Since its launch in 2015, the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression (CFE) program worked collaboratively to invest in creative organizations and storytellers shaping a more inclusive, just world across three areas of focus: Arts and Culture, Journalism, and documentary filmmaking through its JustFilms initiative. To assess impact and alignment with the changing needs of the field, the foundation is conducting a series of evaluations around each area of focus under the CFE program. This evaluation report on Arts & Culture conducted by SMU DataArts is one in a series of three evaluations to explore how arts and creative sectors can approach inequality thoughtfully.

The Challenge

Inequality in arts and culture shapes inequality in society. The gatekeepers who decide which creative works get funded and whose voices and perspectives are amplified define, in many ways, who is valued by society—and who is invisible and who is seen as “other.”

In America’s largest museums, the majority of artists represented are white and male. Pre-pandemic, two-thirds of creative workers had less than two months’ savings and those who are Black, Indigenous, transgender, and/or people with disabilities were the most likely to have entered the pandemic without any savings.1 Pay inequity is also a serious issue: studies repeatedly show people of color artists making a fraction of what their white counterparts are paid.2

Without equality in the creative sectors—and deeper investments in untold stories and unheard storytellers—homogenous cultural narratives will continue to affirm racial, gender, and other hierarchies and stereotypes.

What We Did

Since its launch in 20183, the Creativity and Free Expression Arts and Culture (CFE A&C) program has provided grants totaling $230 million to over 500 arts and cultural organizations.4 These are intended to help creatives who have been marginalized by both society and the arts and culture industries thrive and create meaningful, widely recognized work. Because we believe that these artists, cultural producers, and leaders must have the resources to tell the stories that reflect their perspectives and experiences, we strengthen organizations, leaders, and networks that support and value these expressions.

CFE A&C provides support through substantial, multi-year general operating support to small and midsized organizations and networks that are staffed and geared towards people of color, women, and disabled artists, cultural producers, and leaders. We also provide targeted project support to large institutions for programming by artists who are disabled or people of color. We also provide support for alliances and convenings and leverage influence through thought leadership, narrative and strategic communications, and building alliances with other funders.

Grants were primarily disbursed to organizations and networks across 33 states and territories in the United States. Grant amounts ranged from $2,000 to $5.6 million, with $200,000 being both the median and most common grant award amount. Just over half of the grants were in the $100,000 to $499,999 range.

In 2021, we engaged SMU DataArts, a national center for arts research based at Southern Methodist University, as an external partner to conduct an evaluation. SMU DataArts employed a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods to explore whether the CFE A&C program contributes to a larger base of support, stability, and continued success for grantee organizations; for thriving people of color and disabled artists whose work already receives greater production and visibility, and ultimately to a more diverse and accepting cultural landscape with expanded ideas of excellence. Over 600 artists provided their perspectives. Of the 230 CFE A&C organizations invited to be part of this evaluation, a total of 110 participated in some way.

What We Learned

1. Grantees report shifting dominant narratives.

CFE A&C grantees reported a remarkably strong sense that they are advancing their goals, and these goals very closely align with various elements of Ford’s short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals. Importantly, grantees seek to shift dominant narratives that perpetuate inequality, echoing Ford’s long-term goal of a more fair and just society where traditional definitions of excellence are expanded and audiences consider diverse points of view and experiences.

2. Grantees indicate they are thriving overall and having an impact.

Most organizations are thriving, have grown their revenue base, and have had lasting impact on artists in a spectrum of ways. The organizations are thriving most by advancing creatively and artistically, with strong demand for their programs. They have increased production and visibility of art created by underrepresented artists, cultural producers, and leaders, and they say that Ford CFE A&C funding had a direct impact on this.

3. Ford’s grantmaking is improving grantees’ financial stability.

Grantees say they are, on the whole, doing better now than they were prior to receiving CFE A&C support, with respect to overall operating and financial stability, and they largely attribute CFE A&C funding to their financial security, growth, attraction of grants from other funders, and ability to conduct multi-year planning in their organizations. Like their peers in the broader ecology of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, they have run surpluses in recent years and increased their base of support, especially from other foundations.

