Art for Social Change: An Arts Funder’s Journey to More Fully Embrace Its Social Justice Mission

Linda Lee Alter, Denise Brown and Sara Milly standing in front of Lee’s painting at the opening of Woodmere Museum’s 73rd Annual Juried Show. PHOTO: Gretjen Clausing, 2014.

Linda Lee Alter is a Philadelphia-based visual artist, art collector and philanthropist who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s — a time, by her own account, when “women subordinated themselves to men.” One morning in 1990, Alter had a revelation. “Light dawned!” she recalled 18 years after the fact. “I’m an artist. I know, first-hand, that women artists don’t have opportunities equal to male artists. I’ll create a foundation to recognize, encourage and help support local women artists!”

In 1993, Alter established the Leeway Foundation to promote “the welfare of women and to benefit the arts” in the five-county Philadelphia region. Executive Director Denise Brown told me that as the decade came to a close, the foundation began “refocusing itself from generally supporting women artists to those that were interested in what they referred to as ‘community transformation.’” 

Brown speaks from experience. She was part of a group of advisors who met with Leeway staff and board members in 2002 when it officially commenced its strategy review process. At the time, Brown was associate director at Bread and Roses Community Fund, a grantmaker that supports grassroots organizations centered on racial, social and economic justice in the Philadelphia region.

In 2003, Leeway’s program redesign process yielded recommendations to advance its refined mission to “work at the intersection of art and social change through community transformation.” The following year, Brown joined the foundation’s advisory council and Leeway embarked on what it called a “multi-year anti-oppression organizational development process to begin to look more clearly at issues of racism and privilege inherent in foundation.” As a result, in 2006, Leeway expanded its grant eligibility criteria to include trans and gender-nonconforming artists, and Linda Lee Alter and her daughter Sara decided to step down from the board and hand over the foundation’s leadership to members of the community. The move was a critical step in strengthening the foundation’s ties and trust with the community.

With the benefit of hindsight, Leeway anticipated two important trends in arts philanthropy that we now take for granted: transitioning away from what it calls “an almost exclusively white, woman-focused foundation” and letting community members take the reins, and supporting artists who use their practice to galvanize social change. “Sometimes, the form can be experimental,” Brown said. “But for us, there always has to be some relationship to the community that’s being most impacted by whatever the issue is.”

Guiding principles

I surveyed the state of funding for “socially engaged art” right before the pandemic fully hit in early March 2020. A key takeaway from the analysis was how funders define “activist art” on their own terms. Some proponents, like philanthropist Agnes Gund, whose Art for Justice Fund sought to safely reduce the U.S. prison population, connect the work to measurable impact whenever possible. Others assess projects from a more intangible vantage point. 

The Leeway Foundation lays out its definition of “art for social change” on its site. It looks for art that, among other things, can raise peoples’ consciousness, serve as a tool for movement building, and challenge racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism or ableism. “We are very interested in supporting artists who are not just focused on their personal development and individual practice, but those who are finding ways to do it in a community setting,” said Brown, who assumed the role of executive director in 2006.

In 2018, Leeway published “Transforming Inclusion: An Organizational Guide,” a resource for funders and cultural organizers that provides tools for inclusion and affirmation of trans and gender-nonconforming people. (Leeway uses the term “trans” in “its most inclusive sense, as an umbrella term encompassing transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, two-spirit people, and anyone whose gender identity or gender expression is nonconforming and/or different from their gender assigned at birth.”)

The document, which coincided with Leeway’s 25th anniversary, “came out of the work that we did in becoming a trans-affirming organization,” Brown said. “Sharing it to the philanthropic community is part of what we do.”

The Art for Change grant

When I asked Brown to name a grant that best encapsulated the spirit of the foundation, she cited the the Art for Change grant, which provides up to $2,500 to fund “art for social change” projects in any medium by women, trans and/or gender-nonconforming artists and cultural producers in the Greater Philadelphia region.

