What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Transforming The Field

On 8/7/2015, Americans For The Arts published an article by Jason Tseng (h/t @YouveCottMail) titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Transforming The Field that introduces a frank conversation about disparity and arts funding. You should absolutely take the time to read the full piece as there are a number of superb ideas; having said that, the post falls victim to some equally profound failings often overlooked when talking about equality and arts funding.

Adaptistration People 096Tseng asserts that current patterns of arts funding are oppressive and help perpetuate a type of injustice that unfairly keeps funding from smaller budget organizations and artist run start-ups. In turn, one of the byproducts is a self-perpetuating system that prevents minority and other underserved sectors access to and positions within the arts, Tseng calls this hegemonic cultural oppression or big=bad, small=good.

Hegemonic oppression worsens the resource gap…research found that only 10% of Arts and Culture grant dollars were classified as benefiting marginalized communities, while the U.S. is roughly 40% people of color. This disparity is often exacerbated at the local level. Consider California — a report found that just 9% of in-state arts grant dollars went to benefit people of color, who represent about 60% of Californians.


…only 5% of US art museum directors are people of color, 86% of local arts agency employees are White, almost 8 of 10 roles on NYC stages were performed by White actors (where only 1 in 3 New Yorkers are Non-Hispanic White), and only 4% of U.S. Orchestra players are Black or Latin. Hegemonic cultural oppression fundamentally impacts who shows up, who participates, and who leads in our field.

This is not a new conversation and by way of an entirely static analysis, Tseng continues by identifying the typical root evil of these disparities in the form of rich, old white people.

The resources and power in the arts are concentrated in an incredibly small number of gatekeepers, who disproportionately represent the interests and demographics of the hegemonic class (read: white, wealthy, able-bodied, heterosexual, etc.). As the government has ceded more responsibility to the social sector (and by extension, philanthropy), the influence of these gatekeepers has only increased.

Once again, not a terribly earth-shattering observation. I’ve been in the field for more than 20 years and this conversation had always been around in one form or another and based on my own interaction with artists and arts administrators with even more experience than me, it stretches back to the very beginning of major efforts from the Philanthropic Foundation community to begin expanding arts sector activity by way of increasing unearned income.

And since that time, there have always been voices that find the disproportionate levels of funding troublesome, myself included.

But here’s where things become difficult and need go beyond the stereotypical distribution-of-wealth inspired solutions in Tseng’s recommendations lest the field end up taking two steps back for every step forward.

Don’t Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater

It is all too easy to overlook some of the transformative advances in equality within the field that are only possible by way of increased institutional funding.

One of the most profound is the result of initiatives during the 1970’s via dedicated efforts to build endowments and increase levels of large donor annual giving. The result was more artists and arts facilitators (a ten dollar word term for arts managers) crossed what is colloquially known as a living wage threshold than any other time in this country’s history. And for the sake of clarity, that term includes not only wages but meaningful health insurance, pensions, and workplace protections.

And since Tseng did a wonderful job at providing a relevant overview of the history behind injustice, it is important to include some additional history on this point.

The uptick in funding came as a response to increased internal pressures vis-à-vis numerous labor struggles throughout the variety of artist unions and at the time, the focus wasn’t on a zero-sum consolidation of existing funding, it was about maximizing potential, growing capacity, and increasing overall revenue with a particular focus on large donor and philanthropic support.

It was clear that in order to cross the living wage threshold, arts organizations had to move beyond relying primarily on earned income and small annual donations. As a result, the only viable option available was to expand large donor and investment income revenue.

Consequently, there is little good in what Tseng defines as liberation if it means dismantling advances made to very real injustices artists and arts manages had endured for decades up to that point.

Instead, the field would benefit from examining the problems Tseng rightfully points out from more of a Hippocratic Oath perspective: do no harm.

To that end, I would suggest there is more value in advocating for a system that continues to shine the light of transparency on “hegemonic cultural oppression” but replace dime-store Marxist redistribution theory with improving the ratio of those inside the arts sector crossing the living wage threshold.

After all, if you want to put an end to the sort of inequality Tseng identifies, the best tool at your disposal is to increase the size of a financially secure base of artists and arts administrators (think Robert Reich’s Aftershock or his move Inequality For All).

