News and analysis
August 12, 2015

Denver Grant Maker Narrows Focus to the Arts — Just the Arts

Martin C. Welker

The Bonfils-Stanton Foundation now supports projects such as a giant hopscotch course geared for art fans of all ages.

Workers at the Women’s Bean Project will still pack and ship soups, and cancer researchers at the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute at the University of Denver haven’t ended their quest for medical discoveries. But starting this summer, work at those institutions will continue without the support of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

In a change years in the making, the Denver-based foundation recently shifted all of its support to the arts — a move that’s rare, if not unprecedented, for a grant maker with previously broad areas of focus.

A decade ago, the foundation steered a little more than half of its grants toward arts projects, with the rest going to programs in science, health, and human services. As it came to realize that a huge gap exists in arts funding in the Denver area, however, Bonfils-Stanton began weaning non-arts grantees off its support. Instead of continuing to back cancer research and classes to teach women work skills, the foundation has moved to help a public radio station add art critics, keep the city’s modern-art museum from drowning in debt, and support whimsical projects such as a giant hopscotch course geared for art fans of all ages.

In late 2012, the foundation’s board decided to go all in. It hired Gary Steuer, then Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, to lead the transition.

Although the foundation is relatively small — it made $3.5 million in grants during the last fiscal year — Mr. Steuer believes it can be a leader in Denver by attracting support from other funders.

"The breadth and quality of the cultural sector in Denver has grown exponentially over the past 20 years," he says. "At the same time, the philanthropic growth has been in foundations that explicitly exclude arts and culture."

Bonfils-Stanton is now seen as the chief funder for the arts in Colorado. Joanne Kelley, executive director of the Colorado Association of Funders, says conversations among local grant makers often lead to the question: "Who funds the arts besides Bonfils ... and Bonfils?"

Filling a Gap

Though private support for the arts nationally has recovered from the deep decline that occurred during the recession, the change in strategy by Bonfils in 2012 came a time when many groups were struggling to reach their prerecession giving levels.

Since the recession, foundations have returned to arts funding, often tying their arts grants to other goals, such as community development through public-space art projects and performances and instruction in low-income communities, says Robert Lynch, executive director of Americans for the Arts.

"We’re seeing more of a footprint for the arts among foundations," Mr. Lynch says. "There’s a recognition of the transformative power of the arts in addition to the value of art in and of itself."

Still, Mr. Lynch says, Bonfils-Stanton’s move to focus exclusively on the arts is unique among foundations and perhaps without precedent.

Some large Colorado grant makers that have grown in size over the past 20 years, such as the Rose Community Foundation and the Colorado Health Foundation, don’t place a high priority on the arts. Others have reduced their support, including the Denver Community Foundation. In extensive meetings the foundation held in local communities, those attending regarded support for the arts as not crucial unless it was tied to student instruction.

"We will never relinquish our support for the arts," said Angelle Fouther, a spokeswoman for the foundation. "But we have to respond to the priorities of the community."

Bonfils-Stanton has worked with the Denver Community Foundation to continue at least some of its arts funding. Over the past two years, Bonfils-Stanton has provided $22,500 to support Art Tank, a grant-making contest created by a group of individuals whose donor-advised funds are managed by the community foundation. Winners of the second Arts Tank will receive a portion of $65,000 donated by the two foundations and Colorado Creative Industries, a state-chartered economic-development group.

Mr. Steuer hopes the new focus of Bonfils-Stanton will lead to similar collaborations with other foundations. "If we’re able to target our resources area, we can hopefully inspire and become partners with other funders," he says.

Earlier this year, the foundation threw a lifeline to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The museum was struggling to keep ahead of debt incurred when it constructed a new building in 2007. Bonfils-Stanton stepped in to help with a refinancing deal. It offered a $1-million loan at a 1-percent annual interest rate to help the museum get its debt under control.

Laura Huff, the museum’s deputy director, says Bonfils-Stanton’s involvement lent credibility to the deal and prompted other private foundations and individuals to contribute an additional $2 million. Altogether, the $3-million deal saved the institution half a million dollars on annual debt payments.

With those savings, Ms. Huff says, the museum hired its first in-house marketing director and began work on a series of new programs to broaden its audience and ensure its place as a leader in the city’s cultural scene.

With longstanding arts patrons growing older and many arts groups struggling to attract new audiences, Bonfils-Stanton’s support is giving them breathing room to figure out their next moves, as with the museum, says Rick Tallman, co-chairman of the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs.

"They’re helping traditional arts organizations transition to a more sustainable business model," he says. "It’s not about just helping them make ends meet. It’s about how to change their organization so they’re here 50 years from now."

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