Funding for the Arts Sometimes Benefits All of Us

Does funding for the arts benefit only elite arts patrons, or does the rest of society benefit, too? In these times of limited philanthropic dollars, this is an incredibly important question.
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Does funding for the arts benefit only elite arts patrons, or does the rest of society benefit, too? In these times of limited philanthropic dollars, this is an incredibly important question.

On June 8th, Americans for the Arts released findings from its fourth report on the arts and its relationship to the economy. Arts & Economic Prosperity IV ™ analyzed the economic impact of nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences. One of the key findings in the report was that the arts provided significant positive returns to the economy during a time of national economic turmoil:

"Nationally, the industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity -- $61.1 billion by the nation's nonprofit arts and culture organizations in addition to $74.1 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. This economic activity supports 4.1 million full-time jobs. Our industry also generates $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments every year -- a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations."

Further, the study found that although attendance at arts events declined because of decreases in discretionary income, arts audiences spent $24.60 per individual beyond the cost of admission to events in 2010.

As Robert L. Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts stated: "Arts & Economic Prosperity IV™ reveals the vital role played by the nonprofit arts and culture industry in strengthening the nation's economy. This study proves that the arts are a key component of our nation's economic recovery and future prosperity and an industry that supports jobs, generates significant government revenue and sustains local businesses."

The study also highlights the role that cultural tourism plays in terms of positive contributions to local economies and building social capital:

"Every day, more than 100,000 nonprofit arts and culture organizations populate America's cities and towns and make their communities more desirable places to live and work. They provide inspiration and enjoyment to residents, beautify shared public spaces, and strengthen the social fabric of our communities. This study demonstrates that the nonprofit arts and culture industry is also an economic driver -- an industry that supports jobs, generates government revenue, and is the cornerstone of our tourism industry."

In Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, a report commissioned by my organization, arts and arts philanthropy veteran Holly Sidford offers demographic, economic and aesthetic reasons for why foundations need to intentionally prioritize underserved communities and to substantially invest in social justice-related arts nonprofits. She also provides a roadmap for foundations interested in the arts to consider these two means of funding as a way to leverage their contributions and see greater impact of their arts and culture philanthropy.

Coupled with the findings of this new study, I see real potential for the arts to fuel the economy at the local, regional and national levels.

This also reminds of a recent blog post by Susanne Mentzer on The Huffington Post in which she challenged Bill Maher's assertion that the arts cater exclusively to the elite. Prima facie, that might seem to be the case -- when people think of the arts, they probably think of the symphony and Beethoven or Mozart or the opera with attendance limited to upper-income, primarily white audiences.

But just as the demographics of our country are changing (the number of non-white babies born in the United States surpassed the number of white babies born for the first time last year), so too is the role that emergent art forms are playing in our communities.

Sidford's report and a recent opinion piece by Clyde Valentín and Kamilah Forbes of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival noted a significant imbalance in the way that nonprofit arts organizations are funded. Larger, national arts organizations garner the lion's share of all arts funding from various revenue streams, including philanthropic funds.

Indeed, arts and culture organizations with budgets of more than $5 million, which comprise less than 2 percent of the ecosystem of arts and culture nonprofits, receive more than half of the sector's total revenue. This is simply unfair and a disservice not only to community-based arts organizations that cater to diverse audiences but also to our national economy. As Sidford notes in Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, the emergent art forms including artistic traditions from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Rim are using the arts to build and engage communities and find solutions to pressing social problems ranging from economic to human and civil rights. She also emphasizes that much of this work is being done at the grassroots levels by artists and relatively modest-sized arts and culture organization.

And as Valentín and Forbes write in their opinion piece:

"Culture may not be as valued in the United States as it is in Europe, but if jobs and the economy are -- if small businesses are -- then there needs to be a paradigm shift toward understanding that artists and arts groups are essentially entrepreneurs and small businesses contributing to the growth and stability of the nation, one community at a time."

It's time for arts and culture funders to understand the changing landscape of arts and culture in our country and recognize the strong link between the arts and the economy. Kudos to Americans for the Arts for producing such a robust study about this issue to help foundations and other arts funders understand this relationship.

The arts can either remain as "frill" that cater only to the elite or they can serve to build social capital, help us overcome our differences and lead to a more just and equitable society. I hope that more foundations will consider prioritizing vulnerable communities and social justice grassroots arts organizations and artists when they are developing their grantmaking strategies.

Aaron Dorfman is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Niki Jagpal, research and policy director at NCRP, contributed substantially to this commentary. Both frequently blog on the role of philanthropy in society.

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