Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Art Rant™ by Emily Lakin

After a somewhat challenging conversation with a member the other day, I was inspired to write the latest rant on corporate funding of nonprofits. This gentleman was in an uproar that we had participated in a charity fundraiser at the invitation of Bloomingdale’s. As on of about 10 Bay Area organizations, we stood to get $5 for every ticket turned in, and $5,000 if we had turned in the most tickets. People who received this invite not only helped support our organization (and got a FREE ticket to our opening), but their ticket included a 15% off coupon for the store. We spent 3 days assembling, stickering and stamping 3,000 pieces of mail, which were received by our members, ticket buyers, friends, family and acquaintances.

Then came the fateful call – a guy who I first thought was mad because he believed the mail came from Bloomies (meaning that we had shared his contact info) yet my explanation that we had assembled and mailed it ourselves wasn’t enough. In fact, he proceeded to go on about how companies and art institutions should not be in partnership. If you can’t finance yourself, you should just close your doors!

I was having a rough week. And to top if off, I had to say things like “Well, I appreciate your opinion…” while trying to keep calm that this ASSHOLE felt that he needed to tell me how this institution should be run. But the truth is – he didn’t have a clue. And as he went on to tell me how he gives thousands of dollars to the place across the street and doesn’t give us much, it only made me more furious. You would be hard pressed to find any mid-sized arts organization that doesn’t take corporate money (including his much-loved institution). The benefits they receive in return perhaps are not as explicit as they were in this situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that money or goods in-kind are changing hands. The bottom line is this – public money for art has been dramatically reduced since the 1980s. California doesn’t even have the money to have art classes in schools. Remember that hour in elementary school where you got to draw and use glue and glitter? Yeah, well, no more.

It’s amazing to find those people who can give large sums of money, but consider that one $250,000 gift is only 1/24th of a 6 million dollar budget. And yes, foundation money is a great social benefit. Yes, people who can afford any sort of gift are helping even in a small way. But the truth of the matter is that many organizations can’t afford to invest in their programs, don’t pay their hardworking staff enough, and work on computers Steve Jobs would laugh at*. Corporate support usually offers easy money with no strings attached.

And here’s where the moral argument applies. Many companies are actively looking to invest in the community and the ethics of the matter come into play when the organization takes money from a company that violates its beliefs or sacrifices its curatorial or directorial duties in exchange for the contribution. Would I take money for my imaginary nonprofit if they wanted to present a Philip Morris curated show? No. Would I take money from the local Philip Morris office who wanted to purchase a corporate membership and give all their employees access to the work I was presenting? Absolutely.

It’s this fundamental difference in the relationship of money and power that my caller obviously didn’t understand. And he’s not required to know, but I certainly didn’t need to be lectured on the subject. In fact, his insistence that we should not accept this kind of money and his attempt to leverage his status as a potential donor is exactly the kind of power play that’s not acceptable. It made me cranky, and all I wanted to do is offer him his $150 back and tell him not to bother, he obviously doesn’t get it.

*I’m not saying these do or do not apply to my current job.

Emily asked that I post this link to Jori Finkel's article in the NY Times about the Murakami exhibit currently showing in Los Angeles. I also wanted to post the following, pointed out in Princeton by E. Lakin last week. - Leah


Anonymous Justin said...

Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Suspicion of large corporations is still parlor talk so enjoy it for what it is while it is that. Casual cruelty can be infuriating, but history proves that national experience contains, and has the potential to evoke, the kind of anger that makes a person want to drink the blood of their enemies. I do think wealth can buy an artist's silence and largely has in many domains. Either that or artists no longer no what is real because they are busy sniffing the on their fingers. Don't let surreal conversations piss you off, and stock up on cheese and guns.

November 28, 2007  
Blogger Faust Haus said...

I, for one, am bought on a daily basis!

November 28, 2007  
Anonymous justin said...

Which sounds slightly better than "they buy my silence on a daily basis!"

But what about the cheese and guns?

November 29, 2007  
Blogger Faust Haus said...

True: they pay for me to run my fat mouth!

I've been aging a wheel of Pecorino Romano for years now, but still working on those guns...

November 29, 2007  
Blogger Emily said...

In house cheese: manchego and chevre. I'm not one for guns, but by all means...

Leah was kind enough to let me vent about this guy, but the real point of me writing this (and including the link to the NY Times article) is that almost every day I deal with how to get art funded and by whom. I find myself constantly questioning where the money comes from and what it is supposed to be used for. I'm just glad I could say that even as a development professional, I don't have all the answers.

November 29, 2007  
Anonymous justin said...

Who gave you the idea you had to have all the answers? The people with the money? And to think we're running like mice on the wheel to chase a funky Roquefort gas fluvia trailing from some fatcat's arse!

Given no opportunity to vent I will anyway: I am so goddamn tired of everyone having to know everything. There is an entire history of not knowing anything and wondering about it in novel form.

There air is thick and nobody can really say shit or some of that very stuff will push its way past the teeth to the tongue.

I quit but just know my bile is endless.

December 03, 2007  

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