Arts for Social Change Philanthropy and the Rhetoric of Effects

Blog, Western Hub

During my Ph.D. studies, I traveled to Ottawa to attend the Michelle Jean Foundation’s “Power of the Arts National Forum.” The event was a gathering for those interested in the field of Arts for Social Change [AFSC] philanthropy: the allocation of private funds to arts-based charities rooted in social, environmental, and political justice. Populated by artists and activists, politicians and philanthropists, entrepreneurs and corporate donors, the Forum was a window into the contradictory interests, worldviews, and institutional pressures within this emerging philanthropic field, not to mention race and class relations, national identities, and hierarchies of art and culture. Despite this complex entanglement with broader political-economic and institutional forces, however, talk around the AFSC in the philanthropic sector tends to be framed rather narrowly in terms of what the arts “do” in a positivistic sense. The argument goes: if you inject this thing called “the arts” into a context, predictable (positive) outcomes will follow.

Of course, AFSC charities’ use of this rhetoric is understandable. In Canada, the arts and arts programs are underfunded and underappreciated. Moreover, the dominant model of foundation philanthropy draws on strategies derived from the private sector (Eikenberry & Mirabella, 2018), where the value of a charitable organization is determined using metrics that enable their comparison with alternative investments. The result, however, is the simplification of the AFSC—a dynamic and heterogeneous field—into a simple “cause-and-effect” relationship. Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández (2013), writing about arts education advocacy, calls this the rhetoric of effects.

In this brief piece, I explore some of the issues that this emphasis on the rhetoric of effects produces for practitioners and researchers in the field of AFSC philanthropy, namely:

  1. a reliance on ill-fitting metrics (leading to wasted organizational resources and the prioritization of donor accountability over community accountability); and
  2. a limited understanding of how the arts relate to social change, both positively and negatively.

My argument is directed at those interested in how the arts impact movements for social change, as well as what role philanthropic actors can and do play in this relationship.

In the following section, I define the rhetoric of effects, before drawing on my 10+ years of research on AFSC philanthropy to outline the two issues raised above, and their implications for philanthropic sector practitioners and researchers.


The Rhetoric of Effects

Introduced in a 2013 article in the Harvard Educational Review, the rhetoric of effects refers to a phenomenon whereby nuanced and heterogenous experiences with the arts are reduced to a series of empirically-verifiable (or disprovable) relationships between engagement with the arts and specific social, economic, or psychological outcomes. These effects range from economic development and job creation, to more individually targeted outcomes like the enhancement of self-esteem, improved personal health, wellbeing, and the reduction of criminal recidivism (Belfiore & Bennett, 2007). Within the academic literature, the rhetoric of effects tends to fall into two broad conceptual camps: (1) “instrumentalist” arguments, which revolve around establishing a relationship between an experience with the arts and specific non-arts outcomes (e.g., listening to Mozart will improve math scores); or (2) “intrinsic” arguments, which purport that experiences with the arts alter how people process the world around them (e.g., engaging in artistic practices will increase creativity, tolerance, or open-mindedness).

While these arguments are based on how experiences with the arts impact individuals, there exists an adjacent literature that examines the “spillover effects” of such impacts, and how they may positively impact broad social domains including health and well-being, social inclusion and cohesion, and community identity (e.g., Ramsey White & Rentschler, 2004). This line of argumentation is perhaps, most (in)famously deployed in Richard Florida’s work on the Creative Class, which is premised on the notion that human creativity has replaced raw materials and labour as the primary generator of economic value within contemporary capitalism (Lang & Danielsen, 2005). Following this, Florida argues for the presence of artists—measured via his Bohemian Index—as an economic development strategy in cities. While I would be remiss not to mention the myriad critiques of Florida’s work, it does serve as an exemplar of the operationalization of the rhetoric of effects, particularly as it increasingly takes shape in the AFSC philanthropy context.

Arts for social change . Graffiti of a first up and the word Revolt on a brick wall

Metrics, Measurement, and Communicating Impact

Over the course of several research projects involving interviews with leaders of AFSC charities, I repeatedly heard about the pressures to communicate the value of their programs to philanthropic funders using the rhetoric of effects, often in the form of outcomes-based reporting requirements. Moreover, I learned that such demands were uniquely challenging for artists and arts organizations (Anzel et al., 2022). For example, one study participant who led a progressive sex education theatre program for teenagers told me:

The real value of theatre and comedy is its ability to cut through the tension that accompanies difficult conversations around questions of power and injustice. How do you measure that?

In this excerpt, the participant complicates the rhetoric of effects by suggesting that the relationship between the arts and social change is not straightforward nor causal. Rather, the value of theatre and comedy (in this specific context) can be found in its ability to lighten the mood, laying the foundation for conversations that can then lead to positive social outcomes. The rhetoric of effects, which frames experiences with the arts as monolithic, falls short as a way to capture and communicate this relationship.

Difficulties around articulating AFSC work using the rhetoric of effects are additionally magnified within small resource-strapped organizations that are often the target of AFSC philanthropy. For example, one participant whose organization works with racialized immigrant artists, explained:

The impact of our work is felt maybe a year or two years down the road. But we sometimes don’t have the resources to go back and measure those impacts.

