Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Seeking Policies for Cultural Democracy: Examining the Past, Present, and Future of U.S. Nonprofit Arts

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Seeking Policies for Cultural Democracy: Examining the Past, Present, and Future of U.S. Nonprofit Arts

Article excerpt

What are the relationships among capitalism, democracy, and the arts? What can the history of federal funding for the arts and current individual and corporate tax-related nonprofit arts funding indicate about U.S. cultural policies? Does art education possess the potential to support broader civic involvement and thus reinforce democratic practices? In exploring these questions, we argue that current funding practices must be elevated to a level of dialogue in order to achieve democratic representation in the arts at the local nonprofit arts level. Such a change could interrupt the cycles of mass media, inspiring space for revitalization of the cultural differences democratic practices require. In an effort to illustrate the exploration of these questions, we invite you to first consider this hypothetical scenario.

A local nonprofit arts center has been faced with an uncertain future. The organization has survived for three decades as a community connection point for a folk dancing group, a storytelling association meeting site, free after-school art and music classroom, a gallery with rotating city and regional exhibitions, and a cultural meeting place for many other clubs and organizations. The building has been owned by the city, being leased to the organization for a very affordable rate decades ago when the building had outlived its original purpose. Despite many weekday and evening activities scheduled year-round, the organization has reserved many weekends to provide availability for individuals to rent the building for special occasions. These rentals have brought the organization much-needed revenue to help offset operational costs. Each club, group, or exhibition has brought in a small amount of revenue. The organization also has been diligent in their annual and quarterly applications for many grants. Neither the income provided by the state and federal grants nor club contributions and member dues have been sufficient to pay the modest salaries of the few staff and cover basic overhead.

The most lucrative source of revenue has been the building itself. The fees collected from private rentals have kept this community arts center alive for decades. Without these funds, the center will not be financially equipped to continue operation. The looming possibility that the city may revoke the art centers lease has become a recent issue for consideration in the city's plan to re-route a major street. The plight of this arts organization has not been a singular one. Many nonprofit arts organizations across America have faced these same financial balancing acts. Our question: Is this scenario an unquestionable "given"?

Before we address this question, some clarification regarding the arts sector is useful. The following excerpt from the 92nd American Assembly meeting in 1997 on "The Arts and the Public Purpose," described contemporary categories and structures of the three groups found within the arts sector:

Commercial, not-for-profit, and unincorporated arts organizations vary greatly in management dimension and stability. Entertainment companies are organized by industry and have increasingly become dominated by a few very large firms, but even these large organizations are unsettled by mergers, takeovers, and the effects of boom-bust cycles. Not-for-profits comprise many autonomous and specialized organizations. The largest and most successful of them may be established and relatively stable, but the existence of many not-for-profits, especially small and mid-sized ones, is precarious. Some unincorporated institutions live day-to-day; most depend on volunteers; others are run as successful small businesses, (p.9)

The Assembly further outlined the dilemma our hypothetical arts center is living:

Not-for-profit organizations cannot 'earn' all the money it takes to sustain their operations; they have to raise on the order of half their revenues through contributions and grants. For most not-for-profits, grants do not provide sufficient or dependable funding, and the efforts to raise the necessary funds can divert attention away from artistic concerns. …

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