Sunday, December 11, 2011

Occupy Lincoln Center (part 4)

 The first three parts of this series each pointed at different aspects of the problem of the concentration of funding in the nonprofit arts sector. First, the overview of the situation in philanthropic giving; second, the consequences of such concentration when it comes to many different kinds of diversity (audience served, aesthetics preferred, geographies ignored, demographics slighted); and third, the urbanization of theatre as reflected in funding from the NEA. These parts should be read as a whole, a single long essay examining from different angles the inequities of arts funding in the US.

So what is to be done? This is a question so often asked of the Occupy Movement: what do you want, what are your demands, what are your solutions. While I am not an expert in the Occupy Movement, my impression is that it is comprised of a very diverse group of people who represent different priorities and different ideas of what is to be done, but that they agree about one thing: the income disparity in the US is wrong. Their protest is a moral one that points at gross inequity that has ramifications for all aspects of American society, and declares it wrong.

That is an important first step for a rebellion, and it is the step that I, too, am making with these posts. Before proposing "solutions," it is important for as many people as possible, both within the profession and outside it, to actually see the inequity, recognize its extremely negative effects on the American arts ecosystem, and declare it wrong. Easier said than done.

Over the past weeks, I have encountered many members of the arts community who profess to sincerely support the points being made, but fret that any change to the status quo will negatively impact those who are currently highly privileged.  Some have expressed a desire for a single, simple solution that rights the wrongs without causing any change to the status quo. Others, such as TCG's Executive Director Teresa Eyring, have defended the status quo, pointing out that, while it may look like there is inequity, well, those really rich organizations actually help smaller organizations."What the numbers and this study don’t capture," Ms. Eyring opines, "are the often invisible ways in which larger and mid-sized organizations deploy financial, human and capital resources for the benefit of individual artists, smaller organizations and diverse communities. These systems of mutual support often go unnoticed by the wider public, but they are tremendously valuable. As we continue our conversation about funding equity, we must also acknowledge the impact of the actions these larger theatres are taking, and share models that are working." She then goes on to list all the yummy things that organizations like La Jolla Playhouse and Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis have done. Why, La Jolla has actually let one small organization a year do a show or two in their space rent free, and even offered sound and lighting support and advice about marketing! Such largess is simply breathtaking. She goes on: "When C[hildren's] T[heatre] C[ompany] premiered Nilo Cruz’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, [music director Viktor] Zupanc searched for local musicians playing in South American traditions. He found and hired a harpist from Paraguay, a percussionist from Brazil, a guitarist from Argentina and a flute/pan pipe player from Ecuador, and CTC paid for all of them to join the local musician’s union." She concludes breathlessly, " Not only did this build unexpected ties to emerging artistic communities in Minneapolis, but the music was gorgeous!"

We might call this "trickle down arts funding," a concept that has been proven worthless in the economy as a whole, but which Ms. Eyring apparently thinks works just fine in the nonprofit arts sector. As you might expect, I don't find these artistic breadcrumbs persuasive as a reason to continue the status quo. The fact that the head of, say, Citibank occasionally tosses a couple bucks in the hat of a homeless person doesn't undo the fact that the economic income disparity is simply wrong.  That Ms. Eyring apparently does think it is enough simply reinforces my sense that the Theatre Communications Group no longer truly serves the regional theatre field, but is rather an advocacy group for the privileged.

While I have not had an opportunity to read all of the blog posts by arts professionals and philanthropists in the discussion of the report happening at the GIA blog (which is where Ms. Eyring offered her "insights"), I did have an opportunity to read William Cleveland's contribution. Cleveland, who has long been involved in community-based arts, contributes a series of questions that he thinks we all ought to ask ourselves:
  • Is cultural equity a core value that informs our work? If not, why?
  • If so, how specifically do we define it and hold ourselves accountable?
  • If we looked hard at the patterns of cultural investment by our organization and across our community, over time, what would we find?
  • If there were a significant “gap” between our stated values and this investment history, what would we do?
I think these are good questions that can lead to personal reflection, but right now I simply want arts professionals and philanthropists to declare the status quo wrong. Not to engage in soul-searching, not to comment on how "interesting" the report is, not to comment on how interesting it is that it has gotten so much media attention, and certainly not defend the indefensible as Ms. Eyring does, which is just embarrassing. But just to take a clear moral stand and declare it wrong. I don't want excuses, reasons, or rationalization; I want these arts leaders to say, in no uncertain terms, that this income and wealth disparity among nonprofit arts organizations and within nonprofit arts philanthropy is wrong. Period.

