On Philanthropy (From 2004)


What is the single, most fundamental problem facing the development of art programs and the long-term stability of cultural organizations?

If you answered Lack Of Funding, congratulations; your choice reflects sentiments shared by approximately ninety-five percent of cultural organizations and administrators, whom although altogether comprising a small and elite segment relative of the general population, hold sway, for better or for worse, over a large percentage of the cultural decisions that are made in this country; decisions that ultimately have a tremendous impact on our national psyche. Most of these gatekeepers, tastemakers and fundfunnelers –the people who make up the rules which govern the cultural lay of the land– are deeply vested in mostly ineffective methods of public and private philanthropic funding.

But the real question is whether a lack of funding is indeed the fundamental varmint eating away at the root of art and cultural programs. Actually, inadequate funding is more of a symptom, stemming from a deeper root-rot pervasive throughout society.

In my mind, the fundamental problem facing our communities today (and by extension, our cultural organizations), is an utter lack of civic maturity.

How we have devolved to such low levels of civic awareness in this, the most open, and still the most democratic of nations, is a subject for deeper study. A favored animadversion is that a large part of this civic malaise is the result of persistent efforts to consolidate mass-media into homogenized, moralistic, dumbed-down entertainment vehicles for the unthinking masses. Even though mass-media has undeniably had a regressive effect on civility and civic responsibility, it does not hold sole claim to culpability. The most important erosion of civic responsibility comes, ironically, from the decision-making class itself.

I posit that there is a strong correlation between the rise and acceptance of Consensus as a decision-making method of choice -the enabling of consensus as a problem solver- and the decline of individual responsibility. Consensus, in the name of a perceived greater good, shuns and deflects personal accountability. The decision making task is spread out among a nominally heterogeneous group of people, who, for the sake of political expediency, always strive for a hapless middle ground; a normalizing form of discussion that, in its emphasis on procedural politesse, leads to mostly mediocre results. Roberts Rules Of Order have engendered The Peter Principle, which operates pervasively throughout every level of society.

When accountability is avoided a personal sense of integrity is lost, irresponsible action ensues, and civility is cut off at its roots. Incompetence and simplistic like-mindedness become the subtext for every initiative, and a happy feeling is had by all for affording so-called democratized outcomes.

When experts are convened to solve a problem by consensual agreement, we the public like to think that these experts are indeed taking care of business. And if the experts are in charge, why bother to get involved? What do we know that the experts don’t know and may have already factored into their thought processes? Apparently what we now know is that there is no effective critical or analytical thought involved in the consensual exercise. In the bland fabricated utopia driven by consensus, critical thinking and analysis are not part of a team-player’s toolkit.

After observing a few of these consensus-driven activities, we learn that there is in effect a very accommodating procedural process, but there is no substantial or substantiated thought-process to be engaged. Every idea, every comment carries equal weight, every mind is an enlightened one, every person is a deep thinker. A meeting’s minutes, duly recorded by soft-spoken embracers, pile into working reports that mirror the self-serving shallow issues that tend to surface at these gatherings.

In a broader political context, consensus is akin to governance by politburo; party loyalists toeing the party line and enforcing the party line across the land. I’m sure that most of us would balk at living under such a regime (it’s close however, very close…). Why then do we settle for this manner of governance in the cultural industry, where administrators are invariably appointed within their organizations, almost never elected? Candidates (a syntactic legerdemain in this case) must go through a rigorous selection process, of course, but it so happens that oftentimes this process is conducted by an unimaginative board under the auspices of our old friend consensus.

If most cultural administrators feel that lack of funding is a severe problem, why are they not ganging up on the philanthropic numbskulls who provide the funds that would alleviate this untenable condition? One of the answers is simple enough: Many administrators have become part of a tenurocracy that depends on someone else’s goodwill to maintain job security; and as such, not wanting the halcyon days to end, they tenderly caress the hands that feed them. A friend of mine, a respected writer and administrator, recently asked this rhetorical question: When are we going to stop practicing, when does it become the real thing? My answer was: When we mature… but by the way, you are well respected in this community and many of our colleagues would pay attention to what you say, why not express your concern in public?. Her answer was: I still have to go out and ask for money. If I start rocking the boat the meager flow of money would dry up. This is a classic example of how fear breeds subservient politesse. Fear of retribution is helping us lose the war for winning the battle.

