Cultural Philanthropy and Social Justice: The Nathan Cummings Foundation

My work with museums, libraries and non-profits has often involved helping them identify funding sources for art or historical activities such as interpretive programming or outreach to new audiences.  All too often the institutions seeking support make the assumption that all foundations with “arts” or “culture” programs are potential grant sources. They do not realize the wide range of funding approaches in cultural philanthropy, from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which helps “excellent institutions” undertake serious scholarship on and preserve their collections, to the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which funds cultural activities “through the lens of social justice.” Nor do grant-seekers realize that cultural philanthropy is undergoing re-examination, with the result that some foundations are shifting traditional approaches and adopting new funding perspectives.

The following snapshot of the Cummings Foundation and several projects it has recently supported may help grant-seeking institutions recognize the need for a close match between project purposes and foundation priorities.  I also offer a conceptual framework for locating grantmakers on a continuum of funding approaches in cultural philanthropy, a framework that may be helpful for grant-makers as well as grant-seekers.

In Pursuit of Freedom and the Nathan Cummings Foundation

Brooklyn Eagle, December 29, 1891 Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library
Brooklyn Eagle, December 29, 1891
Brooklyn Collection,                                       Brooklyn Public Library

“From 1783 to 1865, Brooklyn, New York transformed from an agricultural slave-holding capital to the third largest city in the United States.  Its growth was the backdrop for pursuits of freedom, equality, and social justice for African-Americans – a struggle that was carried out by the city’s residents, both black and white.  Three of Brooklyn’s leading cultural and educational institutions – the Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center, and Irondale Ensemble Project have come together to tell the story that begins at the end of the American Revolution and ends at the beginning of Reconstruction.”  

(Introduction to In Pursuit of Freedom, a multi-faceted history project taking place throughout Brooklyn in 2012-2014.)

In Pursuit of Freedom, a project that explores “pursuits of freedom, equality and social justice for African-Americans”, directly reflects the values of one of its funding sources, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, through its Arts and Culture Program   With an inter-disciplinary, participatory, and cross-community approach In Pursuit of Freedom exemplifies the principles stated in the Cummings Foundation”s Arts and Culture Program statement of 2012:  

“..the roles that artists and cultural workers play in stimulating social change and championing economic justice in both traditional and non-traditional venues. By addressing art through the lens of social justice, we will continue to affirm artists and arts institutions that value and encourage creativity, innovation and risk-taking while fostering cross-cultural conversations that transcend race, ethnicity, class, age and geography.”

In Pursuit of Freedom project fulfills the Foundation’s commitment to “address art through the lens of social justice” in several ways.  The project theme itself raises fundamental issues of social justice: the story of the largest social justice movement in the history of the United State, told through the experience of Brooklyn, with sub-themes of Abolition, anti-slavery activities and the Underground Railroad.

One way that In Pursuit of Freedom demonstrates a commitment to equity is through its approach to implementation. The project is not centered in any one institution but is a partnership between three diverse organizations – Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center, and Irondale Ensemble –  each with different histories, audiences and interpretive goals.  The project is a truly shared enterprise.  Through collaboration the project mobilizes their complementary assets around a common theme that transcends “race, ethnicity, age and geography”.  By contributing expertise, archives, and collections to the collaboration, these institutions are able to achieve a more thorough interpretation of the subject and to have a larger educational and social impact than any of them could have done alone.

In Pursuit of Freedom also reflects a social equity perspective through its diverse interpretive approaches, reaching diverse audiences, including: exhibitions, walking tours, an original theatre piece, a website and an educational curriculum.  Other activities deepen the project’s long-term impact on multiple audiences. As one example, the project has resulted in an  new catalog of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s archival holdings pertaining to African-American History, vastly expanding access to the project themes and stimulating new research by future students, curators and scholars.

Beyond the core themes of the In Pursuit of Freedom project, beyond its collaborative cross-institution construction, its distributed responsibility, and the variety of its interpretive approaches, the project has an underlying quality that makes it an appropriate vehicle for social justice funding.  It is about social history at the individual, family, building and neighborhood level, not just about  political efforts to bring about legislative and policy changes.  It communicates the importance of social conscience and activism at all these levels in the fight to bring about “freedom.”

