The Forbes list of the largest charities in the United States includes recognizable names from the world of museums and art: The Museum of Modern Art, American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Funding for these non-profits comes primarily from donations and earnings on their endowments. Donations, usually from individuals, philanthropic foundations, and corporate sponsors, make up the largest source of funding.
Endowments are committed in part to acquiring new works for a museum’s collection. Museums typically spend about five percent of their endowment each year, with the remaining 95 percent invested in stocks, bonds, hedge funds, real estate, and private equity funds to grow the value of the endowment.
Some estimates value overall museum endowments in the United States at about $40 billion. Factoring endowments in the broader art world, to include performing arts organizations, libraries, art schools, and artist-endowed foundations, the number approaches $60 billion.
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation wants to broaden the scope of art collected by museums, and in doing so, help foster equity and recognition specifically for African American artists, their families, and their communities. Souls Grown Deep is dedicated to "documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of African American artists from the South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted."
Souls Grown Deep president Dr. Maxwell Anderson says proceeds from collection transfers help fund grants aimed at improving "the social, cultural, and economic circumstances of communities giving rise to the artists represented in our Collection."
They are also committed to the intellectual property rights of artists and to "advancing the interests of the artists, and their heirs, represented in the Foundation's collection."
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation was founded in 2010. But its origins go back to the mid-1980s when William S. Arnett, an art collector and historian from Georgia, traveled throughout the American southeast encountering artworks and environments by African American artists who often used found materials to make art outside of the purview of schools, museums, and galleries.
Arnett supported the artists by buying their work, despite an absence of any real outside interest, let alone a dedicated market, for it. He eventually accumulated thousands of objects, filling a warehouse in Atlanta, and later developed exhibitions and accompanying publications that traveled to museums across the United States.
In 1996 Dr. Anderson worked with Arnett on an exhibition called Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, presented during the time of the summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The Quilts of Gee's Bend, which Dr. Anderson showed in 2002 when he was the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, was touted by the New York Times as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."
In 2011, long after Dr. Anderson had left Atlanta, the pair reunited to stage an exhibition for the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial consisted of a survey of works by an Alabama artist who had also been previously featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial.
In preparation for the exhibition, Dr. Anderson proposed to Arnett that he either donate works to the museum or that he create a long-imagined foundation from which the museum could borrow. With that, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation was born, to include 1300 initial works of art.
The Foundation's holdings today consist of nearly 1,000 works from more than 160 artists, and women make up the majority of artists represented in their inventory. Their collection includes works from Dial, Lonnie Holley, Mary T. Smith, Joe Minter, Nellie Mae Rowe, Purvis Young, Emmer Sewell, Ronald Lockett, Joe Light, and the quilt-makers of Gee's Bend.
Since 2016, Dr. Anderson and his colleagues Scott Browning, Director of Collections, and curator Raina Lampkins-Fielder, have enlisted art institutions across the United States to acquire works from the Foundation’s collection, inspired by "an awakening of interest in African American art from museums trying to be inclusive and diverse."
Though not a fledgling organization, having the capacity to invest is new. Working with Upstart Co-Lab, Souls Grown Deep is aligning its small endowment with its mission and values of racial and social justice. Dr. Anderson says, "We're not looking to maximize return. We're looking to maximize impact, with a return that is reasonable for the investment climate today." That separates Souls Grown Deep from larger institutions in the art world, where the mantra is maximizing financial returns, often "without a filter around impact or ethical comportment."
Dr. Anderson remembers first hearing Upstart Co-Lab founder Laura Callanan speak at an event in New York about the "other 95% of the endowment." That is, foundations spend the federally-mandated five percent of their earnings from endowments on "mission," but how do they view the rest? That struck a chord with Anderson.
He would like to see a better calibrated moral compass within influential arts organizations, and for everyone to reflect on their sources of philanthropic support. Major art institutions have recently been exposed to staff action, protests, and allegations of misuse of institutional assets and for accepting funding from questionable sources. He wants institutions larger than theirs – with greater assets, more significant impact, and the capacity to create a magnifying effect – to take the lead in shedding light on funding and allocating more of it in direct alignment with stated missions.
Meanwhile, Souls Grown Deep continues to make its own transformational contributions to the promotion of economic activity and racial and social justice via the creative economy. The Souls Grown Deep Community Partnership has recently become the first endowed cultural institution to join Upstart Member Community, a new initiative by Upstart Co-Lab, by committing $1 million to impact investments in aligned funds, businesses, and real estate projects.
Souls Grown Deep wants to right social and economic wrongs. The artists for whom they advocate have been left by the wayside by racial discrimination and oppression, and Dr. Anderson hopes that Souls Grown Deep's work brings light to their creativity so that more can be done to enrich the communities that have given rise to brilliance.