It began with a painting. In 2017, philanthropist Agnes Gund was inspired to take a stand against mass incarceration after experiencing three powerful works of art: Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy, and Michelle Alexander’s nonfiction book The New Jim Crow. So she sold a favorite artwork that she had displayed for decades in her home, Roy Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece, and from its proceeds contributed $100 million to a new grantmaking program that would address inequality in the criminal legal system by aligning the narrative power of art and the momentum of policy change around justice reform.

Helena Huang
Project Director, Art for Justice Fund 

Art for Justice Fund, launched in collaboration with the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, did a few things differently from the start. Notably, it was built as a time-limited initiative: a five-year program that would go on to give expeditiously, react nimbly, and build substantial coalitions among artists, advocates, and allied donors. By our launch, thanks to the extensive network of friends and supporters who rallied behind Gund and our president, Darren Walker, we had roughly 20 other large donors, many individual art donors and philanthropists and some institutional funders and newer corporate leaders. Art for Justice then raised over $27M through 300-plus donations from individuals, businesses, and artists. With this additional $27M, we extended the fund for a sixth and final year, which helped recoup the time we lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our strategy was to bridge the divide between policy change and art as social change. We suggested to criminal justice funders, “Look what you can accomplish when you support narrative change. Might you consider adding a strategy related to the arts?” Likewise, we were saying to arts funders, “You’re interested in doing more social justice work. Might you support ending mass incarceration as a theme?”

Of course, no one could have predicted how much uncharted territory Art for Justice would have to navigate between 2017 and 2023. The ever-changing social and political landscape and historic events dramatically impacted our work, presenting new challenges and opportunities along the way. Like the rest of the world, the program had to reassess its path and its priorities amid COVID, the murder of George Floyd, the global sweep of Black Lives Matter, and more. But these moments of social tumult pushed the fund to respond with even more urgency, agility, and collaboration than before. When we began the project, our singular goal was moving funding toward the movement to end mass incarceration, and after our first grantee convening in New Orleans in 2018, our emphasis on building an intentional community grew. In 2020, this community rallied in support of one another and grew: We directed funds toward stopping the drastic spread of COVID inside prisons and jails. We connected people who were grieving and eager to improve their communities, from painters to policymakers to business executives.

With Art for Justice now concluded, I am proud of the many accomplishments that its leadership team—which included Agnes Gund, Catherine Gund, Sonia Lopez, and Darren Walker—achieved together, and grateful for the many times we were challenged, surprised, and humbled along the way. In six years, we made over 450 grants totaling $127M, with 38 of those over $1M. Major policy victories were secured and new narratives were advanced. And, in the greatest development none of us anticipated, the fund truly demonstrated what advocates, artists, and allied donors could accomplish together: inspiring a creative community to rise, with hundreds of artists, organizers, and donors collaborating on new events and initiatives in their shared passion to end mass incarceration.

The benefits of a ticking clock

The idea for the five-year timeline originated with Agnes Gund, with a central thesis of reparations—the perspective that these funds were not ours to guard. Our role as funders was to move these resources to the people working on the frontlines with the most at stake, who knew the issues best, and were devoted to solutions and alternatives to our current criminal legal system. This meant centering the leadership of formerly incarcerated leaders and prioritizing support for organizations led by directly impacted people. In the end, 44% of Art for Justice’s grant dollars were allocated here. 

From the start, we ran Art for Justice like a campaign. We had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and our attitude was that this wasn’t about building infrastructure that was going to last forever. It was about moving money to people who can create impact now.

Tanya Coke, director of Ford’s Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice program, quickly wrote a strategy that encompassed this perspective and addressed the three drivers of mass incarceration: 

  • Too many people going into prisons, which requires bail reform
  • Too many people being incarcerated for too long, which requires sentencing reform 
  • Too many people going back into prisons, which requires eliminating barriers to reentry and creating opportunities for education, housing, employment, and voting

From there, we established our core fundamental principles:

  • Bridging art and advocacy to drive cultural change: Advocacy in the movement to end mass incarceration typically works toward policy changes. Art for Justice highlighted the power of art as a complementary strategy to this, one possible of changing minds and shifting broad cultural narratives around the criminal justice system.
  • Centering people directly impacted by incarceration: People from Black and brown communities and people with lived experience in the carceral system are essential to disrupting the dominant narratives around mass incarceration, especially considering the United States’ history of slavery. Formerly incarcerated and directly impacted artists and advocates are best positioned to transform systems of injustice. Funders can make space for artists in social movements by emphasizing the contributions of those with lived experiences and convening artists and advocates to strengthen their collective impact.  
  • Practicing movement allyship as a funder: Those with power and privilege must use it to support and advocate for people with the most at stake who are bringing new ideas and solutions. For funders, this means getting behind them and their opportunities to advocate and create.

