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Leverage Lost
The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era

Part 2 - The Ford Era (1957-1990: Leverage Gained)

"Awake, arise, or be forever fallen!"-- John Milton, Paradise Lost

by John Kreidler
San Francisco, California
John Kreidler is Senior Program Executive at the San Francisco Foundation and oversees distribution of 100 grants a year valued at $2 million in a five county area around San Francisco.

Part 2 -- The Ford Era (1957-1990: Leverage Gained)

Despite the ample progress of the pre-Ford era in the production of both high and popular art, America had a hefty cultural inferiority complex by the late 1950s, by no means a new phenomenon in the nation's history. Our high art, in at least some circles, was not high enough, and too much of the artistic initiative had been conceded to the new populist technologies. The vigor of American culture was plainly visible and audible in its popular music, dance and television, but less evident in many high art disciplines.

In the 1960 presidential election, a strong undercurrent was the rejection of the low-brow 1950s style personified by Richard Nixon, in favor of the high-culture style epitomized by John Kennedy. During his presidency, Kennedy would distinguish his administration through widely publicized appearances by internationally renowned artists at the White House, and Mrs. Kennedy became the symbol of high international fashion. With the emergence of America as the world's post-war economic dynamo, there was an increasing mandate for comparable supremacy in the arts and culture, including cuisine and fashion.

Just as the mood of American culture was changing, a startling new invention appeared on the art scene: the arts grant. Invented by the Ford Foundation in the late 1950s, the arts grant was a vehicle for the long term advancement of individual nonprofit arts organizations, as well as a means for the strategic development of the entire nonprofit arts sector. As created by Ford, these grants were national in their distribution, and seen as a form of highly leveraged investment, rather than simple personalized charity.

Until the arrival of the Ford Foundation's broad vision of arts funding, virtually all cultural philanthropy had been vested with individuals, and generally lacking in any strategic intent. Most cultural philanthropy in the pre-Ford era consisted of individual patrons providing gifts to their favorite nonprofit arts organization, motivated by their love of art or sense of civic duty. While these gifts were often significant in the life of a given institution, they were rarely associated with a formally constructed plan for that institution's progression, and even less often with a grand scheme for systemic advancement of the entire arts field.

If anyone deserves credit for inventing the arts grant it is W. McNeil Lowry, the Ford Foundation's Vice President for the Arts from 1957 to 1976. Over a span of twenty years the Ford Foundation invested more than $400 million in:

  • The financial revitalization of existing major nonprofit arts institutions including elimination of debt, establishment of endowments and operating reserves, and support of building campaigns;
  • The establishment of new regional nonprofit arts organizations, especially theater and dance companies, to decentralize the arts beyond the city limits of New York;
  • The formation and advancement of a battery of arts service organizations, such as the Theater Communications Group, to promote broad sectors of the arts, and;
  • The enhancement of conservatories and visual art schools to generate a labor supply to complement the emergence of stronger, more decentralized and numerous arts institutions.

In addition to the already noted strategic goals of the Ford, it is highly significant that the Foundation viewed itself as a catalyst for these major developments, but not as the perpetual funder. The majority of Ford's grants were limited to less than five years duration and required matching support two to four times greater than the amount awarded by the Foundation. So, while Ford was attempting to increase the capacity of arts organizations to manage themselves on a fiscally sound basis and increase program output, the assumption was that other sources of money, both contributed and earned, would support long term maintenance. The concept of the matching grant, accordingly, was not merely to assemble additional funds to accomplish a specific purpose, such as a cash reserve for a museum; it was also a tactic intended to recruit new donors, who would continue a pattern of support long after Ford had moved on to other projects. This extended pattern of support was the most important form of leverage that Ford was seeking.

