“Leveling the Playing Field”

I loved this post from Barry’s Blog when I read it last night–he’s talking about leveling the playing field in terms of equity and access to funding, and how larger organizations have the advantage when it comes to funding, relationships and even the metrics that can make a good proposal great.

He suggests that the discussion of equity in funding is kind of a dead horse: we have discussed this issue to death, and anyone who disagrees with the premise would be hard pressed to disagree. In terms of equity, I assume he is referencing organizations that serve artists of color, smaller organizations, and organizations that resist institutionalization (for any number of reasons). He seems to suggest that the funding gap allows the larger organizations to hire and pay stronger staff, which initiates a disparity in wages, skills and wealth that helps to elevate the large organizations, which further depressing the smaller and less institutionalized ones. What he is describing sounds a lot like “prize culture” for individual artists (writers and journalists are particularly affected), in which funding systems bestow large prizes on artists who have already had both commercial and critical success, while lesser known artists have almost no opportunity for recognition or funding.

I want to suggest that funding inequities allow small organizations to languish and inequity to persist precisely because there are few programs that help move organizations from one phase of growth to another. I don’t think there should unlimited funding for tiny and small arts organizations (these projects need to compete in the marketplace, to a certain extent, to build a base of individual donors and use the time to decide if they want to institutionalize further). But I do think that offering strategic funding to organizations that want to grow–funds to defray the costs of administration, to rent an office space, to pay for an audit, to partially fund a staff salary or purchase benefits, to engage external resources to formulate a strategic plan, to build a fabulous website–could be transformative. These types of funds are boring, unsexy, and absolutely necessary. In each community, the needs will be different. But it is a problem across the field that small arts organizations cannot defray administrative costs (including salaries) with individual and board contributions alone. Shutting out organizations with a limited production history, or a lack of institutionalization is precisely what prevents then from building a production history and growing in a healthy way. Funding for general operating costs for small and medium-sized nonprofits could help to close the gap that Barry describes.

I also want to push back about the very idea of institutionalization being the goal for all arts organizations. Not all arts organizations need to look the same. Success for one organization might be a state-of-the-art facility and for others might mean paying artists higher wages and for others launching a series of programs. Success is too often defined by the people holding the purse strings–the funders–and both the organizations themselves. Almost by definition then, organizations will chase funding dollars and not pursue mission.

Anyway, another great post from WESTAF. I love the boldness of his vision for a more equitable funding culture. I could never be mad at someone who name check’s JFK:

I think we need a program that speaks to all that with a single voice on a mega level; one that embodies a commitment of, and to, the field.  I think we need a JFK type “We will land a man on the moon and return him safely within a decade” type commitment – an unequivocal, four-square marshaling of our forces (by the whole of us) to try harder to do one simple thing –whatever it takes to level the playing field  so that the former have-nots can stay in the race with the haves.  And staying in the race is the challenge for many now.

After awhile rhetoric wears thin no matter how eloquent, no matter how impassioned, no matter how true – and people need more than plans, more than promises, more than good intentions – more even than hope – they need something tangible. We need a system in place for the whole of us, not the few.

We need to say out loud that we will level the field.  And then we need to do that.

How do we accomplish this? Who initiates that lunch, meeting, dinner, drinks thing, conference or accidental run-in at a Starbucks that leads to the meeting that helps to design this nationwide funding program? How quickly can this happen? This is why I love the web as a platform and I wanted to comment of this post–we have the opportunity to begin to agitate not by networking over chardonnay at a conference, but by engaging with ideas and beginning the conversation in a thoughtful way online. If we want to work on addressing inequity, we can start with democratizing the conversation.

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