SPECIAL POST: Rewarding Bad Nonprofit Theater Behavior By Using Trickle-Down? Just Say No.

The latest bill wasting resources right now is on the floor of the Senate and House. It will never pass. Thank goodness.

Blackboard trickle down
Go to your blackboard and write this 1,000 times.

Nonprofit arts leaders: I don’t want to pee on your birthday cake or anything, but this idea is ludicrous.

The New York Times reported recently that Senators Peter Welch (D-Vermont), John Fetterman (D-Pennsylvania), and Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) have proposed legislation entitled the “Supporting Theater and the Arts to Galvanize the Economy (S.T.A.G.E.) Act of 2024. If it were to pass – which, even the Times believes “faces long odds at a time when a divided Congress — where Republicans control the House and Democrats lead the Senate — has had trouble agreeing on anything” — would provide $1 billion per year for 5 years to the struggling theater industry.

Nonprofit theaters, like their brethren in the dance, music, and museum sectors (who would not receive any of this funding), have been sporting a financial model that has been broken for a number of years. The fact is that even before the shutdown of 2020-2022, there had been several consecutive years of falling revenues.

The broken model is nothing new. It is based on such antiquated, ridiculous terminology such as “art for art’s sake,” which translates to Eric Cartman’s infamous “I do what I want.”

“I’m a theatrical artistic director who only cares about the art. And you can all just pay me and suck it.” (Photo by Richard Riley CC-BY-2.0)

The bad behavior of acting like a for-profit business while using tax dollars (if they’re tax exempt, that means everyone in the state is paying for it, whether or not they’re donors or ticket-buyers) is not something to be bailed out. That’s as bad as a child who kicks the airplane seat in front of them and gets a cookie if he’ll stop, for now, and then starts right back up in 5 minutes, knowing that the worst that will happen is that they’ll get another cookie.

And if you think I’m belittling the plight of nonprofit arts organizations, specifically theaters, (after 30 years in the business) by believing that these rewards for bad management are akin to lousy parenting, well, I am. The belittlement is actually emanating from the arts organizations themselves in not measuring worth with real metrics, only commercial ones.

It’s not that money isn’t necessary for artists to do their thing. It’s just that this money will never reach the artists who can offer the most help in revitalizing (or in some cases, just vitalizing) their respective communities. This is a Reagan-style trickle-down bill in which all the money will go to the states’ arts agencies and they’ll just give the lion’s share to the failing largest theater organizations in their state because, naturally, those are in the deepest trouble. Those organizations will not change the way they do business, will run through the money like water, and we’ll be back to where we started five years from now – only then, we’ll have had the experience of giving government money to the arts and failing. That means the arts will never see another dime. And in the wrong presidency or congress, that means trouble for the NEA and the NEH – yet again.

As Nancy used to say, “Just say no.”

Now, let’s look at the next big picture. If the nonprofit theater industry in America receives $1 billion in funding per year over the next five years, why would anyone choose to donate to a large nonprofit theater company? After all, a billion dollars is a lot of money, even if 75% of it gets parsed out to the largest 75 companies. (That’s $10 million per company, with the remaining 49,000 nonprofit theatrical organizations in America fighting over the scraps, as usual, even though in large part, they’re doing all the community building – which is why so many of them are not in dire financial straits.)

Money down the toilet
Might as well. (Photo 136963104 © Roman Didkivskiy | Dreamstime.com)

I read an advocate recently who stated, in some desperation, that it was “better than nothing.” First of all, if “better than nothing” is your financial strategy, make sure to get a good tent at REI. Something that won’t stand out among all the other tents.

Secondly, in this case, it’s actually not “better than nothing,” because another gift is not forthcoming. It’s not a jobs program like the WPA (which put unemployed people to work). With an unemployment rate under 4%, it’s hard to justify a jobs bill on this subject. And, of course, who will end up with the actual money?

Thirdly, and most importantly, we could advocate for a good use of $1 billion per year if the money were pooled and used to purchase buildings that would become subsidized artist housing, where the artists (of all kinds) would pay rent based on their earnings. The money could be used as a matching fund for local and state governments (as many federal grants are) in order to increase creativity in each area. It’s a program that works and the money actually helps artists create the kind of creative activity that makes regions not only livable, but attractive to creative people from other sectors of business – architects, attorneys, doctors, scientists, etc.

Or, rather than begging for a billion dollars a year, perhaps we can rethink how state arts agencies distribute their money and encourage them only to give to those companies who can prove their worth by providing the metrics of charitable impact – like health and welfare, education, and other like state agencies are forced to do – and seed a new time when arts organizations, rather than being the center of elitism in America, become the engine of recovery.

You know. That.

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