arts can have on advancing a company’s business objectives, 67 percent responded that it “contributes to the economy and quality of life in the community,” the number-one response.
But companies also consider more direct business impacts important. For example, most companies (53 percent) also responded that supporting the arts can stimulate creative thinking and problem solving, 48 percent said it offers networking opportunities and the potential to develop new business and build market share, and 44 percent said it can help to recruit and retain employees. Yet, I’m not aware of any efforts to measure these impacts or measure data to showcase how the arts can contribute to these positive business effects.
The past three years have been good to the arts, with 89 percent of companies reporting that they have either maintained or increased arts funding since 2013. Artists are likely hoping that will continue, but tapping those resources is not going to be easy.