Doug Borwick, in an excellent response to this series of posts, reminds us that "“arts” is not in the tax code’s authorizing language for tax exempt entities. We sneak in under “education.”" If education funding was distributed like arts funding -- if most of the money went to educate wealthy, urban white people in a few states -- the hue and cry would be deafening, and anyone who defended it would be excoriated. Why is this not the case with arts funding, if it indeed receives its tax deductability from its educational contribution to American society?

So I want theatre artists, arts leaders, and arts philanthropists declare the status quo wrong. Once I hear that, then we can discuss possible solutions. But as long as there are people weaseling around making excuses for a system that destroys the many while privileging the few, that contributes mightily to the tragedy of unrealized artistic potential, there is no point exploring solutions. It is time for arts leaders such as Rocco Landesman, Ben Cameron, all the people who blogged at the GIA, and anybody in a leadership position at a 2% arts org or foundation to say unequivocally and directly that this situation is wrong. Those voices need to be joined by individual artists across the US to affirm that the current centralization of artistic resources is wrong.

It is time to stand up. Please sign the above petition. If you are a Twitter user, please make your voice heard by tweeting your support with the hashtag #It'sJustWrong.


Kyle said...

I'm torn. And I realize that my being torn is what you don't want to hear. Certainly what you are speaking of would benefit me, personally. If I were going to start a theatre I would be doing it in a small, culturally hurting community of just over 100,000. I would love to do this and I would love it if I could receive funding from Arts organizations. I'm torn because of what essentially boils down to fear, I suppose. Most people who I talk to, who are not in the arts, don't always have a strong opinion of it's importance to begin with. In other words, often those with the money will only give to big organizations that they see as bringing lots of recognition to a community. That's a whole other problem, but my fear is that without flagship organizations like the Alley Theatre (I'm from Houston) and La Jolla Playhouse would the little recognition that the arts get be further deminished? For this reason I have a difficult time saying that the inequity is "wrong," although it is certainly not ideal. It is easier to say that the financial situation on Wall Street is wrong because it affects more people in real ways: starvation, lack of health care, lack of adequate housing. As a life-long theatre artist, I am the last person to say that the arts is not important, but actors will always act and painters will always paint, and musicians will play, regardless of whether or not they are being paid to do so. It may be more convenient to do it with money, but by and large, without the funding, the arts do not starve, they simply manage. Again, we're not talking about life and death in the same way we are with those who are protesting the wealth disparity on Wall Street.

All that said, I plan to sign your petition, because I believe in what you are saying as an ideal. I'm just not sure we aren't putting the horse before the cart.

Scott Walters said...

When you refer to "recognition," what I think you mean is mass media recognition, I suspect, and yes that might suffer. But in its place would be much wider recognition across the nation as previously underserved and ignored communities connect with the arts.

I would argue that this doesn't represent something similar to the Occupy movement. There is spiritual starvation that is as crippling as bodily starvation. There is emotional and spiritual life and death. And while you are right that the arts will continue with or without money, your statement applies to large organizations as well -- if money isn't important, than why is it so important that the distribution continue the way it is now? Can't have it both ways.

If we, as artists, believe that the arts are critical parts of peoples' lives, as we repeat every time we are asked to justify what we do and why we deserve public funding and tax deductible contributions, then it is hypocritical to say that only a small portion of American lives ought to be affected. It isn't enough to saturate NYC with theatres. It isn't enough to serve wealthy, white, city-dwellers.

Thanks for signing the petition.