|Occupy Wall Street encampment|
As I write these lines, the Occupy Wall Street movement has been protesting for two months that the top 1% of Americans take home roughly 25% of the nation's total income, a shocking statistic that is very difficult to justify morally or politically. For the sake of illustration: if there were 100 people dividing a million dollars, it would look like this:
- 1 person would receive $250,000
- The remaining 99 would each receive $7575
- The ratio is about 33: 1
The OWS movement, and now all the similar movements across the nation and the world, has effectively changed the narrative in discussions about the American and global economy -- suddenly, we are all part of the 99% -- and artists and non-profits have, overall, been strongly supportive. The editor of the Blue Avocado blog, which provides "practical, provocative and fun food-for-thought for non-profits," encapsulates the general opinion: "The nonprofit sector has always been about the 99%. Let's embrace this narrative and movement, talk about it, build upon it, join it."
A 1% of Our Very Own
At the end of October, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy issued a report entitled Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change. Holly Sidford, who wrote the report, researched philanthropic giving to arts organization across the US. What she discovered is as disturbing as the Occupy Wall Street facts about income disparity. Sidofrd found that nonprofits in the arts with budgets over $5M, which she says represents just 2% of all arts nonprofits, receive 55% of contributions, gifts and grants. Let's break this out in the way we did with national income above.
If there were 100 nonprofit arts organizations dividing a million dollars, it would look like this:
- 2 organizations would split $550,000 ($275,000 each)
- The remaining 98 organizations would each get $4591
- The ratio is a about 60:1
Let's look at this another way. In addition to the income gap, the Occupy Wall Street protesters also discuss the wealth gap. Income is what people earn from work, but also from dividends, interest, and any rents or royalties that are paid to them on properties they own -- it's the money you make. Wealth, on the other hand, is the value of marketable assets, such as real estate, stocks, and bonds -- it's the value of the stuff you own.
In America, the top 1% possesses over 40% of the wealth in the country. Going back to our imaginary 100 people splitting a million dollars:
- One person would possess $400,000
- The other 99 people would each have $6060
- The ratio is 66:1
On page 33 of the report, they compare "average total net assets" for each category (in this case, using only 160 theatres), focusing on land, buildings, equipment, investments and other assets. The theatres with budgets of $5M or more (representing 34% of the total) possessed 80% of the total average wealth. Again, using the hundred arts organizations dividing a million dollars:
- 34 organizations would possess $800,000 ($23,529 each)
- The remaining 66 organizations would possess $200,000 ($3030 each)
- The ratio is about 8:1
Less than a year ago, January 2011, I was present when Rocco Landesman, speaking to the assembled artists attending the Arena Stage's New Play Development Program convening, opined that the reason artists couldn't make a living doing theatre is that there was an overabundance of theatre companies. Indeed, Landesman suggested, perhaps the nonprofit theatre system was "overbuilt." After all, demand was falling at the same time as supply was rising, and artists might be better off if the NEA and other arts supporters focused their funds on fewer institutions, so they could give larger awards to a smaller number of theatres.
Following Landesman's comments, Kirk Lynn of Austin's Rude Mechanicals took the microphone to ask whether this weeding out of the theater community would be likely to concentrate more resources in the hands of already large institutions. And what would that mean, he wondered, for the companies whose work isn't compatible with the structures of large institutions?
What Lynn and the assembled artists snuggled into the Arena's brand new, multi-million dollar theatre might not have realized, but that NCRP report now has dramatically brought to light, is that the centralization and concentration that Landesman proposed and that Lynn feared was already in place. To put it bluntly, the nonprofit arts scene makes the general economy look like a model of socialist income redistribution.
Occupy Lincoln Center, anyone?