01/09/2012 01:53 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2012

Can The Arts Survive Without Banks?

At an opera performance I recently attended, a pre-show announcement indicated that the performance had been sponsored by a particular bank, at which point a huge number of audience members booed.
Having satisfied themselves that they had thereby distanced themselves from the evil 1% that was bringing America down, they proceeded to enjoy a beautiful evening of music. I found the knee-jerk response extremely discouraging. We in the arts are so used to being the beleaguered victims, it rarely occurs to us that corporate giving is a two-way street. We are so desperate to receive funding wherever we can find it; thus we often forget that the donor relationship is, crucially, just that: a relationship.

People give to the arts for a plethora of reasons: it may be that they are passionate about the survival and flourishing of a given art form, but equally it might be that they want to learn about something they know too little about, or reconnect with an activity from their youth, or expand their social circle, or find something interesting to do at night, or save a blighted neighborhood. There are so many demands on every philanthropic dollar, it is natural that donors want to feel valued for making a contribution.

There is no question that the rage across America about corporate malfeasance is well-founded, and that the collective frustration about banks reaping ill-gotten rewards on the back of the financial crisis is to some extent justified. But for years, nonprofits across the country have counted on national and local banks to support their work. Corporations give to arts and education providers because they are citizens of the same community; presumably a healthy citizenship is good for business, so it's a win-win situation. By supporting a local arts organization, a bank helps ensure the survival of a strong community ecosystem while at the same time raising its own profile in the business community. That's the equation. If we don't want to traffic in that equation, we shouldn't accept the support.

This is not the first time that the relationship between corporate supporters and nonprofits has been fraught. I remember back to 1988 when I took over the reins of the totally bankrupt Classic Stage Company in New York and gratefully accepted a check from Philip Morris, only to receive an outraged phone call from my cardiologist father asking how I could possibly accept support from the largest instigator of smoking-related illness in the world. I remember the group protests against Philip Morris at BAM, whose work was for a time totally underwritten by that corporation. Occasionally, protests against corporations for practices such as investment in South Africa have succeeded in encouraging more enlightened investments, and it is true that corporate support for worthy causes should never help justify behavior antithetical to what those causes stand for.

But we should also remember that banks are no more monolithic than any other organization, no matter how they appear from the outside. Within many banks are community-service officers who care deeply about the organizations they support, and about making their cities better places to live and work. For many years, these individuals have lobbied within their own corporations for funding for a wide range of nonprofit activities. And now those officers feel betrayed by us. In private we take their grants, in public we boo when their support is announced. We expect them to give at consistent or even increased levels to combat the losses we have suffered due to the recession, yet we Occupy them at a moment's notice and vilify their leadership. If this is the road we choose to follow, everyone loses.

The relationship of nonprofit institutions to for-profit corporations is necessarily complex. It is no easier for a nonprofit to consistently endorse the business practices of their corporate donors than it is for the corporate donors to consistently admire the choices a nonprofit makes vis a vis programming, outreach or aesthetic. But surely the relationship is worth preserving. Surely the leadership of nonprofit arts groups and the leadership of local and national banks owe each other a more sophisticated response to the current crisis. The money American corporations have invested in the arts may seem negligible compared to their total profits, but as a percentage it is far higher than anything our own federal government has chosen to invest in our work, and it comes as the result of significant internal lobbying on the part of those within those banks and corporations who want to see a portion of those profits directed towards community-based projects that matter. In the current climate, the very individuals who lobbied for those gifts to be made are being attacked by those within their banks who believe that better use could have been made of those "discretionary" resources.

It's up to us in the nonprofit sector to make sure our local communities really understand the impact that certain kinds of giving have had upon our work and our ability to continue, and to acknowledge the support loudly enough to compete with the angry din around us. It's up to us to encourage rather than discourage our corporate partners to become more deeply rooted in the organizations that we believe bring value to a community: schools, arts groups, social service organizations. After all, there are only four sources of support for nonprofits: corporate, foundation, government and individual. Government funding is so severely diminished these days it is hard to imagine a time when it will grow again, and individuals have been negatively impacted by the current economy to such a degree that they are often unable to continue giving at the levels they used to attain. Foundations too have been hurt by the economy, and are also the least likely to give general operating support. If we find a way to truly engage our banking and corporate partners in work that we believe in, at least a portion of those inside those organizations will continue to be exposed to the values of arts and culture in a meaningful way, without feeling that they are being attacked every time they venture into public. If we as artists can't achieve a more nuanced public dialogue about corporate support, we don't deserve to demand its largess.