Posts Tagged ‘public funding for the arts’

Why the public should fund the arts, after all

December 6, 2011

The Nonprofiteer had a fascinating conversation with Margy Waller, a special advisor to Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, which leads the nation in evidence-based approaches to advocating for arts funding.  Ms. Waller had reached out to correct the Nonprofiteer’s misunderstanding (and therefore misreporting) of ArtsWave’s efforts, noting that the argument is not that the public should fund the arts to promote economic recovery but that it should fund the arts to promote neighborhood vibrancy.  This nuance turns out to make all the difference.

Here’s the ArtsWave insight: people are ready enough to agree with the notion that the arts are good for the economy.  But if you probe deeper, and ask what top three things we should do to improve the economy, no one answers “subsidize the arts.”  So apparently the argument that the arts are an economic engine (true or false) is unpersuasive, which is what really matters.

But the ArtsWave research also uncovered the fact that if you ask people what would improve their neighborhood the most, the arts come up time and time again.  Why?  Because artists’ residences are known to herald an improvement in real-estate values; because arts audiences mean feet on the street and therefore greater public safety; because arts venues are known to spawn coffee shops and restaurants and other places of urban liveliness.

Therefore, the argument for public funding needs to be focused not on the art but on the public benefits of art-making.  This simultaneously ends the unwinnable argument about whether x or y is valid art or a useful expenditure of public funds and reminds people of what they believe anyway, that investment in arts-related infrastructure benefits everyone—not in some airy-fairy, soul-stirring, life-improving sense but in the grossest day-to-day experience of quality of life.

Thus an appeal to provide tax breaks to bring artists to a particular area would be framed not as a subsidy to these all-important art-making beings (read: overprivileged white people who ought to get jobs) but as a way to offset (maybe even reverse) the damage to property values wrought by foreclosures.  The subsidy is to the value of private property (something that can be monetized) rather than to the value of art (something that cannot).

As instrumental and cold-blooded as this approach may seem, Ms. Waller makes the powerful point that vibrancy is what people love about the arts—and that weaving the arts into the fabric of other social needs and activities enables people to appreciate the arts “not as consumers but as citizens.”

The Nonprofiteer was particularly struck by that last point.  Asked what citizens should do to respond to 9/11, then-President Bush had nothing more to offer than, “Go shopping.”  Anything that enables us to respond to public concerns in a public spirit; anything that combats the notion that government is the problem and privatization the solution; anything that reminds us that we’re a republic if we can keep it; anything that illustrates we don’t have to buy something to value it—any of these is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

As a wise person once noted, the important thing is not to have BEEN right, but to BE right.  The Nonprofiteer has been wrong in her blanket condemnation of public funding for the arts, because she thought of it exclusively in the frame established by its opponents: as subsidies to artists to create what might or might not actually be valuable.  Once the framing shifts to “vibrancy,”* and to concrete benefits to the broader society, public arts support suddenly makes sense.  No one else may care, but it will be a relief to her to stop being the only left-wing theater critic in the country opposed to public funding for the arts.

She continues to think that the NEA itself is a lost cause and that energy spent defending it would be better spent squeezing support for the arts out of HUD, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and local housing authorities.  But that’s a matter of strategy.  As a matter of principle, the Nonprofiteer is grateful to have discovered a valid way to defend taxpayer support to something that matters so much to her.


*Yes, “vibrancy” can be a euphemism for “gentrification,” or at least its prodroma.  But if we plan for vibrancy (instead of simply hoping that lightening strikes in this ‘hood or that), we can also plan to prevent displacement.  And without displacement, “gentrification” is just another word for “safe streets, amenities and public services”—for everyone, rich or poor.


Collaboration without the head-shaving

November 3, 2011

Thanks to Thomas Cott of You’ve Cott Mail for pointing the Nonprofiteer to this article in Crain’s New York Business about the value of collaboration among small arts organizations as typified by the Lower Manhattan Arts League.

