Using the arts to revive communities is not a new idea, especially not in New Jersey, where New Brunswick’s award-winning theaters sparked the city’s resurgence more than 20 years ago and communities as diverse as Englewood, Morristown and Millville continue to drive downtown revitalization through the arts.
But the idea received a fresh spin last year with the launch of ArtPlace, a public-private effort that brought two dozen entities together to support projects that build creative communities.
With money from A-List foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and Kresge and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the partnership of 10 private foundations, eight federal agencies and six banks distributed $11.5 million for artist housing, music festivals, business incubators, public art projects and artsy farms in communities from New York to California, Texas to Alaska.
On its website, ArtPlace boasts that it’s “all about the local,” meaning it funds arts programs that are actively engaged with the communities near them.
But a review of the winners of the first round of grants and the finalists in the running for 2012’s awards shows a different meaning to the word “local.” In fact, the review shows more than half the 34 organizations that received grants last year were located in the same states as the foundations that fund ArtPlace. And those groups pocketed nearly 70 cents on the dollar of the $11.5 million awarded.
In addition, 60 percent of the 127 finalists for the next round of $15 million is located near the partners’ headquarters or where they focus their philanthropic efforts. The winners of these grants will be announced in May.
The program’s geographic favoritism, which is not detailed in any of its materials, explains the lack of success for New Jersey organizations. More than 70 programs from the Garden State applied for the second round of funds but none was successful. But then none of ArtPlace’s foundations or banks are based here.
“We thought we were right in their sweet spot,” said Patrick Morrissy, who runs Hands Inc., a community development corporation founded in 1986 that has transformed an old factory enclave in Orange into a vibrant arts district.
“I knew it was going to be super competitive,” he said. “Not only did I think I had a good story to tell, but I thought I told it well.”
But Morrissy and others who submitted letters to ArtPlace don’t know why they missed the cut because the program’s officers didn’t set aside time to explain. And that bothers David Miller, executive director of Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. Miller was surprised to learn about the program’s geographic restrictions — “(It) isn’t a truly national program if it’s catering to the regional priorities of the funders,” he said — but he was critical of the program’s lack of response to those who weren’t selected.
“When private sector funders partner with government entities and use their names and resources, I believe they then must assume an obligation for complete transparency and responsiveness to the applicants,” said Miller, who is also a former director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
New Jersey organizations will have a chance to learn more about the puzzling program on April 4 when ArtPlace director Carol Coletta gives the keynote address at a conference at Rutgers-Newark entitled “Create a Place: Arts Build Communities.” Newark Mayor Cory Booker will also speak.
ArtPlace spokesman Tim Halbur initially denied a connection between ArtPlace partners’ geographic priorities and the winning projects. “I don’t think it was that important as a selection tool,” he said, adding the program chose winners “that combine community development with creativity in the arts.”
Later, Halbur corrected himself by noting that “some of the funders” target their giving to “the communities where they focus their grantmaking.”
Translation: Some locations matter more than others.
For example, Halbur confirmed the Rasmussen Foundation is focused on Alaska; hence seven of the second round finalists are located in that state. The James Irvine Foundation supports projects in California, he said, so that state is “overrepresented” with 24 finalists.
But the “geographic vectors” don’t end there. Of the remaining 96 finalists, 14 are based in New York, where the Ford, Mellon, Rockefeller and Bloomberg foundations are based, and 15 are located in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region of Minnesota, where the Knight and Robina foundations focus their philanthropy.
The greater Detroit area, home to the Kresge Foundation, has eight finalists. Florida, where the McKnight Foundation is based, has four and New Haven (a second focus of Robina) has two.
Halbur would not disclose exactly how much of the program’s $25.5 million is restricted. In total, however, only 48 of the 123 finalists have no geographic ties to ArtPlace partners. Four of the finalists are national in scope and do not have a home state.
The National Endowment for the Arts, which contributes $150,000 toward the fund’s operations but contributes no grant dollars, would not comment on the program’s awards because the agency “has no formal role in the decisions,” said spokeswoman Victoria Hutter in an email. “We cannot offer any insight into the decisions the foundations made.”