SMU DataArts Report Reveals Positive Impact of Ford Foundation’s Efforts Investing $230 Million in People of Color and Disability-Centered Arts and Storytelling Organizations

Study Finds that Funding Led to Improved Organizational Stability and Access Among Grantees

Photos courtesy of LCAC, Denver, CO. Collage by Victoria P. Gonzalez (2021)
Photos courtesy of LCAC, Denver, CO. Collage by Victoria P. Gonzalez (2021)

December 12, 2022 (Dallas, TX) – SMU DataArts today released a report examining the impact of Ford’s Arts and Culture work within its Creativity and Free Expression program (CFE A&C), a $230 million investment in People of Color and disability-centered arts and storytelling organizations. The evaluation was led by SMU DataArts, a research center utilizing cutting-edge research techniques to increase understanding of the arts and cultural sector, in collaboration with Ford. “Bending Art and Culture Towards Justice: The Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression Arts and Culture Program Investments in Diverse Creative Communities” presents lessons about progress on outcomes sought by the CFE Arts and Culture work, the role the work played, and how change occurred. It explores the impact of Ford’s investment in these organizations, demonstrating gains in grantees’ improved financial stability, ability to expand their base of support, and their lasting impact on the artists whose voices and cultural contributions they lift up.

Since its launch in 2015, the Ford Foundation's Creativity and Free Expression (CFE) program has 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, co-authored by Dr. Zannie Giraud Voss, director of SMU DataArts; Rebecca Roscoe, Senior Research Associate at SMU DataArts; and Daniel Fonner, Associate Director for Research at SMU DataArts, is based on research conducted from December 2021 to April 2022. It is one in a series of three evaluations to explore how arts and creative sectors can approach inequality and diversity thoughtfully.

“This in-depth evaluation of Ford’s CFE A&C program shows clear progress in the foundation’s plan for disrupting narratives that perpetuate inequality and lifting up underrepresented voices across race and ability,” said Dr. Voss. “Our research revealed the potential for this to be a catalytic program, with the majority of CFE A&C grantee organizations, arts leaders and artists reporting that they are thriving, partially attributing progress to participation in the CFE A&C program.”

The findings draw upon qualitative research, including in-depth interviews with Ford staff, individuals at peer grantmaking institutions and arts leaders of Ford’s 20 CFE A&C grantee organizations, followed by surveys of grantees and artists working at or supported by the grantees. Of the 230 CFE A&C organizations invited to be a part of the evaluation, 110 participated, along with more than 600 artists. The research was supplemented by quantitative sources of demographic and financial data collected by SMU DataArts. The report summarizes key observations from this in-depth evaluation of Ford’s CFE A&C program from 2018 to 2021, including a number of promising findings:

Ford grantmaking is improving financial stability.

  • On the whole, grantee organizations are doing better now than they were prior to receiving CFE A&C support with respect to overall operating stability and overall financial stability.
  • People of Color and disability-centered organizations in the broader arts field have become more stable and resilient over time, running surpluses and building working capital.

Ford grantmaking is leading to increased resources.

  • Among the 83% of grantees who reported an increase in their base of support over the grant period aside from CFE A&C funding, two out of three attribute Ford CFE A&C funding as a strong or very strong influence on their ability to attract new resources.
  • For grantees and peer People of Color and disability-centered organizations, funding increased resoundingly over time.

Ford, alongside CFE A&C grantees, is making progress related to increasing the production and visibility of underrepresented artists.

  • More than half of the CFE A&C grantees increased employment of People of Color and/or disabled artists and storytellers, and increased their compensation.

Ford is contributing to more thriving People of Color and disabled artists and arts leaders.

  • Roughly two of every three artists and three of every four grantee organization leaders describe their personal state as either absolutely or moderately thriving.
  • Artists are thriving most in that they feel inspired, have a strong sense of ownership over their narrative, and are advancing their artistry. Dignified wages and sufficient financial resources present more of a challenge to artists’ ability to thrive than do other indicators of overall prosperity.

CFE A&C grantee leaders reported a remarkably strong sense that their organizations are advancing their goals and thriving.

  • 87% of grantees reported that their organizations are absolutely making progress while the remaining 13% say they are making moderate progress.
  • They are thriving most by advancing creatively and artistically, with strong demand for their programs, whether from artists or the public.

“We know that art, imagination and stories inspire the social change we aim to make possible. Our work invests in storytellers and organizations to help them realize their creative goals across arts and culture, documentary film, and media and journalism,” said Margaret Morton, Director, Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation. “This report is instrumental in revealing early indications that Ford’s A&C strategy in the CFE program is advancing our long-term goals of influencing a more equitable creative landscape where all communities are reflected and all diverse creators have voice. This report will be invaluable in informing our strategy and approaches going forward.”

The report also identified remaining gaps among the grantees, including insufficient organizational capacity, continued insufficient financial resources despite growth, and compensation levels representing a barrier to thriving for People of Color and disabled artists.


SMU DataArts, the National Center for Arts Research, is a joint project of the Meadows School of the Arts and Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. The mission of SMU DataArts is to provide and engage both organizations and individuals with the evidence-based insights needed to collectively build strong, vibrant and equitable arts communities. Its programs provide free business intelligence tools and educational workshops to help arts leaders leverage data to answer critical management questions, communicate about their organizations, and connect research analyses to their own work. Recent publications include white papers on emergence from the COVID-19 crisisthe alchemy that drives high performing arts organizations of coloraudience diversity, equity and inclusion in large performing arts organizationsworking capital and the resiliency of BIPOC organizations; and more. SMU DataArts also publishes reports on the health of the U.S. arts and cultural sector with its Arts Vibrancy Index, which highlights the 40 most arts-vibrant communities around the country. For more information, visit