Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Can the Arts Survive the Economic Crisis?

January 12th, 2009 by Penelope Burk

I’ve read many articles lately on arts funding during this severe economic downturn. Some are awfully pessimistic; others offer hope. But none have come straight at the issue that is at the heart of all fundraising success, and which is especially important for the survival of the arts in this crisis economy.

It’s case. Even in the best of times, arts organizations have a difficult time articulating a competitive case. The arts are passionate, personal, and intensely human, but the pitch for selling the arts is too often clinical and businesslike, measured as the role of arts organizations in furthering other local businesses like restaurants, dress shops, taxis and hairdressers. I don’t want to get bogged down on the issue of whether anyone actually gets their hair done before going to the theatre these days (or buys a dress, for that matter.) But, doesn’t the arts merit more than an evaluation of their worth based on the surrounding local enterprises they prop up? Can’t the arts exist for their own sake?

I’m especially interested in this because I spent my years at university in the sub-sub basement of the main administrative building on campus. That was where a small but wonderful 240-seat theatre was. That’s where I performed in and directed shows and (god help the audience) where I wrote my first production. For four years, I hardly saw the light of day. After college, I worked for many exciting arts organizations, writing sales and marketing copy that reveled in the wonder that was the arts…that is until it got watered down, reigned in, and stripped of all its passion during the editing process.

I worked in the arts for many years struggling between my natural desire to express what the arts meant to me and the more prevalent view that the arts needed to be measured somehow on a scale of community benefit and profitability. I never was able to persuade those who controlled the end product that my exuberant interpretation would sell. Eventually, I moved on to work in other not-for-profit sectors.

One day, while driving from one meeting to another, I was passing the time by listening to a radio interview. A seasoned broadcaster of the “I’ve-seen-everything-and-you-can’t-surprise-me” variety, was interviewing a medical doctor who had spent his entire career in China, providing medical care in third-world conditions to an overwhelming number of people, for subsistence pay. Once a year, he came home for a month, ostensibly for some rest, but actually to raise money and coerce equipment, drugs and supplies.

The doctor was so articulate, and his story so moving, that he melted the heart of the crusty interviewer. At a break in the conversation, the interviewer admitted, “I am humbled to hear about how you live your life and what you accomplish. You have done so much for so many people and, well, I just work in radio.”

“No, you have it wrong,” the doctor quickly interjected. “My job is to save lives; your job, working here in the arts, is to make those lives worth saving. We are both equally important.”

I had to pull my car over to the side of the road. This was the sentiment that I could not express before. This was the case for the arts.

The case for the arts exists on its own merit. It is not apologetic; it does not take a second place to healthcare or human services or education. The arts is as vital to life as breathing, food, shelter and health. If you work in development in the arts, please give yourself the right to break out, the promise to not compromise, and the inspiration to capture the essence of what the playwright, the composer, the choreographer, the painter and the author are trying to communicate about the human condition.

What the arts can offer now, in a world full of anxiety and trouble, is even more vital.

No comments: