Philanthropists to the Rescue: Should We Save European Arts the American Way?

March 31, 2012

I was somewhat surprised to see the New York Times article this week examining how the global recession has created a significant decline in public financing for arts in Eurozone countries. Maybe I should clarify; it’s not surprising to see this cause and effect scenario played out, rather that the American media all of a sudden realized that this is worthy of our attention. But can the American arts funding model be an answer to European woes?

Sure, it’s pretty dire to hear that about one of every ten companies that rely on Arts Council England as a primary funding source are closing as a result. That’s depressing, but it’s a conceivable situation for many State-side artists, and one hopes that with a little political change so could the national arts budget. It’s less easy for many Americans to understand how Germany could maintain nearly $1 billion of public arts investment in just one city (Berlin), while it also aims to shoulder a Greek bailout of U.S. proportions.

It’s temptingly easy to agree with the argument Sean Bowie makes via Technology in the Arts that this isn’t sustainable. He makes good points on the cultural distinctions between Western European nations and our own, and of the importance of public funding for the arts.

I’m a fan of Bowie’s writings, and he is a great advocate for public arts funding. I’m just not convinced that the American model is, as he describes it, a sustainable alternative. He writes:

“Is the current model, where American artists rely mostly on private donations and European artists rely on government grants, sustainable? For the United States, absolutely. With calls from some politicians to cut and even eliminate funding for the NEA and other culture programs, there is certainly little chance of seeing an increase in federal funds for the arts.”

Interestingly, I was having this very same conversation with Kelly Dylla, Ian David Moss, and others at the Arts Enterprise National Summit at Claremont Graduate University last weekend, where 80 students, faculty, and thought-leaders from across the country convened to address the challenges (and opportunities) facing aspiring artists in the Creative Economy. While there is consensus that in the United States we see a tremendous amount of funding provided by private donors for the arts, there is also widespread concern that this quasi-modernized patronage model should not be accepted as the only way to make arts organizations thrive.

Of course, this statement must be mediated by the diversity of our arts sectors. The needs of individual arts organizations are driven by factors equally as diverse like location, funding structure, mission, scope, and audience. A symphony orchestra in a major urban area has fundamentally different strategies for growth than a scrappy, new music ensemble in Madison, WI.

Some rely more on public funding than others, which is related in no small way to the significantly different scale of resources available in various State. Organizations based in Wisconsin can rely less and less on State-level funding (though that may change soon), while those in Kansas have no State safety net anymore. California is 49th out of 50th (thanks to Kansas) in per capita arts funding, but their arts license plate program, among others, is poised to turn that around.

I mention California because it is an innovative idea, an example of a State agency reacting to the decline of their funding, not peacefully submitting to the patronage model that is espoused by political figures eager to crush public arts funding wherever and whenever possible.

I believe that the next generation of arts professionals are tasked with more than just surviving within America’s current funding climate. We must find new ways to make the arts meaningful and sustainable. It is our responsibility as arts leaders to re-position those arts that “lack mass appeal” in such a way that they’ll gain and retain new audiences. My immodest proposition brings into question the purposes of arts education, and specifically whether entrepreneurship training should be focused on career development or new venture creation. Can we find a third path, one that pushes artists to discover self-efficacy, innovation, and a drive to create new funding streams?

Though an investigation on that topic is for another day, I can’t resist referring you to a provocative conversation from last year between Andrew Taylor and Jim Undercofler via The Artful Manager, one of my favorite blogs. It’s worth revisiting, if for no other reason than to prime the engine.

So, though we can’t solve this problem today, I leave you with two questions: should we export our American way of supporting the arts to Europe? If so, what does that mean today, and what will it mean tomorrow?

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3 Responses to “Philanthropists to the Rescue: Should We Save European Arts the American Way?”


  1. The California Arts Council model is certainly innovative, but it hasn’t worked yet. I would adopt a “wait and see” attitude before exporting the idea to Europe. After all, the European model of strong governmental support has worked beautifully for centuries. The California Arts Council has high hopes for the Arts License Plate program, but it is definitely a “Plan B” — being turned to because Plan A, the governmental support that was originally envisioned as the backbone of its funding, has dried up and blown away in the current political & economic winds.

    With luck & hard work, it’s possible that Arts License Plate sales — if they materialize — could provide a more stable source of funding, one that may still be influenced by economic ups and downs but is, perhaps, insulated from political ups and downs. Time alone will tell.


  2. Thanks for the good points, Diane!

    I should clarify that I don’t propose exporting the ArtsPlate program to Europe, I just use that example as a way of illustrating my opinion that our public arts funding model shouldn’t sit still in the wake of State or Federal budget cuts. (I also had the pleasure of meeting Craig Watson recently in LA where he gave a presentation on the ArtsPlate program, and it caught my eye!).

    We have yet to see whether the ArtsPlate program will succeed, but isn’t the attempt better than assuming simply that private funders will pick up the slack? While I agree that public funding is at the mercy of increasingly fast-paced political swings, I look at that as a call upon artists to come up with innovative ways of building funding streams (both public and private) that connect more directly with a wider community of all economic and social backgrounds. Of course, such entrepreneurial projects come with risk, and some ideas will fail. Another example I like, though with a slightly different orientation, is the Watts House Project in the LA area: http://wattshouseproject.org/.

    I think we can agree that there is no one solution to the challenges of funding the arts on either side of the pond. What are some other examples from across the spectrum that illustrate the pros and cons of innovating the arts funding process?


    • Yes, it would be nice to see an “all of the above” approach-! And taking action is always preferable to wailing & gnashing our teeth … or trying to squeeze blood from a turnip … or simply hunkering down and trying to “wait out” the bad times. By all means, let’s try stuff. All kinds of stuff. In the spirit of “if not us, who?” – surely the arts community has a lot of creative minds; all that creativity ought to produce some fascinating, innovative approaches. I will follow this discussion with great interest.


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