Time to start pulling off the duct tape …

In his article, Occupy the Arts, a seat at a time, NY Times critic Anthony Tomasini (like others) pounced on recent allegations of ‘elitism’ in the arts (growing out of the Occupy movement), decrying that there are loads of free and affordable arts events and that even those organizations that charge $400 per ticket also have cheap seats (and the experience is just as great from the nosebleeds, thank you very much!). Not only do Tomasini and others seem a tad defensive when they fly their Free Tickets Flag in the face of those seeking to raise a conversation about social inequalities in the arts, it seems they rather miss the point.

Tomasini writes:

But as we try to grasp what the committed Occupy Wall Street activists are saying to the performing arts, can we all agree to put aside at last the charge of elitism? Especially, I would say from my partisan perspective, regarding classical music? At least in New York and in many other American cities, as well as most college towns, there are abundant opportunities to attend free or very affordable concerts and operas.

What arouses allegations that fine arts organizations are elitist is not (primarily) that their ticket prices are sometimes high, but rather that they are (more often than not) governed by a select group of (generally wealthy, well-educated, and often white) people whose beliefs and tastes are presumed to be ‘the best’ and, therefore, good for society as a whole. Many fine arts organizations are perceived as elitist because they seem to cater to the needs, capacities, and desires of this select group of people rather than serving their communities-at-large.

Communities in which, evidently, a lot of people are quite poor. Russell Willis Taylor of National Arts Strategies and I were chatting the other day and she mentioned that the most recent US census shows that 1 in 2 people in the US are living at the poverty level (Census: 1 in 2 Americans is Poor or Low Income).

And yet, attending a fine arts event in the US one steps into a world that seems to be (and often is) completely out of touch with the reality of that census statistic

Arts organizations could do something in response to that statistic. Several years ago now, Appalshop (an arts and education center located in the Appalachian mountain region) realized there was a tremendous (and rather sobering) ‘growth market’ in its community (and the US generally) that was not being served by the arts: people who have been or are currently in prison, or those who know people who have been or are currently in prison. A staggering number of people fall into this category—enough that the good people at Appalshop felt that their perspectives and needs were worth taking seriously and that it was important to develop programming with them and for them. To read about this extraordinary program go to the Thousand Kites homepage.

Oh, but wait just a darned minute! Isn’t Appalshop one of those ‘community-based’ organizations? So that’s different. They’re supposed to serve the needs the community-at-large. That’s their mission. As opposed to ‘Arts’ organizations which are supposed to serve … ummmm … oh, never mind.


There is a growing financial, artistic, and psychic gap between the ‘nonprofit fine arts world’ in the US and the ‘rest of the US’.

And we’ve been trying to bridge this gap with duct tape (aka, friends with money) for at least 30 years.

It’s a new year.

What better time to tear off the duct tape, see what holds, and start building something better?

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  1. says

    Thanks for bringing this up, Diane! This is incredibly important and something we’ve been discussing a lot over at Culturebot.org (some links at bottom of comment) – though most of our conversations have been in response to comments about citizen criticism over at HuffPo by Michael Kaiser.

    As you point out, there is an enormous gap between arts institutions, programming and the general public. Part of why the arts are seen is elitist is probably due to the ongoing diminishment of arts education in the school system – young people just aren’t exposed to the music, drama and visual arts programs that engage them at critical moments in their development.

    But a not-insignificant part of the problem is, as you say, the divide between arts administrators and the public. And this is a multi-layered problem.

    One level is systemic – in an arts ecosystem that generally requires an expensive graduate school education (plus, usually, a year of unpaid internship) just to procure an entry-level position in a small or mid-sized organization, there is a natural winnowing out of those with less resources. Thus the infrastructure tends to favor those with the means to sustain themselves beyond their meager salaries. Some people manage to scrape by, somehow, but always in an environment of scarcity. And the philanthropic giving structure – especially in the arts – is frequently predicated on access and familiarity with the individuals, language and culture of foundations. So there’s an inherent gate-keeping structure that privileges a certain group of people – frequently white, affluent and well-educated.