We engaged directly and regularly with movement leaders, both as artists and activists, and they told us what was helpful and what wasn’t. This was crucial information, and funders less deeply engaged with their grantees don’t always have access to it. 

Some of our earliest grants supported arts programs in prisons and writers who addressed the carceral system, thanks to Elizabeth Alexander and, later on, Margaret Morton as directors of Creativity and Free Expression at Ford. We were also supporting more organizations working to advance criminal legal reform. Soon, through our conversations with movement leaders, we saw how formerly incarcerated artists were hungry for opportunity—and that often, individuals can be more nimble and work more quickly than organizations. That really affected our funding going forward, and we took inspiration from Mural Arts’ fellowship programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists and an early Rauschenberg Foundation residency for artists focused on the carceral system.

As a time-limited fund, we needed to make investments that could produce short-term wins, too, not just lay the groundwork for victories years down the line. This meant pursuing policies that could change lives soon, or narrative change that was going to pop and get attention from media and other funders. We had to make these kinds of trade-offs to create proof of concept—because then it might have a chance of attracting other funding that would enable the work to continue to evolve without our participation later. 

Then came 2020. It’s hard to overstate how, at least 20 years ago, criminal justice was one of the most unpopular issues in U.S. philanthropy. Very few were interested in working around prison reform or had much concern about what happened to people when they came home from prison. Then George Floyd was killed and a widespread racial reckoning happened, and our phones started ringing off the hook; people were grieving and protesting and they wanted to channel that in positive ways. We had new contributions at every level, from modest donations to staggering ones: Julie Mehretu donated a painting that was auctioned off for $6.5M; MacKenzie Scott gave us $5M that same week.

An unexpected spark

At a recent event, a prominent philanthropist told me that she thought Art for Justice had ignited the idea that artists and activists are more powerful together. 

We didn’t create this notion. Artists and activists have been doing work in partnership forever, but I do think something about our timing, something about our scale, something about Gund and Walker’s profiles, made this unique. Above all, we made some good bets on some extraordinary humans.

Still, this intersectional work is nascent, and hesitation to embrace the potential of art within the criminal justice reform movement persists. We learned this on the ground in Ohio, where we focused one case study conducted by our partners at Engage R+D. It revealed that, for criminal justice reform organizations favoring policy-centric strategies, using art as a tactic wasn’t considered viable before Art for Justice proved it to be. Grantees in Ohio credited Art for Justice as helping to make the case. As Tenille Patterson, executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, told us, “I would credit Art for Justice with having a significant impact on us organizationally, shifting our openness to approaching how we do systems change work. There’s a greater awareness that artwork, storytelling, and advocacy works. It moves things along.”

For your blank canvas: Key takeaways on uniting art and advocacy

1. Let relationships form organically through trust—not transactions.
Some of our peers see the Art for Justice model as a means to raise money for their own initiatives. In the creative sector, artists are often asked to contribute their works and donate to myriad causes. But the artists who participated in Art for Justice gave their works on their own accord because of existing relationships with members of our leadership team, an affinity for Art for Justice’s mission, or both. This way of working—focusing on the relationships with our partners and the community—encouraged our Art for Justice staff to do the same and work to build the same trust that engendered people to want to come to us.

The art world can be very transactional. Gund would not allow Art for Justice to be that way. One of the ways in which she stands apart is that she is so relationship-based. Art for Justice followed her lead and tried to create relationships with participants that were rooted in authenticity and trust.

2. Use time constraints to challenge internalized biases.
Having a five-year window for grantmaking meant we had to move with urgency, including confronting our tactics that didn’t work. Initially, we decided we would direct 80% of our funds to policy advocacy organizations and 20% to supporting the arts. It was a page from traditional philanthropy, to put money in silos like this.  

But this turned swiftly into bean-counting; we were spending time discussing, “Well, would this grant get counted in the 80% criminal justice side or the 20% arts side?” I remember having one of these discussions in Gund’s dining room, and thinking, “Why are we doing this if we’re trying to create broader narrative change and do truly intersectional work?” This happens a lot with traditional philanthropy: You get caught up in feeding your own internal systems that made sense at one point, but may not anymore. 

That was an early frustration, but we addressed it—and those silos crumbled. The grants became more fluid, less rigidly appraised by those categories, because the work we funded spanned criminal justice and art. That was the point. 

