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Dec. 8, 2020: On Money, Missions And Fauci

Good day,

Let’s talk about money, and lack of it — but where it may be found, too — as arts groups approach a new uncertain pandemic-centric year and as audiences start to think about approaching, eagerly, but warily, too.

But first a reality check -- at least here in the U.S. -- from the arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts which recently reported that “1 in 10 nonprofit arts organizations doubt their ability to survive the pandemic”.

Government support varies from country to country, and here in the U.S. the response has been especially slow in throwing financial lifelines to arts groups. Americans for the Arts suggest making this economic data a mantra: “The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the nation’s arts and culture sector—nonprofit, commercial, education—is an $878 billion industry that supports 5.1 million jobs. That is 4.5% of the nation’s economy—a larger share of GDP than powerhouse sectors such as agriculture, transportation, and tourism. The arts even boast a $30 billion international trade surplus."

Like so many industries during the pandemic, the arts and entertainment economy is devastated, too. A Brookings Institution report shows America’s arts and creative industries lost $150 billion in sales and 2.7 million jobs through July. The “fine and performing arts” alone (commercial and nonprofit) incurred losses of $42.5 billion and a whopping 50% of its workforce

This makes a compelling case for extraordinary financial support, no? Well, not so far, although such support for the arts and entertainment economy is fundamentally a conservative-rooted idea in principle, at least as outlined in an article earlier in The Washington Post. The article was in response to the Save Our Stages Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in July, which would provide $10 billion in aid over six months for live performance venues devastated by Covid-19. Passage is still pending.

For those who need data on how dire the situation is can look to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival and how that hive of activity did this pandemic year and what the net effect was to the city, as reported in The Scotsman. Or closer to home, New York City's reliance on Broadway. But really, one can make the case for almost any major cosmopolitan city -- and even some smaller ones, as described in SMU DataArts, the National Center for Arts Research and its Arts Vibrancy Index Report. "No part of the country has cornered the market on arts vibrancy. Every region of the country has vibrant arts communities that appear in this report." And all are vulnerable -- everywhere.

But the recent national election in the U.S. gave hope that finally this data will be translated into policy and financial support. The arts track record before the election of Biden and Harris was positive. Post-election is even more encouraging. As The Art Newspaper reports: "President-elect Biden has already made the arts part of his transition plans. There are even signs that culture could have a central role in the new administration, with an office in the White House dedicated to the arts and humanities under discussion."

Could there even be a Dr. Fauci for the arts? Peter Marks writing in The Washington Post hopes so. “Michael M. Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center and one of the nation’s top consultants for ailing arts groups, says that a more concerted federal arts strategy would be a pragmatic boon to the country. ‘There’s a need that goes beyond, beyond the NEA and the NEH,’ he said.”

But support should be intertwined with a commitment to be responsive to calls for diversity, equality and inclusion, to be systemically innovative, and to connect more deeply into the community.

First sustaining, then growing the arts and their communities require financial resources from multiples sources, earned as well as contributed. I recently reread an article by Alan Cantor in The Harvard Business Review published earlier this fall and it’s especially relevant this month when the end of year traditionally sees a boost in giving, whether it's spurred by the holiday or tax reasons.

Though it may have been a disastrous financial year for arts groups and the country as a whole, not all have suffered economically.

“..If you’re a nonprofit leader marinating in financial anxiety, I can assure you that many of your supporters are not feeling any financial pinch at all. In fact, those wealthy few may even be a bit more comfortable than usual, because their travel and entertainment plans have been curtailed by the pandemic….This bifurcated economic recovery will undoubtedly amplify the trend of the last 40 years, where more and more charitable giving is coming from fewer and fewer donors.”

The article gives advice in approaching donors with handsome portfolios to help not just a singular institution but, by extension, to a larger community.

"The arts are kindling for the economy—small investments that deliver big returns. They get people out of their homes and spending money in the community….These dollars provide vital income to local merchants, energize the downtown, and pay salaries and wages in non-arts sectors."

That's a message that bears repeating to donors, to corporations, to government officials, but coupled with a promise that when audiences return to their arts centers, the doors will be open to a place that is reimagined as a fundamentally far better place to be.

-- Frank Rizzo


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