THE BLOG
03/09/2012 08:33 am ET Updated May 09, 2012

Occupy the Arts

Generally speaking, people in the arts tend to think of themselves as progressives and innovators whose purpose includes questioning the status quo. But when it comes to thinking about their own way of doing business, and especially when it comes time to look at the way money is raised and distributed, it is astonishing how artists can sound like they are adapting conservative talking points. Often hanging on financially by their fingernails, arts leaders have been taught to play a particular game that exists only within a specific artistic ecosystem, and no matter how unjust that system might be, they often become extremely defensive if that game is questioned. And yet, more and more artists and arts bloggers are doing just that -- asking uncomfortable questions about economic equity, diversity, and fairness within the world of nonprofit arts institutions.

On September 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street first gathered in Zuccotti Park to protest that the top 1% of Americans took home roughly 25% of the nation's total annual income; just a few weeks later, Holly Sidford and the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy (NCRP) released a report entitled Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change about the nonprofit arts scene that went OWS one better. Their report showed that nonprofit arts institutions with annual budgets over $5 million, which represents 2% of all nonprofit arts organization, raked in 55% of all contributions, gifts and grants from philanthropic institutions who give money to the arts.

Let's put this in perspective: if there were one hundred people splitting $1 million according to the OWS breakdown, one lucky guy would get $250,000 and the other 99 would each get $7575, a ratio of 33:1. Now let's look at the nonprofit arts scene: if one hundred arts organizations were splitting $1 million dollars according to the NCRP breakdown, two lucky arts organizations would get $550,000 ($275,000 each), and the other 98 would each get $4591, a ratio of about 60:1. In other words, the income gap in the nonprofit arts scene is almost twice as wide as in the culture as a whole.

So when the OWS protesters made their way up to Lincoln Center, where composer Philip Glass came out to join the crowd following a performance of his opera Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera, they should have skipped protesting the people who were inside the Met and instead protested The Met itself, which sucks up a disproportionate amount of philanthropic money. It was a missed opportunity to show a different way that the wealthy dominate our society.

Why is this important? Because as OWS has discovered all too well, peoples' minds are changed when the story is changed. The 99% trope, once underway, was adopted by mainstream Democratic politicians across the nation, and suddenly the political narrative was altered and the national dialogue was transformed. As David Korten is fond of saying, "change the story, change the future." So what story is being told by the 2% of nonprofit arts organizations, and what stories are being ignored?

Sidford's report is very clear on this. It says:

At present, the vast majority of [philanthropic] 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.

The groups most likely to be affected by this gross disparity "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," she concludes, "disdvantages all of us by restricting the types of cultural expressions we experience, and thus our understanding of what our culture is becoming."

In 1996, Pulitzer Prize winning African-American playwright August Wilson made this same point in his justly famous speech The Ground On Which I Stand at the Theatre Communications Group's National Conference. He was angry."I speak about economics and privilege," he said forcefully:

and if you will look at one significant fact that affects us all in the American Theater...it 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 alive...it is vibrant...it is vital...it just isn't funded. Black Theater 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 economics 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 the NCRP report:

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....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.


Both Wilson and Sidford are making a strong argument 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 in communities large and small, rich and poor, for all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

Teresa Eyring, the current head of the Theatre Communications Group that Wilson addressed 15 years ago, participated in a discussion of the NCRP report on the website of Grantmakers in the Arts. Eyring, perhaps channeling Adam Smith, defended the income gap by citing the "invisible ways in which larger and mid-sized organizations deploy financial, human and capital resources for the benefit of individual artists, smaller organizations and diverse communities. These systems of mutual support often go unnoticed by the wider public, but they are tremendously valuable." In other words, trickle-down arts funding.

In the same online forum, John McGuirk, the program director for The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Performing Arts Program, grumbled that the NCRP report didn't recognize the progress that has been made "over the past two decades by arts organizations and other 'institutions that focus primarily on Western European art forms' to broaden and diversify their audiences and programming." The report, he complains "reinforces outdated stereotypes, such as 'high art' or 'elite' in describing arts organizations. It creates an us-versus-them polarization: large budget versus small budget, western canon versus other traditions, urban versus rural, and on and on."

Others in the theater blogging world made the circular argument that the funding disparity was acceptable because the large institutions were, in essence, "job creators" -- because they had more money they could provide jobs at a livable wage so... they should get more money.

Each of these arguments echo Republican talking points on social and economic issues: that trickle-down economics actually serve the poor, that progress in race relations means we've reached a post-racial society, and that we shouldn't take money from the rich because they are job creators.

We in the arts give lip-service to the concept of diversity and equity, 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 urban patrons won't enrich our arts scene. As community arts leader and blogger Arlene Goldbard wrote, the issues we need to confront involve "entrenched privilege," "encoded prejudice," and "risk aversion." In other words, confronting the tendency to resist rocking the boat that lets some ride in first class while "those people" are kept below deck. But that boat, like the Titanic, is heading for a major crash.

As August Wilson said 15 years ago, we cannot continue like this.

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