Knight Foundation Grants Spotlight Urgent Need for Diversity in the Arts

Diversifying the Philly arts scene is a theme for several of this year’s John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awards to local arts and culture institutions, totaling $923,600 in all among nine groups.  


After Play on, Philly! (POP) nabbed a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation this school year, founder and executive director Stanford Thompson illustrated one of the reasons for the stark racial gap in American classical music by contrasting musicians and doctors.


Aspiring doctors can wait until college to decide to head for medical school. Professional classical musicians, on the other hand, usually begin intensive practice by the time they’re five years old. And the vast majority of kids whose families have the resources and know-how to support that early training are white—which means that the vast majority of professional musicians are also white.


“The question is, how do you change the problem?” Thompson said. “If only five percent of your youth orchestra is kids of color, guess how many are entering your conservatory?” And then that gap goes right on up to the professional stage.


The general operating dollars from Knight will support POP’s existing programming, which serves 250 kids a year, providing instruments, mentorship, and two and a half hours of practice time five days a week after school, for kindergartners through seniors in high school. The dollars will also boost two specific programs: the new POP Emerging Artist Collective, an intensive mentorship program for about a dozen youngsters interested in professional musicianship, and the POP Symphony Orchestra, comprised of 60 of the program’s most musically talented kids.


Thompson emphasized that POP does not serve only students who want to be professional musicians. He guesses that about 10 percent of POP participants express interest in professional musicianship, and POP loves nurturing that talent regardless of gender, racial or ethnic background, or income. And there’s solid evidence that musical training boosts academic performance, work ethic, and social skills for everyone, aspiring music professional or not.


To explain why the early access POP offers to diverse students is important, Thompson pointed to a 2016 report from the League of American Orchestras that tracked the racial and ethnic diversity of classical musicians in 500 American orchestras from 1980 to 2014. While there were major proportional increases for musicians of color in that timespan, their actual numbers remain low.


By 2014, about nine percent of orchestra musicians were of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage; 2.5 percent were Hispanic/Latino; and less than two percent were African American. POP hopes to change those numbers from the ground up.


Another notable Knight recipient is the Arts + Business Council of Greater Philadelphia, which received $25,000 for scholarships for minority leaders to attend the group’s Business On Board training program, which teaches the skills needed to join a non-profit board, and then matches program alums with local arts and culture organizations.


Business On Board has been operating its four-day workshop series for 22 years, said Arts + Business Council executive director Karin Copeland, covering the legal, ethical, and financial responsibilities of nonprofit board members. The program has graduated over 1000 participants, with a current class of 52.


Business On Board relies on a robust network of partner organizations that make hands-on training possible, and ensure a good match when program graduates are ready to put their skills to work. One of the main lessons participants learn, Copeland said, is that active and helpful board members “truly need to believe in the mission, and the organization driving the mission forward, because serving on a nonprofit board of directors is a serious commitment.”


“We believe strongly that diverse leadership is beneficial on both an individual and the organizational level, and these scholarships provide a perfect opportunity to get the right people in the room to help influence decision making,” Copeland says, which pushes the whole nonprofit sector forward. The grant for scholarships is exciting, she added, because one of their main pieces of feedback over the years is that many people who would like to attend the program are prevented by the cost.


Now, “if there’s someone who wants to participate in this program … and can bring these lessons back to their organization and their community, then we want to do everything we can to make that happen.” The Arts + Business Council is grateful to Knight and other supporters, and hopes a new wave of non-profit leaders will gain “the tools and resources to make a difference in their community.”


“These partners help to showcase Philadelphia as a world-class art and culture city,” said Knight Foundation Philadelphia program director Patrick Morgan. “They demonstrate the power of art to connect people to place and each other.”


From the dollars aiding the diversity of the future of classical music, to the dollars helping more minority leaders step into crucial decision-making roles at local institutions, the latest round of Knight Foundation grants is full of exciting projects. Check out the full roster here.