Instead of more data perhaps we should discuss why we keep ignoring the data we have?

I finally had found some time this week to read Scott Walter’s excellent second post in his trilogy (all three now published) looking at the 1% vs 99% issues in the US arts and culture sector. A compelling string of comments follows this post, led by one of my other favorite bloggers, Clayton Lord, who argues two points: (1) Is it effective to turn against the ‘top’ arts organizations at a time when the arts generally are under attack? and (2) We need to collect more data to understand how to improve the system. Walters responds that the time for action has come and that collecting data has become, essentially, a way of postponing action.  As much of a data geek as I have becomenow that I’m working on a dissertation (and as much as I would advocate for transparency and the collection of better data in the sector generally), I tend to agree with Scott Walters that data is probably not going to make the difference here.

My suspicion arises from what I pointed out in a Jumper post written in response to the Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change report when it was first published: the issues outlined in that report have been in existence, and have been reported on, for decades. Furthermore, every single year that I was a grantmaker I read the annual ‘funding snapshot’ published by Grantmakers in the Arts, which discussed (among many topics) the distribution of funding. Every year, GIA seemed to report that the majority of funding was distributed to a minority of organizations and every year the percentages remained about the same.

Here’s another example of funders and arts organizations disregarding data (and a bit of a tangent, but I think it is a related and serious issue). I was recently at a meeting looking at the findings of a major new study examining the causes and impacts of the massive investments in arts facilities in recent decades. At the convening, it was discussed that at least one (and I suspect more than one) study had been done prior to this one – perhaps not as comprehensive, but certainly raising many of the same issues and concerns – and that the behavior of funders and arts organizations had not changed in response to learning the findings.

How many arts leaders (and their capital investors) were told when planning to build/expand/renovate facilities and (invest in such facilities projects) the statistics on what happens to organizations in the first five years after those buildings are built? Probably all of them. How many went ahead anyway? Probably most of them. How many arts groups struggled  to pay off debt or laid off staff or struggled to stay true to their missions and keep the building open 3-5 years after completing the project? How many donors who made ‘one time’ gifts to the capital campaign were asked to consider large operating gifts to help the organization after opening because audiences and contributed income were not as high as projected and expenses were higher than projected? Again, I’d wager a majority of them. (We could get into the related issue of the opportunity costs of so much funding getting sucked into a single organizations, but I’ll stop here.)

It seems to me there are two issues here. The first one I raised in my post a few weeks ago. The wealth/class/race disparities that we are experiencing today are, I believe, to a large extent by design. High art / low art, upper middle class / ‘the rest of us’ distinctions were very much embedded in the development of the ‘fine arts’ end of the nonprofit arts sector. For all the talk about the ‘blurring’ of lines and democratization of the arts, in reality, we seem to have a system that is still trying to maintain these distinctions. There are arts leaders and those that would fund them that would wholeheartedly agree that they are elitist and would say that this is a positive thing (meaning  that they want to do the finest work possible for the people that have the time, money, and education to appreciate it). I’ve wondered in a previous post whether such organizations should perhaps be restructured as country clubs (and have the nonprofit tax status that is given to such clubs rather than the kind that goes to charitable or educational institutions).  But that’s a topic for another day ….

The second issue is that data (facts) do not seem to change behavior unless people have an emotional connection to them, especially if the status quo is working in their favor. I tend to think that change will come in the arts sector with a change in leadership (which will bring with it a changed worldview). When I look at my generation and the generations below mine (I’m at the upper end of ‘X’) I am inspired. Of course, if we don’t turn the reins over to people now 40 or under for 20 more years and if they have no interest in working for the arts when ‘their time’ comes, then my hope in the next generation may be for nil.

In the meantime I would offer this: foundations and service organizations should not be collecting data unless they are prepared to take firm action when they get the results. I have repeatedly seen both types of organizations pursue strategies that seem to be in direct contradiction to the very research that they have commissioned. If you are not prepared (if the data implications suggest it) to stop funding or celebrating the practices of the historically leading institutions of this country then do not commission research that may lead to this conclusion. It’s a waste of tax deductible individual gifts and grant dollars.

Even better, before paying for any new studies perhaps funders and service organizations should take several months and simply read all the studies that have already been done and see whether there isn’t a preponderance of evidence already in existence that might compel us all to make different choices. I suspect it’s out there and that what we need is not more evidence but a candid discussion about why nothing has changed despite the evidence that already exists.

And to Clayton’s excellent question about whether we should turn against the leaders at a time when the arts are under attack – I am probably oversimplifying things here, but it seems to me that the majority of the attacks against the arts are political and stem from them being perceived or easily portrayed as elitist and out of touch with (and doing very little for) the majority of Americans. Just punting here, but … I wonder what would happen if the top 1% of arts organizations (who capture the majority of foundation, corporate, and individual support) willingly gave up their federal, state, and local government cash grants (perhaps the grants could be tapered off over 3 years, giving them three years to develop individual donors to replace those funds) so that those funds could be redistributed to the 99%?

