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AUDIE CORNISH, host: While the overall economy in the U.S. seems to be stuck in neutral, there are a few bright spots. One of them is donations to the arts. Charitable giving was up more than 5 percent last year.

But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, a new study cautions that much of the support goes to serve audiences that are wealthier and whiter than the country as a whole.

JOEL ROSE: Audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York cheered this year's season-opening production of "Anna Bolena."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANNA BOLENA")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROSE: Backstage, the Met has something else to be excited about - a record fundraising campaign. For the year that ended in July, the Met brought in $182 million in donations, an increase of 50 percent over the year before.

General Manager Peter Gelb credits the Met's new initiatives, like its HD transmissions to some 1,700 movie theaters around the world.

PETER GELB: The more we do that is new, innovative and dynamic, and culturally worthwhile, the more attractive is it is to donors, whether they be foundations, corporations or individuals.

ROSE: The Met's fundraising is particularly striking given that charitable giving to the arts dropped dramatically during the economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009. But donations to the arts are growing again at a healthy pace, according to the Giving Institute in Chicago.

Peter Fissinger is on the institute's board.

PETER FISSINGER: I know the economy is still struggling, but the stock market recovered to a very significant degree in 2010. Those people who have significant assets may have returned to making major gifts to arts organizations.

ROSE: But a study published earlier this month raises some thorny questions about where that money is going.

AARON DORFMAN: Funding for arts and culture is primarily flowing to the larger arts organizations.

ROSE: Aaron Dorfman directs the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group that monitors giving by foundations. Dorfman says the majority of foundations giving to the arts goes to organizations with budgets of $5 million a year or more.

DORFMAN: Most of your museums, symphonies, opera houses - large established cultural institutions that are promoting the European canon. The audiences for those institutions continue to be predominantly upper income and white. So what it means is that this funding is not really benefiting everyone in our society.

ROSE: Dorfman doesn't begrudge the fundraising success of big institutions like the Met.

DORFMAN: That said, you don't hear those kinds of success stories in this economy coming from arts groups operating in communities of color, or led by artists of color, for the most part.

ROSE: One organization that's having trouble attracting the attention of big foundations is Arts Engine, a non-profit in New York that produces and distributes small-budget films and documentaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, I AM SEAN BELL")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It was a day right before his wedding, and his wife and kids will have that pain in their hearts for the rest of their lives.

ROSE: Arts Engine distributed the short film "I Am Sean Bell," about the shooting of a young African-American man in Queens, through its Media That Matters program. Lauren Domino is the program manager.

LAUREN DOMINO: Our big focus is to get our films in the classroom and to do it for free. And we couldn't do that without foundation support. We couldn't produce our DVDs to send to schools around the country. We couldn't make discussion guides to help teachers use the films, encourage them. Like, wouldn't exist without foundation funding.

ROSE: Arts Engine's director Steve Mendelsohn says that funding has been harder to find for the last few years.

STEVE MENDELSOHN: I'm finding that the grants are getting smaller. We've been more successful attracting the attention of some of the smaller family foundations. But some of the largest foundations have been much more challenging.

ROSE: Like the broader economic recovery, it seems that the turnaround in arts funding is neither as deep nor as even as everyone would like.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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