Who is lobbying for us?

With audiences dwindling in the many major US performing arts institutions, who is pushing for the arts in the politisphere?

The question about the fiscal viability of celebrated performing arts institutions is one that surfaces every year. In the classical music and dance industries, a larger and larger portion of all assets are from contributions/endowments by patrons. An example, at the highest level of operation, is that of the Metropolitan Opera, who’s 2017 fiscal year report listed 49.3% of assets (monies) are represented by contributions; whereas just under a third of of the assets listed consist of box office sales. The numbers for other bastions of classical performing art are fairly similar in proportion. Performers and staff are becoming ever-increasingly reliant on the generosity of a privileged class of donors.

This is a big problem…and for multiple reasons.

In the United States, the age of the average opera, symphony, or ballet attendee is between 58 – 70 years old (NY Times). As patrons start to age into retirement, and eventually die, there will be a vacuum of revenue left from absence of whatever was left to their institution of choice. And after that money is spent, projections are, that here in the US, not a lot of new people will be stepping in to fill their shoes. 

This is a big revenue asymmetry bomb in every financial portfolio; and it is baked into the very identity of why these companies have adopted a 503(c)(3) charity status.

Non-profit is the right word for it. In the prior example of the Metropolitan Opera, at least four out of the last six fiscal years have been marked at a net loss of an average of 20 million dollars (propublica). Pretty soon, the attitude around how we manage these theaters, and appeal to audiences, is going to have to change. There is just no way to be able to operate with the costs that high performance art demand, without something giving out from underneath us.

We have been seeing the effects of this on a smaller scale, in the more artistically forward facing cities. Whether by some error in management, or simple lack of public interest, lower budget operations vanish in a flash. Living all of the contract-holding  performers associated with those companies with significant, sometimes year-long, gaps to be filled to replenish lost income.

This was this case the opera houses all over the country. Smaller companies like Gotham Chamber Opera are upended in one fell swoop, because of a formerly undisclosed deficit. It was so sudden, and jarring, that the board of director scant had to the time to raise enough funds to salvage the financial situation of the company, and they filed for bankruptsy, soon after. When questioned about the state of the undisclosed deficit, the former managerial director denied having withheld any financial information from the board. He now serves as the director of another opera in the western US; one that also narrowly avoid collapse, prior to his tenure.

The phenomenon wasn’t relegated to smaller, more obscure opera companies either. Just two years before Gotham fell, New York City Opera, once a titan of the industry who fielded such artists as Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo, went by the wayside. A victim of a tragically outdated business-model.

The realm of stage plays and musical theatre is just as brutal; plagued, for their very existence, by the constant worry of whether or not a run will be continuing. For them, it is simple mathematics…if a production is making money, then they run it until it doesn’t. After that they can it and try something else. This is great for established acts and big, new commercial hits like Book of Mormon and Hamilton, but does little to promote unique smaller-scale efforts ‘off-broadway’. Performers know that the business can be fickle, and that it is, often, a transient lifestyle. But now it is especially so.

With wealth inequality leading to a larger gap between very rich and poor, a gap in the middle class is also a gap in the middle class of artists.

Going or gone are the days where a serious, regional singing-actor could make a more-than-respectable living; performing at smaller venues across the country.

But is there another way we can steer the national conversation about the arts into a renewed era…one that makes the promotion of the arts a national priority, instead of a subject that is largely ignored?

Looking to foreign shores

Governments tend to send money on things that they think are important to their national interests and their communities individual identities.

I am from Atlanta, Georgia; where the state pays for the maintenance of numerous golf courses. As a patrimony, golf (among other sports) is a major part of Georgia’s identity. It’s where Bobby Jones, one of the most influential golfers in history, was born and raised. Because of all of the history around the success of golf in Georgia, the state memorializes it with our taxes, and the people are able to enjoy public access to the game more easily.

The same thing is true, on the national level, throughout Europe. The Arts Council of England allots $772 million dollars from their budget toward the promotion of the arts, with additional funding at the municipal level for the famed theaters like the Royal Shakespeare Company. But the major contributions toward art come out of Germany and Austria.