The leverage element of the Ford strategy succeeded brilliantly. Whereas only a few institutional funding sources had entered the realm of arts philanthropy in the pre-Ford era (notably Carnegie, Rockefeller and Mellon), a virtual cascade of foundations, corporations and governmental agencies now became active arts funders, and many of them, knowingly or unknowingly, emulated Ford's approach to institutional advancement and high leverage funding. The evolution of this new and highly pluralistic funding system for the arts had no precedent in the U.S. or any other nation. Even today, this institutional funding system, involving many hundreds of foundations, corporations and governmental agencies, remains unique in the world. Nor was this approach in any way limited to the domain of nonprofit arts organizations. Similarly vigorous applications of funding leverage were to be found in many other initiatives launched by Ford and other national funding sources during the 1960s, including the Johnson Administration's monumental "War on Poverty", which often required matching contributions from state and local government.

Borrowing from physics, Ford's influence on arts funding can be likened to a chain reaction. Ford's leadership, both by the example of its grants and through direct political advocacy, was highly instrumental in the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA): a federal agency conceived during the Kennedy Administration and inaugurated in 1965 by the Johnson Administration. Major initiatives of the NEA, including its Treasury Funds, state block grants, and Challenge and Advancement programs, owe much to the Ford strategy of leverage, decentralization and institutional expansion. Moreover, from the beginning, the preponderance of NEA grants were made on a matching basis. The logic was, and remains, that the NEA would stimulate a broad and ever-expanding base of funding from individuals and institutional funders that would carry most of the weight of sustaining contributed income for the nonprofit arts economy.

The NEA's original legislation contained provisions for block grants to state arts agencies. Prior to 1965, only four states operated arts funding agencies. With the stimulus of the NEA's block grants, all states and territories had founded arts agencies by 1980. This growing snowball of state and federal arts funding, in turn, led to the formation of more than 3,000 local arts councils, a quarter of which were organized as units of local government while the remaining three quarters were formed as nonprofit organizations, often with some formal link to local government.

Aside from this pyramidal evolution of governmental funding, two other philanthropic branches grew from the Ford roots: foundation and corporate support of the arts. Foundation and corporate funding for the arts had been miniscule prior to the Ford era, and that which did exist was mostly motivated by the same drives that stimulated individual arts patrons: love of art and civic duty. The first to follow the Ford example were some of the large national foundations, but even greater numbers of regional and local foundations were to join the cultural funding movement by the mid 1970s. Many of these foundations would employ specialized staff to formulate funding strategies and analyze grant applications, again taking a cue from Ford, which was the first foundation to utilize professional staff for these purposes. By the end of the Ford era, the aggregate arts funding from foundations alone would surpass $1 billion per year, more than three times the amount spent by state and national governmental arts agencies.

The Evolution of Institutional Arts Funding

The corporate arts funding movement started somewhat later than the foundations and was spearheaded by a few national leaders including Exxon, Dayton Hudson, Philip Morris and AT & T. Although corporate funding did not attain the same level as foundations and government, and was more immersed in marketing agendas (and therefore less concerned with the strategic advancement of the arts), corporate funding was considered the fastest growing source of contributed income for the arts in the early 1980s.

Income Sources of 218 San Francisco Bay Area Nonprofit Arts Organizations, 1980

The result of the entry of government, foundation and corporate funding sources into the arts economy during the Ford era was quite dramatic. According to 1980 data collected on 218 nonprofit arts organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, 45% of total income was earned and 55% came from all contributed sources. Of the contributed funds, 25% was provided by individual patrons, 18% by government, 7% by foundations and 4% by corporations Although similar figures are not available for the comparatively small sector of nonprofit arts groups in the pre-Ford era, it is evident that a strikingly different pattern must have prevailed. The preponderance of funds in that time were either earned through sales or donated by individuals. For the dominant sector of proprietary arts organizations in the pre-Ford era, as personified by the Lewis Dramatic Party of Professional Artists, virtually all income, by definition, had to be earned.

