Funding The Arts in America, Michael Kaiser and the 1%

Ron English, "Money is the Root of All Art", 1994

Okay so I’ve been thinking about a lot of different things, all of which deserve much more rigorous investigation than I can manage at the moment, what with my full-time job, trying to see work in NYC and, you know, trying to have a personal life (ha!) But I wanted to at least get some of these thoughts out there and expand on them, over time, as I gather more information. The conversations that happen in the comments section – complete with links, references, etc. – are really valuable and we are so grateful to the community for engaging in thoughtful discussion on these important issues. Please keep it going!

So first I want to talk about money. Every day on my way to work I would pass Occupy Wall Street and I would think about all the artists I knew that were there, who were posting about it on FB and talking about it at parties and on the street. I would stop by Zucotti every once in a while to see what was going on and found it alternately inspiring and frustrating. I am the 99% and I am, fundamentally, a progressive leftist who believes in the strategic redistribution of wealth for the stability and enhancement of society for the greater good. (See this New Yorker article on Brazil, excerpt available, subscription required for full access). I believe we should talk – and do something – about income inequality and that the government should hold the banks and financial services industry to account for their recklessness and irresponsibility. But as “socialist” as my leanings are, we – especially artists and people working in the arts – can’t and mustn’t ignore the fact that if it weren’t for corporations and the financial services industry, there would probably not be any arts in America to speak of.

The government isn’t investing enough to support an arts infrastructure in America. Check it out – the NEA’s 2012 funding request was as follows:

The National Endowment for the Arts requests a budget of $146.255 million for FY 2012, a reduction of $21.245 million or 13% from FY 2010 appropriated levels and an amount consistent with that appropriated to the NEA in FY 2008.

of which $28.063 million is for salaries and expenses. So that means that the NEA is distributing approximately $118.192 million in funds to support the arts in all 50 states of America. That’s approximately $2.36 million per state. To give a sense of perspective, BAM’s annual budget is in the $25 million range, PS122′s is, roughly, in the $1.3 million range.

NB: Full range of NEA financials are available here. And if you aren’t already familiar, you can check out any non-profit’s financials at Guidestar. (Always a good idea when donating money, researching institutions or job-seeking!)

I’m fortunate enough to live in NYC where the DCA (under the impressive leadership of the indomitable Kate Levin) is incredibly supportive. NYSCA too. If I lived in Kansas, I’d be pretty worried. So arts funding from the public sector, either nationally or on the state and local levels, is unreliable at best.

So then we have foundations – where would the arts be without foundations, large and small? They’re absolutely, vitally important to the arts ecology and they play an incredibly important role in advancing non-market-driven agendas. They support all kinds of projects – not just arts – that are significant, meaningful and vital for a civil, democratic society. Some foundations are conservative, some more liberal, you may not agree with all of their priorities and strategies, but without the philanthropic sector, America would be a much poorer place culturally. But remember – the “gift economy” and corporate economies are directly related. Most foundations, if not all, (and many arts orgs as well) have endowments, which are essentially reserves of capital managed through investment portfolios. Endowments are financial mechanisms for the growth of capital, and a foundation is obligated to spend something like 5% of their returns on their programs. (I am not a financial whiz, but I’m reaching out to some people who are to try and get more thorough data. I hope to share my findings in the new year). So foundations and other organizations that have endowments, rely on the health and success of the financial services industry to do their work.

I was employed at a foundation when the market crashed in 2008 and we had to suspend most of our programs because our endowment was “under water” – we literally had no money to give away. This was a Jewish foundation and when the market crash was followed by the Bernie Madoff scandal it was devastating. Fortunately our foundation hadn’t invested with Madoff, but many Jewish philanthropies had and they were crippled, if not entirely destroyed.

So there’s an interesting situation here – any artist who seeks or accepts a grant from a foundation is, indirectly, being supported by the financial services industry. As an artist should we be concerned or considering the investment strategies of the foundations who support us? Who are they investing in? Who manages their money? We know that fluctuations in the market affect a foundation’s ability to distribute capital, but do their investment portfolios – and advisors and relationships – influence programmatic and strategic initiatives? If we are politically opposed to the policies of a given corporation or investment firm, are we complicit when we benefit, even indirectly, from their profitability? What if you found out that the grant you just received came from a foundation that was heavily invested in Halliburton? Food for thought.

And finally we have corporations. Many large corporations – Chase, American Express, etc. – have philanthropic programs that support the arts. I haven’t been able to adequately do the research but I am going to guess that corporate philanthropic spending in the arts dwarfs the funds distributed by the NEA. If you factor in the non-philanthropic expenditures on culture (event sponsorships, etc.), corporate support of the arts is probably the single largest source of funding in the country. The arts sector as we know it would literally not exist without corporate support.

