"Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" -- Matthew 7: 3 (English Standard Version)Yesterday, in the first part of this series, I compared the income and wealth disparities in the American economy to that of the philanthropic support of the nonprofit arts economy. It didn't come out too well. The income gap between the top 2% of arts organizations (those with annual budgets of over $5M) and the remaining 98% was twice a great as the income gap in the economy as a whole. I think that should make us all stop an consider a wee bit, because the situation in the economy as a whole is really, really bad.
The wealth comparison came out better than the income comparison, but only because I switched data sets to the TCG membership, which isn't representative of the nonprofit scene as a whole. Of the 160 theatres who were included in the TCG Theatre Facts roundup, only 14 of them (8.75%) had annual budgets under $500,000, whereas, according to the Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change report recently released by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, "three quarters of all cultural groups have budgets under $250,000." In other words, the TCG membership is a rather rarified group, and comparing the wealth gap amongst them is sort of like comparing the wealth gap among residents of a gated community -- you're bound to come off looking a little better than looking at the city as a whole. Still, it was illustrative: even in that privileged group, the top 35% possessed 80% of the wealth.
Several commenters attempted to make the case that this disparity was OK because the larger theatres employed more people. Hard to argue with that -- they certainly do. The problem with that argument is that it is circular: the large theatres can employ more people because they get a lot more philanthropic contributions, and so...they should be given more money. Following this logic, if the foundations gave all their money to a single organization, they would employee a lot more people. But it wouldn't be good for the arts or the country.
Somebody else wanted me to compare the nonprofit arts world with that of restaurants or airlines. This one puzzled me. Would it be OK if the income gap there was similar? Shouldn't the nonprofit arts world, which is nonprofit because the arts are regarded as a public good, be held to a different standard than the market in general? This seems a red herring.
At any rate, the point of yesterday's post was to suggest that those of us who support the Occupy movement, or even those of us who simply condemn the widening gap between rich and poor in this country, ought to recognize that we in the nonprofit arts world have created a system even more unbalanced as the overall economy. We have a lot of work to do here, and acknowledging that there is a serious problem is the first necessary step. The second step is to understand how the problem negatively impacts what is most important about our work.
I suspect I am going to be quoting a lot in this post, because Holly Sidford, who wrote the NCRP report, does such an effective job expressing the ramifications of the data. Here's one that is really striking (underlining is mine):
Every year, approximately 11 percent of foundation giving -- more than $2.3 billion in 2009 -- is awarded to nonprofit arts and culture. At present, the vast majority of that funding supports cultural organizations whose work is based in the elite segment of the Western European cultural tradition -- commonly called the canon -- and whose audiences are predominantly white and upper class....This pronounced imbalance restricts the expressive life of millions of people, thus constraining our creativity as a nation. But it is problematic for many other reasons, as well. 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. It is a problem because our artistic and cultural landscape includes an increasingly diverse range of practices, many of which are based in the history and experience of lower-income and non-white people, and philanthropy is not keeping pace with these developments.Later in the report, she writes:
The economics of cultural philanthropy are extremely skewed and this restricts the ability of thousands of artists and smaller cultural organizations to advance their practice and contribute substantively to their communities. This includes most groups that serve lower-income communities; rural communities; communities of color; gay, lesbian and transgender communities and other underserved populations, broadly defined....The [economic] asymmetry disdvantages all of us by restricting the types of cultural expressions we experience, and thus our understanding of what our culture is becoming."
August WilsonFifteen years ago, back in 1996, August Wilson delivered his justly famous The Ground On Which I Stand speech at the TCG National Conference. He was angry."I speak about economics and privilege," he said:
and if you will look at one significant fact that affects us all in the American Theater...it is that of the 66 LORT theaters there is only one that can be considered black. From this it could be falsely assumed that there aren't sufficient numbers of blacks working in the American theater to sustain and support more theaters. If you do not know, I will tell you that Black Theater in America is alive...it is vibrant...it is vital...it just isn't funded. BlackTheater doesn't share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The econmics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote, and perpetuate white culture.He continued, in words that foreshadow those of Sidford's report:
We do not need colorblind casting. We need some theaters to develop our playwrights. We need those misguided financial resources to be put to a better use. We cannot develop our playwrights with the meager resources at our disposal. Why is it difficult to imagine 9 black theaters but not 66 white ones? Without theaters we cannot develop our talents. If we cannot develop our talents, then everyone suffers. Our writers. The theater. The audience. Actors are deprived of material, our communities are deprived of jobs in support of the art: the company manager, the press coordinator, the electricians, the carpenters, the concessionaires, the people that work in the wardrobe, the box office staff, the ushers, the janitors. We need some theaters. We cannot continue like this. We have only one life to develop our talent, to fulfill our potential as artists. One life and it is short, and the lack of means to develop our talent is an encumbrance on that life.Why include an attack on colorblind casting as a preface to his demand for more black theaters? Because colorblind casting didn't change the system. The big, white theaters could throw in a little colorblind casting, maybe add a February Black History Month slot, and keep all the money. Nothing significant would change with color-blind casting. Wilson wanted to redistribute wealth in order to put "those misguided financial resources...to a better use."
Substitute for "black" in the above quotation "rural," "poor," "people of color," "GLBT," or any other artistic tradition in this country and Wilson makes a case for the importance of a truly diverse theater scene that can only come through a more equitable distribution of funding, and the decentralization of theater all across the US.
Less than two years ago, I attended a convening at the Arena Stage that was called "Defining Diversity," and I wondered where Wilson's vision had gone. I was stunned to find that there wasn't much push for black theatres, nor much interest in working in them. Instead, playwrights wanted access to the same big, rich, white theatres that Wilson was trying to disentangle the black theatre from.
We in the theatre give lip-service to the concept of diversity, but until we start putting our money where our mouths are, nothing will change. Giving 55% of foundation money to a handful of big institutions devoted to doing the traditional white canon in front of well-heeled and wealthy patrons won't enrich our theater scene.
In summary, I will quote Sidford again:
Every ecological system requires diversity of living forms, and its multiple parts must all be healthy if the systen as a whole is to thrive. The components of an ecosystem may compete for resources, but they are interdependent and symbiotic. Biodiversity ensures resilience in the entire system, and gives it greater capacity to respond to change. For the most part, the smaller organisms exist on the edges of an ecosystem, and this is where the greatest experimentation occurs. The diversity feeds and refreshes the system and without the innovation an experimentation that takes place at the margins, the larger community loses its vitality. The cultural sector is an ecosystem, and the vibrancy and resilience of all its parts -- especially those at the margins -- are important to the viability of the whole. We need healthy biodiversity -- robust and well-functioning entities in all parts of the system.As August Wilson said, we cannot continue like this.