We’re just arguing about price

The November 24 issue of Performink, Chicago’s entertainment trade paper, contains a disturbing and disappointing assertion by an otherwise irreproachable artist.  Lane Alexander, percussive dance impresario and artistic director of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, is quoted on the subject of the city’s so-called big box ordinance, which would have required Wal-Mart, Target and other mega-retailers to pay an above-minimum living wage to their employees.  He argues the city’s other media gave insufficient attention to the companies’ "corporate citizenship."

"I’m completely sympathetic to those needing to make a living wage, but the other things [large corporations] do for the community need to be recognized." 

The article goes on to the note that Alexander’s troupe, along with Congo Square Theatre and Chicago Children’s Theatre, has received corporate sponsorship from Target worth millions.  Another quote from Alexander argues that without subsidies from Target and its ilk, only rich people could afford the arts.  But why is it more important for Target to subsidize poor people’s attendance at the arts than at, say, the grocery store? 

If the only way Target can support arts groups is to take money out of the paychecks of its minimum-wage workers, the company’s being mismanaged.  And if the only way the Chicago Human Rhythm Project can pay for its first-rate work is by shilling for a low-paying corporation, then it’s being mismanaged.

I’ve always argued in favor of nonprofits’ accepting corporate money, and regarded debates about the money’s cleanliness as absurd.  Tobacco money?  Sure.  Gifts from Playboy?  Why not?  Make ’em pay!  But those situations don’t involve a quid pro quo–agency opposition to a smoking ban or a rape shield law.  It’s disgraceful to oppose a living wage because your pockets are being lined by people whose profits depend on not paying one.  If–for a million or ten spent on dance and theater–Target buys a get-out-of-jail-free card for underpaying its workers, then (in the words of the old joke), we know what kind of girl the nonprofit world is–we’re just arguing about the price.*

Charities unable to resist the temptation to carry political water for their sponsors should resist the temptation to slop at the corporate trough to begin with.  And the very existence of the temptation highlights the importance of developing a base of individual donors.  Maybe start by soliciting individual holders of Target stock: they seem to be doing pretty well.      

And let’s recognize this whole living-wage-versus-access-to-the-arts debate for what it is: a classic game of "let’s you and him fight."  So long as we pit poor artists and their troupes against poor retail workers and their families, no one with any real money or power is disturbed at all.

For as I was reminded this very night at a production of Brecht’s musical Happy End, "Robbing a bank is no crime compared to owning one."

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*Man accosts woman on the street.  "Would you go to bed with me if I gave you a million bucks?" he asks.  "A million bucks?  I guess I would!" she answers.  "Then would you go to bed with me for ten bucks?" he persists.  "Ten bucks!" she snorts.  "What kind of girl do you think I am?"  "We’ve settled that," he answers.  "Now we’re just arguing about the price."

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