Taming our inner speculators …

speculators

A few days ago, while doing research, an article caught my attention. It was written in 1936 and it was about the birth of Theatre Arts magazine twenty years earlier (in 1916). Here’s how the founding of the magazine is described in the article:***

For it began in revolt against musty tradition, its first issue proclaiming a credo that still rings in the ear: ‘To help conserve and develop creative impulse in the American theatre; to provide a permanent record of American dramatic art in its formative period; to hasten the day when the speculators will step out of the established playhouse and let the artists in.

(Emphasis added.)

That day seemed to have arrived with the formation of the resident theater movement–the “alternative-to-commercial” theater–30 years later. As I noted last week, Zelda Fichandler recently described the movement’s inspiration and purpose saying:

We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. The fabric of thought that propelled us was that  theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.

If only achieving the ideals of the resident theater movement (the revolution, as it was called) had been as simple as kicking the speculators out and giving the artists the keys to the buildings, the business cards, and nonprofit status.

It turns out that as nonprofit theaters became successful, some of them started to look a lot like commercial producers. A 1984 New York Times article– Will Success Spoil Nonprofit Theater?–described the whys and hows and so whats of the process:

With achievement comes heightened expectations, expectations not necessarily consistent with a theater’s role of developing new plays and new writers. … Rare is the artistic director who does not hunger at some level for acclaim in New York; it is the theater capital of the nation, and Broadway, however maligned, is a part of the mythology on which theater people have raised. There are practical advantages, too. The income from a commercial transfer can virtually support a nonprofit theater … And the publicity attendant to a transfer makes it easier for a nonprofit theater to both raise money and to attract leading artists.

The problem is that the gravitational tug of Broadway is strong. There can come a point when a nonprofit theater begins producing plays solely, or subliminally, to export them to New York.

There it is again.

That “long tug of war,” referenced last week, “between art and commerce, spiritual ideals and materialistic forces …”

The resident theater was founded (and propelled forward by the Ford Foundation) at a time when philanthropists believed that the best way to organize the cultural sector was to create clear boundaries between the “commercial entertainment” and “artistic” spheres and to avoid contamination between the two. (Whether this still is, or ever was, a good policy or approach is a topic for another post, perhaps.)

If you go back and read about the formation of the first symphony orchestras (decades earlier), you can observe this same “weed out the entertainment” then “fertilize the art” strategy.

Of course there’s a difference between theater and symphony orchestras (which perhaps foundations and government agencies did not fully account for): one doesn’t see many (any?) examples of “commercial orchestras” in the US.

Not only did a robust commercial theater industry precede the resident theater movement, it continued to exist (and compete with the nonprofit theater) once resident theaters were formed. Theater exists in a mixed market, and one in which the commercial theater has held heavy sway for the past century.

So, even if we had subsidies on par with Sweden or Germany, we probably could not have kept the art and commerce theater worlds separate for many, obvious reasons–not least of which, successful playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and producers rarely work exclusively within one industry (either Hollywood, or Broadway, or Off-Broadway, or regional theater) and successful properties (plays, books, films, etc.) frequently traffic across these boundaries as well.

And while subsidies helped to fortify the lines between the sectors for 20 years or so, as many nonprofit leaders have remarked over the years, after funding fell off from Ford and the NEA, what choice remained but to do more commercial fare (whether shows aimed at Broadway or hits that had already played there)? How could theaters be expected to pursue the ideals of the movement when the beliefs underpinning the economic model were no longer valid?

So, given that nonprofit theaters exist in a mixed market, given that artists and properties cross sector boundaries, given that  funding went away but the big buildings built with the funding had to be supported anyway, co-productions between the two sectors … collaborative R&D … exchange of rights … transfers … alliances … dalliances … deals between the two sectors… were perhaps inevitable.

As Bob Brustein (founder of ART & Yale Rep) remarked in a meeting in 2011 of commercial producers and nonprofit theater leaders to discuss partnerships between the two sectors:

I want to say something about commercial production [ at resident theaters]. I’ve obviously been a big enemy of that. But I’m an enemy of the frequency of it.

