At what cost art?

Patrons arrive at the Academy of Music for its 155th anniversary concert and ball in January 2012. The city's foundation presence is shrinking.
Patrons arrive at the Academy of Music for its 155th anniversary concert and ball in January 2012. The city's foundation presence is shrinking. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

"Culture at a Crossroads": Postscript

Posted: November 04, 2013

Philadelphia has opened most of the new concert halls, theaters, and other arts spaces it set out to build in the culture boom of the past two decades. Now, who pays the piper?

If this were Europe, the operating budgets of a Kimmel Center, Please Touch Museum, and Barnes Foundation would be covered largely through government subsidies. But here, we rely on philanthropy and ticket sales. And more than ever, arts groups must chase the populist (and fickle) ticket buyer while accommodating philanthropists with strongly expressed agendas. They call the tune.

In three months of speaking with nearly 100 arts, business, and philanthropy leaders for The Inquirer's recent "Culture at a Crossroads" series, the lack of strong civic leadership repeatedly emerged as the city's clearest deficit.

Does Philadelphia have high-profile arts advocates today? In the same way you keep expecting some group of savvy, well-connected city mothers and fathers to solve the public school crises, you yearn for someone to lead a conversation about the arts.

There is much to talk about. Some groups are having trouble making mortgage payments (the Please Touch Museum); others are pulling more money than ever out of an already-limited donor pool to pay higher operating costs (the Barnes, the National Museum of American Jewish History). Some doubtless will thrive; others may wither and die.

In the meantime, the pursuit of ticket revenue has turned many arts groups into followers of public taste rather than leaders. Everyone is chasing the next blockbuster (the Franklin Institute) or social media trend to prove relevance. The Philadelphia Orchestra's ability to get several thousand listeners to Verizon Hall for a hastily arranged free concert when a Carnegie Hall appearance was canceled seems less a triumph of social media when you remember that the orchestra has never had trouble getting people to a free concert. It's the paid ones that present the hurdle.

What's clear in this environment is that if philanthropists are the sellers and recipients of philanthropy the buyers, the last few years increasingly have become a sellers' market.

Philadelphia has had the benefit of a strong local foundation presence for several decades - especially since about 2000, when H.F. "Gerry" and Marguerite Lenfest (he is an owner of The Inquirer's parent company) began to distribute more than $1 billion in gifts. But the Annenberg Foundation has moved to Los Angeles, and the Lenfests' foundation is winding down.

Meanwhile, Pew, once Philadelphia's largest foundation, has pulled back on its giving in general. Consider: In 1993, Pew awarded $22.5 million to arts and culture groups, mostly in Philadelphia. Today, Pew is giving away about $10 million a year through its Center for Arts and Heritage. If the foundation had kept pace with inflation, it would be giving $36 million per year to the arts.

And if Pew had maintained its arts support of 1993? Imagine what that extra $26 million each year would mean to Philadelphia arts and culture groups.

One of the most startling changes in philanthropy over the last five or so years is the increasing acceptance of the idea that philanthropy isn't just about giving. It's about getting - that is to say, about what the givers are getting.

Foundations will give money, but only when it furthers their goals, their strategies. Venture capitalists will fund ideas in charities, and then want metrics that prove their money was well spent (however they define that). Corporations like to give grants - when the money is going toward something that helps them further corporate goals.

This is philanthropy, capitalist style. What does it mean to have donors dictating terms so aggressively? Euphemistically, the relationship between donors and groups is now referred to as "transactional." And they're not donors - in the new parlance, they are "investors," investing "creative capital."

Why does it matter what language is used? Because this language signals a shift in power - the giver has more power, and the concept of the donor simply feeling satisfied in doing good has lost sway.

Most cultural devotees give little thought to how the art they're seeing got to where it is. But American culture is changing. Audience trends surveyed by the National Endowment for the Arts show a steady decline in arts participation.

Many arts institutions here and across the United States were established at a time when audiences from Europe brought their culture to America - opera, orchestras, art. Their children were exposed to the arts in public schools.

Arts groups may be able to get today's less-attuned audiences to special events once or twice a year. But the economics of building audiences from scratch for each concert aren't nearly as efficient as the now-dying subscription model of signing up for a seaon's worth of tickets.

There is also reason to doubt that an audience member who goes to one or two events per year has a deep-enough connection to the art form to become a donor.

Changing demographics are troubling, and that's a challenge from outside that no arts group brought on itself. But missteps by local leaders have often undermined their own causes.

Among them:

Several high-profile naming opportunities were granted in exchange for relatively low donations (the Suzanne Roberts Theatre and the Kimmel's Perelman Theater come to mind), which has, in turn, lowered the currency that groups can use to lure future donations.

Opening buildings with debt has soured donor confidence. The Please Touch Museum's troubles could prove that there's no such thing in the arts as too big to fail.

Philadelphia has often been able to bring to fruition just one large project at a time. For a while, it was building the Kimmel; after that, the new Barnes. What this indicates is a donor pool too small, and too fatigued, to take on a diverse set of projects simultaneously.

Donors often sit on the sidelines, waiting for a project to gain momentum, while if they all decided collectively to participate, the momentum would take care of itself. What does it mean that months after the Philadelphia Orchestra's emergence from bankruptcy, the orchestra still has not settled its old debt, built adequate cash reserves, or raised an adequate endowment for an organization its size?

All this leaves the William Penn Foundation and the unofficially related Wyncote Foundation in a position of unprecedented primacy - and responsibility. But solutions won't come in a last-man-standing philanthropic environment.

Soul-searching is in order at Pew, which has become less of a philanthropy at precisely the time it's most needed, especially back home, where it still claims its headquarters. A mix of foundation money and government boosters such as former mayor and governor Ed Rendell and U.S. Circuit Judge Midge Rendell helped build all these facilities; now they have a moral obligation to manage an orderly transition to stable funding.

How would that be structured? It's not difficult to imagine a number of players leveraging a large-scale solution by extracting promises from one another - if:

If a dedicated government source, like those used in cities such as San Francisco, St. Louis, and Tucson, could come up with $40 million a year to be shared among arts groups.

If a certain billionaire or two could be persuaded to part with $100 million for the orchestra's endowment, to take pressure off of the orchestra's fund-raising and free up some donors to give to other groups.

If arts groups could make a case for themselves as part of the solution to some of the city's problems (education, youth, and under-served populations).

If the arts and culture donor group could be enlarged.

Philadelphia found out during its arts boom what many other cities have learned - that it's relatively easy to get people to give money in exchange for putting their names in 2-foot-tall type on the front of buildings.

But a city with a truly evolved arts consciousness knows that what matters doesn't show up in tourist brochures. What matters is giving everyone repeated chances to come into contact with the art, and go away a little bit changed.

Until that's assured, what we have is a building boom whose job is a long way from done.


pdobrin@phillynews.com

215-854-5611

www.inquirer.com/artswatch

Read the complete series at www.inquirer.com/philanthropy

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