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Pulling Out All the Stops on Arts Funding

January 27, 2012

Performing arts organizations face a general funding crisis. Opera Boston closed its doors this January after a number of successful seasons because one donor (who singlehandedly gave more than 15 percent of its budget by himself) pulled out. That's a sign of the times. Ballet San Jose, which SFCV has recently reported on, also has relied too heavily on one donor to balance its budget.

And while we tend to wag our collective finger at organizations that get into the news for funding problems, the reality is that all development and press officers I talk to around the Bay Area acknowledge the squeeze of rising costs offset by too few major donors and an inability to raise ticket prices further without freezing out the audience. This is the particular worry of midsize organizations that don’t have the fund-raising cachet of the San Francisco Symphony or the Metropolitan Opera, yet it is on everybody’s radar screen.

In general, arts organizations have done all they can to reduce costs. They’ve reached out to audiences, luring them with promotions, free stuff, and advertising they can barely afford. So let’s talk about the elephant in the room: government funding for the arts. If we want to truthfully tell our donors that we’ve done everything in our power to raise money, we can’t ignore the government.

Right now, the various U.S. governments give to the arts at pitifully small levels, if they do so at all. The state of California has been extremely parsimonious to the California Arts Council for years since the 2003–2004 budget crisis, and has to be thankful that Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas decided to defund its state arts agency last year: At last, a partner in miserliness! (Brownback, it is rumored, may restore a part of that funding in his new budget.) At the federal level, all three cultural grant-making agencies took significant hits in the budget passed in 2011, but those programs have never been very large in dollar terms. Last year, they were 0.066 percent of the total federal budget, all in. And the bulk of federal arts expenditure goes to the Smithsonian Institution and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Arts organizations have been so successful raising private funds that legislative leaders don’t take seriously the threat of the arts’ going away.

Nevertheless, the $155 million in discretionary grants that the National Endowment for the Arts passes out this year will be critical to a wide range of nonprofit organizations. Every little bit helps. But the organizations that benefit from these grants tend to outsource advocacy to state art councils instead of delivering the message themselves.

So why are we so shy about making the case to people of influence? Part of the reason is the past success that arts organizations have had in leveraging even a small government grant.

The Powerful Multiplier Effect

Several studies have reported that one dollar of government investment can be matched by perhaps five to 10 dollars of private giving. Since the 1970s, the success of arts nonprofits in cultivating donors has been nothing short of astonishing. In fact, well before the present Conservative government cutbacks in arts funding, performing arts groups in England had already begun to compete for American arts dollars. The English National Opera, for example, has a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the American Friends of ENO. The American Friends of the Royal Court Theatre is another, which reports having raised more than $2 million since 1997.

When we put out the call, people answer.

So, historically, we haven’t looked for government funding until, like the Los Angeles Opera in 2009, our backs were against the wall. It’s easier and faster to ask for money from our friends, and the success rate is higher. And, as Douglas MacLennan wrote in a terrific essay in recently, there’s a pervasive sense that we’ve already lost control of the narrative in Washington. And that’s partly because — though MacLennan doesn’t say this — arts organizations have been so successful raising private funds that legislative leaders don’t take seriously the threat of the arts’ going away. Just as determined parents stepped in to assure their children of arts education when governments defunded those programs in the public schools, motivated individuals are expected to fill the huge gaps in government funding of the arts.

But that’s history. The current private-debt crisis has hit arts organizations where they live. The aging of the audience (at least in many classical venues) has become more marked as major donors become scarcer and begin to suffer “fatigue.” We owe it to those donors who have gotten us this far to knock on government doors the way we knocked on theirs. And we owe it to the next generation to ensure that art doesn’t become truly elitist.

When we make the argument, whether in Washington or in a state capitol, or even at the local level, our greatest argument and weapon will be the very people we have collected money from for all these years. We have proven, for decades, that there is significant support for the arts in the U.S. And since we can’t have an argument over whether or not to be taxed, only about where our tax money will be directed, those arts patrons have a right to be heard and recognized.

There have always been success stories in the fight for arts funding; we just fail to celebrate them properly. That’s why SFCV did a major report on the Oakland budget negotiations last year when, against all odds, its arts council budget was entirely preserved. Around the same time, Edward Ortiz reported in the Sacramento Bee that an email campaign instigated by the chairwoman of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission resulted in a flood of responses that saw $24,000 restored to the commission’s budget after years of cuts. True, these are local results but, at the national level, so far Big Bird survives, despite earnest attempts to clip his wings and those of National Public Radio. When we put out the call, people answer.

The lesson is that the arts have a broad constituency. And so arts organizations should not think of themselves as being a “special interest.” No doubt there will be major hurdles to implementing a sound advocacy program for the arts, but many state agencies have been working on these issues for years. It’s past time that we recognized our strengths and ensured the viability of our artistic heritage for the future.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.