I think it’s inevitable from time to time. The question is keeping some sort of a constraint on it […]

Whether you want to or not, one of those shows is gonna go [to Broadway].

But why constrain it? Why tame our inner speculators? Particularly in this era of social and cultural entrepreneurship when, everywhere you look, people are making money while doing good and doing good while making money. By comparison, the legal and cultural/cognitive boundaries between the “art theater” and the “money theater” (to use Todd London’s great tags in this terrific essay) start to feel oppressive–as though they may be holding us back from reaching our full potential, from being the “entrepreneurial” organizations that governments, foundations, boards, and donors now want nonprofits to be.

I think the 1984 article illustrates why. If you start to go back in time (before even the creation of nonprofit resident theaters) over and over again you will observe that commercial success seems to breed external and internal pressure for more commercial success, which seems to be at odds with some of the core values or purposes (e.g., access, diversity, artist development, artistic risk taking, education, community-building, preservation and innovation) that “art theaters” or resident theaters exist to uphold or advance.

The question is, how to keep some sort of constraint … given that intermingling is perhaps inevitable … given the ‘gravitational pull” of Broadway … AND given that it’s great to reach more people with great theater and difficult for a new work to enter the cultural canon and discourse without going to Broadway.

At the same 2011 meeting (mentioned above), Polly Carl, editor at HowlRound, suggested that what was needed is a code of ethics. Ethics in the American theater is a running theme throughout Polly’s writing and talks. In one essay on the subject, she urges nonprofit theater leaders to prioritize the creation of an ethics statement that “answers the hard questions.”

What types of questions?

In her book, Economic Lives, economic sociologist Viviana Zelizer refers to the OED for a definition of ethics: “The science of morals: the department of study concerned with the principles of human duty.” She then expounds on the definition, writing:

In economic activity, then, ethics concerns the proper way of conducting production, consumption, distribution, and transfer of assets. For instance, ethical questions assume such varied forms as, Is it right to pay women for their eggs? Is it wrong for a supervisor to make sexual advances to an employee? May a CEO legitimately issue public reports exaggerating a firm’s economic performance? Is it appropriate for company executives to use company jets for personal trips? More generally, is it feasible to set rules that eliminate conflicts of interest between a person’s corporate responsibility and private interests? …

I could certainly imagine an equivalent list of questions for nonprofit arts organizations. And in this era in which there is increased scrutiny over the ethical practices of corporations, I could certainly see why the time is ripe (if not overripe) for this effort in the nonprofit arts.

And not because of commercial deals, per se. The ethical issues for a nonprofit theater would seem to be much broader than how to do deals or how many deals to do.

But I’m curious what others think.

Do nonprofit theaters (or other arts nonprofits) need ethics statements?

If so, what hard questions should be put on the list?

 

  Speculators is a John Leech sketch from 1846.

***Theatre Arts at the Age of Twenty. New York Times, Feb. 2, 1936.

Related
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone

Comments

  1. says

    Diane,
    Thanks for this post and for referencing some of my writing. A thought to add to yours—one of the things I’m beginning to see as I probe this ethical frame for not-for-profits is the assumption that because the product is ethical in the minds of most artistic leaders — that art in an of itself flies in the face of corporate aspirations for bigger buildings and more material possessions and that the not-for-profit tag line means these artistic leaders couldn’t possibly be in it for the money or the fame—many feel able to exempt themselves from these hard questions. It’s like the hard questions are built into the structure so why do we need to ask them? The result of this is not just artistic director and managing director salaries WAY out of proportion to anything you might even loosely call “not-for-profit” and commercial aspirations as a driver of the mission, but that the infrastructure of many not-for-profits is bereft of some of the most basics ethical tenets—again with the assumption that making art is ethical in its own right. I have been witness inside not-for-profits to more exploitation of workers through unfair pay and overwork, more discrimination of women, institutional racism, HR departments with no training in confidentiality, or just no HR departments, no transparency around finances or pay disparities. But if you complain—especially as a creative type desperate to work in and around the creative process—100 people are lined up behind you (usually possessing multiple advanced degrees) waiting to step into your position and willing to endure the discrimination, at least for awhile.