There are many threads in a community’s fabric that are woven into issues of civic maturity. Education, of course, is paramount. A community that doesn’t promote expansive investment in innovative, secular educational programs, cannot expect informed opinion or action; an uninformed community is not a civic-minded or politically aware community. This in turn leads to apathetic political involvement and by consequence, low voter turnout. In the final instance, political apathy and low voter turnout breeds governance by special-interest or by lowest-common-denominator. Lobbyists and single-issue fundamentalists own this country’s political structure today.

An uneducated, uninformed community cannot develop a contextually relevant set of enterprise skills. Master-plans are drafted where appointed experts fill in the leadership gaps left wide open by a generalized lack of community interest. Significant enterprise is left in the hands of a more informed but civically disinterested, entrenched power class. Everyone else is led to believe that the meek shall inherit the earth if they stand in line for handouts long enough. And therein lies the heart of this essay.

While attending a cultural planning meeting not too long ago, an artist/administrator articulating his woes in a roomful of peers, said: The (serially defunct) organization that I belong to, had an excellent product and was very well integrated into the community via educational outreach efforts with public schools. We had a wonderful story to tell, but not enough resources to help us tell this story to the community (i.e.: funders and donors). Mind you, the organization in question, while in operation, had an annual budget of over five million dollars. Now, consider that the annual budgets of eighty percent of the organizations represented in that room, amounted to less than a hundred thousand dollars per organization, if that much, and even though lacking certain capabilities, they managed to tell their stories just fine with less than one percent of the five-million-dollar-spilled-milk being cried over by this encapsulated ninny. I was, to put it mildly, affronted. But of course, since the meeting was conducted under the well-known auspices of our friend consensus, the faux civility of Roberts Rules Of Order prevented me from speaking out of place and hashing it out with this self-serving, self-absorbed cretin. But I did want to counter with: You are in effect saying that your organization can’t adequately tell its story with a five million dollar budget? Well then, your storyline is surely flawed, your allocation of resources smacks of inefficiency and your management seems at best incompetent and at worst, corrupt and disinterested. Additionally, since you have chosen to engage your cultural activities with a very narrow social spectrum of our city, your understanding of contextual relevance is as deep as the pockets of your neatly pressed coattails.

See, the problem isn’t really the money. It’s an almost beatific attitude of entitlement which frequently surfaces after years of enjoying the benefits of non-profit models of funding. Living on the cultural dole, people lose perspective; their projects are sine-qua-non and their organizations become the sole keepers of the flame. Community context and contextual dynamics are thrown by the wayside when you are being served millions to be ineffective and irrelevant.

No wonder then that funders and donors (mostly narrow-minded and ill-advised to begin with) choose not to put their personal fortunes behind art and cultural projects. In their minds, artists are a bunch of grandstanding, ungrateful nincompoops. A hundred dollars, a million dollars, it’s all the same; they’ll squander it anyway, or so the thinking goes. Artists generally end up lumped into mostly unsavory categories in matters related to cultural funding, even though they actually have very little say in funding circles, unless involved as very polite peer panelists in consensus-driven grant reviews.

Not all the blame for this mess lies with the non-profit-organization camp. Cultural organizations are merely recipients, who’ve had to ride the funding policy tides with evermore finely tuned grant-writing skills. If only they’d devote equal time and attention to seriously developing cultural products as a source of income…

Using the notion of civic maturity as a yardstick for the current cultural funding formats, set by the funders themselves, funders and donors, public and private, have proven to be at best, fickle, incompetent and downright exclusive. Corruption and special interest funding figure into some of the worst-case scenarios. Philanthropies, both public and private, have lost sight and sense of their true mission, which is to facilitate a vital flow of money into arts and cultural programs –albeit within the flawed context of a tax deduction– making for a more desirable and productive living environment.

Philanthropies have become single-issue cultural dictators, and non-profit organizations in their quest for survival, have become reactively submissive subjects.

