Philanthropic Funding Networks and the Arts: Is institutional philanthropy “curating” the arts?

By: Sharon Nathani   |   PhD Candidate, Philanthropy and the Arts at Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology   |

I have always been interested in the intersection of the arts and philanthropy. In 2018 I started a part-time PhD at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology, exploring institutional giving vehicles such as trusts and foundations (including private and public ancillary funds and testamentary trusts) to look at how they connect with each other, whether they form networks, and whether institutional philanthropy is curating the arts.

My interest in this stems from a research gap in that there is not much academic writing on how, why and between whom relationships develop in philanthropic funding for arts and culture.  We don’t know the extent to which trusts and foundations shape, focus and influence arts and cultural experiences through their giving. 

The role of networks in influencing philanthropic foundation funders around what they fund has not been explored, and we just don’t know how or if indeed, whether institutional philanthropy affects arts and cultural production and experiences.

The current context for the arts in Australia is rather bleak. The arts was one of the first sectors to close down during COVID-19 and will be one of the last to re-open.  Many arts workers were excluded from government support due to the casual and contract nature of their work, and there has been no clearly articulated federal government arts policy since Creative Nation in 1996 and Creative Australia in 2013 (which never eventuated due to the change of government). 

Funding from the Australia Council has been static over the last few years, and the government only committed to support for “significant” arts organisations as a response to COVID. 

So philanthropic funding for the arts is important and it would be useful to understand it better.

To do this, last year I interviewed 32 trustees, founders, and staff of institutional philanthropic funders from around the country to delve into their views on networks, knowledge exchange, where they hear about potential grantees and how they communicate amongst themselves. 

This qualitative study has enabled me to examine some of the common characteristics of these funders and to understand the philanthropic arts funding ecosystem in more detail.

The interviews were in conjunction with archival data from websites, programmes and acknowledgement pages of arts organisations and the annual reports of the funders themselves, to get an overview of who is funding what type of arts and where. This information will be analysed with social network analysis to visualise how the funders and arts organisations interconnect, so that we can have a better understanding of the relationships between arts funders, between arts funders and their beneficiaries, and between the beneficiaries of common funders.  Social network analysis will also provide insight into the ties between all of these organisations and can be used to measure and identify the key players, those who act as bridges across the sector, and those who are active in sharing information, influence, and knowledge resources.

At this stage, only mid-way through the research I do not have solid findings to report as yet, but the initial information coming through is providing an interesting insight into how institutional philanthropic funders view the arts, how these funders organise and categorise their funding and how they see their role as philanthropists.  Often these funders are seeking more than an artistic outcome and can clearly articulate their goals and desired outcomes. 

What the research hopes to resolve is whether the imposition of these objectives is, in fact, “curating” the arts and cultural product which is funded and therefore, created, produced, and exhibited.

The purpose of the research is to demystify the institutional philanthropic arts funding sector, as this has often been viewed as an unapproachable or unwelcoming behemoth. What the research is showing is that the people involved in philanthropic trusts are very engaged with what they do, extremely interested in and passionate about the arts, and keen to develop meaningful and communicative relationships with their grant recipients.

Particularly during these difficult COVID-19 times for the arts, institutional philanthropic funders have demonstrated their commitment to the organisations and projects they support, through adapting their funding, maintaining their commitments, switching to multiyear funding, and relaxing reporting requirements. 

Institutional philanthropic funders have shown they are listening to the needs of their beneficiaries and are responding with compassion and practical assistance.

Hopefully, the research will result in both academic and practical, industry-use contributions. The research aims to answer specific research questions such as: whether arts and culture is shaped by the priorities of philanthropic funders; how trusts and foundations which support the arts and culture influence what is produced and whether trusts and foundations form knowledge networks relating to funding decisions relating to the arts and culture as well as a better understanding of how they communicate with each other about what and how they fund.

The responses to these questions will also inform some of the common characteristics of trusts and foundations which support the arts.

 The research will aim to present a new conceptualisation of how trusts and foundations which support the arts and culture “curate” what is produced, it will illustrate formal and informal knowledge networks among trusts and will ascertain whether arts and culture is shaped by priorities of philanthropic funders.

Sharon is a PhD Candidate at Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology.  Her research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. Sharon previously worked as Executive Officer for the Inner North Community Foundation, and as manager of the Australian Cultural Fund at the Australia Business Arts Foundation.

Sep. 09, 2021

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