Image from MAMA: Motherhood Around the Globe, an Online Exhibition of the International Museum of Women.  Photo:  Chantal Anderson
Image from MAMA: Motherhood Around the Globe, an Online Exhibition of the International Museum of Women. Photo: Chantal Anderson

The connections between the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s Arts and Culture funding principles and In Pursuit of Freedom are obvious.  They are equally obvious in regard to the other museums and museum projects the Foundation supported in recent funding cycles.  These include an online exhibition MAMA: Motherhood Around the Globe, by the International Museum of Women in San Francisco and the U.S. Dialogue Project on Immigration, organized by the International Coalition of Historic Sites and Museums of Conscience.  

Although the Cummings Foundation’s grants to museums make up only a small proportion of their overall  Arts and Culture portfolio, they indicate a consistent viewpoint and a commitment to substantial funding for projects with a clear agenda for use of the arts to foster social change.  The MAMA exhibition, for instance, states :

“The exhibition aims to turn inspiration into action, helping fuel a worldwide movement of advocates for mothers’ human rights and advances in maternal health.”

In addition to funding for museum-related projects, alternative arts organizations,and  community arts projects, the Arts and Culture Program also funds organizations dedicated to building the field of Arts and Social Justice.  One of these, Creative Change, “creates a space where advocates, artists, media makers, cultural organizations and donors can reflect, share ideas, and brainstorm innovative ways of inspiring and mobilizing support for social justice values and solutions through the arts.”   It is not yet clear whether and how Creative Change or other similar organizations are influencing museums, libraries and historical organizations.  However, funding for these new forums to examine the powerful connections between arts and social justice offers the potential for expanded thinking and practice in all arts institutions.

Changing Approaches to Cultural Philanthropy

The Nathan Cummings Foundation’s social justice agenda is not unique.  According to Grantmakers in the Arts:

There is increasing interest in the intersection of funding for arts and culture and funding for social justice, equity, and diversity, and a number of funders are developing programs that cross these traditional lines.”    

In fact, the complex issue of the relationship between the arts, equity, economic development and social change has been under review by Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) for several years.   In 2011 GIA organized an online forum on equity and arts funding; in the Winter 2012 issue of the GIA Reader there was an article on Advancing Equity in Arts and Cultural Grantmaking; and in September 2012 GIA conducted a poll of its members about the impact of these conversations, revealing that 63% had participated in formally organized conversations about art, social change and equity in the past year, and 42% had changed their approaches to funding.

Comments from GIA members who responded to the poll indicated divergent points of view about the short-time or long-term prospects for fundamental change in grant-making as a result of these efforts.  One respondant stated  “We are on the brink of a radical re-making of the cultural sector,” while another stated “I have become more skeptical of sweeping claims being made about (1) how little foundations are currently doing; and (2) how much social change can be propelled by the arts.”

In addition to the GIA initiative other associations of grantmakers have taken up the topic of arts funding and its relationship to social change.  Americans for the Arts recently produced Trend  or Tipping Point: Arts and Social Change, a report that states there are more than 150 foundations who fund in this area.  The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy commissioned a major report by Holly Sidford, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change. In concluding her report Sidford points out:

” In an increasingly crowded philanthropic marketplace, foundation leadership no longer  derives from the age-old sources of authority – the size of one’s endowment and historic reputation. A foundation’s leadership today stems from its values, its relevance and its impact, and its effective engagement with the pressing issues of our time.

The  James Irvine Foundation, based in California, is one example of a major foundation that has reconsidered its arts funding and implemented a new strategy that expresses its commitment to equitable opportunities for all Californians.  The 2012 Arts Program statement announces:

“The goal of the Arts program is to promote engagement in the arts for all Californians — the kind that embraces and advances the diverse ways that we experience the arts, and that strengthens our ability to thrive together in a dynamic and complex social environment.”

The Irvine Foundation goes on to explain:  “The arts are a powerful force for connecting people and strengthening communities. Arts funders and nonprofits share a responsibility to make the arts accessible and relevant to all communities.”

It is clear from these various initiatives and statements that fundamental assumptions about arts funding are under discussion across the philanthropy landscape.  It is also clear that they involve a wide range of opinions about the definitions of equity, the meaning of social change and funding strategies to address these issues.  Issues under discussion include:  

  • Strategies to minimize disparities in access to the arts
  • Arts as a vehicle for Civic Engagement and/or Social Activism
  • Partnerships between community arts organizations and traditional cultural institutions
  • Use of art to advance equity for racial and ethnic minorities
  • Inclusion of global cultural traditions in museum collections and programs
  • Arts and culturally based economic development

Extensive as these conversations about cultural philanthropy may be, it is unclear whether and to what extent they may affect funding for art and history museums. Change in philanthropy tends to take time.  In the short term, it is unlikely that the number of foundations supporting non-traditional institutions or projects will increase greatly or, even, that many foundations will actually shift their approaches to arts funding.

