Government Funding IS the Problem for Cultural Arts

This op-ed appeared in the Arizona Republic today.

I find it ironic that Bill DeWalt, founding president of the widely acclaimed Musical Instrument Museum cites–among other things–lack of Arizona government funding as a factor in the struggle currently encompassing our cultural arts institutions.

I would argue exactly the opposite…and DeWalt should, too. After all, how much funding does the MIM receive from the government? My understanding is, “none.”

On the other hand, institutions like the Scottsdale Cultural Council–which occupies taxpayer-owned facilities rent-free, and receives an annual $4 million taxpayer-funded subsidy to their 20-year, no-bid contract–perpetually struggle to fill seats and sell tickets. Aside from being an unconstitutional tax on all those who do NOT consume their offerings, these subsidies leave them free to program whatever they want without regard to consumer demand. Thus, they remain in a self-perpetuating cycle of irrelevance.

And still our Mayor Jim Lane and city council (including former SCC board chair Linda Milhaven) continue to sign the checks every year without holding SCC accountable for their dismal performance.

Ariz. arts institutions need funding to thrive

During the past few months, leaders at the Arizona Opera, Chil­dren’s Museum of Phoenix and the Arizona Theatre Company have announced their depar­tures. The Heard Museum and Phoenix Sym­phony were both recently led by interim leaders for more than a year, and the symphony’s principal con­ductor re­cently presid­ed over his last performance. And I re­signed from the Musical In­strument Museum.

Such rapid change in leader­ship of a city’s major cultural institutions may be unprece­dented. Several important changes need to occur if the next generation of cultural leaders is to be able to make positive contributions.

The principal issue for all or­ganizations is lack of funding.

Although the region has its share of wealthy residents who are happy to be consumers of culture, there is an ongoing lack of philanthropic invest­ment. Many of the wealthiest individuals with links to Phoe­nix spend only part of the year here and channel much of their giving to institutions “back home.”

Furthermore, the Arizona government’s support for the arts ranks near the bottom of all the states (49th according to several sources), and the result is that every regional cultural leader is continually managing through austerity. The stress of maintaining the same level of programming with fewer re­sources is what often leads to burnout and job transitions.

Arts and culture are vital to the social and economic life of communities. The Phoenix Of­fice of Arts and Culture report­ed that, in 2011, the arts com­prised a $300 million industry. Cities around the world (espe­cially in China, the Middle East and India) are recognizing that in order to be world-class, they must invest in museums and performing arts.

To ensure a healthy arts sec­tor, several key changes must occur.

First, philanthropists should recognize that an investment in Arizona cultural institutions can pay great dividends both in strengthening the local econo­my and securing the region as an attractive location for visi­tors as well as prospective businesses and residents.

Second, museum and per­forming- arts venue boards must understand that their ac­tive involvement in fundrais­ing is required. A passionate, generous board member will be more effective in asking for a gift than the art institution’s leadership.

Third, the state and local governments must make a greater investment in strengthening arts and culture. We can hope the recent an­nouncement of a one-time funding allocation to the Arizo­na Commission on the Arts in­dicates the five-year pattern of decreasing allocations from the state budget is at an end.

Finally, local foundations and corporations must consid­er increasing their contribu­tions and sponsorships of arts and culture, recognizing their vital contributions to the edu­cational and economic health of the region.

With more adequate fund­ing, the next generation of arts leaders can flourish in their roles and apply their talents and visions to make Arizona a cultural destination for both its populace and the visitors who come to enjoy it.

Bill DeWalt, an arts consultant, was founding president and director of the Musical Instrument Museum.


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