Why Giving to the Arts Matters
How giving to the arts has transformed Philadelphia into a city that even Rocky Balboa wouldn’t recognize.
The City of Brotherly Love just got some good news: People want to live here.
For the seventh straight year, the city’s population has grown, now standing at more than 1.5 million, according to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts titled “Philadelphia: The State of the City, A 2014 Update.” Moreover, in 2013, the report found that developers were awarded building permits for 2,815 units of new residential housing . . . the most in a decade.
For a long time, people wanted to get out of Philadelphia and other large city centers. In 1950, Philadelphia’s population stood at over 2 million, but the ensuing decades brought suburbanization, the exodus of manufacturing jobs, a dramatic rise in crime and a steadily declining population. The 1970s saw Philadelphia depicted in “Rocky” as a gritty place and a cultural backwater.
Today, we see a far different picture of Philadelphia and other flourishing metropolitan centers. Yes, the city still faces serious challenges including a school district that’s perpetually broke. And of the ten largest cities in the country, Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate. But people are gravitating back to the city and Philadelphia has a real hipness: it’s a major restaurant destination and that would have been unthinkable in 1976.
Propelling the city’s transformation is the dramatic expansion of the city’s arts and cultural scene. From the opening of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in 2001 to the relocation of the Barnes Foundation to Center City in 2012 to the addition of new playhouses and performance spaces, arts have reshaped the city and helped make it a place that people of all ages want to call home. One of the great stories of American urban revival has been fueled, at least in part, by the arts and the reality of residents having world class art, music and drama within walking distance.
Philadelphia is a case in point why, on so many levels, donors “invest” in nonprofit arts and culture organizations. Whether it is the Constitution Center or the Philadelphia Orchestra, these institutions promote tourism, help local merchants, create jobs, and grow the local economy. That’s to say nothing of how the arts can stir souls, broaden horizons, educate the heart and mind, and create new life opportunities. I’m focusing on the Philadelphia region because it has been my home for decades, but the arts have spurred revival in plenty of other urban centers.
But not everyone sees it that way and, in recent years, the chorus of naysayers has periodically been loud. Some misguided souls have questioned the wisdom and, in fact, the morality of giving to arts organizations.
Philanthropic support for the arts has never represented a huge piece of the philanthropic pie. According to the most recent Giving USA Report, which covers 2012, gifts to arts and culture represent just 5 percent of American giving. Still, the $14.44 billion that Americans gave to arts and culture represented a 7.8 percent increase from 2011 to 2012 and the highest total of dollars since before the Great Recession of 2007.
The Great Recession took an especially hard toll on arts groups. For some donors, giving to an orchestra at a time when the country was on the cusp of another Great Depression seemed frivolous. Many donors, whose own portfolios took a beating, used what disposable dollars they had to support organizations feeding the hungry and helping the millions of Americans out of work.
Perhaps it is because arts giving has rebounded to healthy levels that there’s been a renewed backlash against it in some quarters. In a 2013 New York Times op-ed, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer took a zero-sum approach to philanthropy, arguing that every dollar given to an arts organization equals money not given to a social service agency. Picking one theoretical example, he argued that $100,000 donated to support a new arts wing represents $100,000 lost to an organization that works to prevent blindness.
“So for $100,000 you could prevent 1,000 people from losing their sight,” wrote Singer. “Given this choice, where would $100,000 do the most good? Which expenditure is likely to lead to the bigger improvement in the lives of those affected by it?”
Earlier this year, Forward contributor editor Elisa Strauss asked some of the same questions. Her piece “How Many Lives is a Da Vinci Masterpiece Worth?” was ostensibly an essay about the George Clooney film “Monuments Men,” which details the true story of a group of scholars and artists that attempted to save looted art in Europe during World War II. But quickly the subject turned to questions of philanthropy and the ethical challenge raised by Singer.
“The film, while not particularly successful as a piece of art itself, raises larger questions about the value of art and whether, and how, it can be measured against human life. Can we ever justify giving money to supporting arts and culture when we could be saving lives?” Strauss wrote.
Strauss, though, didn’t necessarily accept Singer’s view. She quotes Jewish scholar Ruby Namdar, who argued that the Jewish model of giving doesn’t require standards that are impossible to live up to, such as the goal of alleviating all suffering.
Strauss also wisely pointed out that what Singer misses is the ability of art and music to stir empathy. It’s possible that without the arts, or even without strong houses of worship, no one would feel compelled to give to social service organizations.
Great arts and culture organizations have helped make Philadelphia and so many other locales places where people want to live, which has in turn brought business and created jobs. On some level, it may seem trivial to worry about the fiscal health of the city’s many arts and culture organizations when the school district is struggling to the point of crisis. Of course, a workable solution to the district’s funding woes is needed. But the future of the many arts and culture organizations that call Philadelphia home also will have a great impact on the city of the future.
Philanthropy can’t be a zero sum game and true philanthropy can, and should, focus on more than one priority. In many ways, charitable gifts are an expression of what is important to a donor. Why not be renaissance donors and support the arts as well as more traditional types of charities? To paraphrase Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society,” some endeavors are necessary to sustain life and some endeavors encapsulate what we stay alive for. Both are needed.
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