A new funding model improves equity in the arts

Smaller organizations will receive more money from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. 

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On a rainy Tuesday the Portland Art Museum gradually fills with school groups, vacationing couples and bespectacled, gray-haired patrons. Exhibits honor First Nations women and showcase Native American art, but a large portion of the collection remains devoted to European painting and sculpture. The visitors are nearly all white.

Despite their best efforts to promote equity and inclusion, Portland’s large art institutions, like their peers around the country, still largely cater to rich white audiences. The people making the decisions about funding and curation are of the same demographic.

The Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) is taking aim at this disparity by changing its funding model for the Portland metro area’s cultural institutions. The goal is to distribute more money to the host of small organizations that support marginalized artists. The council hopes that with concrete changes like this one, the city’s arts community can move past diversity workshops and discussions, and ignite real change.

“We’re trying to reposition the whole field,” says Madison Cario, director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council. “We are changing the entire arts ecology to using equity as a metric for successful administration.”

Nationally, the flow of arts funding favors large institutions. In 2017 just 2% of arts organizations, those with budgets over $5 million, gobbled up nearly 60% of arts funding. These institutions tend to favor Western art, receive checks from affluent white donors and serve a mostly white, upper-class audience. Their boards, staff and executive directors are almost always white. Only 5% of art museum directors are people of color.

The funding structure in the Portland arts scene is no exception. For the past decade, 57% of all RACC general operating support funds went to the region’s five largest organizations: Oregon Ballet Theater, Oregon Symphony, Portland Art Museum, Portland Center Stage and Portland Opera.

The arts provide a substantial boost to the regional economy and the growth of the sector should reflect the diversity of the population. According to a 2012 study, the arts are a $253.5 million industry in the Greater Portland area, not including the $101.5 million of related spending on local restaurants, hotels, retail stores, parking garages and other businesses.

Large arts organizations like to talk about their commitment to diversity, but they have less to show in real numbers. After a 2011 report from Helicon Collaborative discovered widespread inequity in arts funding, large institutions made efforts to change. But a follow-up study in 2017 found that equity and diversity gaps just grew larger.

Sam Gaty, executive director of Northwest Documentary, says general operating support is the hardest money for small nonprofits to come by. Most grants are tied to specific projects. Nonprofits need to constantly reapply, an expensive and time-consuming process for small organizations.  

With the new funding model, Northwest Documentary will get a “substantial” boost in operating funding of around 5% to 10%, Gaty says. Saving on administrative costs will make workshops cheaper for high school girls learning from successful female documentarians and make more scholarships available for aspiring filmmakers from underserved communities.

“There’s a big emphasis on diversity equity and inclusion in the arts today,” Gaty says. “Some of it feels kind of like lip service, but the work that RACC is doing feels thoughtful.

The other component of the funding change is allowing nonprofits to apply for bonus grants for diversity projects and actions that benefit the community. Cario says these grants reward behaviors that support underrepresented artists while still allowing organizations to make creative decisions about how to accomplish their goals. Northwest Documentary, for example, can get additional funding in exchange for making its space available to neighbor organizations.

The increased support for small organizations comes with a cost. Beginning in 2021, the 12% of organizations the council serves with budgets over $2 million will see a drop of less than 1% of their revenue. Cario says the responses she’s received from large arts organizations so far have been “kind” but also firm in emphasizing their diversity programs. “Even a 1% reduction of annual budget is something to scramble for,” she says. “I don’t think anyone is taking it lightly.”

The Portland Art Museum uses the general operating support dollars to fund partnerships with underserved community organizations including Portland Meet Portland, Adelante Mujeres and the Muslim Educational Trust. It will take a hit from the change. Beginning in 2021, the museum’s operating support from RACC will drop by 59% from $427,000 to $175,000.

“We cannot be certain about how this significant reduction in general operating support will affect the museum until we begin budgeting for 2021 fiscal year,” art museum director Brian Ferriso said in a statement. “What is certain is that the Portland Art Museum will continue to engage underserved communities and expand arts learning.”

Recent blows to nonprofit support make the funding discussions even more sensitive. A change in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act hurt nonprofit donations by making it less likely that lower- and middle-income donors will get a tax write-off. Community foundations have also reduced support to the Portland Art Museum in recent years on account of increased public dollars from the new Portland Arts Tax, a regressive $35 flat tax on everyone rich and poor.

Related Story: Tax-code changes put nonprofits in a bind

Amid these issues, there is no easy way to redistribute funding more equitably among arts organizations. What is clear is that bold changes are needed to ensure actors, artists and directors reflect the makeup of the general population.

“If it’s only the stories of white middle-class folks, people of color never see themselves reflected in the narrative,” Ratner says. “There’s been a big push to change what’s happening on the stage to reflect what’s happening in the community.”

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