    And to ask artists to look at the ethical practices of institutions seems an impossible task. We’re all waiting to jump on the next ethical misstep from Whole Foods let’s say—we’re ready to boycott if they discriminate against their workers—but ask an artist to boycott a regional theater for unethical practices? It will never happen. They pay the biggest salaries, the field is too small and the opportunities too few to say no to any opportunity. So how do we create a movement within our own industry to address these realities?

  2. says

    I don’t have the answer to Polly’s great question–or even AN answer–but a suggestion for a place to start looking. Firstly, is it “the industry?” Who makes money in it? And if you don’t–why call it OUR industry? Ethics statements have to follow power redistribution, or we simply have nice or nasty monarchs.

    Following Foucault, who argues that power is co-productive with knowledge and organized in micro-transactions from the bottom up (rather than being monolithic and organized from the top down) I suggest we find ways to model and practice art making along-side the ways it’s currently done in the regional theatre. Let’s build new power/knowledge formations. Sidestep, don’t fight, or the fight will drag you back into its own terms as defined by the industry–which are, in fact, the problem. These ways, as many have pointed out (notably Polly and Todd London), are organized around keeping buildings and admin staff in business, with artists as replaceable product-suppliers at the periphery (witness the term “new play sector.”) Borrowing from the brilliant term “structural racism,” we have “structural anti-artist” machinery in place wherever artists supply replaceable product to institutions without an ongoing place at the decision-making (or pay-check-collecting) table.

    The most powerful force we can muster, in relation to the regional theatre, is the speeding of its own irrelevance.

    I am not suggesting that artists take on the R&D heavy lifting (ensemble theatre) for the sole purpose of selling the product to the regionals, who in fact have the means but not the will to do this R&D. That puts the onus of subsidy back on the already excluded and underpaid artists. Rather, artists might look to partner with innovation and research in more progressive fields than theatre to build work. The Achilles heel of the regional theatre is audience. But out there in the world are organizations and minds working on amazing things who may well be interested in partnering with artists to create stuff, in dialogue with large communities who may never normally go to the theatre. Then if the regionals are interested–the artists can dialogue with “the industry” again, but this time with some bargaining power–and with no illusion that it’s “our” industry (i.e set up for “our” benefit).

    Of course there are many artists and groups already doing this, including me–and the process of building those extra-theatrical partnerships is what has inspired me to think it’s a good idea. I am still astonished that it’s easier to get hold of someone in the Department of Defense, or a developer of major new gaming software, to talk about ideas–on a cold call– than it is to get through the fire-wall around any regional artistic director, but this has been my (radicalizing) experience.

  3. says

    As you note, it is difficult to compare commercial theater to the other performing arts because all of them, with rare exception, can only function as non-profits. With genres like opera, there are enormous gaps between costs and income.

    It seems like most conceptions of professional ethics are formulated around what should not be done, instead of what should be.

    The CEO of the LA Phil makes about 1.5 million per year with benefits while the average salary for a member of a ROPA orchestra (the advocacy organization for our regional orchestras) makes 13 k per year. Should the LA Phil CEO have salary 115 times higher? Should the salaries of the CEOs of non-profits be limited to a specific percentage of the operating budget?

    The Met’s budget is 300 million a year, about twice that of corresponding major European houses. And this even thought the Met has only a 7 month season while Europe’s houses work all year. The Met uses the most expensive stars and lavish sets. The wealthy service themselves luxuriously while neglecting the rest of the country.
    Would it be more ethical if funding were distributed more equally around the country? The Washington National Opera, and the Seattle Opera both have budgets of about 23 million – 1/13th the size of the Met’s. Should arts funding be concentrated, as it is now, in a few financial centers where the wealthy live?

    Should musicians in top orchestras be allow to negotiate individual contracts? Why is the first trumpet in Philadelphia paid 295k per year while the average pay for musicians in regional orchestras is 13k – 1/22nd the amount?

    But all of this avoids the most important question of all: Can we expect ethical funding from a system that might be inherently unethical? Why do we fund the arts by donations from the wealthy? Why are we the only developed country in the world to use such a system that gives us lower per capita arts funding than any other develop nation? Why do we expect 21st century results from a system that is essentially neo-feudalistic – or at best something out of the 19th century?