Perhaps we would remove the largest weapon that the other side has to use against the arts while simultaneously redistributing government funds to smaller organizations that (let’s be honest, Mr. Kaiser), will never be competitive in the fight to attract board members or individual donors when battling against organizations 10 or 100 times their size that are armed with glossy publications, celebrity-studded galas, Fortune 500 CEOs on their boards, well-branded if not exceedingly talented artistic leaders, and a battalion of development staffers.

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  1. Doug Borwick says

    Diane, Thanks for a great Thanksgiving weekend gift. You beat me to the shoutout to Scott Walters’ Occupy Lincoln Center posts. (I still plan to get there, eventually.) As a debate generator, I love the notion of moving (at least some) arts organization to alternate 501(c) status! Raising the issue can certainly help “focus the mind.” (I may steal that idea, too.) And the (non)relationship between data and action . . .

    I know you had said you were taking the Holidays off. Thanks for breaking down and posting this!

    Doug Borwick

    • says

      Great article. I especially like the last paragraph. I have more then a few opinions in this field. I think it’s interesting the amount of money organizations spend on studies when that money could fund a cooperative gallery for potentially years. I think more trial by fire needs to be executed. That’s how art has come to be. There is a disconnect between the people pushing the pens and the artists making the sacrifice.

  2. says

    Well said, Diane. I was particularly taken with your suggestion that foundations paying for studies follow their results. While I am new to this area compared to you, and not nearly as well read, even after the few years I have been looking at these issues I have become weary of studies that say how screwed up things are, and everyone agrees, and then nobody actually does anything. The law of inertia is strong. But a few of us need to make this issue hang around long enough to cause some action. I am tired of being a nag — how many times have I analyzed the NEA grant data, always with the same results? I get invited to a few tables, and then everything sags back to the status quo. What can we do to move forward?

  3. says

    Excellent post, Diane. You’re right that data hasn’t changed the behavior of large grantors, but it may change the behavior of others now that the internet makes the dissemination of data so much more “democratic.” You ask what would happen if the top 1% of arts orgs willingly gave up their government funding. In aggregate, public funding accounts for, if I remember the figure correctly, only about 5 percent of an arts org’s total budget. It’s likely that large orgs could absorb a 5% reduction. But, even if the loss in dollar value of that 5% might not be critical, what is the impact in loss of symbolic capital? I’m not suggesting this isn’t a good idea, but rather pointing out that government support brings more than just cash to an organization.

    I’ve recently posited an alternative — skipping the organization altogether, and funding artists directly to make work. (see A federal grant, for example, can be paying 30-40-50% in overhead to an organization. With F&A rates like that, a $30,000 grant may be providing only $15,000 for actual project expenses, and very little of that going directly to the artist who, as you note in your earlier post, can’t quite make a living as an artist.

    it’s a conundrum.

  4. Clayton Lord says

    Diane, thanks so much for picking up this conversation and for the very kind shout out.  I wanted to chime in and just clarify that I don’t think more research is needed in order to determine whether there is an inequity in funding, I think more research is needed to understand what to do about it.

    Take, for example, your idea of reduced government funding of the largest organizations.  According to the latest Theatre Facts report out of TCG (and forgive me, I’m writing this in a car, so I’m working from memory), about 5% of the average $6 million budgets of their 130 or so benchmark theatres come from state, federal or local government funding. 130x$6M = $780,000,000 in total budget for those benchmark organizations, meaning that hypothetically they’d be relinquishing $39 million (here imperfectly taking those 130 as a representation of the largest in the sector, given how dramatically TCG’s membership skews large). 

    So, if we again work from the numbers in Theatre Facts, which indicate, if I remember right, 1,800 IRS990-filling-out theatre nonprofits, you’re looking at even distribution of about $20,000 per org.  But is straight-up equity the right method? It seems to me more likely that not every org would be as qualified to get the money, and this is where I start getting concerned about data.

    So, then are we to add some criteria that sets out redistribution of this hypothetical money? Are there more and less worthy causes? Your argument above is mostly centered around cultural inequity, so then are we to weight in favor of culturally-specific companies? As a point of fact, at least here in the Bay Area, our main African-American theatre has about the same percentage of white audience (75%) as A.C.T., so I’m not sure that would have the desired effect.  Or perhaps, as Irvine is proposing, we weight to less urban and/or more “participatory” organizations in an effort to get at the underserved.  But new data on brain activity indicates that “presentational” art can be quite participatory and just as sticky as the “participatory” stuff, and demographic research indicates that there are vast swaths of underserved people right in the urban centers, often right up against the communities where the heavy arts consumers live.

    In context with presenting in intrinsic impact, I have now sat on panels with Frances Phillips from Haas and Fran Kumin from Pew, and I have heard both of them talk about how hard it is to correctly and wholly evaluate the effectiveness of their funding, especially in context with the effectiveness of the work itself.  Frances told a story of evaluation one grant using their standard form, losing that completed form, filling a new one out, finding the first one, and being surprised at how completely different they were.

