I actually read that riveting question in the marginal notes of a proposal for funding an orchestra. The notes were penned by a trustee of a grant-making foundation during a meeting to review the proposal. Another trustee of the foundation, the one who presented the proposal on behalf of the orchestra, later showed them to me and asked what I could do help counter his colleague’s questioning remark.
Arts and cultural institutions are often forced into such defensive postures. They’re accused of only benefiting the elite. The needs of the hungry, the homeless, the physically, mentally and emotionally challenged are cited as so great that something as frivolous as the arts should not be drawing from the pool of available support for non-profit organizations. Those of us who work with and passionately support the arts are asked how we can justify "diverting" funds to the arts when such need exists.
The arts community rightfully provides data showing its economic impact and benefit to the community—statistics tabulating the number of people employed by arts and cultural organizations, tourists attracted to the area, money spent on purchases from vendors, etc. Those facts deliver a true story, but they are not always compelling. Then there is the "quality-of-life" argument, but, it too does not always convince. We’re told it is too subjective, too broad, too general.
I believe the answer is to stop defending the arts. That what we need to do is step out of the defensive posture our critics would force us into. We need to start asserting the value of the arts with some questions of our own.
Would the community be a place that draws the successful people able to support other needs, if there were not an orchestra, art museum, ballet, opera, theater, etc.? Without the quality-of-life amenities that arts and cultural organizations provide, would private companies, corporations, and firms be able to retain and attract key employees—the very people who keep business thriving and civic endeavors moving forward?
Without the draw of arts and culture organizations, how many individuals of affluence would there be in the community? Would as many new enterprises choose to make the community their home? Without the retention of "old money" and the creation of new wealth, where would the philanthropy to support all those "more worthy" institutions come from? What would happen to the hospitals, schools, and social-service agencies?
To me, the gist of the argument to make when the value of the arts is questioned is simple. Without the arts, without cultural institutions, the people who make up the strong backbone of support for civic and social needs would be far fewer in number. It would be as if the community were trying to stand upright with vertebrae missing from that backbone of support. That leads to one last question.
How many vertebrae would have to go missing before that backbone collapsed under the weight of the load it was being asked to carry?
Thank you for this! Founding and running a music organization that grants disadvantaged talented kids scholarships, this will be added to my response. And, it’s exactly what I believe.
Folks on the organization’s committees, board and, even me, are consistently asked this question and it has been a hard one to answer, indeed, putting folks on the defensive. I plan to add this in my own communications to our volunteers, staff and board.
Thank you for your contribution to this Blog. We are pleased that our case for support for the Arts could be of good use to you as you seek support for your foundation.
Do scroll down to read the spot-on points made by Don Griesman, one of the best grant development professionals I know, and my reference to strong support points from Dennis Alexander, a truly top Academia development professional. Their insights may add to your continuing communication regarding the great value of Arts & Culture.
Well said. Take control of our message. Don't let others define who we are so that we are always in a defensive posture as you say. And stay with the message – over and over. Thank you for your article which I will incorporate into my future messaging opportunities.
Judy: We appreciate your bolstering comments to our argument regarding the value of the arts in any community.
During my time with the Cleveland Orchestra, the patrons giving us the most money were the same generous donors who were giving the most money to most of our area’s charities.
I have never seen a single successful capital campaign, for example, which was paid for by the dollars of the general community. It was always the about 90% of the money coming from only about 10% of the donors. And those 10% – level donors were the same ones supporting arts and culture organizations which were of personal benefit to them.
Thank you for this wonderful article. I found Dennis Alexander's writing on the matter very moving and inspiring!
I'm new to fundraising, and I'm wondering if there are any books you would recommend on the subject of fundraising (or defending!) for the arts?
Hello Don: It is good to hear from you, and to have your passionate and balanced take, in touching human terms, regarding just how essential the arts are to our health, self-esteem, creativity—and our sanity!
Following is what I learned from yet another interesting and relevant look at why the arts are so important to all of us. Dennis Alexander of TCU used the material in a successful request for an arts funding project at the University:
“It’s not surprising that arts funding takes a back seat to support for human health and welfare. What’s surprising is how little the arts are recognized as part of human welfare.
Within the poorest communities in America, the arts flourish. In the midst of hunger and joblessness and great material want, we see street murals, sidewalk music, folk art, rap, graffiti, break-dancing, urban poetry–the list goes on and on. Why? Because a human being is more than a body in need of food, clothing, shelter. A human being is a soul in need of nurture.
For the material man, there are night shelters, free clinics, food pantries, day centers, legal aid services, vocational training, and a thousand other programs. But fare for the soul is much more meager. It feeds only on spirituality, nature… and the arts.
We have always needed the arts. It’s attested from our prehistory in the form of cave paintings and carved tusks and clay figurines.
We still need the arts. Human beings are not whole without it. Even in grinding poverty, we require soul sustenance.”
Don: I think that our three approaches to provide proof and passion (logic and emotion), to be applied to support of the arts, can now be more compelling than ever. Thanks so much for your valuable contribution.
It is good to see you continue to represent the arts forthrightly and strongly. I agree with you although I have never worked in the arts, only with the hungry, the homeless, the physically, mentally and emotionally challenged and more. The arts are part of a culture that is whole and balanced. Much valuable and admired art, paintings, music, sculpture are produced by low income people, persons who are mentally and physically challenged. School children across this country take day trips to see and hear the arts. They are highly benefited by these elements of our society. Art stirs the soul and gives us all enrichment, not just the mighty few of the wealthy. It is incorrect that low income people do not visit and admire the arts available, so much for free. In some schools there are efforts to add social media and the appreciation of the arts. These enrich young people who may live on Food Stamps and free breakfasts and grow to be very influential in this country. We would be short changed without the art of jazz and the paintings and sculptures produced to honor the jazz world. That is but one piece of art that is available for enjoyment for all. It comes from the suffering of African Americans and is shared by all, although without remembering the pain jazz exemplifies from slavery. Art comes from within all of us and needs to have a balanced share of our efforts, government, foundations and corporations and every day citizens.