Folk, Native American arts could gain millions from M.A.C. Foundation

Folk art and Native American arts and culture may lack star-power compared with other arts sectors in which glamorous opening nights, glitzy galas and venues designed by the Frank Gehrys of the world are the norm, but they are about to become beneficiaries of a gigantic charitable foundation that has the potential to help the two genres flourish.

Plans for the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, valued at more than $9 billion and based in Eden Prairie, Minn., emerged recently with the announcement of a deal that would settle the estate of its namesake, a La Jolla resident who died in 2006 at 85, after a lifetime of low-profile philanthropy.

One of its three branches, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, figures to have assets of $4 billion or more, and Native American culture and folk art are among its priorities, along with the environment, disaster relief and securing safe drinking water for developing nations, spokeswoman Sallie Gaines said.

Cargill, who loved weaving, glass art and jewelry-making, was an heir to the privately held Cargill agribusiness fortune. Plans call for her share of the company to gradually be liquidated and transferred to her charities starting this spring and continuing over the coming 41/2 years.


The result could be a reversal of fortune for two genres that have long been like backwoods cousins to more favored — and urban — precincts of the arts.

“For years and years, the folk and traditional arts field has really struggled to be viable,” said Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. “That a national foundation is going to start up and have a dedicated focus is really amazing, and forecasts a major impact.”

“I think the impact is going to be phenomenal,” said Marshall McKay, who recently became the first Native American board chairman at L.A.'s Autry National Center of the American West, and is also a board member of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. “Native American artists have certainly struggled. This kind of revenue, I think, can really put some programs on their feet and win long-term respect and growth for the artists.”

The M.A.C. Foundation, as it will be known, is still in start-up mode, hiring staff and planning its first initiatives. It hasn’t been decided yet what proportion of the grant-making kitty arts and culture will command, spokeswoman Gaines said. The plan is mainly to nurture the grassroots rather than supporting established major players.

“It’s very individual and community focused,” Gaines said, in keeping with Cargill’s own style and wishes. “The interest would more likely be ‘how do you get kids interested in music, how do you keep folk arts alive?’ than in funding scholarships to Juilliard.”

A paramount concern, Gaines said, is rescuing endangered forms of art and culture. The foundation aims to identify rare or aging masters of specific art forms and cultural traditions — such as basket- or tapestry-making techniques, performance styles or a given tribe’s ceremonial dances — and make sure they pass their knowledge on for future generations.

Native American initiatives will begin the foundation’s grant-making, starting late this year or early 2012 with a program focused on the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Then M.A.C. will roll out Native American programs for the Southwest and Upper Midwest, after which it will be ready to begin making grants for folk art.

While major institutions may not be first in line for funding, they won’t be ignored, Gaines said. The National Museum of the American Indian “has been a huge resource for us” in planning the Pacific Northwest program, she said. The Autry, which exhibits and fosters Native American arts and culture, may have a future role as well. “Places like the Autry are probably going to hear from us” Gaines said, as the M.A.C. Foundation staff carries out plans “to identify as many leaders and players in a field as possible. There’s a huge immersion into investigating who’s doing what.”

Leonda Levchuk, spokeswoman for the National Museum of the American Indian, said an M.A.C. Foundation grant is funding a two-day symposium in May at its New York City branch, the George Gustav Heye Center, on questions of authenticity that arise when Native American artists try to go in new directions that don’t hew strictly to traditional forms.

Tempting as it might be for artists and organizations to approach the M.A.C. Foundation, it doesn’t accept proposals and will rely on its own research to identify needs.

The foundation’s giving power will depend on how shares of Mosaic Co., an agricultural concern, fare starting this spring, when the deal to turn Cargill’s fortune into cash is expected to become final. At the moment, her bequest remains tied up in a non-sellable interest in the privately held Cargill company. But those holdings will be converted over time into the publicly traded stock of Mosaic, an allied firm.

For every $1 billion in assets they hold, foundations are required to issue at least $50 million annually in charitable grants. If the M.A.C. Foundation were worth $4 billion and geared 10% of its giving to arts and culture, that would mean $20 million a year for Native American culture and folk art.

Such a sum would eclipse the $4.6 million in private donations the National Museum of the American Indian expects to raise this year (it also gets $32.5 million from the federal government), and the $2.3 million to $5.7 million in annual donations received from 2004 to 2009 by the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which bills itself as “the premiere institution devoted to the aesthetic appreciation of traditional folk art … from the U.S. and abroad.” The National Endowment for the Arts provides about $1.2 million a year for traditional and folk arts, a category that includes Native American art.