Can the Arts Weather the Recession Tsunami?

Laura Zucker
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that historically, a bad economy affects different types of nonprofit organizations in different ways, according to researchers at Indiana University. While giving to religious and educational groups remains fairly steady, “giving to arts groups tends to experience greater gains during good times and harder crashes during bad times." We've been hearing more news lately about the exigencies arts organizations find themselves in as resources are becoming scarcer, but every challenge presents new opportunities. Or as Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Obama's new chief of staff, said in an interview recently, "Rule One: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things."

Here's my prescription for what we can all do to weather the coming cultural storm:

Arts organizations are already doing a great job of providing diverse low-cost and free cultural services. Of the 19.5 million admittances to arts events by LA County Arts Commission's 300 plus grantees in 2007-08, an astonishing 73% were free. As the public's discretionary dollar continues to shrink, these opportunities to come together as a community continue to be vitally important and we're already hearing about arts organizations expanding these options-- like Center Theatre Group's newly announced $20 tickets all season long. A search of for cultural activities on Saturday, November 22 turned up 171 choices with more than a third free.

Those arts organizations with strong ties to loyal audiences will ride the currents together. Those already overextended with untenable infrastructure may go under, but-- and this isn't a popular thought--a little cultural Darwinism may be what the field needs to emerge from the crisis stronger, more focused on innovative approaches to engaging new audiences. Even maintaining services on less earned income, however, means needing more contributed support, and there's mixed news on this front.

There are no major corporate headquarters left in L.A. and many fewer large foundations focused on supporting the arts than in northern California or the east coast. Because of this, Los Angeles arts organizations have always enjoyed less in the way of corporate and foundations contributions than our counterparts in San Francisco or New York. So ironically, the decline in these gifts won't be felt as hard.

And although government support also doesn't play as large a role as in these other climes, regional government has always been the biggest public supporter of the arts here in LA. The County Board of Supervisors stayed the course during the last economic downtown of the early 90s and has always believed the arts of a parallel importance with other public services. Based on answers to questions raised by the arts advocacy group Arts for LA, and posted on their website, there's every reason to believe that the newly elected member of the Board, Mark Ridley-Thomas, will continue this tradition of leadership on cultural issues. The Arts Commission instituted two-year grant awards just a few years ago as a hedge against just this kind of challenge. Multi-year funding allows organizations to stabilize operations despite other financial variables.

On the state front, the sad truth is that there's nothing else the California Arts Council could lose that would make a difference--we already have the 50th lowest per capita state support in the country. But the $105 million line item for arts education that's part of the California Office of Education's budget is really important to maintaining the enormous strides made in arts education in LA County during the past decade. Twenty-eight of our 80 school districts in the region are implementing comprehensive plans to fully restore arts education. Let's not slip backwards! The governor has proposed letting school districts use these funds to make up other deficits caused by proposed budget cuts. Parents should be vigilant about letting the governor, their state legislators, and particularly their superintendents and boards of educations, know they continue to consider arts education a high priority.

On the federal front, as discussions about big construction projects to generate jobs and stimulate the economy becomes a real strategy, let's not forget the tremendous legacy of arts projects created through the WPA projects of the depression. How about including a mega-investment in the arts this time around as well? The Musicians Performance Fund, which funds free concerts in public sites all around the country, but whose program has been shrinking due to the decline in CD sales which generated the funding, could do with a major cash infusion. Think of the thousands of musicians who would be employed and the benefit to communities brought together by a free outpouring of music. Researchers at the University of Maryland just released a study proving what we all know: that joyful music can be good for your health. Programs like this in every discipline could be fuel injected for a fraction of the total cost of any stimulus package.

A rumor circulating in the arts world is that President-elect Obama may appoint Caroline Kennedy as the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, currently just a blip in the federal budget. This would be an inspired choice, bringing a new stature to the agency and enabling it do what it should be doing but never has: develop a national arts policy agenda and enter into cultural agreements with other countries.

At the end of the day though, 85% of all contributed income for arts organizations comes from individuals, who still play the largest role in supporting cultural institutions of every size--small, mid-sized and large. We all may feel poorer looking at our investments, but if you've still got your job you're not really poorer in terms of your annual discretionary income. And you're going to need those tax-deductible donations just as much as ever.

Arts organizations, like all nonprofits, are holding their collective breaths to see if donors hold back during the all important final quarter of the year, when most gifts roll in. So do what my husband Allan and I are doing: give early and give more! Help steady everyone's frayed nerves by reassuring those organizations you've been committed to in the past and reaffirm your own faith in the future at the same time. Know that your gift will provide exactly what we all need now more than ever: more participatory arts, more celebratory dancing, more imagining the future.

Laura Zucker is Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and Director of the Arts Management Program at Claremont Graduate University.

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