by John Clark
“Artistic Ambition,” the January 2007 article by Meg Whalen in Charlotte Magazine, demonstrated that Charlotte lagged behind comparably sized cities in its development of the arts and created a stir among the arts/cultural community. Two interview programs on public radio WFAE have been devoted to the topic.
The article inspired my own opinion-editorial article in the January 29th issue of the Charlotte Observer in which it was suggested the Arts and Science Council’s (ASC) approach to the arts is flawed, and the chairperson of the Arts and Science Council Board of Directors Jennifer Appleby responded with her own opinion article published in the Observer. Additionally, affiliate members of the ASC (those that receive annual basic operating grants–BOGs) met in late January, and, although it is not clear if the response is due to this recent public discourse, the ASC is organizing meetings among members and individual artists scheduled in March.
These developments are very healthy. They come at a time when the ASC itself has been undergoing important changes. The first important change has been the hiring of Lee Keesler (formerly of Wachovia Bank) as the CEO and President of the ASC (I find these ‘high falutin’ titles obnoxious…but that’s another matter). He has moved to more openness and is sincere about opening dialogue. He has committed to help member organizations publicize and market their events. Latest methods are a weekly ad in the Charlotte Observer listing upcoming arts/cultural events and a website www.charlottecultureguide.com with information and ticket purchasing opportunities for hundreds of arts/cultural happenings. The new logo tag captures the new direction at the ASC: To build appreciation, participation and support for the arts and culture in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
So change is underway.
I support those changes. They are well-intended, but they are not substantive changes. In fairness to the well-meaning intentions behind them, I agree these are initial steps, and a book should not be judged after reading only the first chapter. There is, however, no indication from the ASC that it intends to fundamentally alter the way it supports arts and culture in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. When I stated in my opinion piece that “the system driving that effort (the fund drive) is flawed,” I should have inserted for purposes of clarity ‘fundamentally’ flawed.
Fundamentally, the ASC was created four decades ago as a fund-raising vehicle for arts and culture and it continues in that role today. The key business decision-makers initiated this centralized, unified arts fund drive via the ASC to raise money for the arts back then and the “The Towers” continue to support that model today. What Whalen’s Charlotte Magazine article showed is that model is not working all that well when compared to other cities as to the number and variety of arts and culture organizations and the dollars available to support them..
Why is that the case? Here are several reasons:
1. The ASC centralized and unified model begins with this basic question: How do we develop the most effective way to raise money for arts and culture? It does not begin with, for example, this fundamental question: What kind of arts and cultural community do we wish to create and sustain? Those are significantly different questions and lead to significantly different answers.
2. One of the most powerful bonds, with the exception of love between two people including the parent/child connection, may well be the philanthropic relationship between an individual and the cause he or she has chosen to support. The ASC model, by its very design, acts as a buffer between individual donors and the particular art form they might choose to support—and with passion I might add. The ASC touts the fact it has 40,000 donors to its annual fund drive. Those donors in that unified campaign are not giving directly to an arts, science or history organization, but instead are giving directly to the ASC. For the individuals giving in the campaign, the relationship with arts and culture is at best remote and hardly passionate.
3. Through the annual Basic Operating Grants (BOGs) to the community’s important arts/cultural organizations, the ASC sets certain requirements that must be met by each organization receiving funds. The problem is not with having requirements—most foundations require a final report on how the funds were used—but rather with having certain requirements. The BOGs make up about 25 -30% of the budget of ASC affiliate members, yet the ASC often acts as if it is providing 90% of the budgets of these organizations.
For example, the ASC requires that the composition of boards of these organizations be representative of the community. One could easily argue that however valuable such an objective is, it should not be the responsibility of an outside funding organization to ensure that diversity is required. Foundations do not make such demands when making a grant. An objective like diversity should rest with the governing authority of the organization itself—its board of directors. In fact one could make a solid argument that this ASC requirement is a usurpation of the authority of the organization’s board of directors.
4. Over the decades, the organizations receiving significant annual support from the ASC have become dependent both on that support and to the ASC. The grant is a subsidy and it can breed a kind of complacency regarding how the organization may approach raising the rest of its annual operating costs. For example, the fact that 30% of the revenue needed is guaranteed at the beginning of the year may reduce the degree of intensity and ambition in securing vitally important donations from individuals. I do not suggest the reduction is conspicuously intentional but rather the complacency may evolve over time.
5. The ASC uses in its PR the fact that its fund drive is the second most successful in the country in unified arts campaigns. The latter qualifier often gets lost (not the ASC’s fault) in subsequent communications. Raising $11.3 million in a single campaign sounds impressive and it is for a unified arts fund drive. But it hasn’t produced a rich and varied and well-supported arts/cultural community, especially compared to other cities, and doesn’t Charlotte-Mecklenburg deserve that?
Will the ASC work over time to make fundamental changes in the way it operates? It will not by itself. It might if the powers in The Towers come around to a new way of thinking. It might change if there are meaningful efforts to seek change from among key leaders in the arts and cultural organizations themselves. That in turn may affect the views in key business circles which may in turn lead to real changes in the way we support and nurture the arts and culture in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
But, for the fun of it, let me lay out a new model. After all, if one tosses a couple of stones, he should at least volunteer to show how to avoid stone throwing in the future. This new model cannot happen in a day; it would take time to implement. The long-term goal would be to change the current way funds are raised and allocated with an emphasis on increasing direct support from citizens to benefit the arts and cultural organizations and the individual artists who live here.
Developed over four decades, the ASC has an efficient fundraising system. The business community wanted it that way and they made it happen. The system has certain strengths that could be preserved in a new approach. I would keep the ASC as an organization but alter its role.
I propose a two-tiered approach. One tier would be for individual donors and the other for businesses. Many, many individuals give to the annual drive but they primarily do it through their place of employment. Keep most of the system but alter it so that the individual donors can give directly to the arts/cultural organization(s) they choose rather than it going directly to the ASC. Essentially, the ASC then becomes a ‘pass through’ for individual gifts to the arts groups. The donor solicitation packet would have a list and description of all the groups from which to select which groups a donor wishes to support.
A second tier would direct the ASC drive at businesses qua business donors. For example, Bank of America or Duke Power would make a gift from its charitable foundation to the ASC. Funds collected directly from businesses would go to support new functions of the ASC, including, for example, marketing for arts/cultural groups and grant support for individual artists for artistic and mentoring support. Over time, the affiliate and associate memberships in the ASC would be phased out as the direct donor dollars would begin to supplant the BOGs, etc. The ASC could further enhance its advocacy role in behalf of arts and culture.
Obviously, there would be many details to work out with this new model but that process itself would increase the commitment to the ultimate goal. Those are my thoughts about arts and culture and how we fund them in this community. I hope you’ll weigh in with your ideas.
John Clark is the executive director of Chamber Music at St. Peter’s and former general manager of WDAV. The views expressed in this piece are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of WDAV or Davidson College. However, we’d love to hear your comments on this timely and important topic.
♫ ♫ ♫