(Funny side note – I was talking to an arts manager who has been in the business for over 40 years and she was telling me how back in the day when Philip Morris was a major sponsor of BAM and other institutions, you would go to parties and events and they would have free cigarettes out on the tables next to the wine and hors d’oeuvres. Can you imagine?!)

So as artists and cultural workers we should probably think about how our work is supported, who is supporting it and what that means to us. I’m not at all suggesting that we shouldn’t be critical of “the system” – we absolutely should and must – but we need to acknowledge where these worlds intersect, how they interrelate and what the implications are.

Which leads me to Michael Kaiser, his engagement with “the system” and his thoughts on the perils of citizen criticism .

Kaiser’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management is funded by Dick DeVos, billionaire heir to the Amway forutne and Republican heavyweight. (h/t to commenter Richard Kooyman for pointing this out). DeVos has been active in right-wing groups such as the Council for National Policy and The Conservative Caucus. Kooyman also says that the Koch Brothers are supporters of the DeVos Institute, but I have not been able to find documentation of their support.

My instinct is that if Kaiser is being funded by Republican businessmen then their values and worldview are going to influence the management training. I’m still trying to acquire Kaiser-generated materials to study (please send me some if you have taken Kaiser training) but from what I’ve read on Kaiser’s blog, and as I mentioned before, he seems to be coming from a place of privilege that does not acknowledge the facts on the ground for most arts orgs in America. He seems to apply Kennedy Center models to organizations that do not have the capacity, resources or connections to actually implement them. It also tends to privilege institutions that support Ballet, Opera, Symphonies, etc.- the most conservative, institutions that primarily present the work of the White, Western, Male canon. Which is fine, but it also reinforces the elitist model of arts presenting where the educated, wealthy and privileged provide institutionally-approved “culture” for the betterment of the masses.

Interestingly, I found an article about BAM’s new Professional Development Program that will reside in the soon-to-open Richard B. Fisher Building. It is being run by BAM along with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management with the support of the Brooklyn Community Foundation and the New York Community Trust. It is designed to “aid Brooklyn arts groups looking to mount a self-produced performance in the [Fisher Building]‘s new Judith & Alan Fishman Theater Space, and enable them to develop a set of capacity building skills in areas key to their success. The program will focus on the growth and training of each organization as a whole—offered at no fee to participants—and provide a new level of support, not previously offered in Brooklyn, that culminates in a performance.”

Interesting model – providing local arts groups training in management so that they can grow enough to afford to self-produce at BAM. While I question that in and of itself, (the whole rental vs. presentation issue, etc. etc. – too much to go into here without losing my mind in frustration), I also wonder about Kaiser’s ability to adapt his Big Institution model to the sorts of groups that the BAM program will be engaging. Kaiser recently wrote a post on his blog called “Fundraising: the Dilemma of Organizations of Color” in which he asserts:

In fact, as a proportion of their funding, arts organizations receive too much from foundations. These important institutions are overly reliant on foundation and government support. Their bigger weakness is in raising funds from individual donors. Individual donors are the bedrock of American arts funding, giving more than 60% of the money received by arts organizations. Yet the average African American, Latino, Asian American or Native American arts organization receives less than 10% of its funding from individual donors.

I agree with the fundamental idea that arts orgs should focus more on individual donors than on foundation and government support. Art should be supported by, and speak to, their community. But Kaiser seems to elide the very real problem that many orgs of color come from – and serve – disadvantaged populations for whom philanthropic giving is not a reasonable, or likely, expectation. Additionally, some communities do not have a deeply ingrained culture of philanthropy. Some  minority communities don’t have a long enough history of stable wealth accumulation to support philanthropic giving and some communities, from what I have heard from colleagues working in “Organizations of Color”,  just don’t prioritize philanthropy. Even when a member of that community “makes it”, there is very little cultural precedent or pressure to “give back”, at least to the arts. (This is anecdotal, I welcome more information from the field).

Kaiser goes on to say:

As a result, the size of arts organizations of color is bounded and they tend to experience wide swings in funding, especially during bad economic times. Because of this, there are very few large, stable arts organizations of color in our nation. Apart from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater it is hard to think of any. And Ailey has been remarkably successful building its individual donor base, a testament to the skills of its Executive Director Sharon Luckman. Sharon recognized early on that the key to a strong individual fundraising effort is a strong board and she has worked relentlessly to engage strong board members and other individual donors. This is unusual for arts organizations of color whose boards tend to resemble community service organizations rather than fundraising boards. [Emphasis mine] In fact, the boards of diverse organizations typically include numerous leaders from other not-for-profit institutions (educators, pastors, political groups) for whom raising money for their own organizations is a priority. The Ailey organization, under Sharon’s leadership, has successfully broken this mold and has reaped the benefits. Any leader of a diverse arts organization would do well to study her work with Ailey over the past twenty years.