    How can we expect our arts administration to be ethical, or even moral, given a funding system that creates a cultural of neglect and starvation for the arts? Long term famine inevitably leads to an ethos of opportunism and exploitation.

  4. says

    Ethics tend to break down when systems either become corrupt or their intended purpose becomes confused. We tend to think of ethical problems centering around misappropriated funds but unethical actions can also be the result of functional issues or issues of intentions and purpose.

    Polly carl wonders whether asking artist to look at the ethical practices of institutions seems an impossible task? In the blogs and websites that dominate the arts administration and organizational field no one seems to ask the artist’s anything? Is that ethical?
    In my state of Michigan 4/5′s of all the arts organization monies goes to the administration of the organization rather than to “the arts” themselves. Are these ethical problems or rather functional problems that reflect a confused and misguided idea of what “the arts” are? Is the privatization of our societies cultural production and institutions a ethical problem or a functional/intention problem that then becomes an ethical one by it’s misguided results? Is a NEA that doesn’t really endow artists with much of anything an ethical sham?

    • says

      Richard’s idea that ethical issues can be a result of systemic problems in how the arts are funded is interesting. Culture is by nature local, and that is how it should be funded. Local communities best understand their cultural needs and the needs of the artists that live there. It is absurd to think that a remote organization like the NEA could fund in any specific way a country of 320 million people. Confusion, ignorance, indifference, and politics count for many of the ethical issues that arise. Very often, foundations that fund the arts are almost as remote.

      Conflicts can also arise on a local level, but the channels of communication are vastly more direct, and the avenues of power much more transparent. The participants also share much more in common.

      In Europe, government funding is overwhelmingly local. In Germany for example, about 50% is municipal, 40% state, and only about 10% Federal. This general pattern holds for most of Europe. (I can provide a url with a breakdown by country if anyone needs it.)

      Perhaps there is a rule of thumb that the more remote the funder, the more likely ethical conflicts will evolve. The idea probably doesn’t hold up given all the conflicts that occur on the local level, but it seems worth thought.

  5. says

    Let’s agree that an ethics statement is a good idea. Let’s then agree that all questions about ethics statements have been answered, and all quibbles about ethics statements have been rebutted and all arguments against ethics statements have been refuted. Easy path to victory, right?

    But no — because the track record when it comes to mission statements, and fidelity to them, is not encouraging. Because the nonprofit business model is broken, because it’s undependable and susceptible to the whys, wherefores and vagaries of politics and markets, we have a whole set of informal terms and phrases for what happens to mission statements nowadays: there’s a reason we talk of “mission creep,” “mission flatline” and “mission omission.” Privately, away from prying ears, how many artistic, executive and development directors acknowledge that missions are fungible, elastic and too often contorted by the Keystone Kops chase for money? Not all arts institutions are guilty of this, but enough are or we wouldn’t have these terms.

    I respect your inquiry as a matter of philosophy. As a practical matter, however, the notion that a propensity toward commercialism, be it perceived or proven, demands ethical hand-slapping — or enforceable ways to compel human beings to ignore their own moneymaking instincts, dreams and schemes — is unrealistic. By mere coincidence, I have recently come across some news reports alleging that Mother Teresa’s financial dealings were in fact rather less than saintly. I don’t know if those reports or true or scurrilous, but if even a fraction are true, why would we be surprised that random Artistic Director X wants a hit show to transfer to Broadway? We’re artists. We’re writers, director, actors and designers. We’re producers. We’re so many things. We’re not saints.

    Reading the comments thus far, I note that already we’re talking about the ethics of high compensation for leaders — not the warp-speed drive toward commercialism as feared in, and embodied by, Brustein’s statement. I’m less worried about the ethics of commercialism as I am about Artistic Director X making $400K when there are unpaid interns by the score and 10-year staffers still making $40K. At least that can be ameliorated with an ethics statement. And a board exemplifying true fidelity to a smart mission statement and intelligent bylaws and, oh, that other thing: common sense.

  6. says

    Let’s agree that an ethics statement is a good idea. Let’s then agree that all questions about ethics statements have been answered, and all quibbles about ethics statements have been rebutted and all arguments against ethics statements have been refuted. Easy path to victory, right?

