Should Arts Be Partially Self Sustaining?

December 30, 2010 33 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metrojacksonville takes a look at the idea of "Self Sustaining", Not-For-Profits in The Arts. In the current economic climate with budget cuts threatening to permanently shutter several local arts Organizations, is it time that the Arts Organizations started looking to this model of financing public culture? If they don't, what is the alternative?

There is plenty of blame to go around in the recent budget Crisis.

The Governor, the tax system, the inefficient Stewardship of local funds, the reckless and somewhat shady practice of keeping local taxes low and relying on redistributed tax revenue from South Florida to fill in the gaps...the list really goes on and on.

In all previous budget crises the first ones pushed away from the public table are always the 'non essential services'.  This is translated in plain english as The Arts and Public Charity.

The economic downturn has seriously decreased the amount of revenue expected both from property and sales taxes, cutting off local coffers.

The crash of the markets and the cliff hanging performance of the past year in equities has left the traditional arts donors with not much left to give.

Added to that, the State passed property tax reform that sliced local revenues critically.

Naturally, billions of dollars of roadways will be built in Jacksonville, but apparently those funds are sacred and can't be converted into emergency funding for quality of life or public welfare needs.

So that leaves us at the familiar steps up to the funding gallows.

Under the Fix It Now proposal, libraries will be closed and last year, there were threats that the Ritz Theater would be locked up and dark.

Ritz Theatre.  The Last Standing Historic Black Theater.  Naturally It Will Be Closed First,

A few years ago, there was a significant divide in the traditional arts community and the young arts community of the early 90s, and nowhere were the differences of opinion so stark as on the issue of public grants and public funding.

The basic difference was that none of the Generation X artists and art entrepreneurs ever believed in or seriously sought public funding.  They also never believed that they would ever get a dime of the available grants or public sponsorships.

In this, they were largely correct.  There have been some that went on to successfully negotiate the grants/sponsorship world, Jennifer Chase, Sarah Crookes, George Kinghorn and Kezia Justice for example, but for the most part the entire generation has ended up having to find self funding ways to make a living in the Arts.

City of Expression, Movement Magazine, Dare Tabloid, Go Magazine, Heartworks Gallery, Gallery Contemporanea, The Lee Harvey Gallery, Czigan and Rummel, Al Letson, Karin Tucker and Barbara Sutton, The Jane Gray Gallery, Boomtown Theater, Alhambra Dinner Theater, Tommy Armageddon Prints, Burrobags, Fuel, Fusion, Midnight Espresso, DK Lucas, Blue Franswa, Tiffany Duhart and Immanual Washington, Steve Bailey, and a host of other independent art entreprenuers have led the way for the past 15 years of the citie's cultural life.

Boomtown Theater a private Dinner Theater in Springfield

One of the things that they all have in common is that they have been self supported Arts Venues.  None of them applied for or got a dime of public monies, and they had to find alternate ways of making a living.

For some, it was creating a hybrid business that tied an art form with a revenue source.  Fusion Cafe, Biscotti's and Fuel all combined the steady source of money coming from a restaurant while using their walls for some of the best gallery openings and private art shows of the past 20 years.

Boomtown, Alhambra Dinner Theater and a few others paired up food sales with theater performances.

The Arts publications learned to cover nightclubs and restaurants to insure advertising income while they covered the arts.

And the extremely respectable Spoken Word and Poetry Scene of Jacksonville was entirely sponsored (Floetry is the notable exception) by the commercial coffeehouses and nightclubs.

And despite the Public Funding that trickled into the larger, older arts community, many of the notable arts achievements of the past two decades came not from the Not-for-Profit world, but from the community of arts entreprenuers.   Al Letson relied on ticket sales in very bare spaces to propel his career to his Radio program on NPR, carving a respectable reputation as a playwright and placing in the National Slam Poetry competitions.

A handbill for Majigeen

Jennifer Chase produced one of the true genuine original hits of the past 20 years with her play, Majigeen detailing the life of Anna Kingsley by combining not-for-profit support in the privately owned Boomtown Theater.

