Wednesday, June 22, 2005

June 23, 2005 Update #7

Table of Contents:
I. A few thoughts on whether the Arts are overbuilt
II. The PBS Crisis
III. Bits & Pieces

Hello everybody.

"And the beat goes on..............."

"Changes in attitudes, changes in latitudes, nothing remains quite the same.............."

I am no longer a funder. I no longer have to make the hard choices as to who and what to fund, and as a consequence, who and what not to fund. When I was a funder, and the situation changed and we no longer had even the illusion of an adequate funding pool of available funds, my own hard choice was to try to make sure every sector of the arts had some voice (by funding discipline and multicultural and underserved community service groups); to keep alive, to the extent possible, at least some of the growing mid-sized organizations that might survive and maintain a place for various arts constituent groups (e.g., Latino, Gay, African American, Native arts dance, theater, music etc.); and to maintain some kind of arts education in the schools.

The question of whether or not the arts field is overbuilt, of whether there are too many arts organizations in competition with each other isn't an academic question given the current funding crisis - at least not in California. Three years ago the Arts Council had $30 million to use to support the arts - today it has $1 million. Three years ago the Packard Foundation had $15 million - today $3 million. Three years ago there was $6 million in the California Department of Education budget for arts education - today nothing. Municipal cuts, reductions in hotel tax funds that support the arts due to a decrease in tourism income, and tight school district budgets account for (conservatively) another drop of $15 million or so in the aggregate across the state. That's a total of $60+ million LESS in support to the arts today. That just can't be replaced so easily and has resulted in cancelled programs, struggling organizations, and more closures than people care to acknowledge. Hundreds of people have been laid off or forced to find employment elsewhere.

So at least in this state, the arts field is being thinned out despite what any of us may want to happen. My question regarding the issue of whether the arts is overbuilt (at least right now) is simply "what is going to happen to all those small and mid-sized arts organizations that were making great progress, growing responsibly, serving their communities and the public well, but are now moving backwards trying simply to stay alive?" These organizations run the spectrum of all disciplines - dance, theater, music, film, education, visual arts - and across all sectors - multicultural, gay, seniors, people with disabilities etc. All of us wish they could all survive, but can they? And what is our collective responsibility, if any, to work to insure that at least some of them do survive? And can we, and if so, how do we do that?

The current funding crisis - more acute in some areas of the country than others, but certainly felt virtually everywhere and by everybody - threatens the very existence of arts provision in our country. Oh, the arts will survive. People will always make art, and others will always be there as its audience, but that is like saying Indonesia will survive the tsunami. Of course it will, but at what cost? How long will it take just to get back to where it was, let alone beyond that point? In 2000 we were making real progress in getting the arts back in the schools. We were making real progress in recognizing, nurturing and supporting the growth of the arts of all of our diverse populations. We were making real progress in expanding our audience base. We were making real progress in educating the public about the importance art plays in every aspect of our lives, our communities. Does anybody doubt that progress has at the very least been brought to a virtual stand still?

Take arts education. The loss of what the CAC was supporting ($10 million in arts education programs), the $6 million arts education support in the state Department of Education budget, and the money local government, foundations and other CAC grants (the funds of which were indirectly used by arts organizations for arts education programs,) and the net result has been that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of students who entered high school in 2002, are now in their third year of having less arts, or more likely, no arts at all (for some) as part of their high school experience. When they graduate next year, it will be too late for them. What cost will that have for the arts and for everyone in the future?

Is it not the responsbile thing for us to do to consider what we might try to salvage during this crisis, so that, as we work to re-establish funding streams at meaningful levels, we take steps to protect the fragile ecosystem that is now being undone? And an ecosystem is, is it not, composed of varying, disparate parts that, interdependent on each of its composition members, exist in a synergistic dynamic?

In many ways I am selfishly glad that I no longer have to make the hard choices of how to allocate scarce funds when the result will be extreme harm to some group, some organization, some sector. But still the decisions need to be made, and everyone needs to weigh in with what is the best thing we can and should do given the realities. And in that process, questions like whether or not the field is overbuilt will come up, and should be considered.

If the growth we sustained over the past two decades wasn't in danger then the overbuilt issue would be less relevant. 'But for' marketplace considerations, arguably there can't be too much arts. To paraphrase an observation made by Linus Pauling who said: "The best way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas" - the best way to have truly thrilling art may be to have lots of art. But the marketplace is a factor and we are in danger - and so, like it or not, all funders are making a decision about whether we are overbuilt or not by allocating their scarce resources based on whatever criteria they have developed.

The twin facts that there isn't enough money to go around, and that we need to do whatever we can to come out of the funding crisis as whole as we can, demand that we think about how and what we fund so as to maximize the chance for renewal and rebirth when that time comes. There are doubtless many more layers of issues involved in the question of whether the arts are overbuilt and what, if anything, to do about it - complex layers rich with nuances, controversy, implications and consequences - that demand careful thought and cautious approaches, but in the short term, the dismantling of the house we had built is underway, and if we want to save any of it, we need to deal with it. If your house is on fire, and you only have one hose, you ought to point it where it will do the most good to save at least something of your house. You can't fill a bunch of small cups and run around tossing them at all parts of the burning building and expect that to do any good.

"All lies in jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest..............."

Once again the internet has been abuzz with action and outrage about the latest Congressional attempt to eliminate crucial funding for Public Broadcasting. Hopefully, our collective voice will be heard and current amendments restoring funding will pass the floor today or tomorrow.
If we succeed in once again maintaining public funding for PBS, I hope, in that aftermath, we don't again complacently cry victory too loudly, because repeatedly having to defend ourselves is no victory. Victory would be growth in public spending support. We need to move from defense to offense - from being reactive to being proactive - from political impotency to political power. We simply can't continue ad infinitum to expend so much time and energy running in place - and we should understand what being really victorious means.

Maybe this is a good time for more of us to join the Americans for the Arts Action Fund - a small $20 investment in mounting the machinery that might, someday, move us closer to political power.

Click here for a related? article on what is going on at PBS:

Have a great week.
Don't Quit!