Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ill Winds Blowing?

Good morning
"And the beat goes on.................."

Not surprising, at least to me, is that funding remains one of  (if not) the issue challenging arts organizations.

Of the principal sources of income and cash flow for arts organizations, all are fragile, subject to cycles and external pressures over which we have limited control.  And most are in a prolonged and protracted downturn.  Audience attendance is down, and with it earned income.  Government support is subject to both limited budgets from precarious economic health, and political attacks. Philanthropic support from foundations is increasingly subject to re-prioritization and focus. Individual donor support faces ever increasing competition from other worthy causes, and indeed the arts are increasingly seen as less relevant and important than other causes.

And, increasingly the arts are measured and evaluated in terms of their power and ability to do something positive other than provide the benefits and pleasures of simply being the arts - the so called intrinsic value.  Thus, government support is conditioned on the value of the arts to the economy, to industry and other measures.  Foundation and individual donor support is conditioned on the ability of the arts to support other, larger goals such as social justice.  Arts education support is conditioned on how arts education can augment other educational goals such as college attendance, graduation rates or test scores - or something like being more creative and innovative.  Even attendance at performances and exhibitions is conditioned on the experience being the opportunity for social interaction or some sort of transformative experience.

Partly this is our own doing as we have pushed many of these agendas as a means to garner more support for the arts.  Partly it is a trend in support for all nonprofit causes.

But the trend bodes ill for out long term vitality and sustainability, and we hear examples of arts organizations closing shop, downsizing or otherwise facing calamitous survival prospects.  Studies routinely conclude that the average arts organization is seriously undercapitalized with but a few months reserves, living basically hand to mouth.  And the trends are very likely now beyond trendy, they are likely a new reality.  Not for all organizations, of course,  Some are thriving.  But not most. And not all of the above referenced income sources are conditioned on what the arts can bring to other agendas, but most are.

And yet, I can't see where we are trying to do anything to address this new reality on some kind of (even relative) macro scale.  I see excellent initiatives that recognize some of the resulting problems and are attempting to address those problems -- initiatives like GIA's Capitalization efforts.  But those programs are dealing with the results of the aforementioned trends, not necessarily the causes. Otherwise, it seems like everybody is on their own in the arts.  Absent is the effort to address the issues as a sector.

It's as though, in some ways, we are guilty of violating the adage of teaching a man to fish so that he might feed himself - rather than simply giving him a fish so he might eat.  We give away fish, one at a time.  Where are the initiatives that are helping the sector to learn how to fish?

Our money - whether federal, state, local, foundation or otherwise, is channeled almost exclusively into individual, stand-alone arts organizations, supporting both projects and operations.  That's good. The need is there.  But we also need large scale, sector wide initiatives, infrastructure and organizational apparatuses that will allow us to address big trends.  Otherwise there is little to stop the trends that bode ill for out future.  And there is evidence that if the current foundation and individual philanthropic, the federal, state and local government, and the earned income trends continue that the nonprofit arts will be in a world of trouble down the line.

This challenge is bigger than individual organizations and it needs a sector response, yet the arts seem incapable of mounting sector responses.

Let me give you some examples:
1.   We have an incredible product in arts education and we have a considerable body of evidence supporting that claim.  Education of children is every parent's concern, and priority, and the children's media market is substantial and growing.  Pixar is a company built on that market.  And Pixar is basically a private sector arts organization.  There has been considerable Hollywood talk about how providing educational programs that are entertaining is going to be a continued growth industry -- tv, movies, games etc.  The Netflick's and Amazon's and the rest are hungry for product.  Why aren't we developing a pipeline whereby we, as a sector, can provide some of that product and then allocate the profits across all our strata?  Why aren't there initiatives that finance that kind of effort (tv shows, movies etc. based on the arts) that would help to buck the trend of falling earned income.  This would have to be done (and could) on a big scale, not by single organizations, but the profits could be enormous and shared across the sector to, at least, fund grants.  Where is the seed funding for that and other profit making ventures that could fund nonprofit arts?

2.  Where is the big program to convince more foundations to support the arts, not for what they bring to other fields, but for what they mean of their own account?  Where is that educational effort?  Arts Program Officers at foundations understand the benefit, but they're not in any position to challenge the forces within their organizations that make those fundamental shift change decisions. Where is the large scale funded effort to do that which the program officers cannot do themselves?  Without some kind of effort, are we likely to see continued exit of foundations from arts funding?

3.  Where is the large scale effort to convincingly argue to a new generation of philanthropic donors that investment in the arts rivals any of the other investments being sold to them as worthy of their consideration?  Where is our big ticket effort to compete with the other worthy nonprofit causes? -- on behalf of, and in support of, all the individual arts organizations

4.  We spend a considerable amount of time and energy in touting advocacy efforts and in trying to equip our people with advocacy skills.  But where is the national initiative that focuses on moving elected leaders to value the arts?  We have campaigns to impact Congress and the White House at the Federal level.  We have state campaigns, and we have local campaigns.  Most of these are reactive to some sort of attack and threatened funding cut; none of these are truly connected and there is little coordination across the national to local lines.  With all due respect to the Americans for the Arts - Arts Action Fund - where is the real attempt to marshall a national citizen force?  I think the AAF could get to one million active members - but I think it would take a million dollars or more to make that happen. That's a small investment, considering that the payoff could be hundreds of times that over even a short time span.  Where is that investment? Hard to come by as our funding sources are all scared to death of political advocacy on any level.  Yet ask yourself just how long the arts ecosystem can survive without government support.

The arts, of course, will survive.  Art will continue to be made and people will continue to want to experience it.  But not necessarily on anywhere near the level that we know it ought to exist.

I think that the only way we are going to ever be able to support sector wide initiatives that are funded on a level so they can be competitive and effective is if we pay for them ourselves.  How?  By organizing self-funding campaigns.  Unfortunately, there isn't the seed money to begin, nor the leadership to try, and our legacy is to refuse to pay for these efforts ourselves.  We have to look beyond what we need internally - at the moment - to what we need to ultimately survive.  There are only so many fish we can give arts organizations to eat (and we're running out of them).  At some point, they need to learn how to fish.

Good luck to us.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit