The Coming Sahara in Arts Philanthropy?

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CB101945An op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune, included as part of the daily e-blast of stories from ArtsJournal.com, began to gnaw at me yesterday as I went out my daily tasks. It’s a short piece by Ian Campbell, general director and artistic director of the San Diego Opera. In less than 400 words, Campbell managed to terrify and infuriate me all at once, not because of his subject matter, but because of his approach to it.

His complaint — that contributions to performing arts nonprofits are way down, and more and more contributions are needed to “close the income gap between the real cost of producing the art and the revenue earned from ticket sales” — isn’t especially new. Indeed, is the same sad aria — recitative, if you prefer. When he writes “right now contributions are very difficult to find,” I wonder what distinguishes that observation from a thousand other observations made by a thousand other arts administrators regarding the health of the arts economy during the last two years. Or ever.

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It turns out that what does distinguish Campbell’s concerns is that, without using statistics, he launches headlong into an extrapolated assumption about where arts philanthropy is going into the future. Namely, he insinuates, it’s heading nowhere:

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Visit any city and compare the donor lists for major not-for-profits and you will see many of the same names; generous people who believe in leaving a legacy for future generations. They have invested in their community. But they will not be here forever.

Most of the arts and cultural institutions in San Diego are fewer than 100 years old, and many are mere children at 50 years or less. They were founded by people who “owned” the community, who helped grow its resources and not merely use them. They wanted to build a community they might remain in, rather than just pass through, and they understood that a healthy and vibrant city must include a robust cultural life. So far, they have succeeded, but many are aging.

In a world of shallower roots, greater personal mobility and a reduced sense of “ownership” of the community and its resources, where are the new donors to put on the mantle of generosity the previous generation wore so proudly?

And that’s it. Limited by either the newspaper or by his information or by, well, a sense of doom and desperation, Campbell winds down the op-ed with a short paragraph reminding the reader that the “capacity” exists to maintain our performing arts institutions, and then, ends with an ominous question: “What do you choose to do?”

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But is this fair?

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I would argue that Campbell’s piece contains misleading, or perhaps simply facile, aspects. First, it also masquerades as a revenue pitch: the tagline announces that single tickets for the Opera are now on sale, plus an obligatory site link. Second, it doesn’t take into account the Great Recession — neither it’s length nor its depth nor, most important to the discussion of the future of arts philanthropy, what it’s lasting effects may be on giving. People being upwardly mobile has been the case in the U.S. for the better part of 50 years or more; “roots” to a community cannot and should not be measured solely by the length of time one has lived in it. Indeed, the miracle of the Internet — and how strange, I feel, to be having to write this 15 years after the Web became a global force for change — is that one needn’t even have any physical connection to a community at all in order to be a part of it. I’d be curious to know whether people give to the Metropolitan Opera here in New York, for example, because they’ve been able to see a performance on a local movie screen. I don’t think the future of arts philanthropy, in other words, will be predicated on proximity to the institution in question, necessarily, so much as predicated on feeling an ethical duty to give. But if we collectively maintain, as a people, a sometimes ambivalent feeling toward arts education, how will we expose our children to the arts in the first place? If we continue to maintain that the nonprofit business model that has become traditional in this country is the only way we can do business in order to present work, how many companies will eventually struggle or fold? It reads to me as if Campbell is stuck in some outmoded ways of thinking at precisely the moment that innovation is the order of the day.

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