Benna WildePhilanthropic Support for Art Works

By: Benna Wilde In: 2011 Family Philanthropy Conference| Family Philanthropy

24 Jan 2011

Why is philanthropic support of the arts such a good idea?

Back in the 15th century, if you commissioned an altarpiece for your local church, your likeness was painted in at the scene of the Annunciation. We don’t have such incentives any more. So why support the arts?

Here are some important reasons:

  • Tens of millions of Americans participate in arts activities every year.
  • There are 109,000 nonprofit and 550,000 for-profit arts businesses and 2.2 million artists in the workforce.
  • The arts generate billions of dollars in consumer spending.
  • The arts are supported by a mosaic of sources. Earned income represents only half the total, while local, state, and federal government support is around 9 percent and shrinking. Private-sector support represents about one-third of the total.

During a panel discussion today at the Council on Foundations 2011 Family Philanthropy Conference, some superb speakers shared their valuable perspectives:

Agnes Gund is president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, a distinguished collector, and a leader of her family’s philanthropy. She spoke movingly of what the arts do for people, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, the RX Foundation supported the creation of a mural at a children’s cancer ward that relaxes the patients so much that they rarely need sedation before treatment. Exposing children to art teaches them how to see the world more clearly and deeply.

Cathleen Wiggins, a professor at the Bank Street College of Education, is the director of the Leadership in Technology and the Arts Program, an innovative collaborative program with Sarah Lawrence University and the Parsons School of Design that trains principals for public schools. That’s not the typical focus of arts philanthropy, but Cathleen described the exciting schools that graduates of her program have created all over the country. She told of one principal who noticed that attendance in his school dropped significantly on Fridays. When he moved all the arts programming to Friday, attendance rose to 95 percent.

Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music the most innovative and exciting arts center in the country. Over the years, it has led the transformation of a neglected area of Brooklyn into a center of activity where people want to work and live. Now they are working on creating an arts district in central Brooklyn. “Artists create a community from a place where nobody wants to be,” she said. Brooklyn is one of the “hottest” communities in the world, and the arts are leading the transformation.

A common thread among these perspectives: For the arts to thrive, we need to collaborate to increase funding for the arts, from private and public sources alike.

Benna Wilde is managing director of Prince Charitable Trusts

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