K atherina Olschbaur is a successful international artist, with a studio in Los Angeles and a fourth solo exhibition at New York’s ultra-cool Nicodim gallery, by which she is represented. The Austrian painter’s assured and electrifying canvases often deal with themes of faith and humanity. But, according to Olschbaur, she was not always so confident, particularly as a child. Art changed her life and brought her to global attention. Now, Olschbaur wants the same opportunity for other children. “It can be very difficult to find creative guidance and instruction if you don’t come from a place of privilege,” she says.
Olschbaur participated in Sotheby’s inaugural edition of Artist’s Choice – a new way for artists to sell original work at international auction, with 15 percent of the hammer price donated to a beneficiary of the artist’s choosing. Her 2022 painting Blinding Light raised $88,200 at the first auction in New York in September.
Olschbaur says she would not have taken part had there not been a philanthropic element to the programme. She has chosen the “small but important” Foster Pride as her charity, a New York-based not-for-profit bringing extra-curricular art education to young people in foster care. Since it was founded in 1993, its classes have welcomed more than 15,000 participants.
Art and philanthropy have a long, symbiotic relationship, but more and more donors like Olschbaur are eschewing high-profile causes in favour of charities working in communities. These causes may not be instantly recognisable, but they work hard to make a tangible difference to people’s lives. According to Inside Philanthropy, new funding models created by artists and arts organisations are a major trend in 2022, with funders harnessing technology and “yielding some of their decision-making power” to disenfranchised groups.
Their donors are not seeking to dictate how their money is spent in return for their generosity – instead, they are trusting charities to set priorities according to their beneficiaries’ needs. And they are increasingly using technology to help them. Olschbaur says she trusts Foster Pride to spend the money as it sees fit. “I am sure the funds will go directly to the cause,” she adds.
Philanthropists working at a much larger scale are also pioneering radical, “hands-off” approaches to giving. MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has since her $35 billion divorce settlement in 2019 given away around $12 billion in three years to multiple causes, including arts charities – many in private donations with no conditions attached.
Scott eschewed having her name etched on the walls of a prestigious international gallery in favour of donating to dozens of low-profile arts charities working with underserved communities. Those that benefited include the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which received $10 million and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, a community “centre for art and progress” which received $6 million.
“This grant came in a moment of great uncertainty for YBCA, emerging from the peak of the pandemic, closed to the public and experimenting with what an arts centre can do to support culture and affirm identity,” says the centre’s interim chief executive officer Sara Fenske Bahat. The flexibility of a donation with “no strings attached” provided 190 artists cash payments over 18 months. “We are fortunate to live in a part of the world where trust-based risk capital is well understood,” she says.
Technology offers another route for art enthusiasts and collectors to discover grassroots causes from a distance. This has recently included decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs), which use the blockchain and promise a more transparent way to donate than conventional currencies.
“A donation with ‘no strings attached’ provided 190 artists cash payments over 18 months.”
In simple terms, a DAO is a group of cryptocurrency users who join forces for a single purpose, such as philanthropy. DAOs are relatively new, which means the regulatory framework has yet to become clear or established. But they are increasingly used by donors comfortable with cryptocurrency, on the assumption that the blockchain will make their donations transparent and more secure.
One example is UK-based Maxity, which offers a platform for users to buy unique NFT artworks with cryptocurrencies to benefit a range of small charities around the world, with 98 percent of the price donated. The platform has an in-house art team, and plans to commission high-profile artists to design more.
“Charities are realising that NFTs are not just a piece of JPEG,” says Farah Di, head of partnerships. Di predicts digital fundraising will become the norm. “Traditional donations can be slow, time-consuming and expensive [for charities to administer],” says Di, who adds that trading volumes are running in the tens of thousands.
There are many ways in which philanthropists can discover low-profile but effective causes – one foundation simply asked artists. The Ruth Foundation for the Arts is endowed with a bequest from Ruth DeYoung Kohler, an arts philanthropist and advocate who died in 2020.
The Foundation launched this year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offering an initial $1.25 million in 78 grants – ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 – to cultural organisations, with a goal to award more than $17 million a year. It asked a guidance group of nearly 50 artists from across the US to nominate the organisations that had influenced them – the Ruth Foundation’s beneficiaries were drawn from those nominations.
Karen Patterson, executive director, says the Foundation’s model embodies the shift towards low-key arts philanthropy, which she believes is driven by alarm over climate change, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the aftereffects of the pandemic.
“We have the potential to move with the times, as opposed to just doing something static,” says Patterson. “The way the foundation was set up is allowing us to do that, not just: ‘Now you have a name on the wall and it’s over.’”
The range of organisations that are supported by the Ruth Foundation is broad and lies well outside conventional artistic practice: from the People’s Kitchen Collective – a California group of artists who offer “community dining as a social practice” and a means to political education – to the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, which paints murals on buildings as a form of political protest.
“What we’ve learnt over the past couple of years was that we were not prepared for change,” says Patterson. “And these projects allow us to change.”
Marquee image: Dance Theater of Harlem performing in Passage. Courtesy of Kutztown University