    Secondly, while I would never say that arts orgs should “dumb down” their programming in order to appeal to less-sophisticated audiences, there is a tendency to present challenging work without accessible contextual programming. Unfortunately, many arts orgs don’t have the capacity, skill sets or will to implement meaningful community engagement initiatives. It is not just about Twitter, Facebook, etc., that mostly only reach who we already know. It is about trying – and wanting – to reach beyond our immediate circles and identify new audiences; inviting them into what we do and working harder to find ways to educate them and learn from them.

    Third, we need to look at the arts, institutions and artists we fund and support. There is a bias against “community-based” orgs that in unwarranted and unfair. You can’t have “arts” orgs without communities (i.e. audiences) and accessible ticket prices are not enough. There needs to relevance, openness and intent to engage.Two great examples of bringing together community-based projects with “presenting” are Harlem Stage in NYC and Yerba Buena in SF. I’m sure there are many others, but they just leapt to mind. They both are deeply committed to presenting the work of talented, “professional” artists while supporting and nurturing communities.

    Anyway – there is so much to say on this topic but its 4AM in NYC and I should be sleeping.

    Thanks for bringing it up! I hope that this topic will bubble up into a wide discussion that the field at large can tackle head on!


    • says


      Thanks for the thoughtful post and the links to the terrific conversations on your site. The Michael Kaiser conversation is on citizen critics, etc. is a critical one. Your points are excellent, as always.


  2. says

    With the recent economic downturn, the divide is even more harmful as organizations cut funding as well as opportunities for emerging voices. Artists have a more difficult time affording classes and workshops. They leave the arts or feel the need to abandon their own voice for that work that offers a hope of sustainability.

    While support for the longer-term development of truly new and challenging voices dwindles, large funding organizations still act like “too big to fail” should guide how they divide current arts funds. This has created a large exodus from the theater and creates an even more dangerous situation for the future

    I love this article and am becoming a big fan of Diane Ragsdale.

  3. says

    I’m a former Trustee of YBCA. One of the reasons in my view that that organization has a track record in the area of community service is due to its origins, which was highly controversial and involved moving thousands of folks from their homes in order to build what is now the Yerba Buena arts district in San Francisco. So YBCA needed to “get it” from the start, that their mission should be community-based as well as about the art. I don’t know if this is still the case but when i was there one of the orientation activities was to watch a documentary about the controversy over building the YB arts district – which was an excellent way to create discussion and thought about the subject. It would be interesting to find out from the local community what their thoughts are so many years after the construction, now that the district is in “middle age.”

    The notion of “tearing off the duct tape” also applies to community-based arts organizations – many of whom rely on major gifts from institutional funders – when those grants go away, unless the organization has built a strong individual donor base, or some other source of funding, the financial stress of replacing that lost contributed revenue is too difficult to overcome.

    But if the community is low income then reliance on individual donors is misplaced – so how do community-based arts groups survive? Building earned revenue requires infrastructure – appealing to corporate sponsors too often requires large audiences to justify their investment. No amount of free training seminars on building capacity will fix this inherent structural deficit issue facing small community-based arts organizations who serve low income communities – most of whom could teach the seminars they attend.

    One way to invent a solution would be to affirmatively encourage partnerships between large, well-endowed organizations and small community-based companies – to be sure collaboration or merger seems to be the mantra these days – and many such collaborative efforts are taking place – the San Francisco Bay Area is catalyzing many such partnerships – but what I am thinking about is collaboration not just on the creation of content but on delivering shared insight on community building strategies – and on cross-sector collaboration to generate revenue for small organizations whose intellectual capital should be highly valued – for example between small arts organizations and large financial services, tech, energy, retail, automotive or health care companies – the arts orgs deliver community-based content, local insight and outreach strategies and the partner companies provide revenue and a platform for content delivery in return. Involve in-house corporate community relations folks and the company ad agency too – what is possible is a private-sector solution that builds community, supports local artists which is also scalable. An example that comes to mind is the exhibition celebrating and teaching about the history of African-Americans recently underwritten by Walmart, and displayed in Washington DC at the National Geo HQ. This outstanding exhibition involved community-based arts organizations and educational agencies. The audience was both local and broad – school children in Washington DC – tourists – business people – a large and diverse mix.