Besides helping to fuel expansion of the population of artists and arts organizations, the most significant effect of Ford era institutional funding was that it channeled the formation of new high art organizations into a nonprofit mode, rather than the proprietary mode that characterized the pre-Ford era. In the San Francisco Bay area, only 20-30 nonprofit arts organizations were in existence in the late 1950s, while a far greater number of theaters, musical ensembles, performing arts presenters and galleries were operating on a for-profit basis. By the late 1980s, at the end of the Ford era, the Bay Area contained approximately 1,000 nonprofit arts organizations, and far fewer proprietary arts organizations continued to operate. Commercial art galleries remained significant, though much of the vigor in contemporary visual art had gravitated to nonprofit galleries and artist-run spaces. Virtually no commercial theaters were operating, and almost all commercial performing arts presenting had ceased. The arts organization profile evident in the San Francisco Bay Area may be somewhat atypical, but high growth in the number of non-profits combined with a decline in the commercial high art sector appears to have been the pattern in all metropolitan regions in the U.S.

While the Ford Foundation and NEA deserve much credit for their early support of the nonprofit arts movement, by far the most significant factor in this movement's origin was the sudden arrival, in the 1960s, of a huge generation of Horace Lewis-style artists, technicians and administrators, driven not by funding or economic gain, but rather by their own desire to produce art.

The willingness of this new generation of arts workers to heavily discount its wages is borne out by various studies. Richard Harvey Brown of the University of Maryland's Survey Research Center notes that:

...government data on various artists occupations for 1970 and 1980 revealed that the number of art workers had increased by 48 percent, whereas their earnings during this period had decreased by 37 percent. In 1980, the average income of an artist living in Massachusetts was $13,008, of which only $4,535 was income earned from art. No other occupation has such highly trained people who must earn most of their penurious incomes outside their field.

A 1982 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, which compared 1971 to 1980 data, reinforces the picture of more arts workers and less compensation:

  • There are now over a million persons in the artist labor force. Figures for 1980 show that 1,020,000 people identified themselves as employed or unemployed actors; architects; authors; dancers; designers; musicians/ composers; painters/sculptors; photographers; radio-TV announcers; teachers of art, drama, and music in higher education; and other artists not elsewhere classified.
  • The artist labor force grew steadily from 1971 to 1980 and increased by 323,000 persons, or 46%. This is a higher rate of increase than the rate for all professional and technical workers, which was 40% in the same period.
  • The artist labor force is now about one-third female and two-thirds male as a result of women entering artist occupations at twice the rate of men during the decade of the 1970s. There are now two artist occupations which have a majority of females: dancers and painters/sculptors. In 1971, this was only the case for dancers.
  • The most chronic artist unemployment existed among actors, with rates during the decade ranging between 31% and 48%. As many as 10,000 actors were out of work in 1979.

Another NEA report, which examined the lives of visual artists in four major cities, provides some remarkable insights into the economic realities of this profession:

  • The median of artists' income from art sales, commissions, and grants or awards was $718 in 1978, and only 8.5 percent reported over $10,000. Even though all the artists had exhibited in the three-year period covered by the income question, over one-forth earned nothing at all from their art.
  • Most artists do not support themselves by selling their work. Median art income for the artists sampled was $718 in 1978. Median production costs were $1,450, approximately twice the median income. Not only do artists fail to make much money from their art, but they generally spend much more producing it than they make.
  • Since artists in general do not earn enough to support themselves through art, they receive the rest of their incomes from other sources, either by holding other jobs or by support from their households. Sixty percent worked at paying art-related jobs, with median income from those jobs of approximately $5,000. Over 63 percent of art-related jobs were part-time, and teaching jobs accounted for 62 percent of them.

