It won’t happen because of Disney. It’ll happen when nonprofit arts organizations change the way in which they do business.
I’m not from Florida. I was born in California. Yes, on May 14, just like the sign says. Respond accordingly.
Until recently (in decades), California was deemed to be that “crazy” place where weird things happened for no rational reason. People used to say California was where the nuts were.
Not any more, of course. Now, it’s a quasi-country of 40 million people with its own financial challenges (both recent and long-term), near autonomy, and a high cost of living. Not unlike 100 years ago:
Florida has become California’s California. Only meaner, scarier, and more selfish.
Florida is the deepest south we have. People often forget that. They think it’s Miami and oranges and beaches and Disney World. A place to have fun. But we know now that it’s full of old crooks, white supremacists, and a general redneck population that seems to control everything.
All that said, Florida is not a horrible place. I know amazing people who live there. Who choose to live there. Kala Kaminsky works there. So does Corey Yugler. And Steve Libman. And Corinne Deckard not only works there, but she went to college in Gainesville. These are marvelous people and I hope one day that you have the good fortune to meet them. Your lives will be made better for it. (Kala, Corey, Steve, and Corinne – now you have to buy my book. It’s the least you can do for a guy’s birthday.)
The arts are something of a big deal in Florida. There are numerous symphony orchestras, art museums, theater companies, ballets, and operas. The largest ones are funded by the people who buy the tickets. Elitism and racism reign supreme.
Sadly, the same elitism that has fatally infected most large nonprofit arts organizations in America is in full bloom in Florida. It’s not as though it’s a lot better anywhere else. The difference is that Florida has a state government as cruel and openly hostile to things like free thought, expression, and whatever a non-cisgendered, non-white, or female person might have to say (and make it nearly impossible to vote to change it). Just like Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and most of the old Confederacy. It is in these places that, no matter what, the arts will only be funded as long as they don’t try to effect the kind of change that reveals (or tries to overthrow) homegrown bigotry.
It is in these places where books are banned, then burned.
Makes you understand, as we’ve seen before, that Lincoln was right. A house divided against itself not only will not stand, it did not stand. In fact, it fell apart at the broken foundation.
To fight the good fight, it will take the combined power of ALL the arts organizations in Florida to eliminate the problems associated with elitism and white privilege. All of them. It’s gotten that bad.
But imagine what would happen if the venerable (über-wealthy, über-elderly, and über-white) Palm Beach Opera were to announce that they no longer would be selling tickets to their events. Any of them. Rather, they are going to use their donations to comprise 100% of the revenue necessary to take their productions to underserved communities in neighboring Okeechobee, Highlands, Glades, and Hendry Counties, as well as places like Belle Glade (poverty rate 41%), and Pahokee (37.8%) within Palm Beach County. Can you hear the cacophony coming from Mar-a-Lago and places like it? “Those people won’t understand what’s going on!” “Why are you discriminating against me?” “Don’t I deserve to see an opera, too?” And so on.
The first thing we’ll discover is that the overarching elitism connection to the arts will be exposed: donors donate to arts organizations so that donors may attend. When they are excluded from attending so that underserved and otherwise needy people may attend instead, will they still donate? Simply asked,
“Will you donate some of your kerjillions even if you don’t personally reap a benefit?”
They might. I’m guessing not many. What do you think?
What if the largest arts organizations all over the state—still reeling financially from the pandemic, but doing much better than any of the smaller organizations—all pulled a twist on Lysistrata and denied access to their art to their richest donors until they supported the most under-educated, under-served, and needy? Would they all just close? And what would that do to the economy of the state when all the artists move away? Would they just do lesser work for art’s sake?
The power that nonprofit arts organizations wield over martinets like DeSantis and his brown-shirts is only effective en masse. Disney just worked around him with quick legislation that re-empowered them moments before they were to lose power over their properties. They could do that because in so many ways, Disney is its own private country with its own rules and laws.
But that’s another story.
