Could cutting the NEA be a good thing?

For decades, “The Arts” have relied heavily on the traditional non-profit funding model. Foundations, corporations, and donors have played a huge role in funding many of our most prestigious arts organizations.  They had to.  Our cultural institutions are expensive and, in the face of a struggling economy, how else could you fund something like a 100 member symphony orchestra?  After all, you can’t simply cut 15 musicians or raise ticket prices by hundreds of dollars when times get hard. This meant that a foundation, corporation, or donor typically had to come in and support/rescue the organization in order to fill in the gaps when ticket sales couldn’t pay the bills.  Although this model has permeated our industry for several decades, times have changed.  There are now more organizations competing for a smaller pool of funding and, due to the internet, donors have a global reach when considering where to give.

Generally speaking, we often think of non-profit failure as being localized. (think Detroit, Philadelphia and Syracuse) The argument being that the organization didn’t do a good enough job on the ground to raise/generate funding necessary to stay afloat. However, I believe this to be a broader systemic issue.  Could the NEA—the arm of our government designed to support, foster and advocate for the furthering of our art— actually be holding us back?

To make my point, let me tell you a little story. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of giving a presentation on the “Artistically Minded Career” to a group of music students at Bowling Green State University.  To set the stage I explained to the students that this wasn’t a “Sky is Falling” discussion.  Instead I told them that I wanted them to view the presentation as an opportunity to explore all options available to them.  Then, I showed them the slide above and asked the students to share their thoughts.  The response was as I expected.  “We need to do a better job advocating for our art/education profession.” and  “If only we could better educate our population, we’d have a better outcome.” dominated the discussion.

Following that short discussion, I showed the students the following slide and asked once again for feedback.  Silence. The students sat very quietly as I reiterated the fact that the discussion was not negative, rather, it was a talk about possibilities and opportunities for their future.

The reality is that, in a for-profit structure, when a business faces market failure, the business either restructures or closes its doors all together.  It is my belief that our non-profit cultural institutions look at things through a slightly different lens.  The organizations listed in the first slide have relied so heavily on support from donors, corporations, the government, and foundations over the years that they have become used to being “propped up” in a time of market failure, unlike the second slide in which the institution simply goes away or restructures.  This means that the non-profit model can often run into difficulty spurring innovation. In fact, this system of thought often inadvertently thwarts it.  In short, innovation hasn’t happened in many of our cultural institutions because it hasn’t been a requirement to sustain the organization.

So, what if cutting the NEA caused “The Arts” (and more importantly, individuals pursuing careers in the arts) to have to do something that should be our ace in the hole….create opportunities for ourselves to succeed? In a 2005 blog post Bill Ivey, former head of the NEA foreshadows quite eloquently the situation many orgs now face.  In his post, Ivey points out three trends that are prevalent in our industry:

  • First, the entire non-profit cultural sector has probably grown to a point at which we’re competing tooth-and-nail for every penny that gatekeepers are willing to assign to “culture;” popular programming becomes an essential survival strategy.
  • Second, the entire field of cultural funding has become more outcome oriented in the past decade: corporate sponsors want exhibitions to actually sell products; foundations expect community transformation or youth development; everybody wants big audiences.
  • Third, one challenge unique to nonprofits is the fact that organizational mission is always bigger than available resources. That means, of course, that if we have good years we always use excess earnings to grow programming, not to create reserves that would free us to invest in future experimental work.
These three points don’t exactly cause us to think creatively about the future of The Arts.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In our efforts to “preserve” the art, we are causing the industry to look back at a time long past.  In doing so, even our young millenials (15-30 year olds) are talking about “advocacy” and “support” of a model that isn’t working as well as it could in the 21st century economy.  

It’s REALLY scary for me to think about a world without the NEA. (and even more scary for the cultural institutions that benefit from its support)  However, what is most daunting to me is the fact that our industry continues to evangelize a mindset that we just need to advocate more in order to get our piece of the funding, which in turn will sustain our organizations.  That mindset goes all the way down to our best and brightest millennials.  We desperately need the NEA to be our voice on Capital Hill but I wonder if the miniscule amount of funding the endowment has is doing us more harm than good in a world that is begging for systemic change when it comes to sustainable funding models for The Arts.

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