    • says

      Dear Ms. Aviles,

      I love these ideas … And you are right, developing a strong, broad base of individual donors is not a realistic capitalization strategy for most community based organizations who serve people that have limited capacity to give. The kinds of partnerships and mergers you are talking about would also seem to be in line with the current NEA focus on ‘creative placemaking’.


      • Habeas says

        Ms. Aviles raises, more tactfully than I am able to articulate, the problem of throwing our current audiences under the bus. If our current audiences are generally wealthy, well-educated, and often white–and our demographic surveys support these qualifiers–how do we avoid abandoning them if we move toward “community-based projects”, potentially leaving behind the scripted plays that have attracted our current audiences (and thus also abandoning existing playwrights)?

        I think there is both arrogance and idealism in assuming “we” current arts organizations need to reach out to minorities and the working class “to educate them and learn from them”. If they’re uninterested in theatre, who will be our partners from within these targeted demographic groups? What if they simply have other priorities for their entertainment dollars? How can we educate or learn from audiences that do not yet exist? I am honestly interested in community engagement work and am following these discussions closely, but it seems these difficult questions are often pushed to the side.

        • says

          First off – it is a bit tacky to post anonymously. If you have the courage of your convictions, then express them using your real name.

          Secondly, I don’t think anyone is suggesting to throw current audiences on the bus. The issue is creating access for new audiences and fostering work that speaks to diverse audiences, not just wealthy, well-educated, white people. For that matter, there are many well-educated people (of all colors and ethnicities) who are NOT wealthy and who might like to see work that reflects their lives and concerns. There will probably always be an audience for middle-of-the-road, unchallenging, commercial “scripted plays” like “Rabbit Hole”, etc. – but this sort of work doesn’t necessarily have a lot of relevance to new and younger audiences. And most “scripted plays” usually wind up being not much more than subpar television. Why would I go see a play when I can watch better-written and more compelling dramas on HBO?

          Even the fairly conservative critic Michael Feingold has lamented about the sorry state of new plays and playwrights:

          The issue of “elitism” isn’t skewed only to minorities or the vast majority of people in America who have moderate incomes. (Not even “working class” – there is still a rapidly-vanishing middle class of educated and engaged people for whom expensive theater tickets are out of reach). But beyond class and race there is age. Younger audiences, say, Under 50’s. are ignoring large arts institutions because much of the work that is presented is outdated and irrelevant and, frankly, boring.

          Also – you conflate art and entertainment. Art poses questions, entertainment confirms what we already believe. While art can be entertaining, it strives for some higher, more thoughtful, more meaningful engagement with the audience. There was a time, I’m told, when cultural institutions were funded by civic dollars and by philanthropists with the idea of offering cultural enrichment for the common good. If you believe that art is more than entertainment, if you believe that it has the power to broaden people’s minds and lift their spirits, if you believe that it fosters creativity and imagination, then doesn’t it just seem like the decent thing to do to share it with as many people as possible?

          It is not about throwing people under a bus, it is about making a good faith effort to invite everyone who wants to engage in the arts an opportunity to do so. If the public sector – i.e. schools, government – have thrown the average person under the bus by cutting off arts education and opportunities to grow and learn, then maybe the arts institutions themselves can pick up the slack.

          • says

            Hey Andy,
            I’m sorry, but i have to politely but very avidly disagree with you about your pronouncement about the devolution of ‘scripted; plays as well as all the talk about tastes of ‘minorities’ and ‘working class people’ and ‘young people’,

            … you say “most “scripted plays” usually wind up being not much more than subpar television. Why would I go see a play when I can watch better-written and more compelling dramas on HBO?”

