The Playgoer: Is Arts Funding Going to Those Who Need It?

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Is Arts Funding Going to Those Who Need It?

A philanthropy watchdog group reports that "billions of dollars in arts funding is serving a mostly wealthy, white audience that is shrinking while only a small chunk of money goes to emerging art groups that serve poorer communities that are more ethnically diverse."

What else is new, I know. Still, the numbers are instructive:

According to the study, the largest arts organizations with budgets exceeding $5 million represent only 2 percent of the nonprofit arts and culture sector. Yet those groups received 55 percent of foundation funding for the arts in 2009. Only 10 percent of arts funding was explicitly meant to benefit underserved populations. 
Or to put it another way:
"It is a problem because it means that – in the arts – philanthropy is using its tax-exempt status primarily to benefit wealthier, more privileged institutions and populations," wrote the report's author, Holly Sidford.
The philanthropy class looking after their own kind, maybe?

This brings up an eternal debate in such levels of funding: Do we fund simply our perceptions of "the best" art? (aka, the Rocco Thesis?) Do we prioritize the art that serves the most people--or the small pockets of forgotten and underserved communities? Is arts funding primarily for entertaining audiences or for engaging (and employing) artists?

I'm a bit torn because in a European "State Theatre" model, of course the priority is to build up formidable institutions producing the finest work at the highest level. But does the vast size and diversity of our nation merit a different approach?

Another quandary is raised by the different roles played by public and private funding. In the article, Kennedy Center boss Michael Kaiser says, "The biggest issue for arts organizations of color is that they have been overly reliant on foundation and government funding," and that they "really need more individual donors, not just foundation donors."

But hold on a sec, Mike: Isn't what you're really saying is that it's a lot easier for Kennedy Center to rope in those big private donors and foundations (because they're your friends and neighbors) than it is for, say, El Museo del Barrio? In that case--one may well ask--why is Kennedy Center getting any of that scarce government funding at all? Why don't you guys rely on the rich people and the rest will get the public funds--making it truly "public" funding after all.

Or to put it another way... Maybe you shouldn't take public money if the public can't afford to come to your offerings. (I mean, what's the Roundabout and MTC doing charging $100 Broadway prices, right?)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Super excited about this! I have been following Ayad Akhtar for some time and he is such a talent - and I hope to see more coverage of upcoming shows.