Equitable Investment Policies and Practices in the Local Arts Field

Cultural equity is critical to the arts and culture sector’s long-term viability, as well as to the ability of the arts to contribute to healthy, vibrant, equitable communities for all. At the core of challenges related to cultural equity is the historically inequitable distribution of resources, and the values systems, biases, and systemic barriers associated with that distribution.

To achieve fair and equitable distribution of resources within the cultural sector of each community, all types of investment made by local arts agencies should adhere to core practices and competencies that center equity and address bias, honor and embrace the inherent knowledge of the communities and constituents with which they engage, strengthen and broaden the leadership pipeline, support the fullest range of arts, cultural, and creative expression, and embrace new models of power-sharing and decisionmaking.

Each year the United States’ 4,500 local arts agencies (LAAs) collectively invest an estimated $2.8 billion in their local arts and culture ecosystems. This includes an estimated $600 million in direct investment in artists and arts and culture organizations through grants, contracts, and loans. For comparison, all of private philanthropy directly invests approximately $4 billion annually to the arts, corporations about $1.5 billion, state arts agencies about $300 million, and the National Endowment for the Arts about $100 million.

This makes LAAs, collectively, the largest distributor of publicly-derived funds to arts and culture and one of the largest and steadiest underwriters of artists and creative workers in the United States. It is therefore crucial that LAAs employ a strong lens of equity to consider the full scope of their investments-including not only direct financial infusions such as grants, contracts, and loans, but the estimated $2.2 billion each year that are expended on staff salaries, vendors, direct-to-community programming, overhead, marketing and communications, and more. This is particularly important because the existing systems of power that often drive the policies underlying such expenditures grant privilege and access unequally. With data, will, and guidance, however, progress can be made.

This report reviews results from the 2018 Local Arts Agency Profile, an annual survey deployed in April 2018, with a particular focus on an added module to the survey about how, when, and where LAAs in the United States currently consider equity in the deployment of their funds, time, space, and staff. The data was gathered from a broadly representative sample of 537 local arts agencies in the United States of varying budget size, community size, tax status, geography, etc.

Overall, the report tells a story of a field where direct and indirect practices about and centered on equity are on the rise. While major demographic challenges continue to exist among staff at LAAs of all sizes, the majority of large LAAs, and, in most cases, midsize LAAs as well, are taking a variety of steps to consider, engage, and develop support mechanisms for the full diversity of their communities. LAAs with more limited financial capacity and smaller staff sizes are not able to participate in these new mechanisms at the same rate but are inclined to want to know how they can.

That said, there is significant work to do. Only half of LAAs with DEI-related policies say that those policies affect fiscal decisions. The majority of entry- and mid-level staff do not have access to supported professional development. And, perhaps most starkly, LAA funds are distributed inequitable, with the largest 16 percent of grant recipients receiving 73 percent of the dollars awarded.

The centering of equity in the investment practices of the LAA field is necessary to the continued relevance of not only LAAs themselves, but the arts and culture sectors each LAA nurtures. The information in this report provides a jumping-off point. Those at the cutting edge of new practices like start-up capital, loans, and other creative financial mechanisms, as well as those who are pioneering and iterating better ways to addressing systemic inequities, biases, and other challenges within the field and its structures have now been identified, and their stories and learnings can be more easily told.

Subscribe to the California ArtBeat weekly newsletter

Skip to content