    But no — because the track record when it comes to mission statements, and fidelity to them, is not encouraging. Because the nonprofit business model is broken, because it’s undependable and susceptible to the whys, wherefores and vagaries of politics and markets, we have a whole set of informal terms and phrases for what happens to mission statements nowadays: there’s a reason we talk of “mission creep,” “mission flatline” and “mission omission.” Privately, away from prying ears, how many artistic, executive and development directors acknowledge that missions are fungible, elastic and too often contorted by the Keystone Kops chase for money? Not all arts institutions are guilty of this, but enough are or we wouldn’t have these terms.

    I respect your inquiry as a matter of philosophy. As a practical matter, however, the notion that a propensity toward commercialism, be it perceived or proven, demands ethical hand-slapping — or enforceable ways to compel human beings to ignore their own moneymaking instincts, dreams and schemes — is unrealistic. By mere coincidence, I have recently come across some news reports alleging that Mother Teresa’s financial dealings were in fact rather less than saintly. I don’t know if those reports are true or scurrilous, but if even a fraction are true, why would we be surprised that random Artistic Director X wants a hit show to transfer to Broadway? We’re artists. We’re writers, directors, actors and designers. We’re producers. We’re so many things. We’re not saints.

    Reading the comments thus far, I note that already we’re talking about the ethics of high compensation for leaders — not the warp-speed drive toward commercialism as feared in, and embodied by, Brustein’s statement. I’m less worried about the ethics of commercialism as I am about Artistic Director X making $400K when there are unpaid interns by the score and 10-year staffers still making $40K. At least that can be ameliorated with an ethics statement. And a board exemplifying true fidelity to a smart mission statement and intelligent bylaws and, oh, that other thing: common sense.

  7. says

    As always you raise many interesting questions, Diane, and as the comments show they are all tangled with each other. Ethics cannot be divorced from political and funding questions and there is no magic balance between commercial activities, philanthropy and public funding which would avoid issues of mission creep, inequity, poor artistic choices, personal greed and hubris and so on. As it happens I recently posted in my own blog about ethical issues in my own businesses and associations which you can see at http://david-dixon.com/2012/12/the-only-way-is-ethics/. I have come to think that an ethical statement actually defines an organisation – much more so than a mission statement or an artistic policy. Making sure that it actually happens is a challenge, but that’s life, and thinking about issues of pay policy, physical and social acccess, community responsibilities, environmental impact and so on is progress. As I have said before, organistions don’t make art, artists do. Arts organisations are presenters, intepreters, marketers, educators, employers, part of our communities and businesses: their managers should not be allowed to get away with neglecting tough issues by saying they are artists.

    William’s idea that state funding is the answer to these dilemmas is highly questionable – handing total funding and thus control over culture to politicians and civil servants is not a great idea and, although it has worked quite well in some european countries it has failed almost completely in others. I would be very interested to see the link to national/local funding patterns you mention, by the way.

    • says

      In which European countries has public arts funding failed almost completely? Documentation? If there are an examples, can they be taken as a norm for Europe’s 30 countries? Or even a significant portion?

      Be very wary of American reports about European arts funding because there is a strong agenda in the USA to discredit Europe’s public funding systems – to the point of misinformation campaigns. Another example of a lack of ethics — motivated in this case by right wing politics.

      Public funding, of course, does not solve all the problems, but I strong think evidence would point to it solving far more than our isolated, neo-feudalistic system of funding by the wealthy. As just one example, the USA only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. Per capita arts funding would be another example. The USA’s funding per capita, both public and private combined, is dwarfed by most European countries. (Here too I can provide stats.)

      Here are the stats for public funding by level of government in Europe as compiled by the Council of Europe:

      http://www.culturalpolicies.net/web/statistics-funding.php?aid=118&cid=80&lid=en

      The latest stats are for 2011 and are still sketchy. Check back to about 2009 and 2010 for a more complete picture. It is necessary to look at the results for several years back since several major countries did not report each year. Small countries like Monaco and Lichtenstein have centralized funding because there are no provinces. In general, the larger the country, the more regional the funding. The Federal funding in Germany, for example, averages about 13% and 20% in Poland, 10% in Switzerland. There are many state funding programs in the USA, and a few municipal ones, but even if they contribute more than the Federal government, the numbers are still so low as to be almost meaningless.

