Lesley Rosenthal, general counsel of Lincoln Center, recently published a thoughtful piece in Newsday proposing elements of a national arts policy. It argues for the arts’ utility as a component of an economic stimulus package and as a support to other public objectives, the improvement of education and health care in particular.
While the Nonprofiteer salutes Ms. Friedman’s modest claims for the arts on public attention and the public fisc–as opposed, particularly, to those of William Ferris, who seems to think the arts need the validation of a culture czar–the idea of a national arts policy strikes her as misguided, at least for this particular nation.
Ms. Friedman is absolutely correct when she writes,
Private nonprofit arts organizations have learned a lot of other lessons – some learned the hard way – that are worth sharing more broadly: about audience-building at a time of shifting demographics; about board-building at a time of heightened attention to corporate governance; about partnering with for-profits, with one another, and with local governmental entities; about building and operating new facilities and renovating old ones, and obtaining grants and loans to do so; about leveraging their real estate and intellectual property assets and managing new lines of business; about exploring the possibilities of the rapidly evolving technological and media environment, including labor relations and copyright law implications; and about fundraising, particularly through economic hard times. Visible arts leadership within the Obama White House could do well at minimal cost just by convening the conversation and facilitating communication among these varied sources of expertise.
But this sounds to the Nonprofiteer like the work of her much-touted Nonprofit Business Administration, whose goal is to enable private charities of all stripes (social services, education, advocacy and health care as well as the arts) to operate efficiently as they do the important work of our society. Such an agency (or White House office, as the case may be) could strengthen the arts in the United States without getting a democratic government in the business of deciding which forms of cultural expression are best.
Of course artists should be opposed to public regulations that interfere with their freedom of expression, as Ms. Friedman suggests when she recommends caution in adopting new regulations for charities which might affect the arts–but of course citizens should be opposed to uses of public money that are unregulated.
Look, if the Nonprofiteer were the general counsel of Lincoln Center–or an executive at any other arts organization–she’d be the first to point out that there’s this behemoth in Washington whose resources dwarf those of any other source, and that her agency is worthy of support. But she’s not, and as a free-thinking citizen she continues to believe that public funding for the arts distorts both “art” and “public.” This circle cannot be squared, even if the Nonprofiteer is the only left-wing theater critic in the country who’s willing to say so.