Sunday, September 16, 2012
Leveling the Playing Field
“And the beat goes on...........................”
There has been much discussion this year about equity - particularly in funding support for arts organizations and in access to services. It is no secret that a disproportionately larger percentage share of funding has for a long time gone to the larger, bigger budget, major cultural organizations across the country. That those organizations are predominantly euro-centric has raised questions of diversity and fundamental fairness. While shifting demographics continue to accelerate the change in population dynamics and portend for the future changes in where the centers of decision making will lie, and while that landscape will predictably change in time, as 2013 approaches, the playing field continues to favor the older guard pretty much across the board. Despite all our attempts to deal with it, inequity still exists.
Some of that advantage is attributable to a long and vaulted history of the more favored organizations producing excellent product. Having done it longer, they are more experienced and have learned over time how to not only achieve excellence in programming, but function as more efficient and effective managers and administrators. Some of it is due to their audiences themselves in a better position to both be an audience and to support the arts organizations that cater to them. Larger budgets, of course, allow for staffing and attention being paid to details that the smaller, poorer arts organizations can only dream of with envy. Most of what we classify as major cultural institutions - symphonies, operas, museums, theatre groups, ballet companies - all got bigger because they did things right. Having worked hard to achieve it, they deserve their success, and that success has benefited the arts on the local and national stages. But we need to remember that they were able to do things right because they got the lion's share of the available support.
A price was paid for that, for the smaller, newer and the multicultural arts organizations rarely got treated the same. And their audiences and their supporters were not as able to nurture their existence.
The current tough economic climate hits all our organizations. It is harder for all to steer a course through the economic minefields, to successfully raise funds and reach financial stability, and to address the daunting challenges of changing audiences and philanthropic giving.
Is this an issue that ought to be further addressed? Haven't we dealt with it already, and for some time? While I know of no research or data that confirms, let alone measures the extent, that a segment of the arts has suffered because of the playing field favoring some over others, it seems clear to me that, on its face, the anecdotal evidence that there has been, and continues to be, an inequity, is overwhelming and universal. It is difficult to imagine a convincing argument to the contrary.
For the future, the demographics will eventually favor those multicultural groups once given the short end of the stick. But for now, the questions arise as to what we should do: (1) should we not try to (finally) do something (more) that will level the playing field, so that those arts organizations in the corners of the field that have for a long time been outside looking in, are, to the extent that is possible, given a chance to grow, expand and thrive on at least a more favorable basis then they have in the past (on a "competitive" level)?; and (2) how can we best create that more level playing field for them, while at the same time not abandoning that which has existed for a long time, nor somehow adopting a reverse unleveling of the playing field by merely favoring a new cohort?
What are we talking about when we reference an unequal playing field? Here’s a small example: major organizations have budgets that allow them to provide for at least some professional development / skills training for their managers (senior to middle, and in some cases entry level. Not that they all avail themselves of the option, but most could if they so desired). Most smaller, younger, organizations, including many of the multicultural organizations, simply do not have the funds in their budgets to allow them to similarly provide that support to their staffs. While there are foundation and government programs that recognize the need and offer some specific subsidies, they are not universal, and while some benefit, many others do not (and though I do not know for sure, I suspect much of the funding of many of those programs goes to the bigger cultural organizations anyway). Moreover, more funding means you can hire more experienced people. Staffs with training options, and better salaries are better positioned to effectively and successfully manage their organizations. So the rich seem to, if not get richer, stay rich anyway. That is just one tiny example of how the playing field has not been level.
Are we talking about some kind of “affirmative action” or something else? Is there anything inherently unfair or wrong to try at this point to make up for past inequities by redirecting some of our energies, focus and funds in a campaign directly designed to increase the opportunities for all the arts organizations to survive - focusing specifically on those that have toiled without? That was, I think, the underlying assumption and justification for a lot of multicultural specific programs we have launched over the past three or four decades. When I was at the California Arts Council we had several programs that addressed multicultural needs. I didn’t start those programs; they existed before I got there. They were well received and succeeded in some ways to level the field in California. When I first lobbied the legislature for more money, I got an additional two million dollars, with the caveat that the money would be used to address the needs of the state’s various multicultural communities. Such programs do exist all over the country. Many have been at the least somewhat successful over time in leveling the playing field. Yet, when the dollars started to dry up, many of these programs were the ones that went by the wayside. And while these were, and are still, exemplary programs - they were never universal, and even now the playing field still remains unequal. The work was started, but not finished. That is the challenge.
