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What Do The Arts Need?

Bremer Strategies: Navigating Nonprofit Success

“What do the arts need?”. A complex question, to be sure, but one that does not require a complex answer.

The arts comprise what is best in our society. The contributions of art, architecture, music, theatre, dance, and literature, a collection of expression that has grown to include movies, design, fashion, humanities, photography, illustration, crafts, and many other specific classifications, are monumental in the fabric of our society. From the discoveries of early man we have seen examples of art taking an important place right next to common tools and utensils, a metaphor for our time and one that cannot be overstressed. The arts are as integral to our daily lives as eating and working. Life in our society does not merely enjoy the arts like some sort of luxury option to be deleted if the ticket price is too high. Our society is only lived to its fullest when the arts are an expectation and, like a comfortable companion, fit our lives in a way that challenge, complement and complete.

The United States has always been and continues to be the most philanthropic country on the face of the Earth. The desire to give of one’s resources to improve the quality of life is strong here. There is a danger, however, in thinking of giving in terms of only improving the quality of life and not also as a requirement to maintain a quality of life.

Cultural Support Falls Below Other Giving

Giving to arts and culture is far below the averages of giving to religion, universities and health. Moreover, when charitable dollars are tight due to economic downturns arts and culture can sometimes be seen as that “luxury” that can be dismissed for the time being. This makes an already very small percentage of the “charitable pie” even smaller and places worthy nonprofits at risk.

I want to suggest that there is a way to see charitable giving as something other than a “zero-sum” equation. Giving to an arts organization does not mean that others suffer and the reverse is also true. The question “How can I support art and culture when there are so many needy or sick that need help?”, while valid, begins with a misconception. It assumes that art and culture are something that wouldn’t be missed in the face of funding other important health and social organizations. If you follow that assumption to its logical conclusion, art and culture, the kind that is history-making and meant for the future, would disappear. And, while health and social organizations would become more stable in their funding, it would be naïve to assume that sickness and poverty would be eradicated, requiring even higher levels of funding and the formation of more nonprofits seeking charitable dollars.

When support is given to help health and social organizations, the reason is to enable those organizations to lift the sick and poor into a healthy and stable relationship with the rest of society; helping those organizations to make possible the enjoyment of a fuller life, rich with all that our society offers.

What Sort of Society Would That Be Without the Arts?

A society without art and culture can only be a dimly lit container, holding just the barest of necessities for life. The noble organizations working so hard to fight sickness and poverty would find that the recipient of their good-will was now entering a bleak place where life, while better than before, was only better by the smallest of measures.

Charitable contributions are the sustenance that both grow and maintain our culture and while the demand can sometimes seem overwhelming, every single contribution, no matter how small, is a vital part of the success of a nonprofit. We must support the whole of our society’s worthy organizations. When an at-risk child is lifted up and placed in a new, loving home, he or she must be able to see places of wonder in which to celebrate life. Museums, zoos, concerts, and all of the arts are those magical places that let us know we are alive and a part of the best of humanity.

Worth More Than a Fleeting Thought

The issue of the importance of introducing young people to arts and culture has long been resolved. Testing over the past decades has shown that students enrolled in arts courses while in school score better in all the other “hard” subjects. Engagement in the arts fosters creativity, which encompasses problem solving a critical skill for young people to develop. Indeed, much has been said recently about the interviewing skills required when potential employers, rather than asking the old standard questions, (Why did you leave your last job?) are instead assessing whether or not the applicant can think on their feet.

The reasons are clear and the justifications for supporting the arts are many. The simple answer to the complex question of “What do the “arts need?”…is YOU. Your commitment to maintain, strengthen and grow your local arts organization with your time, caring, and financial support. Achieving the best in our society is not possible any other way.

(Originally published in the Daily Herald Business Ledger)

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