Flexible donors, trusted beneficiaries, endless possibilities

 

For Pauline De Souza direct engagement with independent artists and arts institutions is the key to successful philanthropy. For her, a successful result is an arts project that stimulates debate. Pauline is a senior lecturer at the University of East London, and director of Diversity Art Forum – a project which brings together 10 philanthropists to promote diversity in the arts. They offer funding for artists around the world, empowering them to create and showcase their art. 

Unlike more traditional arts donors, Diversity Art Forum does not have an application form which Pauline and the other philanthropists in the network believe can create a barrier to diversity as it favours those artists and organisations with the experience and resource to apply. It also restricts them to ideas that fulfil a set of tick boxes. 

Pauline also believes that application forms are restrictive and don’t allow donors to truly engage with the art.

It’s about accessibility, and allowing people’s ideas to develop. It gives us a chance to engage with the ideas on the proposal better. It allows them to have the freedom to be more open with ideas.

Instead, Pauline and the other philanthropists principally identify new artists to work with through word of mouth, contacts and networking. To ensure further diversity they also encourage open applications to be sent to an email address on their website. 

60% of the artists and organisations we work with, we find ourself, the other 40% have applied through our open call. People tend to expect an application form but we don’t have that process. It’s going to be difficult to change the mindset against application forms.

As a funding system, (Diversity Art Forum is not a funding circle in the way that people might assume), Diversity Arts Forum is seeking all forms of diversity. They focus is not only the size of organisations and the backgrounds of artists. They also seek diversity of medium, diversity of ideas, and diversity of location. Pauline feels passionately that the arts world, and the donors need to move their focus out of London, and away from big organisations. By that, Pauline is refering to how funding should be also spread across the regions as well as London. 

Pauline feels passionately how small funders are treated by big organisations. There is a hierarchy that needs to be dismantled and every funder should be treated with respect. The idea of awarding funders with trophies based on how much money they invested, ignores the interest of other people in the arts, who do not have the same level of funding to invest in.

Why should anyone give money to the arts if they are not treated with respect? What we have at the moment is a situation, “of give us your money and once we have it, we do not have to think about you beyond audience development.” There’s an assumption that funders aren’t intellectual people who are able to engage with the arts on many levels. From my experience, I encounter this on many levels and have to remind people that I am university educated at postgraduate level.  If I want to do an artist studio visit, I am quite able to organise that myself. If I am at a dinner I don’t necessarily want to be sat next to the gallery’s development team. I would rather have a discussion about something else with other people. There should be new ways, alongside appropriate existing ways, of acknowledging funders support. There is another problem about funding, there is an assumption that all funders do this for the same reasons, and this old-fashioned assumption needs to change. 

The principal requirement that Diversity Art Forum has for all its beneficiaries is they must produce art that stimulates debate. All mediums, formats and styles are welcome to apply for funding – as long as they promote discussion in some form or another.

We don’t dictate to people what we think they should be debating. If it’s a project we want to support, we will support it. We don’t want to censor.
Economic benefits are secondary to this principal aim. When working with larger arts institutions, Diversity Art Forum asks for audience reports and other assessments. With smaller organisations, they are more flexible as funders on the issue of impact. Smaller organisations often don’t have the capacity, funding or knowledge to track their impact, yet they are often the
organisations that are most in need of funding. Diversity Art Forum is some cases gets involved with the projects it supports. They enable organisations to develop their ideas and where appropriate they employee freelancers to help the organisations to develop the projects.

For these organisations, Pauline says: “all we ask is that they acknowledge our involvement.”

She believes that trusting and being flexible with beneficiaries creates the largest impact – and so the most effective philanthropy.