George Soros tries arts philanthropy -- but he’s not saying `Move over, Eli Broad’


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Culture Monster is kind of tired of applying the label ‘billionaire arts philanthropist’ to Eli Broad and hardly anybody else.

So the news Wednesday that hedge fund titan George Soros is giving $11 million to New York City performing arts organizations through his Open Society Institute to help them out of the squeeze caused by cuts in local government grants got us thinking. We’d be more than glad to anoint Soros -- or any other wealthy folks -- as ‘billionaire arts philanthropists.’


All they’d have to do is give about $10 million per year more or less consistently, as Broad and San Diego’s Irwin Jacobs have done in Southern California. By Forbes magazine’s reckoning, Soros is worth $14 billion, compared with Broad’s $5.7 billion.

So we dashed off an e-mail to Soros’ institute, which announced it will help Gotham performing arts nonprofits that have annual budgets of $75,000 to $7 million. The Soros grants are for $65,000 to $250,000, to be paid over two years and spent as the recipients please. Does this mean Soros, whose politically liberal, social-activist giving mission in the U.S. has not previously included the arts, is now getting into the arts philanthropy game?

And seeing as Southern California arts organizations have been scrounging, as L.A.’s city and county arts grant-making departments take cuts and private donors pull back, would Soros and the Open Society Foundations considering going bicoastal with this new arts largess?

The answer, alas, is ‘no.’

‘This is an unusual one-time initiative in response to the impact the recession is having on performing arts in New York,’ responded Rachel Hart, spokeswoman for the Open Society Institute. ‘We’re not an arts foundation, but we know the central role arts and culture play in economic stability and social change...This one-time initiative was limited to performing arts organizations in New York, given the unique role that the city’s arts play in the local, regional and national economy....We hope these grants encourage other funders to support the arts and recognize the central role arts and culture play in the economy.’

Soros’ spokeswoman did offer one strand of hope: ‘Separately, we have begun to explore the role of arts and culture in advancing our longstanding social-change goals. This work is in the very early stages and aims to raise awareness of the power and potential for art as an activism tool to advance a broad spectrum of social justice concerns and issues of specific interest and relevance to our existing priorities.’

While L.A. officials were drastically if reluctantly paring the city’s arts budget this spring in response to dwindling revenues, many citizens who spoke at hearings pleaded with them not to sacrifice programs that give kids an alternative to getting in trouble, and keep them on track toward finishing school and staying out of prison -- an argument that many L.A. organizations presumably could make to Soros.

In other philanthropy news of potential interest to the arts, the Boston-based Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund reports that it surveyed more than 500 financial advisors and found that 26% expect their clients to increase their donations over the coming 12 to 18 months, as a way to offset expected increases in their taxes.

An additional 48% expect clients’ donations to stay the same. Fidelity notes that the estimated $304 billion Americans donated to charity in 2009 was down 3.6% from 2008; it’s trying to get more of the nation’s financial advisors to suggest that clients make charity a part of their financial strategy. The survey showed that only 52% of advisors currently do that; most others consider philanthropy a ‘personal decision’ that they shouldn’t raise unless a client asks.

-- Mike Boehm


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