We Have To Destroy Our Arts Organization To Save Our Arts Organization

The news of Hostess Bakeries making good on their threat to liquidate in the face of a baker strike reminded me of You’ve Cott Mail’s “Is bankruptcy the answer for arts money woes” round up from this past August.

Back then Thomas Cott linked to a story about how the Barnes Foundation let everyone believe they were going bankrupt in order to make the case for moving the art collection to Philadelphia easier. Another story recalled how the Philadelphia Orchestra also declared bankruptcy in order to help with their contract negotiations and relieve their pension obligations, suggesting that the stigma of doing so may be dissipating and other orchestras may be following suit.

Cott included an article by Terry Teachout acclaiming the success of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) in getting the citizens of three counties to agree to an increase in their property taxes (called millage) in return for free admission to the museum.

There was some talk that millage might especially be the wave of the future for funding the arts.

Yeah, not so fast. According to Judith Dobrzynski, the DIA might want to give a thankful prayer for their blessings. Residents of Ann Arbor, MI voted down millage to support a comprehensive public art project.

With that in mind, I wouldn’t necessarily count millage out as an answer. I suspect the biggest difference between Ann Arbor and Detroit was that DIA is a specific, visible entity, the benefits of which are easy to experience by walking in the door. If they were forced to close, it was clear what would be lost. Ann Arbor was looking to support art yet to be created which can be more difficult to become mentally, emotionally and socially invested in.

What I would really like to see is an arts organization successfully sell a community on a wide-ranging public support option like millage in the absence of a scenario of imminent demise. I have seen so many appeals in the face of an apocalypse that I wonder if it is even possible to rally significant community support for a healthy, stable arts organization.

Have we trained people only to respond to dire predictions? Or perhaps they have trained us that they will only respond to appeals couched in those terms.

Bankruptcy and tales of woe really isn’t the most constructive way to develop a relationship and confidence from your community. It impacts credibility and people soon become inured to news of financial crises. In this Hostess liquidation, the only person who wins is Little Debbie. (Come to find out, Hostess owns Drake’s Cakes)

The best evidence that you will not mishandle donated funds is that you are never in the position of telling people about the void that will open in their lives if they don’t rally to support you. It is harder to suggest people should have confidence in your business plan and financial practices if you are in dire straits, but more people seem ready to increase their giving in these instances because it is easier to be passionate in short bursts.

Yes, I know Joni Mitchell told us we take the things we love for granted many years ago, but there is nothing to say we can’t rally to change that behavior.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJIuP7zEVeM&w=420&h=315]

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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