By Brad Erickson
Recently, I learned from Americans for the Arts (AFTA) that I will be presented the Alene Valkanas State Arts Advocacy Award at AFTA’s upcoming annual convention in Boston. But it wasn’t too long ago that the idea that anyone from California would be highlighted for state arts advocacy would have seemed like a cruel joke. In recent years, we’ve seen exciting progress, but for over a decade, California’s investment in the arts was rock-bottom among the states, just three cents per person. Meanwhile, the national median then—and now—is more than one dollar. And this was California! Globally recognized as the center of the creative economy, with the world’s most innovative enterprises and its leading entertainment industry, it seemed incomprehensible that the arts could be so overlooked. But despite years of outcry and pleas and desperate case-making, the needle wouldn’t budge. Understandably, after time, many wondered: why bother?
After all, public investment in the arts from all sources (federal, state and local) only amounts to 9% of total revenue for arts organizations. What makes public support so important?
First, while the overall contribution from public agencies to the nonprofit arts sector as a whole may be modest, for certain arts groups and individual artists the support is substantial. Small-budget organizations might see 25% of their operating funds come from various public agencies. These groups tend to be closely tied to their communities and are far more diverse than major institutions. They typically lack deep-pocketed supporters and don’t have the same access to foundation grants that larger organizations do, and so for them, public agency support is crucial to their community-based work.
Second, public sector support reaches corners of our society missed by private philanthropy. Even with its still-limited budget, funds from the California Arts Council reach every county in the state. No private foundation or billionaire donor could say this. The same is true for the National Endowment for the Arts. Its funds, modest as they are, go to arts groups in every congressional district. And in our cities, local funds extend to neighborhoods, artists, and arts groups often missed by other funders.
Third, public agency support is leveraged many times over. The NEA calculates that each dollar it grants is matched by another nine dollars from other sources. Public sector grants carry a cache that attracts additional support from private sources. Ask any theatre fortunate enough to receive one how an award from the NEA inspires confidence in private donors and foundation program officers alike.
More philosophically, public support of the arts says a great deal about who we are and what we value as a people. Many urgent needs press our elected officials. We need to pave our streets, to pay our police, to educate our children, to protect our environment and our nation, just to name a few. How can the arts hold a candle to these?
Theatre Bay Area’s director of field services, Dale Albright, relates a story. Several years ago, Dale went to City Hall on behalf of Theatre Bay Area to testify at a budget hearing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The recession was hitting hard, and the city, looking at a steep deficit, was eyeing cuts to a wide swath of programs, including the arts. I was in DC and warned Dale that the hearing room would be packed with advocates of all kinds; the testimony was sure to be impassioned and heartbreaking. And indeed, Dale reports that hundreds of people turned out to tell story after story of the need for continued city support for the elderly, for the sick, the hungry, the unemployed. Dale remembers feeling his resolve wavering as he waited in line for his turn to speak, each story was so moving. “I almost left,” he says. And then, just as he almost reached the microphone, the woman in front of him pleaded with the supervisors not to cut funding for the city’s homeless children. “Remember,” she urged them, “one of these kids could be the next Mozart!” And Dale’s case was made. We need to feed our children, of course; we need to feed their souls as well, in a way that only the arts can. So often, it’s the public sector that provides the critical support our artists need to nourish us all.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.