      • says

        “There are many state funding programs in the USA, and a few municipal ones, but even if they contribute more than the Federal government, the numbers are still so low as to be almost meaningless.”

        Sir, I work for one of them — the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs — and our budget alone is more than that of NEA. Now, you can sit where you are and bitch, whine and moan about that and you can ring them bells about a nefarious right-wing agenda lurking under every rock, bush and weeping willow, but let’s get some facts right, OK? Hundreds of people collectively work in state arts funding programs in all 50 states (actually, it’s 56, if you did proper research) in addition to the many municipal programs, some of the latter publicly funded and some functioning as nonprofits. For you to cavalierly dismiss any or all of these programs as “almost meaningless” is a smack in the face to those who run them and those who benefit from them. I hate the right-wing but even I don’t think there’s a Klansman and a John Bircher ready to torch every gallery.

        Barry Hessenius reported last year that there are 5,000 local arts agencies (LAAs) in the US: http://blog.westaf.org/2012/09/the-future-of-laas-and-subsidy-model-of.html. Are you accusing him of misreporting, too?

        And however many there are, and however they’re funded, and regardless of whether they’re funded to your specifications and satisfaction, they work they do — the work we do — is far from “almost meaningless.” You’re a smart man. Don’t lay waste to the hundreds of public servants, and hundreds of volunteers, who choose — choose, sir — to work in and give their time to such programs. Don’t cast aspersions on the impact they have. Frankly, if you knew anything about their impact financially and socially, you would know better.

        And as for those “American reports about European arts funding” that are — to characterize your view — almost meaningless due to “a strong agenda in the USA to discredit Europe’s public funding systems,” it is not enough to generalize, lest you appear intellectually dishonest or, worse, to be advancing an agenda of your own. Please name one such report. Name two. Name a few. Name five. And name names, too. Please use the first and last names of all the people working in or reporting on the arts that you can definitively prove have a “strong agenda…to discredit Europe’s public funding systems.” If you can’t, or if you won’t, then all I’m hearing is the arts world equivalent of “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [State Department Employees] that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party…” We liberals — even a liberal like me — need not stoop to that.

        • says

          State arts agencies in the USA paid 345 million in 2011. That’s a little over 1 dollar per capita for the country. See:

          http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Research/Grant-Making/2011_funding_and_grantmaking.pdf

          State level arts funding in Poland, for just one example, was 1.3 billion dollars, or $34 per person. See here and click for the year 2010:

          http://www.culturalpolicies.net/web/statistics-funding.php?aid=118&cid=80&lid=en

          We see that state arts funding per capita is 34 times higher than in the USA. This general pattern holds for most of Europe.

          There are countless articles in the US press claiming that Europe’s public funding system is in crisis and being dismantled. This is a patently false claim as the actual funding numbers above show. Here is a quote from such an article in the New York Times:

          “State support for culture — long posited as a taxpayer’s right, like decent roads or health care — is showing distinct signs of erosion, with a move toward the American fund-raising model, which suggests that art is a luxury to be paid for by those to whom it matters.” See:

          http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/arts/dance/sadlers-wells-bam-edinburgh-festival-and-arts-funding.html

          This cultural war between Europe and America regarding arts funding took an interesting twist this week due to the Snowden revelations. The NSA’s snooping could derail the TTIP free trade zone treaty negotiations. France’s ruling Socialist Party has already expressed misgivings about the free trade pact, particularly on regards to French cultural and film subsidies. See:

          http://theweek.com/article/index/246444/could-us-spying-ruin-a-127-billion-trade-deal-with-the-eu#

          Hollywood does not want the French subsidizing films. Ethical issues abound, especially when comparing France’s rich cinematic traditions to the general vulgarity of Hollywood’s products.

          Forgive me, but will not respond to anymore of Mr. Jacob’s posts. I appreciate vigorous debate, but I not participate in discussions with that level of rudeness and crudity, especially since they so often lack substance.

