Fundraising for Progressive Arts

Dear Kim,

How do you present a compelling case and go about raising money for an arts organization that has progressive politics?
—I may seem to be a waiter, but I am really an actor

Dear Actor,

The first challenge is defining what a progressive arts and culture organization is. I believe it is one or more of the following:

1. An organization that provides a venue and encouragement for the artistic expression of people outside the mainstream: prisoners, gang members, people with disabilities, students (especially in very poor school districts), etc. This can be done through music, literature, theatre, dance, film, the visual arts or various combinations of these.

2. An organization that promotes the art and culture of particular groups or types of people who are usually not represented in the mainstream or are inaccurately represented.

3. An organization exploring or seeking to expand the boundaries of art with experimental expression.

4. An organization using the arts to promote a political analysis-street theatre, some kinds of graffiti, murals, political posters, or using artistic means to help people understand a political analysis.

5. An organization that brings artists and musicians into venues where people generally don’t have access to art — such as prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters. This can be done to entertain, politicize, educate, or empower.

These organizations have trouble raising money for a variety of reasons, chief among them being their own failure to claim their importance. The most sad statements come from board members who will say, “It’s not like we save lives or really change things. I enjoy it, but sometimes it seems fluffy compared to other kinds of issues.” A slight upgrade is the attempt to justify working in the arts like this: “When kids learn to read music, their math scores go up. Kids that get to act in plays will often learn to read better.” Some see arts as a marketing mechanism: “Having people act out their experiences with landlords/the welfare office/the police helps them feel more powerful and makes organizing easier.”

All of these miss the message that arts and culture groups need to put forward: “Art is central to any kind of decent society. In the kind of society we are working toward, art will be accessible to everyone, whether as audience or creator or both.” The fact that arts can be shown to raise test scores or improve self-esteem or bring people together in a unified movement is ancillary to the central tenet that art, in itself, by itself, is important. The fact that art can be used in a variety of settings and with almost any kind of people speaks to its extraordinary flexibility and the universality of its language.

The second difficulty arts and culture groups face is the image of arts as either the elitist purview of wealthy socialites or boring, stodgy and irrelevant. Large mainstream arts groups and the media have unwittingly collaborated to promote this image. The San Francisco Chronicle, in an article about the opening of the symphony season, spent three columns on the food and the dresses of members of the audience, and one paragraph on the music. A literature teacher in a poor high school invited the curator of a large art museum to share slides of great art with high sophomore class. The curator talked for 40 minutes and showed ten slides. When the lights came up, all but one student was asleep. As the curator left, he told the teacher, “I didn’t expect these students to be so well behaved.”
Between low self-image and vapid public image, it is no wonder that many arts and culture groups have trouble raising money. What are the solutions?

1. Veteran organizer Gary Delgado often counsels organizations to “reframe the debate.” Ask the questions that you want to answer and answer them. For example, an organization that teaches writing and theater to high school drop-outs and young homeless people compiled a list of the 100 greatest authors of the last two centuries. They then asked each school in their district to compare this list to what their school was teaching. The local paper published this list rather than the canon that is usually published and this organization reframed the debate so that everyone was talking about the authors this organization believed were the best, rather than the list of usual suspects that gets published and debated ever year.

2. Ask everyone for money who comes into your radar. Create a list from this group and build from it. I have seen performance groups have one mailing list for people who attend performances, who have never been asked for money and a much smaller list of people who give money. If the organization has been supported by foundations, they may not have a list of donors at all. People who come to a performance, even if the performance is free, should be asked for money at intermission. They should be asked to sign up for the mailing list. Within a month of their signing up on the mailing list, they should be asked for money by mail. If the performance is for children, they should be sent home with an appeal. But once people have given, they have to be asked to give again, then to give more and then to give even more in a systematic and respectful way. Having an organized fundraising program is big boost to actually raising money.

3. Practice cross-promotion. Small arts and culture groups should form alliances with each other so that a person can buy a season ticket which gives them admission to several different performances-music, theater, a lecture, and a film. Every organization should link their website to all similar groups, and perhaps even share a secured area for receiving donations. Buy a full page ad in the Sunday paper and advertise several different kinds of art and culture experience. This saves money and also begins the process of giving a different definition of what the public means by art.

4. Work with other organizations to promote the idea that new and emerging artists and cutting edge art deserve government funding. This is a strategy with a long term pay-off, but is possibly the most important one. Taxpayers (which is almost everyone) need to understand more about how taxes work, how they should work and what the money goes for. For the arts to truly thrive and be accessible to the population at large will require subsidies from the government. The attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts and the failure of the public to defend it reflect in part the lack of organizing arts and culture groups have done on issues of taxation. That the public can be organized around taxes is evident in right wing organizing that makes people think paying for a bloated military is good and paying for welfare is bad.

5. Work with progressive foundations to help them see the role that art and culture play in organizing and in social justice work, so that arts and culture cease to be a sideline of other funding and become a full fledged program. These foundations can be helpful in promoting an overall agenda for arts and culture groups to more mainstream foundations, which fund large mainstream arts organizations in part because they don’t see enough examples of other kinds of art.

6. Build a broad base of individual donors who will carry your message and your definition of art and culture into the community at large. By redefining what is meant by arts and culture, you will begin to attract donors from all walks of life and your donor base will reflect the kind of audience you are trying to create for your art. The image of the starving artist alone in a cheap seedy apartment or the waitress who is really a writer or the not-of-this-world-hate-to-think-about-money musician, though arguably romantic, is ultimately harmful to a lasting integration of arts and culture into a progressive agenda and a democratic society. Art is not simply the expression of an individual artist, nor will many highly talented people be drawn to careers in the arts when suffering is so much a part of the image. The equation of arts organizations and wealthy people is equally harmful because so many people do not see themselves reflected in that cross section of society. Arts and culture groups must be proactive in putting forward an inclusive picture of themselves, both as artists and audience.

By using the principles of good organizing and good fundraising (most of which are the same), progressive arts and culture groups can raise the money they need and take their rightful place in the panoply of organizations that make up a progressive movement. (Part of this answer appeared in Shelterforce Magazine, Feb. 2000)