The Mellon Foundation Did a Nice Thing. Next Time, Look at Where the Action Is.


If the Mellon Foundation would start to look at the next-level budgets, they’ll find transformation is the purview of better-run organizations.

The best arts nonprofit arts organizations in the United States are not the ones who receive the most grant money. But they should be.

A local nonprofit arts organization realized that it had never received a donation from the town’s most successful lawyer.

The volunteer in charge of contributions called him to persuade him to contribute. “Our research shows that out of a yearly income of more than $600,000 you give not a penny to charity. Wouldn’t you like to give back to the community in some way?”

The lawyer thought about it for a minute and replied, “Did your research also show that my mother is dying after a long illness, and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?” Embarrassed, the volunteer mumbled, “I had no idea.”

To which the lawyer said, “Well, I don’t give her money, so why should I give money to you?”


Last week, we talked about the wonderful news about the transformative gifts to 3 nonprofit arts companies by the Mellon Foundation. To recap: The Mellon Foundation, the meat of whose mission is…

We believe that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and we believe that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom to be found there.

…just granted three $1 million grants to leaders of theaters that are instituting a radical change for the better for their respective institutions.

They almost got it right, too, as two of the organizations really are doing transformational work for their communities. One, not so much. But good for them anyway.

I’ve just returned from Louisville. There, I experienced the amazing work of Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra, a company that has reduced its performances in the traditional big hall down to only 17. Instead, they perform hundreds of events in every county in Kentucky at theaters, gyms, libraries, rec centers, bars, and subsidized housing centers (a.k.a., “the projects”) in order to bring Kentuckians their own music right back to them, no matter what socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, or any other status they currently inhabit.

Their programs – which are not cynically tacked-on like almost every other arts organization’s are, just to receive funding – speak to their core attribute: a Grammy® Award-winning company (2023) who believes that celebrating and helping Kentuckians reach their potential as leaders in their own communities starts with them.

Louisville Orchestra with Michael Cleveland Frankfort
West Hills High School, Frankfort, KY. The Louisville Orchestra’s “In Harmony” tour continues with Michael Cleveland fronting with his phenomenal bluegrass band. Free for the community, and people were step-dancing in the aisles.

The Louisville Orchestra has saved lives. That is not an overstatement. One high-school student told me this, at the outset of a concert held at her high school.

“I get straight A’s and I’m in a few AP courses, too. But I was lost, depressed, my home life was a bust, and I didn’t see that I had any future. Then I saw the Louisville Orchestra last year and started a love of music. I joined Band. It’s the one class I can’t wait to go to. Music keeps me sane. If it weren’t for events like this with the Louisville Orchestra, and I know this sounds pretty dark, I probably would be dead. I’ve been through a bunch of suicidal ideations in the past, but I learned that music is the one thing I’m very good at in this world. Having the opportunity to see great music here at my own high school lets me know I have a future.”

“In Harmony” toured the state and hit every county. “Once Upon an Orchestra” visits every library branch in Louisville and many more outside the city, working with orchestra members, small children, and books they already love. “MakingMUSIC” is a program for every single fourth- and fifth-grade student in the Jefferson County School District, where students work with musicians to gain confidence, trust, and a broader sense of a language that does not depend on lexicographical genius. The Louisville Orchestra, under the massively successful, strong, and unending search for real impact, is a rousing success, even from a conservative government.

“You always hear about the rural/urban divide,” said GOP State Senator Robert Stivers, the Senate President. “And a lot of people won’t go to the cities because it’s beyond their navigation point. A lot of people won’t come out of the cities, thinking ‘we’re uncomfortable with the country.’ What we’re doing and what [the LO] is trying to do is to bridge those gaps.”

Hey, Mellon! This is the kind of transformative leadership you say you want to support!

If Mellon were seeking a second, equally transformative company, they should really look at some smaller organizations who have already changed the landscape of the communities they serve. The best example I’ve found in my research is in Atlanta: Out of Hand Theater (OOH) and its transformative founder/leader, Ariel Fristoe. OOH takes their art directly to the people who can make a difference.

Ariel and Andrew Young
Ariel Fristoe (L), seen here at an Out of Hand Theater event with Ambassador Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and preeminent civil rights leader.

OOH doesn’t have a building. They all work from home, but a board member provides donated office space for group meetings, readings, etc. Their theater work has a charitable purpose. In Fristoe’s words, “Atlanta didn’t need another small theater company. It needed justice.” The core of their mission is to “work at the intersection of art, social justice, and civic engagement to create a more just world” and they measure their work against that vision. They perform in church basements, living rooms, schools, businesses, houses of worship, public spaces, and on Zoom. The point of their work is to change the conversation around social justice to, as one participant put it, “allow the divided, entrenched world in which we live to mitigate personal issues together, even when they don’t agree with each other, through acts of listening, hashing it out, and having all the little conversations necessary to reduce tensions and get things done.”

“When I’m talking about Out of Hand — whether it’s talking about banned books or the first Black woman who ran for president — it’s about working within a safe environment and having these conversations. We have to find ways to have these difficult conversations in a safe way. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to change hearts and minds. That’s all I know.”
— a participant in an Out of Hand Theater “Shows in Homes” event, where a story of the persistent erasure of Black history combined with a stirring discussion of banned books to create a sizzling night of real theater.

With a million-dollar grant from the Mellon Foundation, OOH could take their transformational work deep into rural areas of Georgia, other areas of the South, and utilize (as they’ve already done) colleges and universities across the country to host these very same kinds of programs. Life everywhere would be better, more productive, and people might start to crack away at their binary, “them against us” thinking.

Hey Mellon. Out of Hand Theater and its transformative leader, Ariel Fristoe, should be your next phone call. Then call Teddy Abrams at the Louisville Orchestra. If you need contact info, just let me know at alan@501c3.guru.

There are other organizations, of course. Take a look at Steph Johnson and the Voices of Our City Choir in San Diego, which is comprised of people who are unhoused; Henry Reese, Diane Samuels, and City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, a company dedicated to freedom of expression by providing sanctuary to those who have suffered the oppression of right-wing regimes and allowing them to write and speak their stories; and Quinton Morris and The Key to Change in Seattle, where unserved and underserved students get free music lessons from some of the top classical musicians in the field to expand their own capabilities and give them a base point of success. Funding to those organizations would increase the scope of their work from transforming the lives of hundreds of unserved people to thousands.

Next year, Mellon Foundation, look deeper. Go to Atlanta. Go back to Louisville. See who’s really transforming the lives of the people. Then send Out of Hand Theater and the Louisville Orchestra an award befitting of that kind of work. Imagine the good in the world when you do that. (And that doesn’t just go for Mellon. Ford, MacArthur, Gates, Carnegie, and all the others: pay attention. Don’t just give money to people because you’ve had dinner with them.)

Incidentally, you may be wondering why your nonprofit arts organization doesn’t deserve this kind of funding. The two organizations listed here do their service work because that’s at the core of what they do. It’s not a tacked-on education program you placed there just to get funding. Look at your mission and look at theirs – now do you get it?


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