A few days ago, Americans for the Arts (the largest national nonprofit arts advocacy group) announced it was merging with the Arts & Business Council (a group promoting business support for the arts). Americans for the Arts is itself the product of a merger about a decade ago between the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (which had formed years earlier as a spin-off from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies) and the American Council for the Arts. I don’t want to put you to sleep with a slew of soporific acronyms, so suffice it to say that since the Reagan era, there has been major consolidation in the nonprofit arts infrastructure due to declining resources. A healthy social sector will see a multiplication of groups and initiatives, with resources growing at least as fast as population. Not so in the nonprofit arts. As Americans for the Arts’ statement puts it, “the market share of total philanthropy devoted to the nonprofit arts has declined by nearly one-third since the early 1990s.”
I’m tempted to assert that those few words say it all. “Market share,” after all, is an expression from commerce, and philanthropy has to do with charity and benevolence (the word’s Greek roots — \philo\ and \anthropos\ — add up to loving humankind). For the last 25 years, since the dawn of the Reagan era (and the concomitant demise of subversive ideas like public service and public responsibility), nonprofit groups have been persuaded to adopt corporate language and standards of value. The theory is that speaking this language will get through to the folks who hold the pursestrings of both public and private philanthropy, as these days they mostly come from corporate culture themselves. This merger is only the most recent step in a sequence. Vast resources have gone into corporate-style campaigns to shift public opinion, for instance. (Americans for the Arts’ slogan to promote arts education is “Art. Ask for More.” Enough said?)
In my blogpost for 17 February, I explained that the dominant advocacy strategy has not worked because it misses the true significance of artistic expression. I suppose an overall one-third decline in philanthropic arts giving makes the point as well. If not, perhaps President Bush’s new budget proposal, which asks for far fewer dollars for the National Endowment for the Arts than the paltry sum in President Carter’s last pre-Reagan budget, will help make it clear.
The thing is, even these big-picture data obscure the truth, which is that the pain is not evenly distributed within the vast sector lumped under the category “nonprofit arts.” Red-carpet arts institutions (such as major opera companies, symphony orchestras, and ballet companies) typically receive three-quarters or more of their contributed income from individual and corporate patrons. Those patrons’ giving has declined, but not nearly so much as public funding for the arts. The groups and artists who’ve traditionally relied on public support for subsistence typically receive well under half of their income (most far less than that) from wealthy individuals and businesses. Those community arts groups, ethnically specific organizations, rural groups, experimental groups, and so on — today, most of them are hanging on for dear life.
My husband is the executive director of the Richmond Art Center. Our home community of Richmond has made headlines twice in the past year or so, once when our county?s schools cut the budget by eliminating art, music, libraries, sports, and student counseling services; and again when \Coach Carter\ came out, a troubled-urban-youth film set in Richmond and starring Samuel Jackson. Richmond is a handy symbol, as it typifies the contradictions of America 2005: it’s the murder capital of the Bay Area; in our neighborhood and many others, up to half the residents’ first language is other than English; and we are so public-spirited and desperate for change that nearly 85% of us voted in the last election.
The Richmond Art Center is not the only example I could use, but I know it well enough to tell the real story, and it definitely fits the profile. It was started during the New Deal of the 30s by an artist who pedaled her bicycle from place to place, offering classes for all comers. Now nearly a thousand people study there each year; the current gallery exhibits feature the 9th annual edition of their Bay Area Black artists show as well as a photo-and-text exhibit by local teens, and much, much more. In a few weeks they’ll be dedicating a mural artist Isis Rodriguez created with two dozen local kids recruited by a group called Mothers Against Senseless Violence, whose children have been murdered. My husband would be embarrassed to know I told you that last summer, when he pulled out all the stops to offer scholarships, he came home with tears in his eyes because a student stopped him in the hall to kiss his hand in gratitude, volunteering her mother to make flan to sell by the portion for a fundraising event. The Art Center can’t pay a janitor, so my husband cleans the men’s room himself. Volunteers come in every day — sometimes the same people, day after day — to sweep the floors and organize the bulletin boards. You get the picture.
Since Ronald Reagan starved the NEA and the California Arts Council’s budget was cut from $37 million to $1 million a couple of years ago, since the City of Richmond is pinching every penny to pay for basic services, since the Art Center earns every cent possible from class fees without abandoning its core values and constituencies, since the Art Center is blessed with several wonderful donors whose resources unfortunately don’t stretch to the sums patrons typically give to the red-carpet arts, since competition for remaining community arts funds is scarce and most corporations that make arts grants target prestige institutions that can add luster to their public relations — given all that, the facts of life in this particular corner of “the nonprofit arts” are rather different than in the offices of Americans for the Arts, where the annual budget is $9 million and rising. (Believe me, if that money were increasing resources for the artists and groups whose work I feel is most urgent and essential, I wouldn’t begrudge Americans for the Arts the $9 million.)
I would like to ask you to pause for a moment to give a thought for the creativity and resilience of the people of Richmond, young and old, and their counterparts in every part of this country. If we keep going this way, in our public discourse, the language of beauty and meaning, of public responsibility and cultural commonwealth, will be entirely replaced by talk of market share; and the artists and groups who are dedicated to community service, finding themselves no longer able to pay the rent and keep the lights on, will watch embittered as corporate culture gobbles up the last protected public space, completing the project of commercializing absolutely everything.
This need not be our legacy. This must not be our legacy. Giving helps, talking about it helps, and there’s an excellent chance that prayers and blessings help. One way or another, every one of us can help.