        • says

          Dear Leonard and William:

          I sincerely appreciate that you have both taken the time to comment and respond.

          I ran Leonard’s comment because I endeavor not to censor comments and he has included some fair points for discussion. Having said that, I agree with Mr. Osborne that the withering tone and comments in this particular post are not productive.

          I would be grateful if you would both refrain from lobbing insults in the interest of a healthy debate.

          Thanks very much,

          Diane

  8. says

    Good public funded arts policies don’t “hand total funding and thus control over culture to politicians and civil servants.” Good public funded programs should give the funding and control to the art field professionals and the artists themselves. We don’t give tax dollars to politicians and have them design our highways and bridges, neither is your local congressman deciding the next battle move in the wars over seas or what your doctor should do with your health treatment if you are on Medicaid.

    • says

      Thank you for pointing out the painfully obvious. This myth that politicians or civil servants make the decisions about how public arts funding is distributed is yet more of the astoundingly simplistic and misinformed propaganda Americans are constantly subjected to. Even the most cursory look at European systems shows that most funding to individual artists is distributed by peer revue groups whose membership rotates.

      Established institutions like the state orchestras, opera houses, ballet companies, and theaters usually have budgets allocated years in advance and they remain quite stable. This allows for planning impossible for most American institutions. This also allows for a much wider range of programming. It also allows for affordable ticket prices in institutions that are nearby. The arts are no longer a sort of cultural country club for the wealthy.

      When ethical issues like these arise, it is only natural that those involved with less ethical systems resort to misinformation.

  9. says

    Polly Carl’s response to the “Ethics Statements” question seems to the point and succinctly gritty and realistic – who is going to hold Boards’ feet to the fire relative to their published statements? I really feel that there is no need to “keep some sort of constraint” on the money making impulses of non-profits: non-profit status requires a level of charitable intent. Can we not leave it up to the IRS? Not trying to be flip here. By gut-level definition, non-profits are going to struggle for revenue in any marketplace, and are always going to be reaching for more. Also, the tendency of any organization is to want to grow- the recent article in the LA Times re The Getty undertaking fundraising efforts to augment its nine billion dollar endowment surely drives that home pretty effectively. Are we really going to try and artificially constrain that basic human impulse?
    I sometimes feel that there is a generationally based, reflexive distrust of “Broadway”, or “the marketplace”. The feeling is that they represent something that is, inherently, wrong. Not to be trusted. Corrupting in some irreversible way. They are, in this view, comparable to Big Business, or Greed, or Capitalism. Can they be corrupting? Of course. Must they be? Let’s allow the individual organizations to decide how they are going to do that reaching for revenue. Then their supporters, their constituency, can decide if they support that.

    The pain that Polly shares with many others over salary iniquities, and the constant funding of buildings and administrations before artists also hits home. High relative salaries for artistic and / or administrative leaders are usually defended as market-based; these people are charged, directly or indirectly, with bringing in the dollars that keep the structure going – you have to pay up to get the best people, and bring in the most dollars possible. So you have the closed circle that perpetuates the organization for the arts, and only rarely, and seemingly as an afterthought, trickles a few lonely shekels down to the creators of art…

    As long as performing arts institutions remain shackled to this vicious, closed circle, that is, the constant need to re-raise your entire budget every single year, while simultaneously harboring the natural ambition to grow (and thus make your task even more difficult next year), this won’t change. Waiting for government to pick up the slack is waiting for Godot – it will never happen. Completely aside from the miserable current condition of government budgets, both Federal and State, it is politically impossible. Neither the money nor the political will are there. There may be a few (rare) exceptions with regard to political will at the state level, but in Washington both obstacles are insurmountable.

    The answer, I believe, is to follow the lead of the most successful non-profits in the country, the private universities, and focus on endowments. This will, eventually, create a revenue stream independent of the annual budget-raising merry-go-round. It creates a pile of dollars – that belongs to the institution – that artists can legitimately point to in their long-term quest for reasonable compensation. It’s money that the leadership isn’t required to raise every year, and so undercuts need to constantly pay top-dollar to asset collectors. And it helps to insulate the institution from the ups and downs of the economy (and if we can’t appreciate that in today’s economy, we never will). Further, it’s one of the few tools that our government offers non-profit status right from the get go, and we don’t use it.