There’s a reason why many Organizations of Color have boards that look like they do. Because many of them start in communities and aim to serve their communities. They generally don’t have access to the 1% or their community equivalents. They don’t go to the same schools, or live in the same neighborhoods and rarely network at, say,  The Sun Valley Conference. Ailey’s strategy just won’t work for many of these organizations, because they’re not making work or presenting work that will be shown at Kennedy Center, etc. and thus be exposed to those donors. They’re making and presenting work in their communities, for their communities. So how do you develop a strategy that might actually work for them? And this isn’t even going into the whole issue of support (and management models) that are relevant to developing, producing and presenting contemporary work in smaller arts organizations, where the Alvin Aileys of tomorrow are being incubated.

I don’t have enough direct experience or exposure to Kaiser and his methodology to adequately critique it. But from what I’ve heard anecdotally from other arts professionals, boards love him and then bring that back to the administrative and artistic leadership, frequently creating a disconnect between expectations, capacity, program and organizational culture. I’m all for bringing sound business practices and strategies into the arts sector, but it requires entrepreneurial innovation and nimbleness, more like a start-up than a huge corporation. But it seems that Kaiser’s intent is grooming the next generation of Kennedy Center-style leadership that will propagate a similar model and set of biases. I really don’t see how this will help the overall ecology of America’s vital, diverse and dynamic, multilayered arts landscape.

Finally, I want to bring this back to my earlier response to Kaiser’s HuffPo article on the “Death of Criticism”. Just as the visual arts world has a huge infrastructure devoted to creating value around art objects, so too the large performing arts and music institutions have a structure for creating perceived value. No one is denying that symphonies, ballets, operas and traditional theater have great merit and the classics of Western Literature and Art should be taught, studied and produced. But their continued cultural value is dependent on an academic and “critical” infrastructure that insures that the audience is informed of exactly why it is important. Also, these traditional works of the Western canon have the advantage of being created, largely, by people that are now dead. No pesky live artists making troubling statements about politics, or sexuality, or racism or income inequality.  But there will always be an audience for the classics of the canon – Kaiser and his acolytes will make sure of that, because they are deeply invested in maintaining a critical infrastructure that supports their conservative taste and values.

The rise of the citizen critic undermines cultural hegemony. I agree with Kaiser to some extent – in a world where anyone can be a “critic” there are going to be a lot of people who offer uninformed, unsophisticated opinions.  Just look at the work that won the Grand Rapids ArtPrize  by popular vote (funded by DeVos!) – a huge stained glass Jesus mosaic. Nice. But to dismiss public discussion by educated and informed writers – often arts professionals, artists, writers and aficionados themselves – is irresponsible at best, elitist, dismissive and destructive at worst.

When Kaiser talks about “critics” at mainstream publications that are “vetted” by editorial staff, he perpetuates a long-outdated myth. It has been a long time since newspapers – especially local newspapers – have “vetted” their arts writers. He places a lot of faith in the intellectual acumen of, well, newspapermen. Rupert Murdoch is a newspaperman – and he doesn’t seem to have done a very good job of vetting anybody. The fact is that the age of Kenneth Tynan is long gone and the notion of serious criticism in mainstream papers is quaint. Most of today’s arts writers in major newspapers – with a few exceptions (Hi Claudia, Gia and Alastair!) – are not critics but reviewers. At least in terms of what they publish in those outlets. Their job is not to engage with the larger ideas and aesthetic considerations, history, meaning and context of work being presented. Their job is to tell the ticket-buying public whether it is worth the money and time to see a show. Critics from academia like Bonnie Maranca, Carol Martin, Tom Sellar, Andre Lepecki, et al, are invaluable to our conversation. Unfortunately these kind of writers aren’t even factored into Kaiser’s thinking.

Admittedly every web browser should probably have  some kind of “Caveat Emptor” button that would help you distinguish the good sites from the bad – but the ideas, information and conversations generated by Citizen Critics are a vital component of creating  sustainability for the arts in America. The only reason to find this “scary” – as Kaiser does – is that it represents a challenge to his authority as an arbiter of cultural value and a purveyor of conservative models of arts engagement.

We can do better.

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