Germany, because of its rich history of classical and romantic composers boasts a theater (and often several theaters) in every city. It is estimated that they spend 0.8% of your GDP toward the arts, entertainment, and cultural industries; an astounding 36.6 billion dollars. $3 billion dollars goes to the maintenance and upkeep of opera houses in cities, nationwide.

Attendance is steady in Germany is distributed in a relatively even way, across generations. There is an identity in Germany around the contributions that their artists have made that has come to transcend centuries. It has burrowed so deeply into their cultural spirit, that even if they don’t like/go to the opera, symphony, or theater, they know about them. What if we could cultivate something like that?

Oh, the humanities…

So, the idea about a nonprofit institutions is that they aren’t supposed to spend a a “substantial amount” of their time lobbying for legislation.

On the surface, this idea totally makes sense. American ideals are shaped by the separation of religion from the matters of the state (religious organization comprising the overwhelming majority of the not-for-profit sector in America). Okay then I get that…but then if you go to the NRA website, you see that they are a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Are we all missing something here? The very definition of effective lobbying efforts, is also the antithesis of the type of institution ought to be able to commit “substantial” resources to political lobbying efforts. Maybe the 4 is what enables them to do whatever they like with impunity. Tax exempt status, but with loads of outside interests (who’s donors enjoy the ability to go undisclosed to the public).

If they can do this for guns, why can’t we shuffle around with legislators for a few more entrances stage right?

One way to go about it is to spin off, as a collective effort, the interests of the performing arts into a Political Action Committee (PAC). A PAC is what is called a 527 organization; who’s principal goal is to organize campaign contributions from members and to donate those funds to campaigns for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation.

If artists (and arts management) can begin to strategize in a politically-minded way, and organize/vest our interest in a common body, perhaps we can begin to see the kind of improvement for which we have been longing.

What would it take?

In short, a little effort. Diverse arts communities would have to come together, the way that the private gun conglomerates have, and decide on what concrete legislative changes they would like to see with respect to spending for the arts/arts education. We would have to identify legislators with whom we share common, or at least complimentary, cause. And, most importantly, we would each have to budget into our operations, the cost of that influence as it applies to contribution. A budgeted contribution with a desired return on investment…that is how we need to behave as artists.

And we have to do it consistently.

Corporate interests in the US have demonstrated the efficacy of this type of planning and investment. So many interests have participated in this game, and have been so adept at it, that some lobbies (such as the Direct Selling Association and the interests of the fossil fuel industry) merely draft entire bills with the stipulations of their interests; leaving only room at the bottom for their representative to sign.

American democracy is a full time sport. It is not something that you can participate in passively, for if you try, there is someone else actively moving to fill your spot. This is precisely why we need artists as entrepreneurs, as managers, as policy makers, as legislators…it didn’t used to be that only lawyers got to make the big government decisions. Artists have been senators, presidents, mayors, and community organizers. Let us not relegate ourselves only to the practice of art, but to the defense of it.

An afterthought

Bringing things back to my hometown of Atlanta Georgia; birthplace of up-swelling of racial activism. It merits pointing out that my fellow Atlantans have shown their spirit and admiration for culture.

When faced with the impending demolition of the Fabulous Fox Theater, a beautifully designed performance stage, donned as an homage to an Alhambra-esque moque with a painted nights sky interior, the people stood up in unison against the development. People realize the effect that culture can radiate out into a neighborhood. They feel the absence of creative force in their souls. It feels like a threat to stamp it out…but (like climate change) it needn’t take a tipping point to spur us into a proactive, offensive attempt at a solution.

If we, the ones who have been held captive by art’s allure for so long, are not moved from our complacency…then I suppose no one else will be either.


  1. Thank you for your article. This may seem off topic, but I think that a sadly under exposed, and unfortunately all too easily dismissed publicly sponsored group of American arts organizations are the bands, choruses, orchestras, and soloists in the United States Military Bands. All branches of the military have musical ensembles with musicians trained at the highest levels. The Department of Defense is one of the largest employers of musicians in the country.

    I know it’s not the same – but the more we can advocate for the exposure of these organizations that DIRECTLY interact with congress, military leaders, and the White House – the more these people will see how important music is. It may not be the satisfying sexy solution, but it certainly is something worth considering.

    Liked by 1 person

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