Public support for the arts and the letter of the law

dedicationI was recently interviewed by Nancy Fowler of St. Louis Public radio on the recent controversies surrounding the ethics policies of the Zoo-Museum District. I won’t repeat the whole story here, which is best covered in Ms Fowler’s piece. This is a more general observation:

Public and nonprofit arts organizations rely on public support. For public agencies, that comes in terms of voter support for earmarked tax funding programs, or through the budget allocations of local, state and federal government. Nonprofits rely on public support directly through donations and sales, and indirectly through the public policies that provide support to nonprofits, like direct grants, and the tax exemptions and credits that benefit nonprofits.

To maintain public support, it is never enough for an organization in a controversy to be able to say “but we followed to the letter our organization’s official procedures and policies.” Having followed procedures is enough to get through a legal or administrative tussle, but true public support requires something more – that the public clearly sees that the agency’s principals acted transparently and responsibly in the public interest. Without that, public support for the arts erodes, and the organization’s official ethics and procedures documents won’t save it.

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