This Is Very True

Although this op-ed piece is primarily about San Francisco performing arts orgs, it really applies to any and all arts nonprofits:

In general, arts organizations have done all they can to reduce costs. They’ve reached out to audiences, luring them with promotions, free stuff, and advertising they can barely afford. So let’s talk about the elephant in the room: government funding for the arts. If we want to truthfully tell our donors that we’ve done everything in our power to raise money, we can’t ignore the government.

Right now, the various U.S. governments give to the arts at pitifully small levels, if they do so at all. The state of California has been extremely parsimonious to the California Arts Council for years since the 2003–2004 budget crisis, and has to be thankful that Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas decided to defund its state arts agency last year: At last, a partner in miserliness! (Brownback, it is rumored, may restore a part of that funding in his new budget.) At the federal level, all three cultural grant-making agencies took significant hits in the budget passed in 2011, but those programs have never been very large in dollar terms. Last year, they were 0.066 percent of the total federal budget, all in. And the bulk of federal arts expenditure goes to the Smithsonian Institution and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Nevertheless, the $155 million in discretionary grants that the National Endowment for the Arts passes out this year will be critical to a wide range of nonprofit organizations. Every little bit helps. But the organizations that benefit from these grants tend to outsource advocacy to state art councils instead of delivering the message themselves. [. . .]

The current private-debt crisis has hit arts organizations where they live. The aging of the audience (at least in many classical venues) has become more marked as major donors become scarcer and begin to suffer “fatigue.” We owe it to those donors who have gotten us this far to knock on government doors the way we knocked on theirs. And we owe it to the next generation to ensure that art doesn’t become truly elitist.

When we make the argument, whether in Washington or in a state capitol, or even at the local level, our greatest argument and weapon will be the very people we have collected money from for all these years. We have proven, for decades, that there is significant support for the arts in the U.S. And since we can’t have an argument over whether or not to be taxed, only about where our tax money will be directed, those arts patrons have a right to be heard and recognized.


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