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2016, January: Who Should Pay for the Arts

Working for a small nonprofit after the Goliath that is the Smithsonian has been an eye-opening experience. We're constantly doing - as my boss likes to call it - "the hustle." A great deal of time, energy, and resources is spent (and stress, sleepless nights, and several tears are experienced) while chasing funding instead of working on the mission, while the mission remains crucial to bringing in the money as well as being the reason we're all here. It's difficult to maintain that balance while keeping the organization afloat and the staff (mostly) sane. It's made me think a great deal about who should pay for what we do. I believe the arts are critically important and I am incredibly proud that a town the size of Idaho Falls (serving a population of around 100,000 in the city and surrounding rural areas) has art galleries, a large, historic theater that brings in nationally touring productions, and the-first-of-its-kind interactive art and technology center for kids (ARTitorium on Broadway). But these facilities will never, EVER be able to survive on ticket sales and admissions revenue alone. Never. So if we agree that the arts are important and that people living in smaller, more rural communities should have access to high quality experiences in the performing and visual arts, then who should pay for them?

The Government? Not entirely. Many Arts Councils are city or state funded. We are not; we are a private nonprofit that relies mostly on sponsorships and grants. In my opinion, this is a reason to be proud. I do not believe that the government should pay for everything and we are lucky to escape the bureaucracy and restrictions that I know come with a government job. That said, I do believe that the government should support the arts. The arts contribute to education, economic development, and tourism (among other things) and local/regional government entities should recognize that through grants and fee waivers whenever possible.

Sponsors? Yes. I believe that the people and companies who care about the arts and have the means should help to pay for them. However, in a town our size there are only so many people who can do this, and they are constantly being asked for money. Sponsorship is the reason we are surviving, for sure, but it isn't enough by itself.

Grants? Yes. Grants are an excellent way to distribute both government and private funding since they require organizations to outline and justify their needs. However, grants are typically small and project-based. There are not many grant opportunities that will pay for all the non-sexy operating costs of a nonprofit - building maintenance, supplies, staffing, etc. Plus, grant proposals take a lot of time. We're fortunate to have enough staff at the Arts Council that we can dedicate some time to grant-writing, but many nonprofits in the arts have just one or two staff members, which makes grant-writing a significant challenge. And you cannot keep coming up with new projects in order to chase grant money. That's not at all sustainable or sensible. (If I ever, miraculously, get rich, I am starting the "Non-Sexy Foundation" that will only fund operating costs. You heard it here first.)

Members? Yes, definitely yes. Membership is a great way for people who participate in the arts to support the arts. Membership programs typically have a variety of levels, allowing almost anyone to contribute and be a part of helping an organization that they care about. Membership dollars pay for all the non-sexy items (see above) and they are renewable, which is crucial. However (and there's always a however!), in a small community, membership money can only go so far and fund so much.

Revenue (aka "profit")? Of course. Nonprofits should constantly explore options for bringing in revenue in ways that tie to the mission. We sell tickets to the theater and admissions to ARTitorium (all at a reduced rate, thanks to sponsors). We also rent out both of our buildings to a variety of organizations - both commercial and nonprofit - allowing others to benefit from the beautiful, historic facilities that we own. We don't make a ton of money in this way (we're a nonprofit, remember?), but the money that does come in directly supports the maintenance of the buildings - ensuring that they will still be around for future generations to enjoy. The problem is that the arts can never be entirely sustained in this way. If we increased our prices so that revenue covered all of our costs, no one would be able to afford to participate.

Fundraisers? Yes - ish. Fundraisers (events/parties) are a great way to bring existing and potential sponsors together, make new connections, show our appreciation, and generate immediate cash donations. However, they cost money and time to implement, there's no guarantee that revenue will exceed expenses, and they are not at all mission-based. Fundraisers are a tricky area. We do them, but we limit it to two per year and try to keep all of our other event- and program-based work focused on the mission.

Endowments? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Endowments put nonprofits on a pathway to sustainability. Endowments are amazing. HOWEVER, you can only put money into your endowment once you have paid for everything else, and therein lies the problem. Staff at arts organizations pour all of their energy, time, and expertise (aka blood, sweat, and tears) into balancing the budget every year - there's rarely an ounce left to find more money on top of that. So, short of befriending a millionaire or two, large endowments are extraordinarily difficult to obtain.

So. Huh. I have no conclusion. I guess we will continue doing the hustle until the endowment fairy pays a visit. The moral of this story? If you enjoy the arts (galleries, theaters, museums, symphonies, operas, public sculptures, murals, art classes, music lessons, performances, etc., etc., etc.), then please, PLEASE SUPPORT THE ARTS, and preferably with real, unrestricted money. Thank you.

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