Should The Denver Foundation continue to fund arts and culture?

3 03 2010

I just returned from a trip to the San Francisco Bay area, the first of what will be several trips this year as part of The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project.  In the Bay Area, I met with several leaders from the private, nonprofit, and foundation sectors.  In future blog posts, I’ll talk more about a variety of the issues we discussed.

This post addresses the question of whether The Denver Foundation should continue to fund arts and culture.  Of the people I consulted in the Bay Area, one individual felt that arts and culture should be among our highest funding priorities and another individual felt arts and culture should be among our lowest priorities.  Adapting their advice to the Denver area, their main points might be summarized as follows.

The argument against continuing to fund arts and culture proposes that The Denver Foundation narrow its focus to two or three main areas.  The theory is that in order to make a real difference, we should give a few large grants rather than a lot of a small grants. If The Denver Foundation were to select only a couple of priorities, one could argue that arts and culture would not be among the most pressing needs.  Furthermore, the Metro Denver area is unique in having a dedicated sales tax for arts and cultural organizations.  Because the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District generates more than $30 million per year, some might argue that The Denver Foundation should direct its attention elsewhere.

The arguments for The Denver Foundation continuing to support arts and culture begin with economics.  The economic impact of arts and culture in the Metro Denver area is huge – considerably more than the economic impact of professional sports.  Because a strong economy is the engine that drives progress on social and philanthropic needs, it can be argued that The Denver Foundation should continue to invest heavily in arts and culture. 

Furthermore, a technology expert I consulted in the Silicon Valley stated that arts education is among the most important tools we can give to our children and grandchildren.  Yet most public schools have cut back or eliminated arts education.  This gentleman said that the workers of the future will need training in arts and culture at least as much as in math and science.  Jobs of the future will require flexibility and creativity, skills that are best learned through music, acting, painting, and other art forms.

Right now, I come down solidly on the side of believing that The Denver Foundation should continue to fund arts and culture and I think our Board agrees.  The economic and workforce development arguments are compelling.  In addition, arts and culture are an indispensable part of a civilized society.

In late 2008, as the Great Recession began, The Denver Foundation Board of Trustees courageously decided to make available the same amount of grant dollars in 2009 as were available in 2008.  This meant dipping into our corpus during bad economic times.  As part of this discussion, the Trustees also contemplated devoting more resources to immediate human needs.  After considerable deliberation, the Board unanimously decided not to change the percentage allocations among the foundation’s various grantmaking areas.  The Board unanimously voted to continue supporting local arts and cultural organizations at the same level as in the past.  As one Trustee noted, “During tough economic times, food for the soul is almost as important as food for the body.”

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions regarding The Denver Foundation’s continued funding of the arts and culture.

David Miller/President and CEO, The Denver Foundation