4. Organizational capacity and compensation remain areas of concern.

However, the creative and artistic growth and increased demand for their programs has not been met with comparable growth in organizational capacity or staff and artist compensation levels, which may hinder their impact on artists in the future. If capacity does not increase, programming will plateau. Grantees are on the fence about whether their organizations are thriving financially, and generally disagree that they have adequate staff capacity to meet demand. Even with revenue growth and operational growth in other areas, it appears that arts leaders still feel like the funding level is insufficient to increase staff pay and substantially increase compensation to people of color and/or disabled artists.

5. Artists served by Ford’s grantees are thriving in key ways.

CFE A&C is succeeding in its short-term goal for leadership: supporting more thriving people of color and disabled artists, cultural producers, and executive leaders. Roughly two of every three artists say they are thriving. In the ways that Ford defines successful support (including, ability to advance artistry, exploring artistic forms, and visibility for work), as well as other dimensions, such as “feeling inspired”, and “connecting with community”, people of color and disabled artists are thriving, on average. Among CFE A&C grantees, the highest-ranked shared goal is to lift up the cultural contributions of artists and cultural producers of color, which aligns with the goals related to thriving artists and increasing production and visibility of these artists’ work. There are indications of a more widespread sense of thriving among people of color and disabled artists, cultural producers, and executive leaders working in the field, especially those who have been further marginalized by sexism, heterosexism, and xenophobia.

6. Grantees overestimate their impact on artists.

Relatedly, the majority of people of color and disabled artists, cultural producers, and leaders perceive that working with or receiving support from CFE A&C grantees has had lasting, positive impact on them in a multitude of ways. As positive as the artist responses were, the CFE A&C grantee responses were even stronger. Leaders of CFE A&C grantee organizations tend to slightly overestimate the extent to which they have lasting impact on artists, particularly the extent to which they increase visibility of artists’ work and provide artists with critical financial income. With respect to thriving, compensation was the area scored lowest by artists overall, despite the fact that two out of every three artists say they received adequate financial compensation, and grantees say that CFE A&C funding directly impacted their ability to increase people of color and/or disabled artists’ compensation. One might infer that artists perceive a gap between ‘adequate’ and ‘thriving.’

7. There are still gaps in representation of people of color and disabled people.

In the broader arts workforce study, individuals who self-identify as Black or Hispanic/Latinx were underrepresented among the ranks of those hired by participating arts and cultural organizations, compared to their relative numbers in the population of working-age U.S. adults. The percentage of arts workforce members with a disability was similar to that of the percentage of working-age U.S. adults with a disability. Among those working in the broader arts and culture industry during the period of the CFE A&C program, people of color and people with disabilities were just as likely to hold a supervisory role as a non-supervisory position. However, people with disabilities are under-represented among the ranks of board members and people of color are much more likely to be hired as an independent contractor than they are to be on staff full-time or a board member; this is key to note since many organizations hire artists in particular on a contract rather than staff basis. It appears that there is not equitable access to power and decision-making at the board level for people of color and/or people with disabilities.

In summary, Ford’s CFE A&C program has the potential to be catalytic, particularly through substantial multi-year general operating support to small and mid-sized organizations and networks that are run by and intended for people of color and disabled artists, cultural producers, and leaders. There is a lot to be proud of and a lot that is working well. To be more impactful in the future, however, decisions will need to be made about strategy trade-offs and their implications for the impact this will have on future necessary artistic works.

  • 1 Americans for the Arts (2022), “So Far Past the Brink: COVID-19 and the Ongoing Conditions That Keep Creative Workers in Free Fall,” April. Accessed 6 June 2022 at
  • 2 See, for example, studies featured by Counting Together:
  • 3 Although Ford has a longer history of funding arts, culture, and media, the CFE A&C program itself was initially launched in 2016. It was refined in 2017 and 2018, and changes took effect in 2018. This evaluation covers the period from 2018 through 2021.
  • 4 This figure represents Ford Foundation grants made through the following programs: general CFE A&C, America’s Cultural Treasures, NYC Arts, BUILD, Social Bond grants held by CFE A&C, and reserves.