Another pivotal, early moment came as we solicited proposals from artists. Our approach was to ask each, “How much money do you need to support this project?” The responses fell along race and gender lines: Black women artists requested the least, and white male artists asked for the most. Board member Catherine Gund recognized this internalized inequality for what it was and proposed that Art for Justice fund every artist fellow at $100,000. In this way, we worked as a team to disrupt our own internal structural barriers and the status quo.

3. Center lived experiences but be mindful of exploitative approaches.
In one of our case studies featuring collective work in Illinois, we elevated the importance of centering lived experiences—and we became better at recognizing the importance of managing the power imbalance and vulnerabilities inherent in working across different perspectives and experiences. Cultural narratives around the carceral system intentionally and profoundly dehumanize people most directly affected; conversely, centering people with lived experience in it elevates our humanity through mutual respect, authority, and trust.

One of our grantees, Zealous, showed us that because the carceral system so devalues people, it is essential that artists, advocates, and funders take extra care to ensure that the storytelling opportunities they provide are not also exploitative. “There’s always a power dynamic to asking folks to share their stories, a high potential for extractiveness and exploitation even if inadvertent or well-intentioned,” Scott Hechinger, a leader at Zealous, told us. “How can aspiring allies have conversations with people with direct experience to ensure that we are true partners, to feel like we are engaging in mutual aid? When working with folks that are currently incarcerated, before even having the conversation, we endeavor first to work with local organizations or organizers, the people who already have built relationships of trust. We take the lead of local partners.”  

Ultimately, 53% of artists funded by Art for Justice were formerly incarcerated, and the program supported 78 organizations led by formerly incarcerated and justice system-impacted people.

4. Anticipate tension and differing views within social justice movements.
Building a community to end mass incarceration meant bringing many passionate leaders together. Not surprisingly, this meant differences in opinions surfaced—and we had to determine our place in these moments of conflict. In any movement, leaders and funders will face uncertainty and inconsistency—and, often, these ambiguities will lack a clear solution or timeline for resolution. This can be difficult to navigate, but a funder’s role is to be an ally to movement leaders. Art for Justice organizers needed to be diligent about considering how to best use our position, which meant navigating moments of tension with sensitivity and observation. When disagreements arose, Art for Justice had to decide when to leverage our experience, cede our power, take a stance, or stay neutral, always in service of moving the shared mission forward. 

5. Celebrate the tangible and intangible wins.
Art and advocacy are not always fields of clear victories. After all, how do you quantify a painting as a success? Often, the art world ascribes it a dollar value. However, Art for Justice wanted to achieve the tangible of directing money to the movement and impacting policy, as well as the intangible of creating narrative and cultural change.

This reminded us to uplift both types of wins as they happened. The tangible wins spanned dollars leveraged and policy. Our grantees secured important wins: The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth secured the freedom of 1,000 individuals who were sentenced to life without parole as children, and Youth First Initiative succeeded in closing six youth prisons and redirected more than $50M to community-based alternatives to incarceration. The Civil Rights Corps, Essie Justice Group, the Vera Institute of Justice, and others secured a major win when Los Angeles struck down its bail system.

We also celebrated the more philosophical victories. At No Justice Without Love, Art for Justice’s cumulative show at Ford’s Center for Social Justice gallery in New York, we embraced the tension of our curation. How do you display the works of world-renowned artists alongside Art for Justice creators? That in itself is narrative change, and its power was immediate. Not only were audience members seeing this and reacting, but the participants were seeing themselves differently and anew. I watched Halim Flowers, artist and former “juvenile lifer,” staring at his painting next to the work of Mark Bradford, a famed contemporary artist, at the Ford Foundation. It was clear then that seeing oneself differently is a form of narrative change. It is transformative.  

This commingling will continue when Art for Justice’s archival website launches soon. It will serve as a digital record of work undertaken by the fund and its grantee partners, including case studies, an impact report detailing key metrics and policy wins, and lessons learned from our grantmaking. I hope creatives and advocates of all walks of life will use it as a resource.

What I’ve come to understand is the way in which narrative change can happen on multiple levels—at a cultural level, yes, but also the ways in which your mind can be pivoted. We had quite a number of these moments throughout Art for Justice, and I hope that those kinds of openings, pivots, and shifts will only continue to happen. And I hope that when people think about artists and activists making change in the world, Art for Justice will have played a role in elevating those possibilities and bringing more people into the fold. The work of transforming the criminal legal system continues, and the potential of art and advocacy together is limitless.