Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Hidden Cost of Art


Art per se is perhaps the most profitable product on the planet. Designer jeans sell for hundreds of dollars more than jeans at discount retailers, but they don't cost hundreds of dollars more to make. The material used to paint a watercolor costs next to nothing, but in an artist's hands those pigments can come to cost a pretty penny. We gladly pay the artist who with a few minutes can take pen to paper, or dance across the stage, and in doing so create something that seems a bargain at any price. So why is the business of Arts organizations so pitiful?



A recent report from The Johns Hopkins Listening Post Project called Impact of the Economic Recession on Nonprofits presented data showing that Arts organizations in the US are generally in trouble. Nearly three-quarters of Theaters and half of Orchestras report "severe" or "very severe" financial stress this year. In Charleston, Arts organizations with large payrolls have cut expenses and laid off long-time Staff as a result of a drop in charitable donations. Sales have remained strong, however, even increasing for particular performances or for the works of particular artists. As a whole the Arts community is suffering but there are shining stars out there that continue to do well.


Artists themselves say the cause of this pitiful state of affairs in Charleston is due to lack of leadership. That doesn't seem right as never have there been so many Arts leaders clamoring to head up a central clearinghouse of information about the arts, be advocates for the arts, or both. There is the League of Charleston Theaters, Charleston Arts Coalition, Office of Cultural Affairs, a new one called Alliance for the Performing Arts in Charleston, Redux, and the list goes on.


Since artists think leadership is lacking they have created multiple organizations to lead. Each one is struggling to be "the one." Patrons of the Arts see things differently. They are used to paying for art and perhaps that explains the difference. Patrons see the rockstars out there and are looking for the "roadies." They point out that sometimes the strongest leaders lead less and collaborate more. This is not a criticism of the Arts community alone because we at Coastal Community Foundation hear this with regard to all charitable fields of interest. We have heros and success stories across the full spectrum of the nonprofit sector. Finding the rockstars, that is not the problem say the Patrons of the Arts. What we need is quiet collaboration that allows limited resources to be shared to create services beneficial to all.


As Julian Wiles of Charleston Stage keeps reminding me, it is not that we will save money by fostering collaboration between Arts organizations, it is that we will share the additional expenses required to build the killer website, pay the marketing gurus, send the lobbyist to Columbia, and build a community that supports the Arts even when the economy turns down.


It is paying for the backoffice, the marketing machine, the ambience that allows the art to arrive, in a word the "collaboration" that makes those designer jeans so expensive, that painting so pricey, that show a must-see at all costs. That is the hidden cost of Art that artists themselves (but not their Patrons) are reluctant to pay.


The hand drawn image of the five-dollar bill shown above can be found at http://www.brocksart.com/pencil.

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