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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5 thoughts on “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Transforming The Field”

  1. Music is a part of history, and in order to tell the complete story, you need the orchestra, the jazz ensemble, the opera company, etc. Maybe more money is needed for one or the other – but to paraphrase a colleague of mine, if we want to be informed and insightful about who we are as a society, we have to be as complete as possible.

  2. I know profit is a dirty word in the arts, but if we want to truly change the field we need to treat it as any other form of entertainment, which at its core it truly is, and rely on streams of revenue outside of giving. In this interconnected day and age the idea that we need the white, wealthy, able-bodied, heterosexual to donate to survive is false. If smaller groups were to work together (yes a big task) they could generate and share bigger dollars from things like advertising etc. to replace the waning donor class. You’ll organically put the money in the right hands and decrease inequality without awkward forced intervention. I recognize this is not a popular opinion, or an easy task, but taking this road could fix much more (maybe not Hartford) than hegemonic cultural oppression.

    • Even for profit entertainment business models rely heavily on subsidized revenue streams, such as corporate sponsorships and tie-ins. Those institutions wield increasingly tighter control than the traditional large donor class; consequently, I would be skeptical that the example you provided is capable of yielding any real benefit thanks. In short, you’re replacing once form of control with another.

      Moreover, once you have multiple smaller budget organizations working in tandem the way you’ve suggested, they produce the very same middle to large budget influence on their respective markets, but with a far less efficient operational structure. In short, most groups love to talk about working together but the unspoken caveat is “…but only if we’re in control.”

      I am curious, however, what you’re referring to when you wrote “put the money in the right hands.” Who are you talking about there?

      • I wholly agree with your points. The etc. in my comment would include corporate sponsorships and other appropriate tie ins. And of course the larger the network the larger the reach, and the more interest from bigger companies looking to sponsor and advertise. All this translates to more $$$. I grant you this would require a formal corporate (gasp! another dirty word!) structure with artistic decisions being made regionally. The executive director role would have to be centralized and a regional ED position created to be the top local position that reports up. Groups would certainly have to be comfortable giving up some autonomy in exchange for the ability to compete with the big budgets. I find it very interesting to hear you say that groups often talk about working together but never want to give up control. Perhaps they only would if given the choice to close doors or live in a different world than they’re used to.

        To answer your question about putting the money in the right hands: it would be largely situational. That’s part of the beauty of this model. Groups with similar missions would naturally align themselves. So, for example if survival is simply goal #1, perhaps use the money to supplement declining artist wages to hire top talent, boost artistic quality and fill seats. But, if the #1 goal of a network is to combat hegemonic cultural oppression then use that money to hire according to that mission and diversify.

        Like I said before, not easy. If it were it’d be done already. Plus a field like the arts that’s so entrenched would be incredibly difficult to change let alone changing the mindset of patrons. Yikes! My explanation leaves out far too many details that can’t be discussed in a comments section but I think we’ll either see a significant decrease in the number of regional arts organizations or a return to a for profit model in the not terribly too distant future. I’ve personally lost out on income because concert seasons have been shortened or wages have fallen due to budgetary concerns and have seen much worse happen to colleagues. And the economy is supposedly doing well right now. What’s going to happen when we hit the next recession? I think a for profit model is the industry’s best chance at survival beyond major cities. Unless of course everyone in Albany, NY is comfortable making the 3 hour drive into NYC to see the NY Phil and Met Opera…

      • In the scenario you’ve proposed, there would be an increase in what Tseng defined as hegemonic cultural oppression with even less oversight than what currently exists.

        Moreover, the assumption that corporate sponsorships would replace large donor as the primary unearned income revenue stream is also unlikely given that the potential ROI for those corporate marketing dollars is far less than what is currently spent on for profit entertainment.

        As it is, a number of cities already implement a similar structure to what you’ve proposed vis-a-vis an arts alliance organization that serves as the primary fundraising entity and filters large donor contributions to member organizations.

        In theory, that is supposed to reduce Tseng’s hegemonic cultural oppression but the reality is quite different; if anything, it becomes worse as a new layer of institutional decision making is inserted into the process and forced onto the member organizations.

        So in the end, it isn’t so much something that just isn’t easy inasmuch as it simply doesn’t have a worthwhile return on investment. And I wouldn’t be overly concerned about the extinction of regional arts organizations. If anything, they have a better degree of flexibility than larger budget organizations.

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