This funding model is, for all practical purposes, reminiscent of a feudal society where serfs stand in line for an audience with their lord, waiting for leftovers from the dinner table. Is it even necessary to point out that there is no dignity or future in this Alms-For-The-Poor approach? A handout mentality does not engender a dynamic cultural environment.

Uninspired non-profit funding models are deep in the blame for the current stagnation in cultural development. The future of arts and culture in any community depends as much or more on market forces as it does on philanthropy. Market forces driven by a community’s contextual needs have to be taken into consideration for the success of any cultural initiative. This is not a play for, or an endorsement of a dumb-down approach to the arts. Quite the contrary, this requires discipline, focus and creative enterprise skills. It also requires civic maturity.

There are many facets to a community that have to be addressed, considered and included in the building-block pile of a productive cultural environment. But most importantly, community leaders have to define existing cultural strengths and capitalize on them, without trying to import or create artificial building-blocks, or master-plan their way through a community’s development. Otherwise, it means these leaders are not aware of their community’s identity and don’t believe in its potential for innovative cultural growth.

Non-profit organizations have to be proactive and plan for change; developing competitive business strategies for survival, focussing on creating opportunities for generating income from their cultural products. They have to produce the goods just like any other business; efficiently, within budget and with returns on investment. If there is no market for a cultural service or product, the need for that service or product is debatable. It’s not a matter of Build It And They Will Come, we already know this approach doesn’t work. Infrastructure does not beget enterprise, enterprise begets infrastructure.

Tangentially related but very important: When art and culture are used as fund-raising vehicles for charitable activities, it diminishes the intrinsic value of art and cultural products and dissipates any potential ad-hoc market development. In other words, when so many art sales, art auctions, concerts, performances and such, are used to raise funds for charitable projects, the value of the product being charitized (my term) diminishes, and it dissipates the future value of any product created by artists or organizations; effectively stifling the emergence of a cultural industry. It speaks loudly of a community’s civic immaturity when most culturally-related purchases are conducted at charitable auctions. Altruistic merits aside, buying cultural products at these functions has more to do with enhancing social stature than with capitalizing on an informed, vested interest in art and culture. It is an enormous fallacy to value charity purchases over market-driven cultural transactions.

In the spirit of ending on a can-do note, I offer a few suggestions for a more mature, dynamic, cultural-funding strategy, within the framework of an enterprise development program for art and cultural organizations. In very broad brushstrokes (and in the present tense for better effect):

1. Private philanthropy provides mostly for organizational support and public philanthropy provides mostly programmatic and marketing support; exceptions apply.

2. Non-profit organizations prove themselves self-sustaining and fiscally accountable.

3. Non-profit organizations receive their funding, public and private, in the form of low-interest, long-term (organizational) and short-term (programmatic) loans.

4. Funders and donors are more like financial partners -venture capitalists for the arts- providing collateral and co-signing on promissory notes of debt taken out by non-profit organizations (private funders and donors bail out their clients at their own discretion).

5. Non-profit organizations not meeting their fiscal obligations are put out of business (it may be non-profit, but it’s still a business).

6. Funding opportunities for qualified individual artists are widely available, with accountability stipulations, within the context of a cultural enterprise program.

The crux of this strategy is a business development program created specifically for artists and cultural organizations, taking into account the wide range of variables particular to a cultural industry within a community. Public and private interests and philanthropies have to embrace their share of civic responsibility to help creative development become an integral part of a community’s future.

One of the most important benefits of an initiative like this is that, to survive and thrive, organizations need to maintain a high level of contextual relevance and community involvement, in a more realistic competitive environment. An additional benefit to this scenario is the preclusion of an unnecessary duplication of efforts, with refined mission statements fostering discipline-specific organizational skills, professional development, and more focussed, creative, community-relevant goals. It also pretty much does away with those buggering issues of complacency and entitlement, as artists, organizations and funders assume responsibility and become accountable for their each and every action.

And finally, it would be good to see the return of healthy, hearty, mature, well-articulated, open-minded debates as the procedure of choice for decision-making forums; replacing the porridge-like dynamics of made-for-TV consensual dribble. Kind’a makes you sweat in all the wrong places, dudn’t it?

Those who complain about the way the ball bounces are often the ones who dropped it in the first place


Michael Mehl | Summer 2004

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