Grass Is Greener?

In my recent travels to Australia and Chile I saw two places where government funding for the arts is far more generous than is true in the U.S. (Yes, we know that is not a very high bar to leap.) In one, Australia, funding is by our standards significant. In the other, funding is nearly total, so much so that even basic concepts like audience development and audience engagement are foreign. My hosts in Santiago told me that patron loyalty is not an issue many arts organizations there address. (What does concern Chilean arts officials is the attempt to connect broadly with as much of the population as possible. Thus, they have a particular concern for community engagement.)

Sounds like funding heaven, right? Certainly, being valued by the government as an important part of society and the (near) certainty that money will be available for basic operations borders on utopian fantasy for those of us in the States.

And yet . . . in Australia, arts officials were waiting to see if the next budget (set to begin in less than 5 weeks) would force them to eliminate important positions. Chilean managers discussed concerns regarding red tape and unresponsive bureaucracies.

These are both “known issues” that plague government funding. However, the big thing that was new to me was that in both countries lack of trust in the government made it difficult for arts organizations to connect with communities. In Australia, First Nations, recent immigrants, and other marginalized populations are sometimes hesitant to work with recipients of government funds. The same was true in Chile but an even more significant factor there was the impact of the nation’s relatively recent history. The arts workers I met told me that almost no one trusted the government or any of its representatives. [While the country’s dictatorship is almost twenty years in the past, not one person with whom I spoke about Chile’s history ever mentioned the name Pinochet. They always referred to “the dictatorship.”] Arts organizations seeking to develop community relationships there have significant work to do to foster even a modicum of trust.

In both countries, Q&A sessions raised concerns about how to build relationships when communities the arts were seeking to reach did not trust the sources of the funds they were using. (Of course the reason lack of trust in the government is not much of an issue in the U.S. is that the amount of money involved is so small.)

Also, in both places I heard wistfulness about the private funds for the arts that they understand to exist in the U.S. In Australia, private money is limited and in Chile it is virtually non-existent.

The view from over the fence seldom sees that there are problems lurking in the green grass. For the purposes of this blog, understanding how each system can impede relationship building is important. Later (probably in the early fall), I’ll apply the same lens to the negative impact of private funding on building trust in new communities. Until then





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