The Essential Mission of Arts Organizations
Robert Evans dissects two recent articles that, at first glance, seem quite different. But both raise questions about the fundamental role of arts and culture organizations. Weaving together a sophisticated case, Evans argues that core mission of arts organizations must be to instill a love and appreciation of the arts in as broad a segment of society as possible.
My wife and I love driving from our suburban home to Center City to experience the Philadelphia Orchestra in its home environs. There is nothing quite like hearing and seeing a world-class body of musicians playing a stirring piece of music in an acoustically resonating and architecturally stunning setting like Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The music and the venue highlight Philadelphia’s once gritty Center City, with streets that crackle with a kinetic energy, resembling nothing as much as an urban symphony of sound. As a champion of philanthropy and a lover of classical music and ballroom dance, I believe in the power of artistic expression to stir souls, impact lives, and transform cityscapes. That’s why I lament that too few Philadelphians appear to benefit from/or take advantage of our first-rate arts scene. And those excluded from the arts boom are disproportionately lower income individuals of color.
Recently, I spent about eight unexpected hours in limbo at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. When the delayed flight turned into a canceled flight, I then had an unscheduled night at an airport hotel. One of the few bright sides was that I had time to digest two timely articles that speak to the philanthropic mandates of arts organizations – and the challenges facing our purveyors of high culture. The first piece was written by Philadelphia Inquirer classic music critic Peter Dobrin and is narrowly, locally focused but has broad implications. The second appeared on www.createquity.com, “a research-backed investigation of the most important issues in the arts and what we, collectively and individually, can do about them” and was strikingly expansive in perspective. Both reinforced the notion that arts organizations are truly mission-driven philanthropies that must be concerned with far more than staging concerts or exhibitions. They must be striving to impact the maximum number of lives via the arts.
Before I analyze the content, I must recognize that philanthropic support for the arts – while on the rise in the post-recession landscape – has been increasingly under assault in the public spotlight. The most prominent critic in the media has been Pete Singer, the Princeton University bioethicist who essentially laid the philosophical groundwork for the animal rights movements. In influential articles for The New York Times, and in books such as “The Life You Can Save,” Singer has argued that donors should avoid giving to arts and culture organizations in order to support only those groups that can provide a direct benefit to those in extreme poverty. “Where human welfare is concerned,” he has written “we will achieve more if we help those in extreme poverty in developing countries, as our dollars go much further there.” Each arts organization must have a ready-to-go, individualized response to Singer and his line of thinking. It is incumbent upon all arts organizations to counter that giving is not an either-or proposition and that culture accompanies, and can spur, the kind of economic development that can transform lives and perhaps lift communities out of poverty.
Now, back to my flight-delay reading material. Both of the pieces represent an extension of the larger ongoing debate about the place of arts organizations in our society and the responsibility of philanthropists to support them. Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2001 to much fanfare. It was modeled on New York’s Lincoln Center and was envisioned as a major aspect of the rebranding of South Broad Street into the Avenue of the Arts. The venue has received its share of criticism over the years from an architectural and acoustics point of view and also, like most nonprofit organizations in the last decades, has faced its share of financial challenges. Today, it is a shimmering jewel for our city and a fitting home for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philly Pops, and other prominent members of the region’s arts and culture scene.
Dobrin has written extensively about the proliferation of new arts infrastructure in Philadelphia and the challenge of sustaining the arts boom of the past two decades. Within this context, he offered a mixed assessment of the Kimmel Center’s CEO, Anne Ewers.
“Indeed, positive results of the Kimmel’s business plan can be measured now that it has been in effect for several years. The Kimmel today has to raise only 10 percent of its income through philanthropy. It earns 90 percent itself, an exceptionally high percentage for an arts group.”
The problem, according to Dobrin, is that by improving its bottom line, and relying less on the generosity of donors, the Kimmel Center has veered from its core mission. A series of special events devoted to showcasing visiting orchestras has been eliminated while more performances by comedians and pop cultural offerings have been added. This is unfortunate because, according to Dobrin, the center’s mission is not to sell tickets to but spread passion for the arts.
“To have canceled the one series that brought the city something it didn’t have because you could not raise the last $60,000 for a project at a $38 million-a-year organization means you didn’t really want it,” Dobrin charged.
He adds that “giving people what they already know does not necessarily serve their best interests. It’s no trick to match teens to a boy band, or Jerry Blavat to his fan base. The higher calling is to be an imaginative curator. When the Kimmel once again delivers the high school student from Grays Ferry to worlds he never knew by putting him in the same room with an orchestra from Leipzig, we will once again have a presenter operating at full potential.”
Most problematic– and the point of this article that directly connects to the other piece I reference – is Dobrin’s pointing out that Kimmel Center programs serve 10,000 children annually, compared to 42,000 for Lincoln Center. Inspiring a love of music in children may be the most significant way that a performing arts institution can impact the broader culture. Much as I love the Kimmel Center, and Lincoln Center for that matter, these and similar institutions need to function more like the nonprofits they are and focus more clearly on their public mission. To accomplish this, they must make their case to donors. Tickets sales alone cannot transform a culture or elevate lives.
The piece on Createquity, written by Ian David Moss, Louise Geraghy, Clara Schuchmacher, and Talia Gibas, asks the question, why don’t people with lower incomes and less education attend plays, concerts, museums, etc? Or, more precisely, why do they do so at much lower rates than individuals with higher incomes and more education?
The lengthy piece culls from a wide array of research and studies, including a major report put out by the National Endowment for the Arts called “A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012.” For example, that study found that in 2012 19.4 percent of adults making $150,000 or more attended a classical music performance. That number fell steadily with each lower income bracket, for example, it was 5.6 percent for people making between $20,000 and $50,000 and 3.5 percent for people making less than $20,000.
The discrepancy must be due to the cost of attending an event, right? Actually, not so much: The authors provide detailed statistics showing that the more educated and higher earning the individual, the more likely he or she is to attend a free arts performance. Higher earners may be more in the know about the arts and more apt to know about these complimentary performances.
The authors conclude that, for a small percentage of low income individuals, both the cost of attending an arts event and the difficulty of getting there are major obstacles to attendance. But the authors contend that the bulk of low income individuals lack a strong interest in attending concerts, plays, and other arts-related programming – and that is an issue that needs much further discussion and exploration.
The authors write that “perhaps some low SES individuals don’t attend arts events simply because they don’t think of themselves as the kind of people who attend arts events. Which brings us back to the question: Is that a problem?” (The authors use low SES as a term to describe people lower on the socioeconomic scale.)
“We would urge would-be social engineers to tread carefully when it comes to deciding for poor people what their consumption preferences should be …. until we know more about low SES people’s subjective experience of their free time – whether they would spend their time differently if they had the opportunity and whether there’s a place for the arts in those dreams. We advise against making too many assumptions.”
Here is an assumption and a statement I am willing to make: Our arts organizations, particularly our largest and most prestigious, must do better. Igniting a passion for the arts, particularly in poor and marginalized communities, must be incorporated into the core mission of arts organizations. And part of that work entails keeping those visiting orchestras on the schedule. Clearly, organizations like the Kimmel Center can only pursue these goals with the help of dedicated philanthropists. I issue a challenge to our local and national philanthropic community: let us fund first class programming, let us champion outreach into new communities and provide opportunities to expose youth to all the possibilities of art, music and dance. Let us collectively show why Pete Singer is wrong. Let us transform lives.
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