    All of which is to reiterate what I wrote in response to Scott’s initial post: it is not enough to simply dismantle the status quo, nor to protest it without offering strong solutions for how, should your protest actually bear fruit, you would redistribute that fruit to your constituents. I’m not arguing we do nothing, and I take both your and Scott’s points well and whole-heartedly.  In fact, I think I mostly agree with the larger-picture changes you are suggesting. I just feel like it’s not realistic to believe that by removing gross inequity we would be removing variations in quality and effectiveness–and it’s unfair to the sector as a whole to not address what would happen when those variations needed to be taken into account.

    To Linda’s comment, bypassing organizations, I think that’s interesting. It’s, in a way, what Duke is trying to do with their new initiative, and I think it is interesting as part of a whole ecosystem. But–very importantly–we cannot forget that theatre is a communal enterprise, and while maybe 20 devo staff is overkill, an artist without that staff is an artist who is spending their time marketing and fundraising, which I know is the dream of very few artists.
    I think, and have heard mentioned elsewhere, that one path forward is to encourage/force structural change within organizations that makes them more transparent conduits between art and audience and less money-suck blockades. But that’s a separate thought for another time…

    Thanks again, and keep well!

    • says

      I work for one of the 1% organizations, so I probably shouldn’t say this, but…

      If the NEA and state and local government arts funding bodies just stopped giving funding to organizations like mine, by policy, then they’d simply have no choice but to figure out how to evaluate the effective distribution of grant monies further “downstream”, or they’d lose funding. Government orgs hate that and avoid it when possible. And maybe they wouldn’t do a great job of evaluating more and smaller orgs, for a few years at least. And each grant would be more expensive (on average) for them to administer, if they get (on average) smaller. But still, by not granting to large organizations, they’d have some resources to reallocate towards better evaluation of smaller or structurally different organizations.

      Or, in keeping with the spirit of Diane’s post, the NEA and others could put more weight behind academic research and body of criticism that already exists.

      I do suspect that if you just were to say, for example, that an organization has to have an annual operating budget of less than $5M to get an NEA grant, that there would just be a bigger cluster of grants at the $4-5M budget range.

  5. Elaine Calder says

    Diane, specifically with reference to your comment about data not changing behaviour without an emotional connection, you might find Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” of interest.

  6. says

    Brava, Diane, for once again having the intelligence and courage to be candid. Change is hard, there is no question about that, but we in the arts field must stop deriving satisfaction from talking about change and start getting satisfaction from actually changing. This is a truly thought provoking post and I hope we use it to spur action as well as conversation!

  7. Nick Rabkin says

    Better late than never department: The first not-for-profit arts institutions were part of a broad strategy that emerged after the Civil War that ‘sacralized’ serious art and associated the new commercial, industrial, and financial elite in America’s cities with its virtues. They were the institutional dimension of a brand new heirarchy in American culture that segregated ‘high’ art (which was ‘profound’ and ‘excellent’) from ‘popular’ art (which was not). (See the indispensible ‘Highbrow Lowbrow’ by cultural historian Lawrence Levine.) And their development was managed and controlled by trustee/philanthropists who were part of that elite and governed them.

    The second wave of nfp arts institutions in the latter 20th century was more artist-driven, more middle-class, and often associated with the social and cultural movements of its time. For example, Organic Theater, the Chicago company I managed for four years in the 80s, was an ensemble devoted to bringing the energy of rock and roll to the stage, and we sometimes succeeded. But the business model of the second wave was the same as the first wave. Tens of thousands of nfps spend enormous time and energy recruiting wealthy benefactors as trustees and seeking the approval of foundations and public agencies that still view the first wave as the model for all. Some second wave institutions have been wildly successful; most struggle, and many failed. Now, even some first wave institutions are failing, too, as long-term declines in attendance and the recession weaken even the strongest.

    Why is this history significant to this discussion: Because it suggests that the distribution of grant funds is only a symptom of a deeper problem–the structural integration of our cultural system with the stratification of American society. The distribution of grant money is a relatively easily measured symptom of that deeper structural issue. Great thanks to Holly for measuring it. But it is not, in and of itself, the problem, and her report is not just about grant distribution. It is about how the arts can contribute to making our society more just, democratic, and artful for everyone. It raises broader questions about who ‘owns’ culture in America, who creates it, who curates and distributes it. I suspect that tens of thousands of artists and millions of Americans are deeply concerned by those questions but feel powerless to do much about them.

    I have much sympathy with Clayton Lord’s point about ‘fixing’ grant distribution. I think he’s probably right to suspect that a redistribution of funding will not reverse the alienation that so many Americans feel toward and arts system that is so strongly associated with elitism and exclusion in all its forms. That’s why it is important to remember the larger point of Holly’s report. We can’t fix the problem if all we concentrate on is one symptom. Let’s dig deeper.


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