            Wow. That’s quite a comment. What on earth are you saying? Most scripted plays? I wonder where you got that information? How many do you actually read and why do you bash playwrights in the name of your idea of community or equality of expression? A lot of different kinds of people go to the theater, and a lot of different kinds of people make theater. and there are tons of exceptional plays and playwrights writing a myriad of super interesting, complex stories for a wide segment of the population.This I do know, because I read a lot of plays. The issue really is access and affordability, not the plays themselves. And pardon me, but i think its really unfair and pretty cold-hearted of you to re-post Feingold’s review of a play he didn’t like (he’s one person), and then its taint on other unnamed plays.I’m wondering, what did you think of the play he was talking about? Or, perhaps you just took his word for it.

            In my view, the tastes of many people have been influenced by a real and true change in our cultural daily diets:. virtual, filmic mediums are simply far more accessible, easy and can be cheap – and yes, well made and interesting. (I also want to point out that cable TV is super expensive, the cost of one regional theater ticket per month… so don’t even get started on the cost a lot of people, including quite impoverished folks, readily accept and pay for)

            . Regional large theater tickets are expensive and, yeah, cater to the tastes of the majority class; however there are many many many theaters that do not. And, theater has historically not served communities of color, and communities living in poverty, so that is really nothing new. I believe that what DIane Ragsdale is saying is that we, as a theater community, need to come to terms with the discrepancy between serving the public good (which is our contract as non profit orgs), and making the kind of art (and defining a cultural era through art) that serves an elite sector of our society, only. How do we deal with that discrepancy and how can we allow for arts to flourish in communities that are historically underserved by arts organizations (and everyone else.). It’s kind’ve an unanswerable question right now, but i am inspired by thinking about it, pondering the question and trying to figure out what it would mean.

            none of us white middle class or working class folks can speak for other communities though, as if we know more than one another. i feel listening is more important than being right. and i appreciated Habeas’ honesty — even though it felt a bit defensive.

        • says

          Framing the question as being about what big arts organizations should do I think misses an important point. Whatever “taking off the duct tape” eventually looks like, it would probably involve a lot of newer, smaller organizations doing work that major museums and orchestras couldn’t imagine.

          The big dogs are big, and they should play nice, but if we’re looking for the next radical change, I think we’ll find it starts elsewhere. Maybe that means I think Diane’s point about reorganizing certain non-profit arts groups as country clubs has some serious traction…

  4. says

    Before the term loses all meaning, please define “community” in future posts, particularly which community (or communities) you’re speaking of.

    A wealthy cigar puffing WASPy fat cat SOB is as much a part of one or more communities as a liberal-jerking single ESL parent with a disability who is living below the poverty line is. These two caricatures of demographic disparity may yet even be a part of the same community of interest, taking similar or different roles in supporting that interest. We all belong to many circles, as Google has me aptly calling it for now. And, a good social scientist knows that similar demographics does not a community of shared identity make.

    Art has long been a mixed result of the relationship between interlinked circles: where the money comes from (patron), the artist and the audience. Two easy examples I can think of, even if they are moot today, are: Bach, who wrote for or was commissioned to write for churches, palaces and cafés; Purcell, for churches, theaters and bars (he apparently wrote a mean drinking tune). These were interlinked circles that were made up of different (and sometimes the same) patrons, different (and sometimes the same) audiences, different (and sometimes the same) communities.

    So, who are these communities we have now begun to be so concerned about? The artists? The patrons? The audience? Who are in those groups? Do they overlap? Is there one community? Many?

    Also, what communities should be served by the nonprofits? Should they be broadly defined (i.e. everyone within municipal borders) or narrowly defined (i.e. lower income people)? What is ethical? What is legal? What is fiscally pragmatic? A narrow charitable focus or a broader open focus?

