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Diversifying the Arts in America

Andy Horwitz, writing in the Atlantic, delivers a compelling argument about how the arts in America are funded and concludes that the federal government, because it has not adequately supported the National Endowment for the Arts, is contributing to the weakness of the culturally diverse and ethnic arts organizations in the country. He misses two key points about diversifying the arts and, I believe promotes the wrong solution.

With approximately $100 million in funding, compared to say, Germany,  federal funds to the arts place this country around 40th in the free world among government funding for arts organizations. As I have pointed out, this is a false argument because what is excluded are the two other, more significant sources of US federal funding to the arts:  The federal government appropriates over $200 million annually to the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center alone.  Unarguably, a policy choice, it demonstrates a legislative priority toward major, established institutions.  And while the National Museum of African Art is part of the Smithsonian (which has had significant ethical issues recently), together the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center are not paragons of diversity.  The other item excluded is, by far, the most significant.  True, as Horwitz notes, it was the Reagan tax policies that encouraged individuals (read the rich) to contribute to the arts; however,  the policy actually indirectly engages every US citizen in arts philanthropy; wittingly or not.  Each dollar contributed by a wealthy taxpayer to an arts organization is subsidized through a tax return of some 35% or 35 cents on the dollar, a subsidy that is paid for by every other taxpayer.  And those who do not claim itemized deductions (read, the lower earners) are paying for the arts as well.

What is the solution then to diversifying the arts?  If we believe that 1) the arts are for everyone and that not only should our ethnic and culturally specific arts organizations be supported and strengthened but, 2) that our major institutions, located in urban areas whose populations are culturally diverse should be relevant and accessible to those populations, then a new paradigm is needed.

What is needed is leadership, at the executive level, that reflects the diversity of the population of the country.  Countless studies have shown that the  executive leadership of arts and cultural organizations in the US are almost all white.   That is why we created the Certificate in Cultural and Ethnic Arts Leadership Program.  The CEA will engage and enable a group of senior arts leaders who want to become CEOs to take on leadership roles in the arts in the country.   Beginning in June 2016, with generous funding from the university chancellor and the Doris Duke Foundation, the program will bring together a group of senior arts leaders from underserved populations for a ten day certificate followed by a year long membership with the sole purpose of enabling them to become CEOs of arts organizations.   Their influence at the top, their cultural sensitivity, their life experience and their particular cultural understanding of how the arts affect the population, will begin to change their institutions’ relevance to those they serve.   Over time, they will influence the composition of the boards and change the complexion, if you will, of the arts in the US.

James Abruzzo, Consultant, Consulting, Executive Search, Nonprofit Compensation, Expert Witness, Diversifying the Arts

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