Bold Steps Towards Social Change: Funding Beyond Art for Art’s Sake

by Mónica Enríquez-Enríquez

Arts and cultural activism is a key tool to transform attitudes in society and cultivate acceptance for marginalized communities. Creative in nature, arts and cultural activism often enables policy changes that seed new realities and lived experiences, and provides sustainable long-term solutions to human rights challenges.

But despite its importance, grantmakers allocate only limited funding to arts and cultural initiatives that seek to advance human rights. As reflected in a 2011 report, “Each year, approximately 11 percent of foundation giving [in the U.S.] – about $2.3 billion in 2009 – is awarded to nonprofit arts and cultural institutions.” However, this funding goes mainly to large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million and that dedicate less than four percent of their grant dollars to advancing social justice goals. Data on arts and culture grantmaking on an international level are scant. We often hear from our grantee partners that it is very difficult to access funding for arts for social change programming, and that governments and traditional grantmaking institutions are usually unwilling to support it. In general, there seems to be a lack of understanding of the potential of arts as a social change strategy and an overall lack of analysis demonstrating the value and impact of arts as a tool for social change.

The Value of Grantmaking for Arts and Cultural Advocacy

Supporting arts and cultural work has been a priority of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice since we made our first round of grants in 1980. Astraea works to advance the rights of LGBTQI communities worldwide and prioritizes arts and cultural advocacy as a fundamental strategy to achieve that goal. In the last 35 years, Astraea has distributed more than $15 million over 1,000 U.S. based groups and individuals; and since 1997, more than $8 million to over 300 organizations internationally in over 80 countries. Today, our commitment to arts and cultural advocacy remains central as one of our four programmatic grantmaking pillars.

As human rights advocates, we recognize that movements for change are often inspired and unified by artistic and cultural expressions. Examples from the field demonstrate the ways in which arts and cultural activism, alongside advocacy campaigns, is successfully used to increase visibility of human rights issues and secure human rights victories. Highlighted below are two examples of organizations successfully using arts and cultural advocacy to secure high-impact policy change.

Effective Arts and Cultural Initiatives

Based in Chile, the Organization of Transsexuals for the Dignity of Diversity (OTD) has used video and photography as well as legal advocacy, to advance and secure sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) rights in local, regional, and international arenas. Most notably, their multi-strategy activism has prompted dialogue and recognition of SOGI rights at the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

In 2012, OTD assembled a photography exhibit entitled, In Transit: A De/Construction of the History of Transsexual Bodies. The exhibit featured 30 photographs depicting the naked bodies of trans people, their partners and their families, and was first shown in a public plaza in Rancagua, Chile. It was exhibited for six days and viewed by over 5,000 people. According to OTD, the purpose of the exhibit was to celebrate the beauty of trans bodies. It denounced transphobia and moved people to be open to the idea that there are more bodies than those of men and women. Most importantly, the exhibit reminded viewers that trans people deserve human rights. OTD took risks by making this exhibit public and confronting people with their own fears and prejudices, and those risks paid off. In Transit has been well received by diverse audiences across the globe.

OTD launched this exhibit alongside a campaign for an anti-discrimination law that includes gender and sexual identity as a basis for discrimination in Chile. The law was approved in May 2012 and signed by former Chilean president Sebastian Piñera in July 2012. The new measure permits anti-discrimination lawsuits and creates hate-crime sentencing provisions for violent crimes. By creating this powerful photography exhibit alongside their advocacy campaign, OTD raised awareness and educated communities about trans issues, which enabled them to move their policy goals forward. This year OTD has been taking huge steps towards the passage of the gender identity bill, which advanced in the country’s Senate this past month.

Side by Side is an international LGBT film festival that travels through several Russian cities, featuring films, documentaries and shorts in order to promote dialogue, educate audiences and foster respect for LGBT human rights. Side by Side faces several challenges, including backlash from local right wing-organized youth and resistance from local authorities. Moscow, for example, has banned Pride parades for the next hundred years, and government persecution of LGBT people during the Sochi Olympics is in the news every day . In response, Side by Side organizes to promote SOGI rights and to bring about greater societal acceptance and inclusion for the LGBT community throughout Russia. While they have not yet had a major advocacy win, in 2011 their festivals included 26 blocks of screenings resulting in the presentation of 86 LGBT films, 13 discussions and a workshop. Nearly 1,200 people attended, three quarters of whom identified as LGBT.

Side by Side’s example helps us highlight the importance of remembering that policy wins often require years of groundwork. According to Tanya Beer, Associate Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, “ It can take several years—or even decades—for advocates to build the necessary momentum and pressure to make significant policy progress .” Side by Side Film Festival, like OTD’s In Transit exhibit and other arts and cultural activist campaigns before them, is working to lay the foundation necessary for future policy and advocacy wins.

Astraea’s Grantmaking Strategy

Astraea’s arts and culture commitment over the years led to the creation in 2013 of a new Global Arts Fund that aims to support, showcase and connect impactful art by LGBTQI people and organizations that are using art as a tool for social transformation. Last year Astraea held its first Global Arts Fund grantmaking cycle in which we awarded $55,000 to 6 U.S. based artists and 5 artists/collectives in Latin America and China. Our thematic focus was migration and the selected projects highlighting experiences of marginalization in the face of exploitations wrought by globalization and neocolonialism. These projects range from poetry to musical landscapes that trace past and present histories of migration to documentary film and art- installations that document the invisible and powerful stories of queer immigrants in the U.S. and around the world.

Mónica is a Program Officer at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. For More information contact her at