    Is it a silver bullet? No. Will it be quick? No. Is there something better we haven’t tried?

    • says

      It’s perhaps a bit too facile to assume mistrust of markets and capitalism is merely something generational – the hippy mentality of those old 68ers or something like that. The reality is that since the late 70s neo-liberal ideologies have moved to the center of US economic policies. This strong push toward privatization has had a strong affect on concepts of public funding for the arts which are very much worth discussion. There are also profound ethical dimensions that divide public and private funding which we also need to consider.

      As I mentioned above, American neo-liberalism stands in stark contrast with the public funding systems of Europe’s social democracies. This has led to a low grade cultural war over which system will prevail since the world economy by necessity must become more uniform. This is another reason why both systems should be discussed.

      Do we really need to throw up our arms and say public funding will never happen? The same was said about the civil rights movement and the equality of African-Americans – one of whom is now President after a 50 year struggle. The USA is capable of enormous change even in its ethical beliefs, but it requires the political will and endurance to create these long-term changes. And at any rate, at this point we simply need to look at the hard data which shows how much better Europe’s public system works at funding the arts than ours – something that Americans are reluctant to admit even when the facts are overwhelming.

      It might be interesting to consider how public vs. private funding affects the desire of arts organizations to grow. Most orchestras in the USA are downsizing, and quite few have gone bankrupt. The question is hardly even relevant to opera houses and companies since we have so few, and most of them are struggling to even survive, much less grow.

      I think part of the desire for growth can be spurred by the boom and bust character of private funding. US organizations gorge while they can because they know that hard times will inevitably come with regular downturns of the economy. Then they eat away their endowments which are also strongly influenced by ecomonic conditions. Even Harvard with its 300 billion endowment has recently learned that endowments do not offer stability.

      Arts organizations in Europe also like to grow, but their funding is generally far more stable and often established years in advance. About 5 of Europe’ 30 countries have faced stress with arts funding in the current ecomonic crisis, but they do not define a norm, and the stresses have not been as extreme. No European orchestra with the stature of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, went bankrupt. European arts institutions seem to fill a niche in society and the cultural landscape and then remain content and secure in that position. I think this hypothesis could be backed up with hard financial data, but it would require a good deal of research.

  10. says

    Let me take this back to the micro from the macro vis a vis ethics policies for individual institutions. It would be ethical that actors have contracts and know what they will be paid and by when. As a funder, I once discovered a grantee organization owed actors and other personnel in excess of $50K. BUT, the theater was in the middle of a capital campaign with the possibility of a public-private partnership for a new theater. Which would have given them the stability they needed to be stronger financially.
    My choices were to resolve it quietly (I failed as they lied to me repeatedly) or go to the press which would have certainly meant the demise of the deal and the loss of a well-respected theater and the payroll for artists that went with it. This was a founder-led theater with no board to speak of. The founder stopped speaking to me, suggesting that I was trying to destroy the organization. I also considered suspending funding to the organization but that would have required the actors to “go pubic”. (and our grant wasn’t enough to make or break them).
    My point is that statements of ethics mean nothing when organizational administrators and boards are willing to ignore whatever they wish and no one holds them accountable. Who can speak for artists in that situation? The actors were unwilling to go public, fearing future loss of roles at a small, albeit prestigious, theater.
    I think this situation happens more often than we realize. There is no full communication among people with unequal power regardless of the business model. And artists are very often the least powerful people in cultural organizations.

  11. says

    Just a note to put these ethical considerations into a larger perspective based on current events (though I appreciate Margot’s micro perspective which is very important.) The NSA employs about 40,000 people with an annual budget of 10 billion dollars, but Washington cannot give 500 people the jobs to have a fulltime opera house like every European capital city (there are about 30 of them.) That’s why Washington ranks 182nd in the world for opera performances per year. What do these priorities mean in a world where so-called soft power is of increasing importance?

    It seems it’s more important to spy on us than to show the world our intelligence, dignity, and humanism. It is difficult to approach ethical questions in a society so convoluted.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>