Can the Arts Survive the Economic Crisis?

Donor Communication, Fundraising in Poor Economy, Professional Fundraisers • Views: 2735

I’ve read many articles lately on arts funding during this severe economic downturn.  Some are awfully pessimistic; others offer hope.  But none have come straight at the issue that is at the heart of all fundraising success, and which is especially important for the survival of the arts in this crisis economy.

It’s case.  Even in the best of times, arts organizations have a difficult time articulating a competitive case.  The arts are passionate, personal, and intensely human, but the pitch for selling the arts is too often clinical and businesslike, measured as the role of arts organizations in furthering other local businesses like restaurants, dress shops, taxis and hairdressers.  I don’t want to get bogged down on the issue of whether anyone actually gets their hair done before going to the theatre these days (or buys a dress, for that matter.)  But, don’t the arts merit more than an evaluation of their worth based on the surrounding local enterprises they prop up?  Can’t the arts exist for their own sake?

I’m especially interested in this because I spent my years at university in the sub-sub basement of the main administrative building on campus.  In a small but wonderful 240-seat theatre, I performed in and directed shows and (god help the audience) wrote my first production.  For four years, I hardly saw the light of day.  After college, I worked for many exciting arts organizations, writing sales and marketing copy that reveled in the wonder that was the arts…that is until it got watered down, reigned in, and stripped of all its passion during the editing process.

I worked in the arts for many years struggling to find a balance between my natural desire to express what the arts meant to me and others’ views that the arts needed to be measured on a scale of community benefit and profitability.  I never was able to persuade those who controlled the end product that my exuberant interpretation would sell.  Eventually, I moved on to work in other not-for-profit sectors.

One day, while driving from one meeting to another, I was passing the time by listening to a radio interview.  A seasoned broadcaster of the “I’ve-seen-everything-and-you-can’t-surprise-me” variety, was interviewing a doctor who had spent his entire career in China, providing medical care in third-world conditions to too many patients for too little pay.  Once a year, he came home for a month, ostensibly for some rest, but actually to raise money and coerce equipment, drugs and supplies.

The doctor was so articulate, and his story so moving, that he melted the heart of the crusty interviewer.  At a break in the conversation, the interviewer admitted, “I am humbled to hear about how you live your life and what you accomplish.  You have done so much for so many people and, well, I just interview people on the radio.”

“No, you have it wrong,” the doctor quickly interjected.  “My job is to save lives; your job, working here in the arts, is to make those lives worth saving.  We are both equally important.”

I had to pull my car over to the side of the road.  This was the sentiment that I could not express before.  This was the case for the arts.

The case for the arts exists on its own merit.  It is not apologetic; it does not take a second place to healthcare or human services or education.  The arts are as vital to life as breathing, food, shelter and health.  If you work in development in the arts, please give yourself the right to break out, the commitment to not compromise, and the inspiration to capture the essence of what the playwright, the composer, the choreographer, the painter and the author are trying to  communicate about the human condition.

What the arts can offer now, in a world full of anxiety and trouble, is even more vital.

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17 Responses to Can the Arts Survive the Economic Crisis?

  1. Angela says:

    I am currently debating what my major/minor will be once at university. Being a non-traditional student who is just now recieving my associates, the prospects are bleak, and the likelihood of my finding employment in the arts could be slim to none outside of what I already do. I have considered other options; However, there are a few things that I’ve been thinking about:

    1. Since the economy is such that there are NO guarantees, why not study what I love, enjoy the process, and come out with a bachelors? Even if I don’t gain a position in my chosen field, I will have at least enjoyed the journey.

    2. Contrary to the beliefs of some, I’ve witnessed first hand how music, or a play, or a poem can touch the heart & soul of someone thus bringing them peace and acceptance in a world that tends to be so cold. Peace within ourselves and acceptance are things we all strive for in life…those are things that you cannot put a price tag on.

    3. Everyone needs a positive outlet for expression, regardless. USO shows, music concerts, plays, musicals, poetry readings, paintings, writing – these are all examples of not only some of those avenues, but also avenues for escape…escaping reality and/or being enlightened on pieces of it, for example, are necesseties for everyone…even if only through a magazine or a book.

    Ms. Burk, thank you so much for sharing your passion even through a blog. Your words have helped to give me hope in the direction that I’m considering.

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  3. DeidreH says:

    As someone who is fortunate to have built a career in leading arts organizations, I would submit to Mr. Spencer that although arts organizations have a mission, a heart and purpose tied to expression, aesthetics, performance or exhibition, and community; they are real and important businesses that operate within every corner of this great country. While it can be easy on the surface to dismiss the arts as superfluous, the numbers do not support that mentality. These ‘organizations’ are businesses which create and support jobs, generate income for neighboring businesses, are an important factor for many in deciding where they will live and raise their families, pay taxes and serve – to the tune of billions of dollars per year. These are organizations that pay tangible and soft returns to communities that they inhabit, make no mistake.

  4. Brad Hills says:

    A further response to Mr. Spencer. The necessities of the world you live in only make me sad. When art has beome subordinate to imaginary circumstances, we are indeed on a downward spiral. It reminds me of…TODAY! We’ve been living in your world for the past 8 years and the result is a world full of fear and despair. Life will happen, we can neither control nor prevent it. Why not have some beauty while we live.

  5. W.P. Norton says:

    First point: Nobody speaks of the “downstream” economic benefits of putting up a new neighborhood church-building. So why do it with theaters, galleries, or any of the other places people go to quench the equally spiritual thirst for art?

    Second point: Instead of finding ways to keep art accessible to people, the first man replying to Penelope’s nice essay thinks we should re-industrialize? He forgets that industrial manufacturing, in the form of military hardware, already accounts for most of our export revenues. Most of those remaining revenues come – wait for it – from U.S. movies, pop music, computer games, television series and the like. If the lawful market price were somehow suddenly to be paid for every pirated American movie, book, piece of music or software being used today in, say, China, we would hear a vast sucking sound from across the Pacific Ocean at the vacuuming-up of billions upon billions of U.S. dollars bound for the bank accounts of trademark- and copyright-holders in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Sillecone Valley (to say nothing of the substantial import duties and other fees that would end up in the public treasury).

    Third point: Take away the arts and all you have left is an endless procession of days through which to trudge, worrying ceaselessly about your food, shelter and security. I’d like to see a show of hands of everyone who’d like to live in a hypermilitarized reality where everyone is either a farmer, soldier or construction worker.

    Fourth point: The greatest wealth of any culture resides not in its power, or in its gold reserves, but in the artifacts of its creative spirit. All the civilizations of recorded history are best remembered now through the prism of their artistic works and, above all, their literary contributions: I say “best remembered,” because while many of Rome’s roads, arches and aqueducts still physically exist, the so-called “dead” language of Latin remains that civilization’s most essential, enduring and evolving bequest to our modern Western one. The terminology of medicine, the still-official language of Catholicism, the Super Bowl numbering system – all Roman.

    Last point: About getting back on the gold standard. It’s not a bad idea. Let’s remember that the No. 1 reason men have always seen value in gold is precisely its uselessness in the creation of anything as important as food, shelter or security. We like gold because it makes the prettiest rings and crowns and jewelry. What do we call the people who make those things? Artisans, of course. And where do the most spectacular of those adornments end up after their owners have no more use of them? Museums.

  6. @Christopher Libby – wasn’t familiar with the Maslow refutation! Interesting – I’ve always thought of his hierarchy in my own work…I will have to look into these other ideas.

  7. Lowell Smith says:

    Thanks Penelope for an inspiring article. Certainly the practice of medicine is necessary, but for what end, really?

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