Obviously there are insufficient funds to provide all things to all organizations. Reality dictates that there is always some degree of inequality. Some organizations will get more, some less. Some may deserve more, others less. The issue isn’t absolute equality for everyone. The issue is whether there is equity in the access of all to the pie. Does the system favor one group over others in its provision to them of benefits that makes it easier for them to succeed? Whether intentionally, or unintentionally - it doesn't matter. If the playing field isn’t level, then the danger is the existence of unequal, and unfair advantages for some, that are not available to others. Without that access, you remain a ‘have-not’.
It isn't just a matter of a new program, nor good intentions. There are systemic obstacles to leveling the playing field for the ‘have-nots’ - protocols and procedures, rules and regulations, habits and legacies, policies and customs that perpetuate the inequities. Here are four examples: (i) protocols and rules that ban organizations with less than two, three, or four years existence from applying for grants (ostensibly and arguably to insure that a grantee will be fiscally responsible and have the capacity to meet its stated intent - but with the net effect that it is axiomatically more difficult to launch new efforts by new organizations within specific communities); (ii) in some instances, lack of a ban of having foundation or government board members also sitting on the boards of major cultural institution grantees (and even where that conflict of interest is resolved by the Board member abstaining from voting, or the ban is in place, the camaraderie of the “good old boy” network insures that everyone’s pet project is taken care of - that is simply how it works), and even where there is no such potential conflict of interest, more of the decision makers come from, or have deep ties to and relationships with, the groups that get most of the benefits; (iii) inadequate access to limited facilities by the legacy of a historical priority system; (iv) rules that prohibit grants to organizations more frequently than one every X number of years or back to back grants (again on its face, seemingly designed to actually level the playing field, but the application does the opposite because the amount of the grants going to the “haves” is disproportionately larger than to the “have nots” and so the ban impacts the big guys less). All of that worked - though subtlety - (and continues in many cases to work) to keep the field from being level. It isn’t consciously conspiratorial, but it is now built into the fabric of how we do things. We need to look at it all carefully and fix what is broken.
Blame is not the issue. Nor is the past. Justification, rationalization, complaints and grievances - none of that really matters. The issue is where do we go from here. And please note that I am not suggesting that in all instances the inequity is so large as to be unconscionable, rather just that the inequities do exist, are pervasive, and need to be addressed.
If you want to talk about doing something about inequity - at least in this one sphere, I think what is needed is some major, overarching commitment of all the sector’s funders - government and private - and the rest of us - to work towards a level playing field - however that might ultimately be defined, and however it might be best manifested at a local level. We need, in my opinion, a LINC type decade long program, a PEW DATA level project (but on an even bigger scale) that will have as its stated objective to make sure that the “have nots” in our sector at least have more access to moving to become “haves”. A leveling of the playing field at least in access to the tools and assets that will allow all organizations equal opportunity to be viable arts providers and makers. Obviously, that kind of effort will take different forms and different directions across different communities. No cookie cutter approach will likely be possible or even desirable.
And yes, as alluded to above, there are already scores of programs already in existence that seek to do just that. And many other programs like GIA’s Capitalization project or even the NEA's Creative Placemaking efforts - the net effect of which would be to help level the playing field by coming at it from a different direction - are part of the larger solution. But too much of our approach to dealing with an unequal playing field is like a crazy quilt of unrelated fabric; the effort is disjointed, and haphazard. The intent gets lost in the translation. The effort is backdoor or as a beneficial and positive side effect. The problem never seems to really go away.
But to give more to some, doesn’t that mean taking away more from others? I suppose it does, but it is all a matter of degree, and for so long we have been doing just that in favor of some at the expense of others. Accepting that some will get more, others will get less, that it is impossible to be precisely and always fair and equitable, nevertheless, the time has come to try harder to level that out.
I think we need a program that speaks to all that with a single voice on a mega level; one that embodies a commitment of, and to, the field. I think we need a JFK type “We will land a man on the moon and return him safely within a decade” type commitment - an unequivocal, four-square marshaling of our forces (by the whole of us) to try harder to do one simple thing - whatever it takes to level the playing field so that the former have-nots can stay in the race with the haves. And staying in the race is the challenge for many now.
After awhile rhetoric wears thin no matter how eloquent, no matter how impassioned, no matter how true - and people need more than plans, more than promises, more than good intentions - more even than hope - they need something tangible. We need a system in place for the whole of us, not the few.
We need to say out loud that we will level the field. And then we need to do that.
Have a great week.