Which nonprofit arts orgs deserve these pennies?

In response to last week’s post, Leonard Jacobs posted a thoughtful essay at The Clyde Fitch Report in which he made many excellent points–many of them fair criticisms of my post. I cannot adequately address all of Jacobs’ points in this post, but I hope to address a few while expounding upon some of my previous comments.

In my first post, I was endeavoring to both (1) discuss perceptions of the current threats to funding (which Jacobs rightly says are not ‘attacks’ in the sense of the culture wars) and (2) make the assertion that the current case for cutting support for the arts seems to rest on behaviors of organizations that are often held up as leaders but that, to my mind, do not exemplify the highest principles or the best (or even most common) practices of our field. Here’s are some further thoughts, specifically on responses to the proposed cuts:

(1)   I believe the percentage of the population that is actually hostile to the arts (philistines, if you will) is relatively small (at least I hope so; perhaps I am naive on this matter?). Furthermore, because I’m not persuaded that rhetoric will change their minds, I think advocacy efforts are better focused elsewhere. I’m not proposing to do away with advocacy as Jacob’s construed from my previous comments. There’s no danger in continuing to hone and strengthen the case for the merits of the arts. However, as I’ve said before, if the arts actually mattered more, to more people, then perhaps their value would be self evident and advocates wouldn’t need to work so hard to defend funding for them.

(2) Jacobs and others seem to take the view that the threats are largely political and symbolic. I tend to agree. Some that would cut arts funding believe big government is bad and it should be reduced or eliminated across many areas; others that government support and intervention in some areas is justifiable but the ‘arts’ do not merit such subsidies because they largely benefit those that could pay anyway (the very wealthy and the upper middle class). In either case, since ‘the arts’ matter to a small percentage of their constituencies anyway, the recession offers a good opportunity for politicians to put forward cuts to the arts (which, conveniently, most people seem to equate with ‘the fine arts’ and ‘snooty organiations with expensive tickets’).

So what about that new report from the NEA (to be posted on Feb 28th) that Jacobs mentioned, which indicates much higher participation levels than previously reported? Importantly, these expanded participation rates are due to an expanded definition of participation from one limited to ‘attendance’ to one including (as I recall from the Webinar last week) media related participation and amateur/hands-on participation. In other words, it appears that a lot of the ‘participation’ unearthed by this new report may be happening outside of the nonprofit arts ‘establishment’.

(3)  The final point I was endeavoring to make in my last post is that perhaps there would not be a general perception that the arts primarily serve those who could pay for them anyway if the sector itself did not hold up as ‘exemplars’ those organizations that are elitist, exclusive, wealthy, and extravagant.   

I get that many such organizations exhibit qualities that are often associated with ‘leadership’: they are the largest firms; they have been around the longest and have staying power; they have high profiles and clear brands; they often do very high quality work; they are powerful and able to attract talent; they bring prestige to their cities and people often feel civic pride about their presence; and they are highly professionalized and institutionalized operations (no artsy flakiness in these shops). In other words, they exude qualities that one associates with being at the top of the corporate heap.

These may be qualities of leadership by corporate or commercial standards, but are these the right metrics for leadership in a nonprofit context?  Where and how do we account for leadership in the sense of being the best at pursuing and achieving charitable and educational ends?

I observe many organizations that are doing work that lives up to (what I would consider to be)  ‘nonprofit’ ideals. Generally, they seem to be undervalued and underfunded. I am, thus, troubled that a significant portion of the contributed resources going into the nonprofit arts and culture sector is (and has been for years) directed to organizations that seem to want (in principle) to behave like either country clubs or commericial entities.

Which leads to my question: Does it (should it) mean something different to be a ‘leading arts institution’ vs. a ‘leading nonprofit arts institution’? Is it time to question a  hierarchy that puts (in perpetuity), for example, the Lyric Opera of Chicago above Chicago Opera Theater; or Roundabout Theatre Company above the Foundry Theater? As I said last week, perhaps we need to re-think what constitutes leadership in the nonprofit arts sector. If we’re not sure anymore, perhaps it’s time to figure this out.

Switching gears a bit: I understand from Scott Walters’ post on his recent visit to the NEA, that we in blog- and tweet-land have ruffled feathers by daring to question the establishment. I want to express my respect and thanks to Scott for having the courage to speak candidly both at the meeting and in his follow-up post. I’m glad he was in the room. I also LOVE his most recent post on ‘excellence‘.

PS: Thanks for the essay, Mr. Jacobs. I appreciate your consideration of my post and the thoughtful feedback. I may  pick up on the pricing thread next week … Yrs, DER

Image of Please Help Penny Jar by Aron Hsiao, licensed from Shutterstock.com.

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  1. says

    You write “These may be qualities of leadership by corporate or commercial standards, but are these the right metrics for leadership in a nonprofit context?” As you probably know, Americans for the Arts has a project called “Imagining Democracy” that offers evaluative tools (i.e. metrics) for assessing the social impact of the arts. Employing these means of evaluation, which focus on awareness, discourse, and REAL civic participation (beyond attendance by the elite at elite institutions), may help shift the definition of excellence and by extension leadership, in the arts and culture sector. http://impact.animatingdemocracy.org/indicators

  2. Andy Buelow says


    It was courteous of you to refer to Leonard Jacobs’ essay as “thoughtful.” Personally I found it hard to follow at times, and it reads as if partly motivated by envy of your Rocco Landesman moderating gig! I would agree with your contention that many arts organizations have disregarded their communities. Jacobs may be right that their sins pale by comparison to industrial polluters, but then whose don’t? And what does that have to do with the discussion? The point is that it is easy (and commonplace) for artists (and arts organizations) to become so absorbed in their art form that they lose sight of the larger community within which (and hopefully for which) they are creating it. I’ve worked in classical music for 23 years, part of that time as director of public affairs for a full-time orchestra… and I came to see my job there to be as much about raising organizational awareness of the issues of the larger community as it was about raising the community’s awareness of the orchestra.

    • says


      Sorry you didn’t follow my essay. First, I think I was straight up when it comes to envy. Read it again.

      Second, I was responding at length to the question of what does and does not constitute leadership, not just what happens when arts organizations lose sight of the larger community in which they create art. Could it be that we’re so removed from leadership as a social ideal that we don’t even recognize it? I hope not.

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