To be clear, this kind of short-termism and upward accountability is not a unique product of the rhetoric of effects, nor is it limited to AFSC contexts. In fact, critical non-profit scholars have long critiqued these trends on the basis that they constrain social change work and limit community accountability (e.g., Baur & Schmitz, 2012; Benjamin, 2010; Ostrander, 2007). Nevertheless, these accountability pressures are amplified within AFSC contexts, due to private (and public) funders’ hesitancy to fund the arts and arts programming as a legitimate end in itself.

Another study participant, whose organization provides marginalized youth with high quality arts programming, tells a story that captures this skepticism:

We had this one foundation, where maybe 35% of the overall grant was staff salaries. “Why is that so high?” [they said.] “I’d rather pay for that in art supplies.” Really? You’d rather pay for a bunch of sketchbooks that aren’t going to get used as opposed to paying for a well-paid human to go and deliver these programs? Nobody would ever ask if they were opening a new startup, “How much are you spending on people? I’d rather spend it on computers.”


How the Arts Relate to Social Change 

The rhetoric of effects also limits the ability of researchers and practitioners to consider the multitude of ways in which the arts impact social change, both positively and negatively. It demands we conceptualize the arts as a naturalistic phenomenon, something that can be isolated and measured, and that exists apart from the larger political-economic and institutional contexts within which artistic practices take shape and are given meaning.

Critical sociologists, however, have long pushed back on this idea. Substantial bodies of research on the role of the arts in class reproduction (e.g., DiMaggio & Useem, 2017; Ostower, 1998) and in social exclusion (e.g., Bourdieu, 1984; Gaztambide-Fernández et al., 2013), for example, indicate that what constitutes “the arts” is not only context-dependent, but has historically been closely tied to the interests of elites. (A simple example of this context-specificity: while North America’s most prestigious universities now offer jazz programs that celebrate the improvisational genius of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, in their day, elite musical gatekeepers would have scoffed at the suggestion that this music be classified as “the arts”, suggesting, instead, that one look to the works of Stravinsky or Schoenberg.)

Likewise, research shows that the effect that an experience with the arts will have on a given individual will vary greatly based on that individual’s identity (e.g., their race, class, and gender) and lived experiences (e.g., Belfiore & Bennett, 2007; Willis, 1990). When we reduce the field of AFSC to measurable and universal cause-and-effect relationships, however, we turn away from this complexity, the ways in which the arts impact society at individual and community levels, and the multitude of ways that philanthropy contributes to these impacts.

Of course, philanthropic foundations committed to supporting positive social change through the arts can realize a version of this vision by continuing to prioritize the positivistic paradigm captured in the rhetoric of effects. But foundations can also play a role in social change by leveraging their economic, cultural, and social capital to legitimize the work of non-dominant art forms and the artistic practices of marginalized communities, whose very existence as artists and creators can disrupt dominant cultural hierarchies and norms around the arts. Likewise, as scholars like bell hooks (1996) and Maxine Greene (1995) have shown us, the arts can create spaces for radical imagining, with the potential to change the world. This kind of revolutionary work, however, exists outside the rhetoric of effects. It demands that philanthropic actors place their trust in artists, arts educators, activists, and grassroots community organizations, and their vision of the AFSC.Arts for social change. A group of people painting on the ground



While the overarching field of AFSC philanthropy remains embedded in the rhetoric of effects, the AFSC practitioners at the “Power of the Arts National Forum” emphasized its limitations, whether consciously or not. Keynote speaker Michael Rakowitz’s discussion of his project paraSITE—which involved designing custom built inflatable shelters that attach to the exterior outtake vents of a building’s HVAC system, simultaneously inflating and warming the structure for homeless people to use as shelter—was as much about the relationship between artistic practice and social change as it was about the institution of private property, state retrenchment, and the tension between “social innovation” and “social justice” frameworks in the philanthropic sector. The following day, a panel discussion between five artists/activists/entrepreneurs/recent recipients of Michelle Jean Foundation grants highlighted how, within the philanthropic sector, the cultural practices of racialized groups become legible as “arts for social change” through their commodification and insertion into the capitalist marketplace.

The agility and skill with which AFSC practitioners shift between the rhetoric of effects on the one hand, and a more complex and nuanced engagement with the arts on the other, is remarkable. It suggests an awareness that the popularity of the rhetoric of effects is, as Belfiore and Bennett (2010) argue, linked to its perceived advocacy potential rather than to any demonstrable contribution it may make to a genuine understanding of the nature and potential effects of artistic engagement.

And yet, there is reason for optimism. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ecological crises, and racial justice movements, some Canadian philanthropic foundations have demonstrated a readiness to shift grantmaking practices away from traditional metrics and measurement, and move, instead, toward more participatory grantmaking and trust-based funding models. Seeing this kind of change translate to AFSC philanthropy, however, will require a more significant reimagination of the value of the arts and its disentanglement from the rhetorical straitjacket that is the rhetoric of effects.


This article is part of the September 2023 special edition: Philanthropy & the Arts. You can find more here.

Philanthropy & the arts