The league — which includes small groups like Access Theater and larger organizations such as Dance New Amsterdam and the Children’s Museum of the Arts — has monthly meetings where constituents help each other with everything from fundraising to legal advice. The groups have created a downtown cultural festival, which they produce in the fall and spring. The members even apply for some grants as one entity and lobby the city government as a pack. Individually, some members with budgets as small as $100,000 are barely on funders’ radar, but as a group the members generate around $14 million in economic activity per year and employ roughly 1,200 people full- and part-time. After years when none of the groups were able to score a grant from American Express, for example, the consortium applied together in 2009 and was awarded $100,000. They divvied up the money according to the size of each budget.

While the cheery tone of the article elides some of the serious difficulties arts organizations face in aligning their missions and needs with one another, the point is nonetheless well-taken: organizations too small to get attention on their own may be big enough when combined with others to secure foundation funding and government cooperation.

Such collaborations also serve as living ripostes to the chronic funder complaint that the supply of arts organizations exceeds the demand for them: if these disparate groups can work together without cannibalizing their audiences or funding, they must not be duplicating each other’s work. Or, as it is written: the whole [collaborative network] is greater than the sum of its parts.

Dear Nonprofiteer, How can I pick the audience’s pockets while pretending to be indifferent to money?

June 14, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I work for a storefront theater company (though this could apply to any arts organization), and we want to encourage people to donate while they are waiting for the show to start, or as they are walking out of the theater. However, we do not want to “ruin” the art by including a verbal appeal in the pre- or post-show announcements; though we have information on how to donate in our program and on our website, we feel that we can raise some income from our immediate audience after every show. I’m sure this goes for museums, galleries, and dance companies as well—how can we influence our audience to donate at the door without being too pushy or discounting the art?


The Tactful Fundraiser

Dear Tactful,

The Nonprofiteer had a law professor whose motto was, “Passive lawyers don’t eat!”  Well, the Nonprofiteer’s motto is, “Tactful fundraisers don’t eat!”  It’s true that most people would rather talk about their sex lives than talk about money, but the only way to raise it is to make clear that you not only deserve it, but need it.

So the Nonprofiteer disputes your entire premise that a request for funds can “ruin” an art form.  Obviously you wouldn’t insert it in mid-play (though product placement in the movies and on tv makes that less obvious than it once was); but a pre- or post-show pitch is completely appropriate.  People who want to ignore it will, but no one will be able to say that s/he didn’t know you needed money.

Now, how to actually get that money?  There’s the Southwest Airlines approach: make the expected pitch in an unexpected manner, e.g. “Please take all your personal problems with you when you deplane.”  There’s the National Lampoon guilt-trip approach: its cover showing a terrified canine at gunpoint with the caption “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll shoot this dog” was at the very least unforgettable.   A Chicago theater company does its own equivalent of this by announcing at curtain that the actors don’t get paid so unless you stuff money in the cashbox you’re just exploiting them by attending (not the precise words); it seems to work quite well.

In other words, there’s nothing dainty or secretive about a nonprofit arts organization’s need for money, so the more directly and entertainingly and memorably you state it, the better your chance of actually receiving the money.

Or you can ignore everything I’ve said, offer a door-prize of a bottle of wine to whoever wins your nightly raffle, and have people enter the raffle by dropping their business cards in a bowl.  Then send follow-up appeals (by e-mail, as it’s cheapest) to everyone whose card you got, thanking them for attending and asking them to donate.  This is good list-development strategy; whether it’s good money-development strategy remains to be seen.  It’s far too easy to ignore an appeal once you’ve had the entertainment and have gone home.

Finally, you can try a bit of reverse psychology.  Admit everyone for free and then ask them to pay what they think it was worth on the way out the door.  (Post a “suggested donation,” of course.)  You’ll get some free riders, but you’ll also get some people who are so impressed with what they’ve just seen that they give you something more than the suggested donation.  Those are people you can expect to see again–whereupon you offer them a door-prize if they win the business-card raffle, and you have their names so you can dun them long into the future.

