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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Lincoln Center (part 1)

Occupy Wall Street encampment
(First in a series)

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
Sets my liberal blood a'boiling. Of course, this isn't how it works out in reality. While the 1% is correct, the 99% would not be evenly distributed -- some would get more, some much less. But for the sake of simplicity, we'll use this model. 

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." 

Indeed, let's.

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
In other words, the income disparity between nonprofit arts institutions is nearly twice as bad as the income disparity in the economy as a whole. If the arts are supposed to hold the mirror up to nature, it is a magnifying glass.


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
Which made me curious: how does that shake out in the arts; specifically, in the theatre, my primary interest? Thanks to the TCG Theatre Facts report for 2010, we can get a sense. TCG analyzed data from 171 member theatres. They analyzed the data as a whole, but they also compared data for theatres according to their annual budgets. They had six categories, the top comprised of 27 theatres with budgets over $10M, and the bottom of 14 theatres with budgets under a half million. 

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
In summary, arts organizations with budgets over $5M have more wealth and get more, and by very large margins.

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?

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 ...