A Continuum of Arts and Culture Funding Approaches 

Through the eyes of an interested outsider, the issues under discussion, and the changes being effected at some foundations, seem to represent a continuum of strategies for arts funding. This continuum reflects four basic approaches, which may be useful for grant-seekers to consider as they try to locate funding sources that match their missions and goals.  The continuum may also be helpful for funders who are deliberating how they might best position their grantmaking in arts and culture.

  1.  access, to address disparities in exposure to “the arts”;  
  2.  inclusion, to ensure that multiple artistic traditions are represented in arts institution; to expand the canons:
  3. engagement, to foster arts participation, including participation as audience members and as creators; and  
  4. activism, to endorse and encourage the use of the arts as tools to advance equity, opportunity and social change.

Nathan Cummings Foundation:  A Leader in Arts and Social Justice Funding

In the context of the recent efforts to reconsider the bases for cultural philanthropy in the United States, and in light of this conceptual framework for funding approaches today, the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s approach to arts funding stands out.  First and foremost is the consistency of its funding principles from the time of its founding, principles that infuse all of its funding programs.

Secondly, the Foundation’s explanations regarding its funding principles and strategies are  unusual for their clarity.  Typically, museum funders hesitate to articulate their real priorities in any depth. This may be due to their hesitancy to encourage expectations or to engender questions about how to interpret these priorities.  It may be due to a transition in leadership or Board thinking.  Often it is because they do not want to overly influence the agendas of potential grantees.   Or, for some funders, there is a disinclination to reveal the extent to which tradition governs their funding processes, resulting in support for the status quo.  .

The Nathan Cummings Foundation’s statements are refreshing precisely because they offer such an obvious alternative to the status quo. They encourage unconventional institutional priorities and they make possible projects and programs that involve museum engagement with controversial topics, historical issues and marginalized populations.

The Cummings Foundation’s approach to museum funding is especially important for those institutions that envision new possibilities for re-interpreting their collections in relation to the social issues and justice movements of today.  It offers a clear contrast to most other arts funders and it sends an important message to cultural institutions that they have important roles to play in the social justice dialogues of today.



  • Amigos del Museo del Barrio  ((New York, NY).   Exhibition: Caribe Now: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Diaspora.
  • San Franscico Art Institute. (San Francisco, CA).  Documentary Film: “!Women Art Revolution: a (Formerly) Secret History,” (WAR) that examines and illuminates the evolution of the Feminist Art Movement in the United States through interviews, art, and historical footage.
  • International Museum of Women (San Francisco, CA). General Support. The Museum seeks to be a catalyst in identifying, shifting and channeling resources to support and promote women’s economic empowerment.    Two exhibitions: (1) Women, Money and the Global Economy; and (2) Global Motherhood and Maternal Health.
  • American Poetry Museum.  General Support. The Museum celebrates poetry, promotes literacy, fosters meaningful dialogue and encourages an appreciation for the diversity of the American experience. Artistic and educational programs promote social justice and give voice to under-represented communities.
  • Smithsonian Institution.  Exhibition: Every Body: The History of Disability in America. A National Museum of American History Traveling Exhibition a traveling exhibition that will provide historical and social context for the concept of accessibility as a civil right.  
  • Alaska Native Heritage Center, Inc. A two year planning program Reclaiming the Resiliency of Our Peoples, Cultures and Communities, that will comprise a description of the steps and recommended procedures for conducting facilitated consciousness-raising process; suggested resources, curricula, a video and other materials for dissemination to the Alaska Native community and regional groups throughout the state.
  • The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.  For U.S. initiatives. The Coalition is a worldwide network of historic sites dedicated to remembering past struggles for justice and addressing their contemporary legacies.  A U.S.-focused pilot project, “Dialogue Across Difference,” supports national discussion on the challenges and opportunities of historic and current immigration among museum visitors in Alabama, California, North Carolina, and Texas.   Support was also provided for planning the Guantanamo Public Memory Project.   
  • The Society for the Preservation of Weeksville & Bedford-Stuyvesant History (Brooklyn, NY).  Exhibition:  Homecoming: An Exhibition about Home and Homelessness, that examines the complex issues of homelessness and  concomitantly the compelling significance of home. This multi- disciplinary exhibition tackles the issues of gentrification, and captures the plight of homeless people in the U.S. and around the world