A Time to Speak

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I really WANT to spend time on this blog about music and about building arts communities. You can’t build a community around the arts, though, if you don’t have any left.

So, I find myself making a detour for a moment because the issues of the day demand comment.

There are two governmental issues confronting non-profit organizations and the arts. Both threaten this part of our civic life in ways that dramatically alter the landscape for all of us.

The first issue is regarding a proposal to consider reducing the tax deduction for charitable giving, under the premise that people who support the arts and other nonprofit endeavors do so without regard to their own personal tax implications.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

I have often thought that the genius of the American system is that it rewards donors for finding an issue they care about and choosing to make a difference in their larger society by supporting it financially. This approach encourages people to think in terms of the broader community, to pool individual resources together to make things possible that simply couldn’t exist without many, many donors. True, it appeals to pocketbooks by offering the tax deduction, but the trade off is that, rather than having much higher taxes than we do, this deduction leverages societal interests. As a potential donor I know that I don’t HAVE to give, but if I choose to do so, I can take a small portion off my taxes. I donate to a cause that matters to me, and I have a little tax relief while making a big difference in the larger picture. Instead of having the government RUN the charitable organizations, they are more responsive to their own communities. It’s a very efficient system.

Compare that with systems that have no deduction. How many individuals choose to GIVE money to support charitable organizations in the rest of the world when they have no tax relief associated with the gift? I often discuss this subject while I’m in other countries, and the absence of a deduction in those places is perceived as a major barrier to the effort to broaden support for charitable causes.

While it is true that people support charities because they CARE about them, they also do so partly because of the tax code. In other words, while the place they give is connected to their heart, the amount they give is connected to the tax deduction. If charitable deductions decline, many of the quality of life issues we rely upon in society will go with them. It will take time, but I see it as being inevitable.

The second issue is a proposal to cut the NEA THIS year, even though the withdrawal of the promised funding is to be matched, dollar for dollar with private funds. Once you understand this factor, the proposed cuts are, in practical terms, doubled. Say that the XYZ Museum has made a commitment to offer a certain show this Spring, having applied and been awarded a grant to help support it. There is an active plan to leverage that grant to double the dollar support from the private sector. Suddenly, the grant is gone. What is the lever now for the matching money? But the show is committed. Contracts are signed. The show WILL go on, but the unsupported expenses will now pose a tremendous burden to the museum with very little time to find replacement support.

These issues appear in context of a wide variety of troubles confronting arts organizations. In this economic environment arts organizations face reduced contributions, lower ticket sales, cuts in business support, drops in state funding, and other ancillary issues that combine to threaten the very existence of these institutions in the long term.

I have posted unedited the comments from my entry on the secondary cut to the National Endowment for the Arts slated for THIS fiscal year offered by my congressman, Tim Walberg. As I see the various responses, both for and against his amendment, it is clear to me that some of you feel powerless; some enraged. Some think that, by valuing the arts, we feel entitled to it, when we are actually trying to discuss the fact that our tax dollars SHOULD go to what we value. Voicing those issues is exactly what this moment is about.

Now that there is a window for negotiations between the House and Senate, I want to offer a path for what you might do if these issues and this legislation are important to you.

Democracy has means for citizens to be heard, but we rarely use them.

You CAN speak to power. You need not shout. Actually, it is important that you DON’T shout. Your Representative and your Senator cannot hear you when you are screaming. They cannot listen when you disrespect their office, and when anyone acts without respect we damage the genius of democratic debate. Instead make it clear that you vote, that this matters to you, and that you’ll remember.

We must remind ourselves that these representatives were voted in. They have a right to legislate – even a responsibility to do so. Fair enough. Elections matter. The last one did, and the next one will too. These are the individual representatives of our collective values. That is why it is important for you to be heard now. They need to know your values!

Test your legislators. Did they do their research first? Is this thoughtful legislation? Prepare yourself beforehand. It is not a time to be clever, but to get to the crux of the issues you care about. Perhaps you have suggestions for other cuts that could be made to reduce the deficit. That can be a shared goal, even if you disagree on the means to achieve it.

You may not change your legislator’s mind, but thoughtful questions can change voters’ minds, and that is, after all, what democracy is all about. History is filled with people whose opinions were gradually transformed by asking better questions.

Try to quell your emotions. It is, of course, natural to feel strongly about the things you love, but expressing yourself in anger does damage to everyone. Instead, speak calmly from your heart. Express your own values and your views on the value of the arts to the entirety of the community.

But DO speak. Send an email or a letter. Make a phone call. Be respectful and be heard. Each one of us can speak in our own way.

Your personal vision of the way forward can seem so small. One small voice can seem so impotent.

Both have great power.

Think these issues through, find your courage and act.

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  1. says

    It’s well and good to urge people to contact their gov’t representatives, but the gap between states with several urban centers with large heterogeneous populations and those with small, dispersed mostly rural populations works against those of us who want to support the arts. I can get to my New York senators and representative — guess what, they’re already in favor of arts and education support, and informed about the issues. I have no sway anywhere else, and wonder if my blog postings ever are read, my articles ever compel or even reach anyone in southern and plains states. That populous Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana have become battlegrounds demonstrates that forces destructive to American culture are trying to turn the tide in areas where there is ambivalence among the legislators — and perhaps there it’s most important voters (and kids who may be voters one day) raise their voices in support of what they want. But in most cities, the places where the arts have been centralized, the hue and cry has already been raised and it’s not proving equal to combating pernicious private funding working against our interests, despite what our own reps say,

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