#109 Jan/Feb 2000

Raising Money for Progressive Arts and Culture Organizations

Discussions about the difficulty of raising money for certain issues are generally started by people who feel sorry for themselves. Nevertheless, progressive arts and culture organizations face challenges that can […]

Discussions about the difficulty of raising money for certain issues are generally started by people who feel sorry for themselves. Nevertheless, progressive arts and culture organizations face challenges that can drive the most optimistic person to occasional self-pity.

A progressive arts and culture organization does one or more of the following:

  • Encourages, and provides a venue for, artistic expression by people outside the mainstream: prisoners, gang members, people with disabilities, students (especially in very poor school districts), etc.
  • Promotes the art and culture of groups who are usually not represented, or represented inaccurately, in the mainstream.
  • Explores or seeks to expand the boundaries of art with experimental expression.
  • Uses art such as street theatre, some kinds of graffiti, murals, or political posters to help people understand political analysis.
  • Brings artists into venues where people generally don’t have access to art: prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters, etc.

An Image Problem

The first difficulty these organizations face is failure to claim their own importance. Board members will say, “It’s not like we save lives or really change things. I enjoy it, but sometimes it seems fluffy compared to other issues.” Slightly better are attempts to justify the arts: “When kids learn to read music, their math scores go up. Kids that get to act in plays often learn to read better.” Some present 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.”

The message arts and culture groups need to put forward is: “Art is central to any kind of decent society. We are working toward a society where art will be accessible to everyone, as audience or creator or both.” That arts can raise test scores or improve self-esteem or unify a movement is ancillary to the central tenet that art, by itself, is important.

The second difficulty arts and culture groups face is the image of arts as either elitist or stodgy and irrelevant. Large mainstream arts groups and the media have unwittingly collaborated to promote this image. A San Francisco Chronicle article about the symphony season opening spent three columns on the food and the audience’s dress 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 a class. The curator talked for 40 minutes and showed 10 slides. When the lights came up, all but one student was asleep. The departing curator told the teacher, “I didn’t expect these students to be so well behaved.”

It’s no wonder many arts and culture groups have trouble raising money.


As veteran organizer Gary Delgado often says, “Reframe the debate.” Ask the questions you want answered 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 last two centuries’ 100 greatest authors, and asked each school in their district to compare it to what they were teaching. The local paper published this list rather than the canon it usually published.

Ask everyone in your radar for money. I have seen performance groups with a small mailing list of cash donors and a much larger list of performance attendees whom the group has never asked for money. People who come to a performance, even if the performance is free, should be asked for money at intermission, and asked to join the mailing list. Within a month, they should be asked for money by mail. If the performance is for children, they should be sent home with an appeal. Once people have given, they have to be asked to give again, then to give more, and then even more, in a systematic and respectful way. Having an organized fundraising program is a big boost to actually raising money.

Practice cross-promotion. Form alliances with other small arts and culture groups so people can buy season tickets that include several different genres – music, theater, lectures, films. Link your website to all similar groups, and perhaps even share a secure area for receiving donations. Buy a full-page ad in the Sunday paper to advertise several different kinds of art and culture experiences; it saves money and begins the process of redefining what the public sees as art.

Promote the idea that new and emerging artists and cutting-edge art deserve government funding. This strategy has a long-term pay-off, but is possibly the most important. For the arts to thrive and be accessible to the general population, they will require government subsidies. The attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts and the failure of the public to defend it reflect in part a lack of organizing by arts and culture groups. The public can be organized around taxes. Don’t forget right-wing organizing has made many people willing to pay for a bloated military but not for welfare.

Help progressive foundations see the role art and culture play in social justice work. They can also promote arts and culture groups to more mainstream foundations who fund large mainstream arts organizations in part because they don’t see enough examples of other kinds of art.

Progressive arts and culture groups must proactively put forward an inclusive picture of themselves, both as artists and audience. Many people do not see themselves reflected in the wealthy groups associated with the arts. However, the image of the starving artist alone in a seedy apartment is just as harmful; it implies that art is simply the expression of an individual artist. Highly talented people may also avoid careers in the arts when suffering is so much a part of the image. Redefine what arts and culture mean, and you will begin to attract an audience – and donor base – from all walks of life who will carry your message into the community at large.


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