What/Who Do We Mean When We Talk About the Arts & Business?

Posted by Michael Wilkerson, Nov 17, 2011 0 comments

Michael Wilkerson

I have a genius idea to fund the arts, but my grown-up son doesn’t like the work I’m doing.

As a researcher I like to solve problems, chief of which is how to fund the arts. What makes arts management exhilarating to me is the art itself; what makes it exhausting and even demeaning is the constant obsession with money.

Ideal fundraising is a meeting of minds, especially when a for-profit business, say a bank, comes to understand that its clients really want to see a performance by actors or musicians; while the artists appreciate that their sponsors – those bankers! – want to be part of the same community.

Those kinds of partnerships are as rare as they are beautiful. More typically, the arts organization is wrung out from trying to find a business that’s willing to support their real work. Thus, my dream remains that the next generation of arts managers will have a life that centers around the arts more than it centers around the lack of money.

I have a plan for a new system to create significant increases in public funding for the arts. (Read the details in my earlier post). I told my son about my plan, and how it would enable artists and arts organizations to accomplish so much more than is now possible. He shattered my evangelical fervor, saying, “It’s not going to help anyone I know about.”

He then went on to describe his friends and colleagues – all artists of one kind or another.

There were no 501(c)3’s in this crowd, but there were plenty of bands with CDs, recording studios, tours, and lively lists of followers on Facebook. Artists owned quirky shops in which handmade crafts, clothes, bumper stickers, patches, zines, and CDs were sold along with the art that hung on the walls.

Actors performed in basements and passed the hat; renting the city’s nonprofit performance spaces was out of the question for these groups. Most troubling were the “street artists” whose masterpieces were acknowledged as brilliant even by my ancient friends, yet were painted over as “vandalism” by a city government that said it was supporting the arts.

Other colleagues of my son had lost their rehearsal space in the city’s fervor to construct “artist housing” and “live-work space.” There were others who were locals no more, their gallery/stores having gone broke while rents in the government “arts district” escalated out of reach. “No, Dad,” my son said with a pitch-perfect patronizing sadness that sounded much like the self-righteous young me. “Not a dime of your arts grant money will ever help anyone or anything I care about.”

I remember my own young adulthood: being the writer who was kicked out of the farmers’ market for selling poems about produce rather than the vegetables themselves. I remember seeing even liberal governments and well meaning businesses as "the Establishment," obstacles at best, an enemy at worst. Of course I grew up to be that "Established figure," the Professor, the Director of “Arts Organizations,” member of a Chamber of Commerce, habitual procurer of public funds and private sponsorships.

And I wonder: when we talk about the private sector and the arts, what – and who -- do we really mean?

When we talk about the next generation of leaders, is our vision limited to those shiny overachievers who are getting master’s degrees in our arts management programs and doing such great work within the 501(c)3 realm? Or are we missing the real artists and innovators of the future, actually doing more harm to them than good, even as we redevelop our cities around arts-business partnerships?

Perhaps what we need is not just a new source of revenue but a new understanding of who is out there beyond our comfort zone, and a plan to help those who already are doing the work that we are trying too hard to get started.

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