It used to be so easy. You made your fortune in coal mining or steel or widget manufacturing and when you wanted to show the world that you had “arrived” you plopped down a couple of big bags of money in front of the symphony or the opera or the art museum. If you were really grand they named a wing or two after you. In that bygone era of the publicly-revered artist, you could buy good taste off the rack. Pay for a Picasso here, underwrite a Swan Lake there, and voila—you went from middlebrow to highbrow with a couple strokes of the pen.
Times have changed. And it’s not just that young New York socialites on the make aren’t working at the Met anymore (they’re at the soup kitchen or over at savetheplanet.org). There is a sense that the nature of great art, or perhaps the way the public perceives great art, has changed.
That impression, moreover, seems to be borne out in the latest data about giving to the arts.
Americans gave a record $174 billion to charity last year—a 10.7 percent jump over the previous year (which was itself a 13.7 percent jump over the year before that). Those estimates, contained in Giving USA, an annual report, indicate that giving is up by all types of donors—individuals, foundations, and corporations. Giving is also up in all categories—religion, education, health, even the perennially shortchanged category of “international” giving.
All categories, that is, save one. According to Giving USA, charitable giving to the arts actually declined slightly last year. Donations to the category of arts, culture, and humanities organizations decreased from $10.62 billion in 1997 to $10.53 billion in 1998; a minor decrease, but the second consecutive year that arts was the only category in which giving dropped. Moreover, the size of the arts slice has eroded in recent years even as the overall giving pie has grown, slipping from 8.4 percent of grants in 1992 to 6 percent in 1998.
And, come to think of it, where are the arts mega-grants? In recent years donors have given $50 million for an arts center in Milwaukee and $20 million to the Metropolitan Opera—not to mention fabulous bequests like that of Paul Mellon, who left hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art treasures to the nation’s museums, or Lela and Rea Axline who left $60 million to two San Diego art museums. But high-profile nine-figure grants by living donors or active foundations are few and far between.
Is It Really “Us” Vs. “Them”?
What ails arts giving? Opinions abound. Lynn Munson, formerly assistant to the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and author of a forthcoming book on the intersection between art and politics, thinks institutions are key. “The lack of giving in the arts is due to a lack of public confidence in our art institutions and in those who lead them. It’s a rather well-founded opinion, grounded in the experience of at least a half-dozen art wars over the last decade.”
Those “art wars” have been bloody, in rhetoric if not in body count. Brooklyn Museum officials were quick to compare New York Mayor Giuliani’s objections to the “Sensation” exhibit with Kristallnacht. Artists who had their funding cut after the NEA debate ominously proclaimed that “this was how things started in Germany.” And most recently, in December, a New York art dealer who had been arrested for displaying a candy bowl filled with 234 rounds of live 9mm ammunition lamented (after being acquitted!) that “what happened with the Brooklyn Museum created an atmosphere, which the police reacted to, that art was bad.”
The hyperbole generated by these controversies is ultimately more than just hothouse posturing; it creates a poisoned atmosphere of melodramatic overstatement and recrimination that forces many donors into a false choice: rally to the makeshift barricades as “arts supporters,” or. . . go find something else to fund.
Predictably, such controversies have had a polarizing influence on charitable arts giving, unhelpfully separating donors into “we give to arts” and “we don’t” camps. Peter Trippi, vice-director for development at the Brooklyn Museum, claimed in December that they hadn’t yet lost a single member or donor over the exhibit. Given that the exhibit prompted powerful objections from groups as diverse as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, one could be forgiven for thinking that the museum’s typical supporter is more likely to be a grizzled veteran of the art wars than is the average donor.
It is significant that, despite the enormous costs and publicity attached to the “Sensation” exhibit, Lehman was unable to attract a single corporate sponsor. Even Carter-Wallace Inc., maker of Trojan condoms, reportedly didn’t want to be seen by the public as being associated with an exhibition that was going to generate more heat than light.
