A Major Funder Is Overhauling How it Backs Local Arts Groups. What Will That Mean for Grantees?


Back in February, MacArthur Foundation Senior Program Officer Geoffrey Banks made an announcement that made leaders at Chicago’s arts and cultural organizations with budgets of $2 million or less a bit uneasy. The foundation and its two regranting partners, Prince Charitable Trusts and Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, amicably parted ways after awarding $65.6 million in unrestricted support to 565 organizations over the previous 19 years.

The announcement was concerning due to the fact that organizations emerging from the pandemic had come to rely on the funding. The programs were also valuable because, as regranting partners, Prince and Driehaus supported organizations that may not have been on MacArthur’s radar. As we’ve previously noted, arts funders have been ramping up regranting partnerships in an effort to look beyond the usual suspects, but MacArthur was well ahead of the curve. 

Fortunately, Banks also provided some good news. MacArthur had begun considering a new funding partner that “builds on and deepens the equity goals” of the foundation’s Culture, Equity, and the Arts (CEA) grantmaking program. Launched in 2019, the CEA program revamped MacArthur’s discretionary arts grantmaking by, among other things, no longer tying award amounts to an organization’s annual budget and adopting a participatory grantmaking panel.

Seven months after the announcement, the city’s arts leaders can breathe a bit easier. In a September 8 email to grantees who attended a CEA Town Hall in April, MacArthur revealed it had made a planning grant to the Field Foundation of Illinois to develop a regranting program that “advances the CEA strategy by ensuring that smaller-sized, equity-focused arts and cultural organizations receive general operating support.” In an email to IP, Banks said the grant amount is $250,000. This post is the first time the news has been announced to the broader public.

The planning period will last until spring 2023, after which MacArthur would consider a larger grant to Field for regranting purposes. Assuming MacArthur awards that grant, Field would then provide application procedures, grantmaking guidelines, and timelines for submission, and start making grants before the end of 2023. As a result, organizations’ grantees who had previously hoped for Prince and Driehaus funding in 2023 could potentially secure a Field grant and avoid a gap in support.

It’s an example of what you might think of as growing pains in a changing philanthropic sector, as some large institutional funders work their way toward more progressive grantmaking practices, leaving grantees to watch in suspense as program teams wrestle with the execution.

“Our ultimate goal is to help move the sector toward greater equity with more inclusive and equity-focused grantmaking guidelines and by shifting power outside of philanthropic institutions by relying on the advice of community voices,” Banks said. “The effort to include community voice in the planning process can mean that time is needed to develop a new program.”

“This is a significant change”

In 2003, MacArthur launched two regranting partnerships — the MacArthur Fund at the Prince Charitable Trusts, which supported grantees with annual budgets between $500,000 and $2 million; and the MacArthur Fund at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, which managed a portfolio of grantees with budgets below $500,000.

The programs became a critical source of support for Chicago’s arts ecosystem. From 2018 to 2022 alone, MacArthur provided its two partners with $24.3 million in unrestricted pass-through funding — a significant amount of money for small- to mid-sized organizations, particularly those serving communities of color. 

In 2019, MacArthur launched its CEA strategy to support arts and cultural organizations with budgets above $2 million. CEA guides MacArthur’s discretionary arts grantmaking and was a distinct program from its regranting partnerships. As part of this effort, MacArthur implemented a participatory grantmaking panel to review and recommend applicants to leadership. A year later, Banks told me the exercise was “a concrete way for residents who are not grantmakers to gain insights into philanthropy in the interest of contributing to the civic life of our city.” Banks also underscored the importance of having an independent facilitator on hand to navigate the inevitable points of disagreement that arose between panelists.

The Prince and Driehaus partnerships reached the end of their latest five-year terms in 2022. “We at MacArthur recognize that this is a significant change for the sector at large and for organizations that receive MacArthur funds through Prince and Driehaus, many of which have been longtime grantees,” Banks wrote in his February post. He went on to say that the foundation would work closely with grantees across “this transitional planning year on our journey toward a more equitable city together.”

Ensuring continuity

In an email to IP, MacArthur President John Palfrey listed a number of reasons that the foundation chose the Field Foundation. They included Field’s embrace of the CEA program and its equity goals, openness to contribute some of its own funds towards the partnership, and a willingness to adopt participatory grantmaking practices.

Banks, meanwhile, said, “there is much we can learn from Field’s deep experience centering racial equity to achieve community empowerment,” citing Field President Daniel Ash, who has “dedicated his career to advancing racial justice and views the partnership as an opportunity to expand Field’s Art portfolio in a harmonious manner.”

MacArthur was also impressed with Field’s portfolio of grants to small- and mid-sized organizations. This is an especially important point, because while Banks’ February blog post noted that MacArthur was pursuing a new regranting partnership, he and his team nonetheless felt the need “to consistently convey to the arts sector that MacArthur will continue to support small and mid-sized arts organizations with multiyear general operating grants.” The Field Foundation’s preexisting grantmaking infrastructure and portfolio complemented MacArthur’s goal of ensuring continuity.

MacArthur also has a previous track record with the foundation. In 2018, MacArthur used Field’s “heat maps” laying out the racial dimensions of the city to inform its CEA strategy. Banks said MacArthur has also benefited from the foundation’s insights through its Leaders for a New Chicago collaboration, suggesting “we can establish the right strategic balance between both foundations.”

Aiming to fund grantees in 2023

I can see how Chicago’s arts leaders may be relieved, but still skittish, after the Field announcement. On one hand, organizations that received support through the Prince and Driehaus programs will be able to access these funds, as will new organizations.

On the other hand, the Field Foundation’s planning process concludes in the Spring of 2023. We here at IP get paid to worry, and it’s not hard to imagine funding decisions getting held up. When asked about this possibility, Banks said, “We appreciate that there are concerns about potential gaps in funding for our organizations that are currently MacArthur grantees via the Price or Driehaus Foundations. Our aim is for new partners to start making grants in 2023.”

As the planning process ramps up, MacArthur and Field will attempt to strike a balance between two critical post-2020 imperatives. The first is ensuring that funders solicit community perspectives to shift power, and if the last two and a half years have taught us anything, it’s that it takes time to cultivate these conversations in a deliberate, inclusive and constructive way. At the same time, however, organizations have asked foundations to move money out the door faster with less onerous application and reporting requirements.

It’s obviously too early to know what Field’s potential application process would look like. But assuming Field awards grants in, say, October of next year, 20 months would have transpired since MacArthur announced the end of its regranting partnerships with Prince and Driehaus. This process is an illustrative example of a challenge some funders and their grantees have before them, as they try to evolve to meet the current moment. How can large institutions become more equitable and responsive, while not getting in their own way as they build out new procedures?

From my vantage point, it doesn’t appear as if MacArthur and Field will need to reinvent the wheel over the next seven months. Both funders are deeply embedded in the city’s small to mid-sized arts ecosystem. MacArthur’s planning grant was predicated on the idea that Field embraces the equity-minded principles of MacArthur’s CEA program, which it launched in 2019, so there’s already a broad strategic outline in place. And I suspect the Field Foundation’s planners will appreciate MacArthur’s insights from the latter’s foray into participatory grantmaking, which included an extensive amount of community dialogue and engagement.

“We have and will continue to be in communication with the local arts and culture sector as we navigate this transitional period,” Banks said. “We appreciate the important work that small and mid-sized arts and cultural organizations do as we work together towards greater equity in and through the arts.”