Similar findings are cited for performing artists in a 1977 survey of performing arts union members commissioned by the AFL-CIO:

  • Most performing artists actually work considerably less than full time at their profession, primarily because not enough work is available. Only one-third of those for whom the arts is a principal profession managed to work full time in the arts in 1976, the year on which the survey focused.
  • Employment in the arts is very sporadic -- with most performers working for multiple employers during the year. At best, only one in five worked for only one employer. It is not at all unusual for a performing artist to work for at least ten different employers.
  • Contrary to popular belief, when performing artists get other jobs, the jobs are more apt to be unrelated to the arts than they are to be related. Performers do not all get jobs as arts teachers or coaches -- as is commonly thought. Instead, they are much more apt to get jobs in the service industries or in sales or clerical work.
  • A very substantial proportion of the performing artists report some unemployment during the year. Further, the proportion experiencing unemployment is much higher than occurs in the labor force as a whole.
  • Although median household income for performing artists is not out of line with the median for the nation as a whole (and in fact was slightly higher), considering the educational attainment of the performing artists, it was very much out of line with income received by other groups with similar education and training.

George C. Koch, a veteran employee of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Vice President of National Artists Equity, and himself a visual artist, summarizes the reality of being an artist:

  • I begin by dividing American society into two groups: artists and those whose education is comparable. Then I compare these two groups, and I find that American society makes five promises to the artist. First, artists will spend more time and money educating themselves while in the work force than will other workers with the same amount of education. They will spend more of their disposable income on continuing education because, throughout their life-times, they are constant learners.
Second, they will be unemployed more often. Third, their unemployment will last for longer periods of time. Fourth, in their lifetimes they will work less as artists - as dancers, painters, musicians - than their counterparts will work as analysts or managers. Finally, and not surprisingly, artists will earn less in their lifetimes than their colleagues in other occupations.

The Ford era generation of arts workers described by the foregoing statistics founded an unprecedented number of arts organizations, clearly not because of financial rewards or arts grants, but rather because they had the training and desire to produce art. This training and desire resulted from several broad influences that coincided at roughly the same moment: significant shifts in societal values, a peak in economic prosperity, the arrival of the massive baby-boom generation on American college campuses, the momentary ascendancy of liberal arts education, and a high water mark in leisure time.

Demographic Change: American fertility during and after World War II had much to do with the genesis of the Ford era. The era had truly arrived when the baby boom generation appeared in vast numbers on college campuses throughout the nation. This large, mostly white, and relatively affluent generation not only provided most of the discounted labor for the surge of arts production and formation of new nonprofit arts organizations, but also contributed substantially to the enlargement of consumer demand for the arts. In addition, this generation formed the bedrock labor supply for the massive expansion of the entire nonprofit sector of health, environmental, educational and social service organizations that were being founded concurrently.

Societal Values: Just as a shift toward more permissive and tolerant values had favored greater public expressiveness in the pre-Ford era, an even more pronounced shift developed in the late 1950's and early 1960s in reaction to the widely held perception of cultural inferiority that marked the post war years. This shift in favor of open expression (free speech, free art, free love) was accompanied by a complementary change in attitudes toward public service. The notion that work in public service was virtuous, in comparison to work in private enterprise, gained currency. John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural invocation to work for one's country was greeted with enthusiasm by many Americans, especially the young, who signed up for the Peace Corps, Vista or other public service work in government, the nonprofit sector, or volunteer groups.

Prosperity: In taking stock of this shift in values favoring public service and expressiveness, the influence of the exceptionally strong U.S. economy deserves much of the credit. While the Kennedy challenge of public service galvanized new idealism, it was easier to respond to this challenge in an economy in which multiple career options were available in the event that public service proved to be too much of a sacrifice. This general aura of prosperity may have also contributed to the willingness of large numbers of Americans to become consumers of the arts.

Education: Another planet that aligned at the beginning of the Ford era was the pinnacle of the American public education system, and a heightened emphasis on the liberal arts. A greater proportion of the population was enrolled in higher education than at any previous time and, according to some authorities, the quality of the public educational system reached its peak. It is also significant that, given the values and prosperity of this time, unprecedented numbers of college students chose to study the liberal arts. Comparative literature, drama, fine arts, art history, music and a host of other arts-related disciplines flourished.