Corporations are critical because they provide so much funding to cultural nonprofits. But they are in the same bind as some foundations when it comes to the problem of artistic “boldness” or vision, especially since donors in general, and corporate donors more than most, are powerfully controversy-averse. The overheated political rhetoric cultural nonprofits generate may inflame the passions of elites in New York and Los Angeles—and those who are dying to impress them—but most would-be arts donors want nothing to do with this sort of thing.
Stephen Urice, culture program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, puts it this way: “It’s inescapable that what’s occurred in the 1990s with Serrano and Brooklyn has raised for many people the specter that it’s not so easy to go into arts funding.” That’s a real problem, Urice feels, because “cultural organizations don’t have the same resiliency in the public mind. They don’t have the fundraising machinery that universities and research institutions have. They haven’t cultivated policymakers, the public, and the media. How many lobbyists are there for the environment? For education?” Concludes Urice: “There isn’t [a] ‘crisis’” in arts funding, but “there is ‘need.’”
Other prominent arts advocates echo the point: “I think more vigorous fundraising, more vigorous education about the arts sector, is called for,” says Alberta Arthurs, who chairs the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and is a former director of arts and humanities for the Rockefeller Foundation. “The culture people have not yet ventured out in all the places where they might: to ‘e-philanthropists,’ to new foundations, to new wealth, to ordinary Americans where they live and define their priorities. I think that the health, social issue, and environmental people have done a far better job of telling their stories, and getting their issues onto peoples’ minds. The arts are still orbiting within the big foundation, board gift, and corporate philanthropy models generated 25 or 30 years ago.”
The Unkindest Cut
The most oblique explanation for why arts funding is stagnant, and perhaps the most distressing to those who care about the arts, is that many donors may simply no longer see art as important. There are so many needs, and even many donors struggle over whether arts are the highest good their charitable dollars can buy.
Even donors who explicitly value and extol the role of art run up against this conflict. The Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of the nation’s leading funders of contemporary art, abruptly announced a few years ago that it would redirect the $3 million per year it had been dedicating to build an internal collection to instead support programs in American Indian communities.
“This was not done lightly,” J. Patrick Lannan Jr., the foundation’s president and the son of its founder, told the New York Times at the time of the decision. “We feel we can make a difference for a few people who desperately need it. We just felt that the art world wouldn’t change that much if we stopped collecting, and that we might be able to bring some new thinking to these other problems.”
But perhaps the problem goes deeper than indifference, or ineffective fundraising.
Lynn Munson argues that it is also the nature of much contemporary art makes these choices more difficult. In Munson’s view, shows like the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” illustrate “that much of the contemporary art which is most celebrated by the art world today is also designed to offend the public. Naturally, this diminishes most people’s interest in such art and, by extension, increases their skepticism about the judgment of those who deem it appropriate for public funding or museum display.”
Munson places the blame for donor wariness over arts funding squarely on the shoulders of grantees like Brooklyn Museum director Arnold L. Lehman. “Why, on the eve of an election year, did Mr. Lehman choose to display art that is so likely to attract the ire of politicians? Why did Mr. Lehman go to such lengths to put his museum on the firing line? And, finally, why hasn’t the board of the Brooklyn Museum demanded Mr. Lehman’s resignation?”
And finally, there is the problem of the rise of arts relativism—which could be loosely defined as the tendency to meet any artistic criticism with the reply “Well, that’s just your opinion.” In a world suffused by arts relativism, judgments about art are increasingly seen to be mere personal whim. This in turn makes it difficult for foundations, as opposed to individuals, to be bold in their arts giving—particularly large and bureaucratic foundations. A social services program can be designed by committee, as can a college curriculum. But a vision for the arts is quite a different thing. As Tolstoy observed, all great art is produced in the name of ideals. A point worth pondering, for those concerned about the future of arts philanthropy, is Tolstoy’s corollary that where there are no ideals, “there are no works of art.”
Tom Riley is an associate editor of Philanthopy.