I’ve written before about the impact funding inequity is having on political discourse about government support of the arts. The Visible Hand was a response to Barry Hessenius’ observations about funding controversies in San Francisco three years ago: A Potential Deep Divide in the Arts Sector. A colleague recently sent me the link to an article about a bill that has been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature to examine “systemic racism in public arts funding.” If passed it would consider the state’s arts funding formula that “[privileges] white, large budget, older arts organizations.” The fact that in many places more than the lion’s share of public arts funding goes to organizations focused on the cultural tradition of upper class European whites is a center that will not hold.
I have long advocated for community engagement because it is good for the arts, good for organizations, and the right thing to do. Now, the argument of self-preservation, while clearly not the noblest of motivations, is unveiling itself as an increasingly urgent existential concern.
The demographic trends in this country are not going to reverse themselves. The percentage of the population for whom European aristocratic culture is familiar will only continue to decrease. Rightly, communities will want their own cultures supported by public policy and will be disinclined to see their tax dollars spent disproportionately supporting what is to them a foreign culture. Large urban areas with diverse populations and not insignificant public arts funding have been and will be the areas first affected by these concerns. But the storm is brewing and will spread across the country.
Community engagement, when properly understood and implemented, is about building relationships, mutually beneficial relationships. As such it is an invaluable tool for addressing the need to become valuable to many more segments of the population. However, relationship building cannot happen without trust and the profound inequities in arts funding are a nearly insurmountable obstacle to building trust. This is an issue we cannot ignore.