Second (and third) thoughts about public funding for the arts

February 10, 2009

The Nonprofiteer was in Bloomington, IL, last weekend to see Ailey II, the farm team of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.  (It’s such a shame there are no cultural offerings closer to Chicago!)  As she watched this astonishing company perform to an ecstatic crowd in a converted Masonic Temple building, a lightbulb went on over her benighted head.

Of course you’re indifferent to public funding for the arts, you dodo; you live in Chicago, where major performers and exhibitions will show up anyway.  Public funding for the arts isn’t for Chicago–it’s for Bloomington.

And she remembered growing up in Baltimore, which is not a small town but which waited for months between visits of major dance companies; and she remembered the thrill of seeing those dance companies for the first time.  And she realized (0r remembered) that that’s the real point of public funding for the arts: to make available to everyone the thrill of exposure to first-rate art.  Everyone: that means people who live in Bloomington, and International Falls, and Arroyo Hondo, even though the free market would not support a stop in any of those places by the latest tour from the Joffrey or the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Met.

Doubtless her arts-administrator readers are thinking “Duh!”–but cut the Nonprofiteer some slack.  The conversation about public funding for the arts has for 30 years been a clash between the Jets of “We’re artists!  Art is important so if you challenge the value of anything we create you’re a boob and a censor and a miser!” and the Sharks of “We’re ordinary people!  We don’t want our tax money spent on things we don’t grasp or approve of so that over-educated sissies can avoid getting jobs!”  Needless to say, this has not been a very productive debate, unless by “productive” you mean “of hysteria and hostility.”

But if it’s public funding for the performance of the arts, or their exhibition, or education about them–if it’s public funding for the arts audience, who can disapprove?  Except in the deepest reaches of the glibertarian right, we’re beyond debating whether education should be publicly funded, and making arts displays and performances available to the widest possible audience is simply public education on a grand scale.  Yes, yes, the Nonprofiteer knows: education isn’t well-funded either; but relatively few people argue that public funding for education is just a plot to spread disgusting lies, or to keep teachers from having to work.  Let’s get the discussion about public funding for the arts to the level of conceptual agreement we have for public education, and then we can engage in any further battles that might need to be fought.

In other words, brethren in the arts community: stop talking about public funding for the arts as if the point were for the public to support YOU.  No one cares about you.  What we care about as a society is US, and how exposure to what you do will improve us.

And once you accept that, you have to accept another, equally painful truth, which is that no one can actually determine what’s “art” til at least 25 years after it’s been created.  Probably the Nonprofiteer doesn’t need to remind you that people threw things at the stage the first time they saw and heard The Rite of Spring, now part of the musical canon.  But what she probably does need to point out is that this doesn’t mean the public should accept and/or fund every objectionable thing it sees in hopes that it will ultimately turn out to be art.  Rather, it means that support for creation is a mug’s game, a gamble at which most players lose, and that the public should instead put its money into presentation.

Many arts advocates roll their eyes at this and ask from where, then, money for creation is supposed to come.  The Nonprofiteer refers those people to the Guggenheim Foundation and  3Arts/Chicago and the Rosenwald Fund and all the other agencies of private patronage that have supported artists and their creative process over the years, and urges them to reach out to reestablish private patronage.  Yes, yes, times are financially tough; but if Julius Rosenwald could single-handedly support the Harlem and Bronzeville Renaissances throughout the Depression, surely our contemporary moneybags can do as well.*

Or, as Rabbi Joshua said much more succinctly: render unto Caesar . . .

Let the public fund what benefits the public, and let private wealth make possible acts of private creation.


*Note that this required that the Rosenwald Foundation spend itself out within 25 years of the founder’s death.  In Rosenwald’s eyes that was a feature, not a bug (as our software colleagues would say); but it requires the philanthropist to value what s/he accomplishes above how s/he’s remembered.

More about arts in the Obama administration

February 2, 2009

The Nonprofiteer is charmed by the notion that the Federal government should provide retraining to artists so they can get jobs.

Seriously: the prospect of having Michael Dorf at the NEA fills her with delight.   He’s given years of serious thought to arts policy, and as a political veteran knows the difference between just doing something and doing something useful.

On a national arts policy–or can there be one?

January 5, 2009

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.