    Often, you seem to be commenting on an unmeasured potential audience (or beneficiary of education and other outreach activities). Who are exactly these people who have interest in an art but face true barriers to attendance (and what are the barriers)?

    You need to clarify this important term before it continues.

    • says


      thanks for the comment and for the fair request that I define what I mean by community … Any given metropolitan area is made up of multiple communities and most nonprofits do not exist to serve everyone. Having said that, nonprofit arts organizations (which are the primary subject of most of my posts) are granted 501(c)3 status, which makes them eligible to receive tax deductible contributions from individuals and businesses. This allowance is granted in recognition of the broad public purposes that they are presumed to serve. Being perceived to serve the interests of a small, elite population is, thus, in contradiction to the expectation that 501c3s serve a ‘broad social purpose’. Most nonprofit arts organizations consider the government investments in their organizations to be quite small. And if you look at direct investments in the large majority of cases they are, without a doubt. However, the indirect investment is quite substantial when you look at the foregone tax revenues that are directed to arts groups rather than paid by wealthy people to the IRS so that they can be redistrubted in some other manner.

      An artist commissioned by a Church can make a piece that pleases the Church (or that patron). Perhaps that piece will eventually reach others via the church, perhaps not. The relationship between a nonprofit organization and its donors is not, however, intended to be the same as that between an artist and a patron that has commissioned and paid for a piece of work.

      I’m not suggesting arts organizations need to do programming that appeals to all people. But it is the arts organization’s job to pursue a mission that has broad social benefit or purpose and to find investors (patrons, funders, etc.) that share a commitment to that purpose to invest in it. If there is declining value to society of a given nonprofit, it’s worth asking whether it should continue to exist simply because a small number of people are able and willing to keep it going year after year because it is important to them (even if it is increasingly clear it is not important to the rest of society).

      A church or a country club or a membership organization are granted a different form of nonprofit status and, thus, are not eligible for the tax deductible contributions and other benefits that 501c3’s receive. This is because they are perceived to serve the narrow interests of their members rather than society at large. Their members can tithe or pay dues or fees but, because they can’t deduct those contributions on their taxes, the government is not indirectly subsidizing them; thus ‘society’ is not footing the bill for the Church.


      So when I harp on community, I am generally thinking about the broad social purpose. But no, I don’t expect that all arts groups are going to do work for prisoners and their families.

      Thanks for the thoughtful post and good questions …

      • says

        Diane – Excellent extension of your post on why arts organizations with 501c3 status have an obligation to engage a broader community. It has troubled me for years that this is no longer (or perhaps never was) widely understood. That said, your analogy using a church falls a bit short as most churches are considered charitable organizations addressing a social purpose just like arts organizations, and therefore donations made to them are just as tax deductible. Other membership organizations and trade associations (like country clubs or chambers of commerce) are recognized differently by the IRS.

      • says

        Thank you for your response.

        First, I will stress again: There are communities of identity, communities of place and communities of interest. A community organization (an organization created to serve a community) must define what the community it is serving looks like when it establishes a mission: Homeless? Elderly? A neighborhood? A classical music listener? A dancer? This is especially true when the community organization has limited resources. It must limit it’s definitional community to have the strongest impact on that community and thus do work that fulfills its mission. Furthermore, doing community (or audience) development with a diverse community (let’s say one of place, like a neighborhood), often requires a large staff or group of committed volunteers who are networked into the smaller communities of identity or interest that are within the place. This is a long process. The marketing style outreach that most art organizations are engaged in currently hit low hanging fruit: those interested in the art form (or content) AND who are already tied into the community of those who are interested in the art form (or content). This style of outreach is “silo-ed” (I hate that term) in such a human resources way that change in existing organizations would be very difficult, especially with resource constraints and without a clear path of successful case studies to follow.