If all the nonprofit arts organizations in the state decided not to compete against each other for funding, audience, and acclaim and suddenly used their art to provide voting access, add back books to libraries, feed and clothe poor people (regardless of their race), and any other exempt activity as described in IRS 501(C)(3), wouldn’t life be better in Florida? Wouldn’t the art have more meaning? And wouldn’t the loss of these organizations serve as a warning (not unlike Disney’s) that these organizations could do the same thing in other states just as easily, leaving a void for wealthy people who might choose not to live there anymore?
Or maybe this is a pipe dream. Nonprofit arts organizations who don’t have an externally-facing mission might never choose to change their communities for the better, even if it means extinction. Why would they choose to change their ways now, when it might mean acting like a charity instead of a quasi-capitalistic, broken business model?
Based in Kirkland, Washington, Alan Harrison is a writer and speaker specializing in nonprofit organizations, strategy, the arts, and life politics. His columns appear regularly in major publications. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Alan is always looking for good opportunities to write and consult for nonprofits that need a hand. And, of course, that elusive Perfect Opportunity™.
BIG NEWS: Alan’s new book, “Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact” will be published in January. CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER IN THE UNITED STATES. If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE.
Alan will be speaking on Friday, May 19 at the Washington State Nonprofit Conference at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Tacoma, WA. The publisher has printed a LIMITED NUMBER of books that will be available on-site so that attendees can purchased a signed copy right there at the event. Come visit and get your own signed copy!
He will also be hosting a session on the responsibilities of Nonprofit Arts Boards for the California Association of Symphony Orchestras in August. If you’re affiliated with an orchestra in California, come join us in Riverside!
A few more copies may be made available for those booking conferences, reading engagements, and speaking engagements. Recruit your local bookstore, conference panel, or boardroom to get a visit from Alan. Let Alan know if you want bulk copies for your board!
Numa Saisselin says
Thanks for featuring the Florida Theatre marquee on your post of May 9, proposing that the Florida nonprofit arts community take on the responsibility of fixing everything that is wrong with Florida. I write to respond.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. You don’t live in Florida. It takes chutzpah to tell a statewide industry in another state what you think they should do. Your state (California) seems to have a lot of problems too these days. However, I do not feel a need to tell you what to do; I’ve got my own backyard to worry about.
The arts as you observed are indeed a big deal in Florida, and they are indeed funded at least in part by the people who buy tickets and attend. OF COURSE that’s who is going to make a donation! They’re consumers of our product. They’re emotionally invested in it. How you make the leap that enjoying a product so much that you want to support it more is elitist and racist is beyond me.
I don’t believe that donors donate to arts organizations just so that donors may attend. For sure, ensuring their prime seat is part of it, but not the entire thing. Donors give, also in part, for programs they don’t personally benefit from, because it’s the right thing to do. They’re donating to support things like arts education and outreach and free concerts in the park and 100 other things that nonprofit arts organization do that a commercial organization would not.
I know this because I see it every day. The Florida Theatre has 1,633 donor households right now, and the average gift is $448 this year. That’s pretty far from elitist 1% territory.
Don’t get me wrong. I am against racism. I believe in climate change. I am for free speech, voting access, open access to books in libraries, feeding the hungry and clothing the unclothed. I’m against elitism and privilege, and so on. I do not however think it’s my job as an arts administrator to address all those issues. It’s my job as the executive of a nonprofit arts organization to lead my organization, and fulfill its mission. Period.
If you want to improve voting rights, get involved with a voting rights organization. If you want to feed hungry people, get involved with a food pantry. I don’t believe that life would be better if the entire nonprofit arts industry decided to tackle all of these issues together. I believe that then you’d have an industry so far removed from its purpose that it would collapse, and what good would that do anyone?
I have seen so much of this thinking lately at conferences, in webinars, and in writings that I believe our industry is actually in existential danger of collapse. We’re expected to be not arts organizations, but warriors for truth and justice. I believe that my organization changes my community for the better just by being itself, and focusing on its own mission.
There are a lot of good organizations and good people doing good work in Florida. You should come spend some time with us. As you observed, your life would be made better if you met them.
PS – We have a fancy new digital marquee and we took a new birthday photo with your picture in it. Send me your email address and we’ll send it to you.
James Croak says
Ernest Hemingway wrote from Florida. Gore Vidal wrote from California. Any questions?