Boomtown also hosted the first performances of the award winning playwright Caitlyn Parrish's "View From Tall" and "Red Clay"

Lee Harvey and several other of the areas more successful painters have never been shown in any of the local not-for-profit museums.

Anyways, the point is that anyone of the groups that had to make it on their own would jump at the chance to create their work in the facilities supported by tax monies, and have the life and business experience to actually use those facilities to turn a profit while continuing on with the core missions of the institutions.

This is not an idea that is confined to the limits of Jacksonville, btw.

Consider the following excerpt from Andrew Taylor of Arts Journal:

That phrase, 'a self sustaining, non-profit organization,' has been popping up in a lot of conversations I've heard lately, which raises a question: what exactly is a self-sustaining non-profit? Often, buried within the phrase is the unspoken assumption that earned revenue can somehow, someday meet expenses. That ticket income can match the cost of operations.

And yet, the entire purpose of cultural nonprofit organizations is to sustain, preserve, present, and explore forms of cultural expression that cannot be supported solely by the commercial marketplace. Instead, they rely on multiple markets, including individual donors, corporate funders, foundations, and government agencies. Organizations that can gather enough income from any or all of these sources (earned included) to cover annual operating expenses are, by my definition anyway, self-sustaining.

The problems of the Experience Music Project run deeper than expenses and revenues. These are symptoms of an organization that was a glorious dream of a single donor, and missed a few steps in connecting to a broader base of constituents, and determining its fundamental purpose. Given that EMP sits in a fabulously funky facility, and has an edgy content category (rock and roll), let's hope they spend some time on those things with the staff they have left.

Or check out the mission statement of ArtsBuild Initiative:

ArtsBuild: In 2004, the Office of Continuing Education (OCE) at UW-Platteville undertook a bold and innovative venture in support of rural artists in Southwest Wisconsin. Realizing that the arts are an untapped resource in the local economy, the OCE launched ArtsBuild to assist area artists in acquiring the skills they need to become entrepreneurs, thus helping to drive economic development in their communities. Initially supported through funding from a University of Wisconsin-Extension Continuing EDvantage grant, the program currently moves forward with financial support from the University of Wisconsin - Platteville and the Wisconsin Arts Board. The long-term funding goal for ArtsBuild is to transition from the grant funds that launched it to becoming a self-sustaining program.

Consider the amount of revenue available to an institution like the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

Not only are there the ticket sales, but there is a virtually unlimited amount of intellectual property that is not being exploited.

One of the most popular types of performances that the Symphony has hosted is the live performance of soundtracks to famous black and white public domain films.

Where are the commercially available videos for this?  Why arent they for sale?  Why arent they on HULU, drawing advertising revenue for the Symphony?

An Imaginary Hulu broadcast of the Symphony, soundtracking a cartoon Phantom of the Opera

There is a tremendous amount of commercial soundtracking for commercial and motion picture use.  Why aren't the Not For Profits exploiting this market?

There is a pretty great market for performing for educational purposes.  DVDs, Product marketing, partnerships.

The intellectual property value of the sheer talent involved in the performance capabilities is formidable indeed.

Similarly with the Ritz Theater.  Jacksonville has a unique and gripping African American experience that has yet to be told or sold to the rest of the world.  Where are the coffee table books produced by the Museum?

Where are CDs and DVDs and educational programs being produced by the Museum>

Where is the all-vocal performance of  Jacksonvillian James Weldon Johnson's Lift Every Voice and Sing! by The Ritz Chamber Singers?

Where are the shared merchandising and ticket revenues from sponsoring hip hop shows? Where are the revenues from the acid jazz, and Soul Music Festivals in honor of the many talented Jacksonville artists who made their mark on music history?

These considerations are not lost on the younger arts community.

Perhaps its time to fundamentally reconsider how Arts are funded.

This is not to suggest an end to public subsidies, but it seems a sin that all of that potential revenue is simply ignored just because the taxpayers are already covering expenses.

By Stephen Dare