Trusting in the arts

A recently launched fund for the arts is a smart way to attract alumni donations

The University announced Friday that it plans to establish a $10 million endowment to fund arts initiatives. The Arts Trust, now in its infancy, would support initiatives such as professorships, arts-related events and new buildings. Donors would review grant proposals and decide which initiatives they would like to fund.

The trust seeks to tap into the pockets of University alumni who want the school’s arts scene to flourish. Its business model is based on alumni loyalty. Similarly, the trust’s genesis comes from alumni’s continued interest in the University. Two prominent alumni are chairing the Arts Trust board. Venture capitalist Sandy Miller majored in speech and drama as an undergraduate and last year donated $2 million to the College Arts Scholars program, a program launched in 2011 that is best thought of as an Echols Scholars program for the arts. Joe Erdman, who graduated in 1956, serves on the University Art Museum’s board and works in asset management.

Alumni contend with seemingly countless capital campaigns. There is no shortage of funds to which people can donate. A $3 billion campaign, completed in May, sought money for projects that included restoring the Rotunda and beefing up the Virginia Athletics Foundation. So why do we need another trust, and one devoted just to the arts?

Alumni can already support the arts at the University by donating to an umbrella capital campaign and requesting that their money go toward arts initiatives. Or they can send money directly to the University Art Museum, the Arts Scholars program, or another arts-related effort. But the Arts Trust aims to do more than streamline arts-related donations. For the trust to succeed, it must rouse the interests of alumni such that arts-related donations will increase by a significant degree.

A smart strategy for attracting donations involves making people feel as if they are part of a story of positive change. The creation of the Arts Trust gives fundraisers a way to tell a convincing story about how alumni can support the arts at the University. The trust is a central fund with a concrete target ($10 million). It is modeled off the Jefferson Trust, which has by most measures succeeded in increasing alumni involvement and funding beneficial initiatives. Between 2006 and 2012 the Jefferson Trust awarded nearly $3 million in grants. It has supported programs such as big-data research and an interdisciplinary symposium on the eighteenth “centuries” held in March. By branding the trust as a sort of Jefferson Trust for the arts, the University is extending a successful philanthropic model.

Additionally, the trust builds on the momentum that the University has marshaled by opening the 300-seat Ruth Caplin Theatre in April, and more recently, inviting Tina Fey to speak.

This story — that the Arts Trust is another step in an awakening of the arts at the University — is a good one. But there is another story that the fundraisers should take care not to neglect.

We will tell this story in broad strokes. A trend of declining state support coupled with more intense competition with peer institutions has led public universities, including U.Va., to increase their reliance on private philanthropy to keep pace. Arts are especially vulnerable to cuts. In years when universities must tighten their belts, arts are often the first on the chopping block.

These higher-education trends make programs like the Arts Trust necessary in the first place. Though the University has framed the Arts Trust as a way to support new artistic programs, the trust is as concerned with sustainability as it is with innovation. Without funding, programs do not maintain their levels of quality. They languish. The trust offers a safety net in a climate of budget shortfalls and increased skepticism toward the arts.

Some arts-related grants are already available to students and faculty through the University Arts Council. These grants, however, only cover up to $10,000. The Arts Trust is much more ambitious.

The University will probably continue to rely heavily on alumni donations in the future. If anything, the turn to philanthropy will intensify. The trust is characteristic of how the University will likely interact with its alumni in the future, in which alumni who donate play a part in reviewing what specific programs their money goes toward. The Arts Trust seems like a canny way to apply proven philanthropic models to attract donations for an important but vulnerable cause.

related stories