Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy Lincoln Center (part 2)

"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 Wilson
Fifteen 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 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 is is 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 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.


thecontrarian said...

Hi Scott,


Clayton Lord said...


I find myself so conflicted on this. At Theatre Bay Area, where I work, we spend a lot of time thinking about the disparities in funding (in fact, I wrote a series of articles trying to better understand the variations), and I think that there are so many valid points both in Holly's writing and yours. And yet, I find myself frustrated at the idea of turning on ourselves, attacking the biggest, most visible members of our species right when everyone else in the world wants to attack us too - as superfluous, as a waste, as something that should be stripped out of an austere new American necessity.

The problems here run deep, and are the fault of many different entity, including but absolutely not limited to the funding community, the large theaters themselves, an education system that has systematically turned minorities away from the arts over three decades and that therefore demonstrates a strong disparity in white vs. non-white arts masters holders. And while "fault" isn't the right word for this next bit, perhaps simply "reality" is better, reports from the SPPA to WolfBrown's research on cultural participation to anecdotal evidence from anyone who has cared to ask reveal that part of the reason white people and the European canon so dominate the cultural scene is that people who aren't white are generally less interested in the presentational, place-based art that the cultural scene's biggest animals specialize in.

We, currently conducting work to look at the intrinsic impact of art with WolfBrown, particularly looking at theatre, and there's a lot of positive to be seen in the first look at the data, at least as far as an argument for more funding parity is concerned. Small theaters seem to be able to, with the right combination of quality, content, and appropriate audience, generate equal-to or higher impacts on their patrons. On a more nuts-and-bolts level, if response rate to the survey is an indicator of passion from a theatre's audience, then small theaters, who were generally able to get higher response percentages, may have (in some ways) more enthusiastic audiences.

At the same time, we're trying to commission a study looking at which theaters are the "sources" within a community - the places from which patrons rise up - and which theaters are the "sinks" - the places where patrons end their artistic lifecycle. And we're also looking at research out of Dell'Arte and other non-arts areas that indicates that the impact of art on a brain activity level isn't really associated with size of theatre.

Which is all good. And is data-based, which I think is crucial in this conversation. Because it's simply not enough, for me, to understand that a disparity exists - even understanding that that disparity is indeed disproportionately affecting non-white audiences, LGBT audiences, etc.

I guess where I get to is, I probably agree with you ultimately - but I'm worried that a gut reaction against the "1%" in the theatre community - when the theatre community as a whole, if you look at wages (including administrators, including at those largest companies), is waaaaay out of the reach of that 1%, isn't going to serve anyone, and may actually weaken our ability to fight those people who simply say that art doesn't matter, and that if we're not satisfied with our pie, then someone else can eat it.

Scott Walters said...

Clayton -- Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that it is a complex problem, but I see the need to gather more data as counter-productive. Paralysis by analysis, death by delay, whatever one wants to call it, but it is the same thing that prompted MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" -- waiting is not an option. Are there people who think that the arts are unnecessary -- yes. But not the foundations I am talking about, who are committed to the arts. It is time to move toward economic justice, in the arts as in the nation as a whole. The time for more studies is past.

LindaInPhoenix said...


You make some important points and so does Clayton. Thank you both. However, to say that “gathering more data is counterproductive” is in itself counterproductive. Data is much easier to come by now than it was in MLK’s time; it can be analyzed quickly and distributed at the speed of light. Passion combined with data analysis makes for more powerful tools advocacy than passion alone. We need both.

Scott Walters said...

Linda -- Data doesn't hurt. What hurts is waiting while we gather more and more data. We have been waiting for decades now. AS MLK said, "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." I fail to see what is unclear about the data we currently have -- it looks at the field as a whole and draws some very stark conclusions that are justified. It's not as if the comparison is even close: 2% of the nonprofit arts and culture organizations receive 55% of the philanthropic money. What more data do we need to draw our conclusions? This is a moral and humanistic issue, not a scientific or economic problem. It is about what is right.

Clayton Lord said...

But Scott, here's the problem - say that suddenly half of the money currently going to the large offending organizations was freed up to be redistributed. Who should it go to? How should that decision be made? What are the criteria of effectiveness? Ultimately, there will always be organizations frozen out - we simply, as Landesman pointed out, seem to have too many organizations to effectively fund (which is not to say that too many organizations exist for the general good - I personally believe that we shouldn't be stifling the creation of new arts entities - but equally we shouldn't be working from an expectation that all of those organizations are equally valid, effective, and worthy of funding.). MLK's powerful words were about a specific issue with specific redress - the oppressed minorities of the United States deserved equality. And equality, at least on paper, was given. And yet economic disparities exist. Questions about distribution of funding exists. And the problem is that, when you're dealing with people, human beings, and a democracy, you don't have the relative luxury of being able to make decisions--to curate--the maximal effect.

Not all arts organizations are created equal, and the honest truth is that they should not be funded as such - especially since the vast majority of them exist to serve some version of the public good. Where you and I agree is that we both don't think the current funding model is addressing that issue as much as it addresses which organizations have the loudest voices and the deepest development benches. Where we disagree, as far as I can tell, is that you believe we should attempt to adjust the model without clearly proposing a solution (which, I'll say, sounds a lot like the Occupy ethos, much as I respect them), and I think that, in an unequal power distribution such as exists between funders and fundees, the best way to ensure change is to have data and clear pathways for how to proceed to a new future...

LindaInPhoenix said...

Clayton: What if funding didn't go to organizations at all, but directly to artists? see
Scott: thoughts?

Kyle said...

Just moved to a large metropolitan center (5 mil+) to a much smaller one (100K+). Several great theatres to some decent college theatre and BAD community theatre (emphasis on bad, not because they are extra bad, but to contrast to good community theatre, which does exist). I've always wanted to start a theatre company but was daunted by the size and saturation of the theatres in my previous location. However, reading these posts have (believe it or not) inspired me to think it might be able to work here.

One thing to remember, that I don't think has been said: For smaller organizations, a little goes a very long way, as opposed to comparing the wealth disparity to the individual, when we all need essentially the same to survive as a human being.

Making sense? Love the blog.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...