Your Money and My Art

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I’m asking people to give money to me to help me put up some shows in Edinburgh next month. I’m asking you.

You might get asked a lot and maybe sometimes you give. Maybe you give because you know and like the person asking, maybe you give from some sense of guilt or obligation, maybe you just give so the person asking will stop asking already.

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Photo credit: Michel O Sullivan
Photo credit: Michel O Sullivan

I’d like to explain why you should give to the arts, and in this case, to me.

Please understand: when I hold my hand out, I’m not asking for a handout.

I’d like you to think of each show I do (and any show that any theater artist does) as a “cultural enterprise”.

Cultural enterprises (like educational, spiritual and civic enterprises) often require money to be implemented and completed, as they take place in this material and temporal world. Money is often a necessary requirement, as is time, thought, other people and their skills, a physical place and other physical resources.

Now, it is a dispiriting and corrosive development in our time that money has grown to be the central focus of cultural enterprises (and educational, civic and spiritual enterprises as well). We live in financial times, where money is valued above time, thought, material resources and, yes, people.

I ask those of you under 35 to especially consider this development; not because you are young and less experienced, but because you have been raised in the post- Reagan/Thatcher era. This was a time when the conclusively disproved economic theory of Milton Friedman was embraced by the West and allowed to destroy nations and long-held wealth across the globe and when the income gap between the very poor and the very rich, globally, widened like the San Andreas fault in the first Superman movie. Ms. Thatcher famously declared “There is no such thing as society.” and was both applauded and elected due to this stunningly pernicious and ludicrous assertion.

Dark times.

We, in the arts, in America, in these dark times, have been counseled by arts consultants to think like business people and argue for the economic impact of the arts. Of course there is an economic impact to the arts. But it is entirely beside the point of the enterprise. An educational enterprise is geared to create learning, money is not the goal. A civic enterprise is designed to foster society, money is not the goal. A cultural enterprise is launched to incite thought and action, money is not the goal.

I’ve written about money and theater and their strange and complicated relationship before. Some of you might have seen the show. Looking back, I think I got some of it wrong, especially the part about fundraising. So let me tell you why, I think, you should give to the arts and in this case, to me.

First let me tell you why you shouldn’t.

You shouldn’t think of it as any kind of investment. Giving money to the arts is not an investment. There are commercial theater projects that you can invest in, projects in which you can risk a relatively small amount of money for the chance of making a great deal back down the line. Every true theater person’s favorite all-time show is The Fantasticks, not because of the story or the music, but because the original investors in 1960 never had to work another day in their lives. They’re still making money off that grand they put up. That show is the Golden Goose.

When I ask you to give money as opposed to invest it, I’m not asking you to take a risk and I’m not promising any financial reward or payback. If your concern is allocating money in the hope of getting more back, we will not be doing business together.

Giving money to the arts is not an investment. Nor is it charity, though many people, both artists and benefactors, believe it to be.

John ClancyOften you will be asked for a “charitable donation”. This is a strictly legal definition in the State of New York and most of the states. A charitable organization is an organization whose purpose is to serve the people of the State by providing a service to the people of the State, rather than just a regular business whose purpose is to make money for the owners of the business. If you give a “charitable donation” that means you can write it off on your taxes. So, many theater companies, dance companies, art galleries and museums share the same legal status as other organizations that provide other services to citizens.

Let me be very clear: if you are giving money to the arts as an act of charity, please give the money to the Red Cross, some sort of hurricane relief, or any organization that feeds hungry children, either here or abroad. The work these organizations do is, fundamentally, much more important than my show. If you find yourself balancing in your mind my next act of theater against another person’s actual, physical welfare, then take me out of the equation. They are more important. Give your money to them.

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If you look at artists as orphans or charity cases, hapless and in some way needy people, look closer. The vast majority of theater artists in America are white, college-educated men and women from middle to upper-middle class families. Most of us could get jobs tomorrow in any number of industries and start making a decent living. People who deserve our charity are those who cannot provide for themselves the most basic of needs: food, clothing, medicine and shelter. Artists are not, by virtue of being artists, in that category.

We theater artists made a different choice than you did, back when. We chose to live as artists. Nobody forced it on us; it was a free and conscious choice. And the small to non-existent financial reward of our choice is made up for by other rewards: frequent happiness, a sense of purpose and adventure, an extraordinary bond of fellowship with hundreds of other artists around the world. It’s not often an easy life, but it’s the one we chose and given a chance to do it over again, it’s one we’d choose again. You made a different choice and I dearly hope that you can look back and also say that the path you chose was the right one for you.

So, giving money to the arts is not an investment, not a chance to gain more money in the future. Nor is it what I’d call a sensible or responsible act of charity. Giving money to the arts is joining in a cultural enterprise.

If you give money to the arts, the odds are good that you enjoy the arts, value them, perhaps you studied them or were involved in them to some degree in your earlier years. It’s not so much that you think of them as “important” in some abstract way, you like them. You think they’re fun. You made the decision to do something else with your life and you’ve managed to make more money than you need (otherwise you wouldn’t be considering giving some of the money to the arts), but you still enjoy being involved in them and having artists in your life. And giving money to them is a way to be involved. An important way and we artists are grateful for your contribution to our enterprises.

But please, remember: your money is part of the cultural enterprise. It is not the central or most important part.

Nor am I, the artist asking for your money. Nor, finally, is the work of art itself, in this case The Extremists by C.J. Hopkins and Genesis/Golgotha by Don Nigro. Cultural enterprises don’t work like that.

The most important part of a sea voyage isn’t the ship or the captain or the financier who puts up the money. It’s the voyage. The most important thing in our enterprise is the moment (and moments) when our art meets a roomful of strangers. It is that time, when our work and effort and contributions; mine, yours, the actors, the designers, all of our contributions and time and work lives and is present in the room, that matters. That is finally all that matters to our enterprise. When someone laughs, when someone else begins to get worried, when a question is raised and a trick or a lie is revealed and a conversation or discussion or better yet a fight breaks out in someone’s mind or in the bar afterwards or in the theater itself that night, then we were part of living culture, all of us, you , me, the audience, the other artists involved, all of us. We have incited thought and action. Our enterprise paid off.

That is what I’m asking you to join. I’m asking you to be a part of that. That’s what artists are asking for when they ask for your money. They’re not asking you to invest because it’s a good bet. They’re not asking for your charity. They’re asking you if you want to join them in a cultural enterprise.

And if you don’t want to join us, that’s fine.

Wish us luck.

  • Dottie Mergner

    Dear John, So beautifully, brilliantly (?), and honestly written! I belong to the Kennedy Center National Committee for the Performing Arts and our focus is the promotion of the arts in colleges; all aspects of the arts-in front and behind, start to finish! I imagine you know our fabulous Michael Kaiser and the work he does to promote & assist arts groups. I salute you and your work. Knock ’em Dead in Edinburgh!

  • Thanks, Dottie, glad you liked it. I know Michael a little bit, you guys do great work.