Many have written in the past week on the pending and proposed eliminations of the Kansas, Texas, and South Carolina state arts agencies (among others). For a roundup of the news on this front I recommend this post on Createquity. Some see these attacks as yet another sign that the country is filled with philistines, some see them as symbolic or purely political, and others as the reasonable end of decades of disregard by arts organizations of their communities-at-large.
The arts (which in the minds of most people equates with ‘the fine arts’) are clearly not everyone’s cup of tea (and no amount of rhetoric will probably change this); having said this, it would be shortsighted to dismiss current attacks as being driven primarily by barbarians. Many politicians evidently perceive that they can safely target the arts for cuts on the basis of their being exclusive, elitist, extravagant, or wealthy (and suggest that taxes and subsidies would be better directed elsewhere) because the arts often serve and are defended by a relatively small percentage of their constituencies. Furthermore, and rather unfortunately,these arguments against the arts are not just political rhethoric; they are reasonable accusations that can be plausibly lobbed at more than a few so-called ‘flagship’ nonprofit arts groups.
Candidly, I find it increasingly difficult to defend why a nonprofit theater company (even, and especially, outside of NYC) needs to charge $100+ for its tickets, or why a nonprofit opera company needs to charge nearly twice as much, if not more. I’ll save for another day my thoughts on the downsides of coupling the price of admission and the value of the arts experience in the minds of consumers, but for now suffice it to say I agree with those who have expressed the opinion that lowering ticket prices (or otherwise reducing financial barriers) is the number one change that many flagship, fine arts groups need to make–both to demonstrate that they are earnest about being ‘inclusive’ and to increase attendance.
Secondly, for decade upon decade, many arts organizations have essentially paid lipservice to their educational missions, despite the fact that many people do not have meaningful exposure to the arts growing up and there is research that suggests that such exposure is linked to adult participation. (It seems that it would be in the best interest of arts groups to take their educational missions more seriously.) Nonetheless, I recognize that, in particular, hands-on participation activities are not (today) a core competency of many arts groups (although one might posit that over the next 10 years they will need to become so).
Given research demonstrating a link between hands-on participation and attendance, what if (over the next five years) 30 percent of all nonprofit arts organizations were (voluntarily) re-engineered as arts education hybrids, specifically designed to provide sustained adult and youth arts participation activities as their primary, if not exclusive, purpose? Perhaps doing so would (1) be a more effective method (than current practices by arts groups) for broadening and deepening engagement with the arts; (2) eventually lead to an increase in attendance and enjoyment by people at traditional organizations whose primary purpose is to produce or present great exhibitions and performances; and (3) in the short term, bring new revenues into the sector and reduce competition for audiences and resources?
Finally, at a time when many Americans do not have jobs, cannot pay their mortgages, and cannot afford other essentials it’s easy to pin adjectives like extravagant and wealthy on the arts when they continue to show up in the news under headlines such as these: (1) leading organization needs bailout (again); (2) leading organization breaks ground on fancy new building despite recession; (3) leading arts group unable to afford fancy new building built five years ago; (4) leading organization announces high-priced, celebrity-studded show or gala that is guaranteed to sell out; (5) executive of leading arts group making in the ‘high six figures’ takes 10 percent cut in pay due to recession; (6) leading arts group closes its doors after years of accumulated deficits, mounting debts, financial mismanagement, overspending, and poor board oversight. Headlines like these corroborate the perception that arts organizations do not merit subsidies because they are already wealthy or spend more than is necessary, wise, or justifiable.
The large majority of organizations are not exclusive, elitist, extravagant, and wealthy; but those that are, particularly when they are heralded as ‘leaders’, give the nonprofit arts sector a bad rap. Perhaps organizations that would prefer to target and price their performances exclusively to the upper middle class, who believe that the arts primarily exist to serve the highly educated cultural elite, who are not interested in fulfilling their educational and charitable missions, or who lack the will or discipline to exercise fiscal moderation, should be restructured as private, for-profit, membership-based clubs?
Or if that’s a preposterous idea, at the very least it may be time to question whether such organizations should continue to be lauded as exemplars of the nonprofit arts realm? Perhaps we need a new conception of what constitutes a ‘leading’ nonprofit arts organization in the 21st century? It may be time to set the public record straight.
Image of fallen chess king by Herbert Kratky, licensed at Shutterstock.com.