The Nonprofiteer was in Bloomington, IL, last weekend to see Ailey II, the farm team of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. As she watched this astonishing company perform to an ecstatic crowd in a converted Masonic Temple building, a light bulb went on over her benighted head.

Of course you’re indifferent to public funding for the arts, you dodo; you live in Chicago, where major performers and exhibitions will show up anyway. Public funding for the arts isn’t for Chicago–it’s for Bloomington.

And she remembered growing up in Baltimore, which is not a small town but which waited for months between visits of major dance companies; and she remembered the thrill of seeing those dance companies for the first time.  And she realized (or remembered) that that’s the real point of public funding for the arts: to make available to everyone the thrill of exposure to first-rate art.  Everyone: that means people who live in Bloomington, and International Falls, and Arroyo Hondo, even though the free market would not support a stop in any of those places by the latest tour from the Joffrey or the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Met.

Doubtless her arts-administrator readers are thinking “Duh!”–but cut the Nonprofiteer some slack.  The conversation about public funding for the arts has for 30 years been a clash between the Jets of “We’re artists!  Art is important so if you challenge the value of anything we create you’re a boob and a censor and a miser!” and the Sharks of “We’re ordinary people!  We don’t want our tax money spent on things we don’t grasp or approve of so that over-educated sissies can avoid getting jobs!”  Needless to say, this has not been a very productive debate, unless by “productive” you mean “of hysteria and hostility.”

But if it’s public funding for the performance of the arts, or their exhibition, or education about them–if it’s public funding for the arts audience, who can disapprove?  Except in the deepest reaches of the Glibertarian right, we’re beyond debating whether education should be publicly funded, and making arts displays and performances available to the widest possible audience is simply public education on a grand scale.  Yes, yes, the Nonprofiteer knows: education isn’t well-funded either; but relatively few people argue that public funding for education is just a plot to spread disgusting lies, or to keep teachers from having to work.  Let’s get the discussion about public funding for the arts to the level of conceptual agreement we have for public education, and then we can engage in any further battles that might need to be fought.

In other words, brethren in the arts community: stop talking about public funding for the arts as if the point were for the public to support YOU.  No one cares about you.  What we care about as a society is US, and how exposure to what you do will improve us.

And once you accept that, you have to accept another, equally painful truth, which is that no one can actually determine what “art” is until at least 25 years after it’s been created. Probably the Nonprofiteer doesn’t need to remind you that people threw things at the stage the first time they saw and heard The Rite of Spring, now part of the musical canon. But what she probably does need to point out is that this doesn’t mean the public should accept and/or fund every objectionable thing it sees in hopes that it will ultimately turn out to be art. Rather, it means that support for creation is a mug’s game, a gamble at which most players lose, and that the public should instead put its money into presentation.

Many arts advocates roll their eyes at this and ask from where, then, money for creation is supposed to come. The Nonprofiteer refers those people to the Guggenheim Foundation and 3Arts/Chicago and the Rosenwald Fund and all the other agencies of private patronage that have supported artists and their creative process over the years, and urges them to reach out to reestablish private patronage.  Yes, yes, times are financially tough; but if Julius Rosenwald could single-handedly support the Harlem and Bronzeville Renaissances throughout the Depression, surely our contemporary moneybags can do as well.*

Or, as Rabbi Joshua said much more succinctly: render unto Caesar . . .

Let the public fund what benefits the public, and let private wealth make possible acts of private creation.
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*Note that this required that the Rosenwald Foundation spend itself out within 25 years of the founder’s death. In Rosenwald’s eyes that was a feature, not a bug (as our software colleagues would say); but it requires the philanthropist to value what s/he accomplishes above how s/he’s remembered.


 

imageKelly Kleiman, who blogs as The Nonprofiteer, is a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays about the arts, philanthropy and women’s issues have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; and on websites including Aislesay.com and Artscope.net.

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