Deja vu all over again

Yesterday I had a long conversation with a good friend and former colleague about financial support for arts organizations. He is the executive director of a non-profit organization that produces many jazz and blues events and runs a small art gallery. I worked with him for 4 years, through rare ups and many very low downs.

In the course of playing catch-up and talking about our latest endeavors in the art scene, we got onto the subject of the endless struggle to find money to make our projects sustainable. Through our own separate paths, we’ve determined that smaller arts and culture non-profits really can’t depend on the local, state or national government to provide any kind of ongoing support for years. Budgets change. Economies tank. Proposals don’t meet certain grant program requirements to receive funding. And both of us have come to the conclusion that in order to be viable organzations, we need financial support from regular people. People who live and work and visit our neighborhood, people in our social circle, local business owners.

My friend shared his frustration in trying to work with these individuals to help support his work, which is actually a marketing tool for them as sponsors. Not only does their sponsorship bring more business to their area during his events, it also familiarizes newcomers with the neighborhood, so they’ll return for another visit. These business owners and individuals are enthusiastic about having him use their names as sponsors, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of writing a check, he hears nothing but the proverbial crickets chirping away. He’s pissed off but has put up with it for several months now. I told him he was being too nice, and that he need to shake them awake to the reality of what it means to give money to artists.

Today I stumbled upon a report on Jeanne-Claire Van Ryzin’s blog on that reiterated precisely the same situation. According to the Urban Institute, large numbers of Austinites come out to a wide variety of shows and events. But a disproportionate number of them actually contribute financially to the arts. One of the reasons cited for this is the fact that Austin is a young city, in terms of the age of its residents. That’s part of the picture. Life is difficult for many students and recent college graduates, and Austin is an expensive city to live in. For a lot of my friends, an unnecessary expenditure of $50 could be the difference between being able to pay for a car repair make the month’s rent, or not. So of course they can’t afford $80 tickets for the ballet, or $500 for that really cool piece of art.

But I think the real reason that Austinites of all income and age brackets contribute relatively little to the arts is that this city living in an artsy wet dream. Many of us actually work real jobs in the creative field as musicians, designers, teachers, venue managers, shop owners, writers, tattoo artists, photographers, filmmakers, freelancers, printers and whatever other niches we can carve out that itch some kind of artsy scratch. Other Austinites are OK with working average Joe jobs such as engineers, hairdressers, real estate agents, baristas, receptionists and store clerks. Some do practice their art seriously on the side, with no small amount of excellence. But an even greater number of these folks just like to go to shows. The expectation to lead an arts-infused lifestyle is part of the culture here, and that’s great. Better than just playing video games, eating out and watching football as entertainment.

Yet there is this delusion that living in Austin and enjoying arts events actually makes one creative by association. The thought process then follows that since you are an artistic-type coming to another arts event, you don’t need to contribute financially. If your friend who actually is an artist invited you, your artsy cred is really indisputable. We’re all struggling in the same boat, right?

Party’s over, y’all. It’s time to blow the whistle on this lifestyle. That donation jar and membership cards at the door are there for a reason. We wouldn’t put it there if we didn’t desperately need the money. No one’s asking for a $100 check, or even a $20 one. So if you’re something like a real estate agent or an engineer who just likes going to shows and appreciates the arts, that’s cool. We’re always glad to have bodies in our space. But please don’t make us shake you down just for a couple of singles. It hurts us more than it hurts you.

Nor is there a rule written anywhere that says that actually being a practicing artist disqualifies you from putting a buck or two in the jar either. When we support each other financially, we all reap the benefits.

Leave a Comment