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$11.3 Million . . . Digest That

That's how much the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund gave to the arts last year. It's the nation's largest private funder--and some of the projects it backs may surprise you.

June 09, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Back in 1921, when newlyweds Lila Acheson Wallace and DeWitt Wallace borrowed $5,000 to launch a magazine from home, they hadn't an inkling of what they were starting. But Reader's Digest would grow to become the most widely read magazine in the world, published in 47 editions and 18 languages, with a circulation of approximately 100 million a month.

The Wallace's little primer of condensed articles did in fact go on to become the flagship periodical of a major global publishing and direct mail marketing concern. Even today, it graces the end tables in doctors' offices everywhere, standing as it does for a certain wholesome stripe of mainstream Americana.

Yet if the Wallaces couldn't have anticipated the empire they were seeding, they did come to know success in their time. Their fortune allowed Lila Wallace--who decorated the corporate headquarters and often chose the back cover art for the magazine--to indulge her penchant for philanthropy and the arts.

She began the Reader's Digest Art Collection and gave to many important visual and performing arts organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company. And in 1956, she launched what is now known as the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, giving money to philanthropies of her personal choosing. For example, she set up a fund to pay for the flowers in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum, as well as a wing of the museum for 20th century art. When Wallace died in 1984, her fund was already an influential presence in arts funding circles, and quickly became an institution itself. It was restructured in 1987, progressively expanding its funding to encompass a broad range of arts programming.

According to a 1995-96 report from the Foundation Center, based in New York and San Francisco, Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund is the third largest funder of arts culture and humanities in the U.S., behind the Annenberg Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. But since those both focus more on culture and the humanities, the Reader's Digest fund has become recognized as the largest private-sector funder of the arts in America.

In California alone, between 1990 and 1995, the fund granted a total of $13.5 million to the state's arts and cultural institutions. In 1995, it granted $11.3 million for arts across the country, out of a total annual allocation of $20.6 million, which also includes grants for urban parks and adult literacy programs.

Don't let the name fool you. For if Reader's Digest conjures images of gentle snowscapes and rosy-cheeked children at play, the kind of artworks the fund actually backs couldn't be more different.

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Its mission statement says it's out to "enhance the cultural life of communities." But in practical terms, the Reader's Digest fund's focus is on bringing new--meaning younger as well as more culturally and ethnically diverse--audiences to the arts.

Often, that means it ends up funding some comparatively progressive work and programs--not, in other words, what most people would have thought of as Lila Wallace's kind of art.

The Reader's Digest fund doesn't sponsor specific works, but it does pay for programs that produce plays by such openly gay writers as Chay Yew or Eduardo Machado, or performances of dances by such controversial choreographers as Bill T. Jones. Often, works that are seen thanks to Reader's Digest funding cater directly to the identity politics of the targeted constituents.

Still, the people who now run the New York-based foundation insist that what they do is in keeping with their founder's intentions.

"Mrs. Wallace had a deep love and passion for the arts, to make the arts more accessible," says program director Holly Sidford. "There was also a support for American art forms, particularly ones that had been under-supported by the philanthropic sector. I don't think Lila's turning in her grave because we're pursuing her fundamental goals."

Lila Wallace, however, surely couldn't have foreseen how bad things would have gotten for the arts by now. For while the 1970s and 1980s saw a nationwide boom in the number of orchestras, theaters, opera and dance companies and museums, fueled in large part by the expansion of public funding, the 1990s so far have been a decade about downsizing.

Nor is the recent decimation of public funding the only problem facing the arts today. According to research conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982 and 1992, baby boomers are either less interested in the arts, or no longer have time for them. There are more rich people in the United States today, but they are less likely to be philanthropic, particularly in the cultural arena.

Increasingly, the kinds of people (white, educated, middle-class) who have traditionally supported the arts have been moving out of the major urban areas. And those who remain--and indeed the arts audience in general--are growing old and gray.

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