        I say this as someone with a community development background who now works in art NPO communications, I see the conflict to serve a ‘broader social purpose’ (do more education, create new means of engagement, expand accessibility to broader audiences) constantly come into conflict with the current organizational structure, existing marketing and communications strategies, income expectations and the primary mission to produce art. In my last position at an orchestra, I burned out because I saw what you are describing – the very wealthy, supporting a niche interest, with tax benefits that I viewed as not charitable or providing any “public benefit” (which is the phrase we threw around in grad school). That, of course, was not the whole story, our audience was older and whiter than the general population, but not always necessarily richer or better educated. We had a number of lower and middle income people, often seniors, but also many amateur and professional musicians and music students of all ages (but particularly college age) coming to the concerts. Though, that did not help me rationalize our work…

        Second point, I love your idea of 501(c)4 status for some arts groups, but there is a problem with it and largely has to do with your definition of a 501c(3) organizations, which is lacking and incorrect.

        Oh god, this will be long and boring:

        A 501(c)3 organization is defined by four characteristics and three of them are phrased in the negative:

        – no earnings “will inure to the benefit” of private shareholder or individual

        – not for any benefit to private interests, particularly the founder(s) or shareholder(s) (i.e. board or due paying members) of the organization (this usually gets lumped in with the first)

        – not a (political) action organization

        – FOR ONE OR MORE EXEMPT PURPOSES, which is defined NOT as ‘broad social purpose’ but by the bureaucratically specific statement: “charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency” (http://www.irs.gov/charities/charitable/article/0,,id=175418,00.html).

        ‘Broad social purpose’ means as much to the IRS as “benevolent” or “philanthropic.”

        You’ve noted before that art organizations are usually “wedged” into the education exempt purpose. That is misleading, as IRS Publication 557 “Tax Emempt Status for your Organization” (http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p557.pdf), EXPLICITLY lists “A museum, zoo, planetarium, symphony orchestra, or other similar organization” (27) as qualifying as educational exempt purposes.

        Most art organizations also qualify as “charitable” organizations, mostly due to a bizarre circular IRS logic.

        All organizations, when applying for tax-exempt status, must, after stating their exempt purpose, determine whether they are private foundations or public charities, they are all assumed to be the former unless proven to be the latter. Public charities are defined by section 509(a) and generally defined as having “broad public SUPPORT” (32), NOT ‘purpose.’ A variety of arts organizations are explicitly listed as 509(a)(1) public charity organizations as “public supported organizations” (33), which is defined as an organization that “normally receives a substantial part of its support [at least one third] from a governmental unit or from the general public” (34). These arts organizations that “generally qualify” in this category are: “Museums of history, art, or science;” “Community centers to promote the arts;” and “Organizations providing facilities for the support of an opera, symphony orchestra, ballet, or repertory drama” (34).

        Arts nonprofits get tax-exempt status, generally because more that 1/3 or their income is contributed by the government or donors.

        I’ve not done thorough research on US tax law, but I will assume that this near loophole of sorts came about because of our country’s historic social practices of volunteerism (from fire departments to women’s leagues) and public charity organizations (from public hospitals to, for a time, public schools). The tax law is relatively new compared the social history of the US. The creation of tax exempt statuses for organization began 99 years ago in 1913; individual tax deductions for charitable contributions began 93 years ago in 1919 and 501(c)3 organizations did not exist until nearly 60 years ago in 1954. It makes sense that favored organizations, like the arts, would be given a pass.

        Too long, I’m done.

  5. says


    I think that simply offering classical music in places where people like to experience other music will eventually reverse “insularity”, a valid word. I call this OFF the pedestal and find it works somewhat in our Classical Revolution series in Detroit. There are no quick-fixes, but as a classical musician employed by a major orchestra, we ARE demanding that our audience experience the music purely and collectively rather than “tainted” by any personal colorations. But I feel we can offer BOTH pure and warm experiences in their proper settings. I for one am anxious to prove that chamber music readings in bars and cafes can introduce classical to curious music lovers. We can cut the time it takes deserving people to love classical.


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