Brown said that the grant is often artists’ first entree into arts funding. “We have a fair amount of risk tolerance as it relates to our grantmaking, so there’s a large percentage of people who have never applied for or received a grant before,” she said. “Oftentimes, they did different kinds of work in the community, but never formally considered themselves artists eligible to receive grants.”

The Art for Change grant provides Brown and her team with a window into the collective consciousness of the broader field. “Years ago, we started seeing a lot of grants referencing Afrofuturism,” she said. “It was one or two at first, but then it continued to grow.”

Brown also sees how artists have reclaimed and preserved cultural nuances. A good example is how artists are engaging with food and cooking as part of their creative practice “as a way of honoring ancestral and indigenous foodways methodologies — both as originally intended and in remixed contemporary form.” One 2022 Art and Change recipient, Christine Nwakwue, explored how Philadelphia’s Nigerian restaurateurs brought Africans in the diaspora together through food.

According to the foundation’s most recent publicly available Form 990, it disbursed $654,752 and had a fair market value of $21.6 million in total assets for the fiscal year ending December 2021.

“An opportunity to grow their practice”

In 2021, Leeway launched its newest grant offering. Developed in partnership with the Independence Public Media Foundation, the Media Artist + Activist Residency provides five grants for residencies a year to women, trans and gender-nonconforming media artists working with social justice/cultural organizations to “document, reframe, and/or amplify the issues and campaigns addressed by the organization.”

At a time when communities are increasingly getting their news from alternative media outlets, the residency casts a wide net by considering artists working in film and video, podcasts, animation, digital art, gaming and other mediums. Each grant totals $25,000, including $15,000 to the artist and $10,000 to the organization, for a grand total of $125,000 disbursed annually. Last September, the foundation announced its 2022 residency recipients, all of which cited “racial justice” as one of their “social change intents.” Other intents included immigrant justice, cultural preservation, and environmental and economic justice.

Another offering, the NextFab Art + Technology Residency, is open to past Leeway grantees at NextFab, a network of “makerspaces” in Philadelphia consisting of shared workshops and studios, from January through September 2024. Residents receive a $2,500 stipend and access to Next Fab’s facilities, equipment and classes. The residency “provides people with an opportunity to grow their practice,” Brown said. “Not everybody can shut down their life and go away from a month, and so we’ve tried to provide options in the area where people can manage their creative practice along with whatever else they have going on in their lives.”

Post-COVID priorities

Like so many of her peers, Brown is trying to reengage the broader artist community most effectively in a post-COVID world. Prior to the pandemic, she and her team would conduct in-person “information sessions” with applicants. Last year, the foundation reintroduced the practice, but with one caveat — it received an increase in applications, which, given capacity limitations, raised concerns about its ability to engage with each artist in an in-person setting.

“The big questions for us — and we’re still grappling with them — are what does hybridization of the practice look like as we move further away from the pandemic?” Brown said. “How do we begin to reincorporate those in-person aspects that were so key to our ability to build and maintain relationships in Philadelphia and beyond?”

The pandemic has reshaped the foundation in other ways, too. In April 2020, leaders redirected resources to create the COVID-19 Relief Fund for artists. Cognizant of how critical this support was for artists lacking financial safety nets, in 2021, the foundation renamed the fund the Window of Opportunity Community Care Fund. Leeway has disbursed $618,675 to 402 artists since the fund’s inception, including $131,655 to 61 artists in 2023. At the time of this writing, the fund has “reached capacity,” although foundation leaders will reassess the potential for allocating additional resources in the future.

With the pandemic receding — and five years after publishing “Transforming Inclusion: An Organizational Guide” — Brown and her team also plan to share new and compelling ways foundations can support trans artists advancing social change. “The trans community is a big part of the Leeway community and continues to be central to our work,” she said. “We remain committed to lifting up their artistic and cultural contributions to the region and beyond.”


Sign up to receive the latest local, national & international Criminal Justice News in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Sign up today to receive the latest local, national & international Criminal Justice News in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

This post was originally published on this site be sure to check out more of their content.