Was Mom Right? I Hope Not

Mom thought the arts were fun and games, frivolous, with no real worth but immediate entertainment.

Do the arts have more value than a bologna and cheese sandwich?

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.
— Albert Camus, The Stranger

My mom, who died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 90, hated supporting the arts with donations of money or time. She thought the arts were just fun and games, frivolous, with no real worth but immediate entertainment. A Great Depression baby, Estelle valued money and financial worth as a litmus test of importance. If a thing could not be easily priced, it had no value.

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At her funeral, I told a story of the 11-year-old me, a basketball-loving kid who had to run to an intramural game immediately after a boring piano lesson. “Have a piece of bologna!,” Mom yelled from the kitchen.

Estelle with her future hoopster.

“I can’t!,” I yelled back. Now in my room, I was quickly tearing into the appropriate t-shirt, shorts and sneakers. “I don’t want to cramp up!”

“Have a piece of bologna!,” Mom bellowed again, implying that a tiny piece of lunch meat couldn’t possibly give me a cramp. (Yes, I got all that from five words from my Yiddishe mama.)

I finished getting dressed, ran to the backyard and grabbed my basketball. “Bye, Mom!,” I called out, with just the hint of a tone.

“Have a piece of bologna! And a piece of cheese!,” she hollered over my tone, a little louder, more threatening.

Sensing I was going to have to do something or incur a wrath that usually included my mother shrieking “I’m gonna kill you!,” I gave in, if only a little.

“OK! I’ll have a piece of bologna and a piece of cheese!,” I shouted. Then I made my critical error. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands because the basketball had mud on it.

I returned from the bathroom, ran into the kitchen, and found Mom beaming. In one hand, she held a melamine plate with a bologna-and-cheese sandwich, complete with lettuce, tomato and a little mustard, and an apple and some chips. In her other hand, a full glass of milk. Her critical mistake was having both hands in use. I took the top piece of bread off, took a single slice of bologna and a single slice of cheese, replaced the bread, and ran out the door before she could do anything. As I ran down the street, eating with one hand and woefully dribbling with the other, I heard her one more time:

Hey! That would have been $4.99 at Canter’s!

To Estelle, food had no nutritional value until it had a price tag.

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Even though she could afford to donate, even though her son was out there raising money for arts organizations, she was not much of a donor to the arts. It’s not that she hated the arts. She liked plays and movies, especially those with Paul Muni (and her secretly strange crush, Brian Donlevy). But that was a quid pro quo relationship — she paid money and saw a play or a movie. The exchange gave her an idea of the value of the art to her. If it cost a lot of money, she liked it more. If it were less expensive — or worse, if she were given a free ticket — she thought less of it. The former, to her, was exciting and engaging. The latter, for the most part, was nothing more than a silly high school musical starring her son.

To many people, in fact, the only way to measure the worth of a thing is to financially evaluate that thing. Many of those people are put in charge of nonprofit arts organizations, serving either on boards or as executives and managers. And by “manage,” they focus on revenue, earned and unearned.

Just revenue. How many times have we heard about artistic directors blowing budgets — especially on the plays they choose to direct? Many times. How many times have we heard about marketing and development leaders being allowed to blow their budgets to increase attendance? Rarely. A managing director may nominally oversee operations, but in today’s arts world, they oversee revenue streams and operating budgets.

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The following is an actual job posting for a managing director position at a nonprofit arts organization:

The Managing Director primarily leads, oversees, implements, and ensures the sustainability of [NONPROFIT ARTS ORGANIZATION]’s operations through fundraising, financial management, administration, and communications. S/he is the chief operating officer and works directly with the Board of Directors.

For nonprofit arts organizations that like to complain about shortages of revenue serving as an obstacle to achievement of the mission, this is a problem. Revenue is not a goal. Impact — defined in direct, quantifiable items of good — is. Revenue is required to achieve impact, not the other way around.

In 2018 on the CFR, arts consultant Duncan Webb wrote:

…arts professionals often make presumptions about the value of the arts. The problem is that those presumptions
are not accepted, let alone understood,
by others outside the field.

And as Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape, once said many years ago:

The main thing
is to keep the main thing
the main thing.

When revenue becomes the main thing, people (like my mom) easily justify the notion that the arts are just fun and games. When we prove that our specific nonprofit — be it an arts organization or any other — makes a quantifiable difference in a population, then people (like my mom) become incredibly generous and zealous.

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Camus’ The Stranger (the debate over the translation of the quote up top is here) is a study of the possibility that life is merely a set of arbitrary events resulting in, at best, flummery, and at worst, nothing. The New York Times review described the world of the novel as “futilitarian,” a perfect description of the existentialist quandary posed by the story. Are nonprofit arts organizations that merely seek excellence — and somehow see impact in that excellence even though they cannot measure it — similarly “futilitarian”?

When the economic tides grow frighteningly high again — and rest assured they will, every bit as big as the era that followed the financial collapse of 2008 — will the arts again lag the rest of the nonprofit sector in recovery? If Mom was right — if the arts are fun and games, intellectual pursuits with no material, intended, quantifiable impact — then they might not deserve to recover.