Arts Groups Struggle to Build Support

Already reeling from the recession, museums, theaters, and opera companies are finding it increasingly difficult to attract support from donors who view vital services such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters as a higher priority, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Faced with cuts in government funding, fewer donations from individuals and corporations, and declining ticket and merchandise sales, arts organizations are tightening their belts, retrenching, and in some cases closing. According to Americans for the Arts, the largest arts advocacy group in the country, as many as ten thousand arts organizations, or 10 percent of the total, are at risk of folding. Last fall, the Milwaukee Shakespeare theater company shut its doors after its main funder, a local foundation, dropped its support for the company, while in January the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, which had existed in one form or another since 1927, closed its doors. The Baltimore Opera suffered the same fate earlier this month when its board voted to shut it down.

Some people think of the arts as "an unnecessary frill" and are quick to discount arts groups' economic and educational contributions to society, said Lester Salamon, director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Such sentiments were front and center during the recent debate over the economic stimulus package, with arts leaders arguing that the arts generate more than $165 billion in annual economic activity, employ nearly 5.7 million people, and contribute some $30 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue. While their arguments failed to impress many on the Republican side of the aisle, Congress, after some wrangling, eventually approved $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Such funding is a "drop in the bucket," said philanthropist and arts patron Eli Broad, founder of the Los Angeles-based Broad Art Foundation. Moreover, if arts groups hope to boost their support, they will need to expand their outreach efforts to more diverse audiences. Arts groups, said Broad, must appeal "to a much broader audience that represents our demographics today and tomorrow, not what it used to be thirty years ago. You've got to democratize the arts if you expect to get the kind of financial support [desired] from individuals, foundations, and government."

Mike Spector. "Arts Groups Lose Out in Fight for Funds." Wall Street Journal 03/18/2009.