According to a 2011 report prepared by the researcher and arts advocate Holly Sidford for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 55 percent of contributed income in 2009 (gifts and grants) went to the two percent of arts organizations with budgets over $5 million. “It’s only gotten worse, actually,” Sidford told me recently. Statistics from the NCCS indicate that in 2012, one percent of arts organizations—those with budgets over $10 million—received close to 50 percent of all contributed funding for the arts. “Not only do the big institutions continue to get the bulk of the revenue,” says Sidford, “but their portion of the total is going up.”
The disproportionate allotment of funding to large, conservative, Eurocentric arts organizations is accepted by default and justified—or so the common wisdom goes—because organizations like Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center serve so many more people than the smaller ones. In fact, the numbers tell a different story.
According to the NCCS’s statistics, out of the approximately 40,000 arts organization in the country with budgets over $25,000 per year, there are approximately 450 organizations whose budgets are over $10 million. That means that there are 39,570 organizations who, “even if they are only serving on average 1,000 people a year, in aggregate are serving significantly greater numbers of people,” says Sidford. Given these structural impediments to equity, it isn’t surprising that the sector’s definition of what legitimately constitutes “the arts” doesn’t reflect America’s evolving demographics.
“We need to get back to that place where when we say ‘the arts’ to someone, their mind doesn’t immediately go to a big-box building downtown where it costs you $160 to go,” says Janet Brown.
The NEA’s current chairperson, Jane Chu, is an accomplished pianist as well as a seasoned arts advocate, but she also has some personal experience of the incalculable value of exposure to the arts. Chu’s mother fled Communist China as a teenager and left her family behind to come to the United States. Chu’s father was a student in the U.S. who stayed rather than return to China, eventually becoming a professor in Oklahoma, where Chu was born. “I’ve navigated my whole life through opposing perspectives,” Chu says. “My parents … felt very strongly that the way for me to succeed was to assimilate, assimilate, assimilate. So while my parents spoke Mandarin, I spoke English. And of course I was dutifully taking piano lessons.” After Chu’s father died of cancer when she was 9 years old, music offered both comfort and a way to express herself.
While it’s easy to dismiss funding the NEA or arts education as “extras” or “frills” that need to be scaled back in a time of fiscal crisis, the truth is that the arts help create community and foster cross-cultural understanding. By disproportionately supporting large institutions, which reach a tiny slice of the American population, mega-donors and corporate foundations use the arts to serve the one percent. Which is why a strong and robust NEA, and increased investment in public funding for the arts nationally, is needed today, more than ever.