Big ol’ disclosure: I am a professional singer, and therefore I receive income from a number of non-profit arts organizations. In addition, my wife and I both sit on the (unpaid) boards of non-profit arts organizations.
Arts organizations are in trouble. Around these parts, the word today is that the North Shore Music Theatre, one of our best local theatre companies, has laid off 57 employees and will have to close unless it can find $4 million fast. Elsewhere, two major regional opera companies (Opera Pacific and Baltimore Opera) have canceled their seasons and may be gone for good, and many others arts organizations here and around the country are facing staff reductions, cancellations, and other serious problems.
This matters for a lot of reasons. First, needless to say, I think the arts are important on their own merits, and I think that if local arts organizations start failing in significant numbers, this will become a much less attractive place to live. But without getting into a big discussion of art for art’s sake, let’s just focus on numbers. A 2006 report (pdf) on New England’s “non-profit arts, cultural, and humanities industry” by the New England Foundation for the Arts lays out some useful facts (the most recent data in the report are from 2002):
- We’re talking about some 40,000 jobs in New England, including over 20,000 in Massachusetts. MA cultural organizations spend nearly a billion dollars a year on salaries alone. And note that we’re not talking about wealthy people here — a billion dollars over 20,000 jobs gives you an average of $50,000.
- The total economic impact (“the total dollar impact of an industry’s spending, including re-spending by firms who supply goods and services to that industry”) of these organizations in MA alone is over $2 billion.
- Tourism is MA’s third-largest industry, and “cultural tourism” accounts for nearly $7 billion of annual spending. Cultural tourists are among the highest-spending tourists.
I could go on, but you get the idea: arts and culture account for significant jobs and money around here, as well as making this a nice place to live. If we lose that, we lose a lot.
So what to do? There’s an interesting WaPo column bemoaning the fact that there seems to be no help on the horizon for the nation’s struggling arts organizations. While acknowledging that some arts organizations are badly run (certainly true, though no different from, say, car companies), the author makes the case for help:
As someone who has made a career out of fixing troubled organizations, I know that the problems faced by arts groups are often related to poor management and governance…. [But w]ell-managed arts organizations have typically been able to find the money required to operate if they create interesting programs, market them aggressively and build strong donor bases.
But these times are different.
Many organizations that spent years building large endowments to provide more stable sources of support have seen them decimated. A number of our most loyal donors have watched their own investment portfolios be depleted and cannot provide their traditional funding. Our audience members cannot buy as many tickets as they have in the past. And our board members are less able to involve friends and associates in our fundraising galas and other activities.
OK, so what to do?
We need an emergency grant for arts organizations in America, and we need legislation that allows unusual access to endowments. Washington must encourage foundations to increase their spending rates during this crisis, and we need immediate tax breaks for corporate giving.
Much of that is a federal issue. If there’s to be an arts bailout, it will come from the feds, not the states, who don’t have the money. And changes in the tax laws governing foundations and corporate giving will also have to come from Washington.
But allowing arts organizations “unusual access to endowments” can be done at the state level. What does he mean by that?