Probably the majority of liberal arts students had no particular career ambition in these fields. The number of drama graduates in any given year, for example, substantially exceeded the supply of full time acting jobs in the entire nation. Still, at the time it was widely believed by students that any college degree, even in the arts, was a passport to an entry level job in some reasonably well-paid profession. Until the early 1970s, a seller's market prevailed for holders of undergraduate degrees, so one could afford to obtain a college degree for its own sake rather than committing oneself as an undergraduate to a business or technical degree. Thus, institutions of higher learning were producing legions of students, many of whom, whether they realized it or not, were becoming prepared to work in the nonprofit arts or to become arts consumers.

Leisure Time: Many books and articles in the late 1960's and early 1970s announced the arrival of a new era of leisure. Expectations were widespread that the U.S. would soon adopt a four day work week and concern was voiced for how Americans would utilize their expanded spare time: passively, in front of a television, or in more active, enlightening pursuits. According to economist Juliet Schor, leisure for the average working American reached an apogee in 1971. In some measure, this additional leisure probably contributed to the ability of people to engage in artistic endeavors and to become arts consumers.

Implications of the Ford Era

In summary, then, it was the sheer number of inspired and educated youth that provided the main fuel for the Ford Era. In an earlier time, this labor force probably would have founded a wave of new arts enterprises using the proprietary model that had been the only choice for Horace Lewis' generation. In the 1960's, however, the nonprofit model was available and convenient, besides fitting the contemporary anti-business ethos. Moreover, the nonprofit model had the benefit of heavy backing from the new circle of institutional arts funders led by the Ford Foundation, though many, probably the great majority, of start-up nonprofit arts organizations began without the prior commitment of a grant.

Although this period was largely driven by discounted labor, and secondarily by institutional funders, it could never afford to ignore consumer demand. As in all eras, much art was produced for its own sake with no concern for its consumer appeal. Nevertheless, the high arts in America, even with the advent of institutional funding and nonprofit organizations, continued to depend far more heavily on earned revenues than their counterparts in virtually all industrialized nations. In some European countries, government subsidies alone account for 80% or more of a typical organization's budget, and in some cases critics have argued that the incentive for attracting a large clientele base may have been eroded by over-subsidization.

In the U.S., by contrast, client-based revenues have remained critical to the survival of most nonprofit arts organizations, so as these groups proliferated in the Ford era, they tended to devote considerable energy to sales. Indeed, many government, foundation and corporate funding sources insisted on the development of a paying client base and often provided grants toward that end. Even without pressure from the funders and economic necessity, many arts organizations were imbued with the ethic of public service and willingly did their best to attract large followings. Thus, the Ford era was more than a partnership between nonprofit arts organizations and friendly funding sources that appreciated "high art." It was also a period when the clientele of the high arts rebounded, in part driven by increased supply, but also by advances in education, societal values, economic prosperity and leisure time, the same factors that spawned the new generation of arts workers.

As the Ford Era evolved, however, it could be fairly said that most of the new consumer demand came from a relatively well-defined segment of the population: persons with high levels of formal education. This point has been confirmed by virtually all surveys of performing arts and museum audiences over the past three decades. Thus, though the nonprofit movement in the arts was partially founded on the ideal of public service, an unintentional result was that most of the beneficiaries came from a narrow band of society. What was true at the outset of the Ford Era was at least as true at the end. Most of the public obtained its arts and entertainment from commercial sources. While the nonprofit arts were expanding in organizational numbers and output, the big money and most of the technological innovation continued to reside in commercial broadcasting, musical recording, movie production, and a host of new home electronic media.

In 1993, McNeil Lowry, age 79, passed away in New York City. More than any other single individual of his time, he saw the potential and conceived the strategy for this three decade era. The arts and the nation benefited greatly from his leadership and skillful application of resources. While the history of the Ford era is too fresh to evaluate its lasting imprint, there has been no period of the arts in America that has surpassed its intensity.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 16, 1996.