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Michael Kaiser

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Advice to Fundraisers: Go West (and East and South)

Posted: 02/ 6/2012 8:13 am

Several weeks ago I read in a British publication an article about the reasons corporations support arts organizations. The central message of the piece was that corporations support the arts because they benefit from the reflected glory of the arts organization. When the corporation is visibly linked to an organization that is known to produce important art, the corporate brand benefits.

What interested me about the article was how trite it was; the notion that corporations like to be associated with high quality arts events is not new. Every arts manager or student of arts management in this country knows this.

In fact I remember doing an interview on television in the mid-1990s on the same topic. My mother called me after it aired concerned that I would never receive another job (and was liable to be fired from the one I had) because no corporation would sponsor my organization if I was so blatant about their reasons for their support.

The fact that this article was being written some 15 years later in England is an indication of the relative lack of sophistication of fundraising knowledge outside of the United States.

This is not necessarily something of which to be proud. The reason that we have far deeper knowledge of fundraising relates directly to the lack of government support for the arts in our nation. (We can trace the separation of art and state in America to the Puritans who believed that music and dance were evil.) If we were going to have arts in America (or private schools, universities and hospitals) we needed to attract private funding.

As country after country announces substantial cuts in government arts funding -- and the economic challenges the European Union nations are now facing should only hasten this trend there -- the need to develop more sophisticated knowledge of fundraising techniques is only going to grow.

I know this is one central reason why American arts managers are constantly being asked to speak and teach in Europe and Asia and why several have been asked to move to other nations to run important arts organizations.

I expect acceleration in this activity. I would not be surprised to see a large corps of younger (and older) American arts managers moving overseas in the coming ten years.

In fact, if I were younger (and had far better language skills) I would seriously consider building an arts management career overseas.

The opportunity to be a fundraising pioneer in China, Italy, Russia or the Arab world must be a great one and, no doubt, there will be many American arts managers who grab hold of it.

Having had the chance to work and consult abroad, I know that what one learns is as important as what one teaches. The possibilities of experiencing life with far more government funding, of introducing approaches for donor engagement and experiencing the diversity of great art are not to be undervalued.