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.
1% image by ThreeArt and licensed by Shutterstock.com