Monday, March 28, 2011

March Madness

In mid-July, 1964 a 40-year-old Jim Oakes (who would later be appointed to the Second Circuit Court of Federal Appeals) was a New England organizer for the Rockefeller presidential campaign.  As a delegate to the 1964 Republican Convention he was one of many “socially liberal” Republicans who believed in the Republican Party’s historic stands on equality, social justice, and minimal government interference in the lives of its private citizens even while advocating for fiscal responsibility.

 The 1964 Republican Convention was no picnic—despite its being held in San Francisco’s rustic-sounding Cow Palace.  It is generally accepted that it served as the coming-out party for a new kind of political conservatism, one that would eventually appear to abandon most, if not all, of the lofty ideals that first imbued the party of Abe Lincoln.

Judge Oakes described to me what happened to him at the conclusion of Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech that warm July 16th in San Francisco.

“I had to leave the room—that huge room with its thousands of young Goldwater Republicans roaring their approval for the turn to the right the party had just taken.  I just couldn’t believe it.  I walked out into the vestibule at the Cow Palace and stood leaning on the rail overlooking the lobby.  After a moment, I became aware of a well-dressed black man, about my age, who was clearly as upset as I was.  I asked him what he thought of Goldwater’s speech.  He replied ‘my party has abandoned me.  It has abandoned my people.’

“I introduced myself to him.  He was Jackie Robinson.”

Goldwater lost that election and it would be 16 years before the Conservative Revolution inside the GOP would succeed in finally elevating one of its own, Ronald Reagan, to the White House.  And it would be another 16 years after Reagan’s election that neo-conservative political values would touch my profession—the cultural sector—with devastating results.

In the mid-1990s the first campaign of the so-called Culture Wars ended, and the Arts and Humanities were its first major casualties.  A significant budget reduction at the Federal level in 1996 placed on the states the extraordinary burden of carrying forward the valuable work of the tiny Federal agencies charged with supporting the cultural legacy of America’s vast creative output.  What was at the time considered a near “death blow” reduction of 40% to the National Endowment for the Arts was a significant step in the neo-conservative effort to reshape American culture.

Today (nearly 16 years later again) we find ourselves in the middle of another attack on our cultural support system.  Not only is it the clear intent of the conservative Right to deal crippling, if not fatal, blows to the NEA and its sister agencies (the Humanities Endowment and Institute for Museum and Library Services), but also to National Public Radio, National Public Television, and to the “Nation’s Attic”—the venerable Smithsonian Institution.

This time round, however, these attacks from the Right are no longer confined to our Federal institutions.  At least a half a dozen states have been trying to cope with similar efforts to disband their public cultural institutions under the guise of “balancing the budget.” For many of us, this effort has resulted in a whole new definition of “March Madness.”

While basketball fans everywhere are savoring (or cursing) the sweet runs of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth University, folks in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Kansas, Nevada, Washington and elsewhere are realizing that a cultural March Madness has gripped their State Houses or Governor’s Mansions.

Despite reams of data showing the positive effects of participating in/studying the arts at school;

Despite hundreds of independent studies showing the significant state and local revenues generated by the arts sector;

Despite literally thousands of independent sources clearly providing credible anecdotal evidence that the arts create and sustain community life; and

Despite the easy-to-verify fact that in most states the total budget for all things “cultural” (Arts, Humanities, Historical Societies, Libraries, etc.) are a tiny fraction of 1% of a state’s General Fund,

NEVERTHELESS, arts and culture are the unequivocal “first thing to go” in our schools and in our state house corridors.  It is only a small comfort to know that Vermont is, for now, one of only a handful of exceptions to this trend.

Last week, while New Hampshire headlines were blaring the late-night, closed-door House vote to disallow collective bargaining by state employees, an equally insidious bill succeeded in passing in the House Finance Committee (20-6) to eliminate the New Hampshire Council on the Arts.

Yesterday the paper reported that of the more than 5 million people who filled out their NCAA brackets, only TWO predicted that the final four would include Butler and VCU and not include a single #1 seed.  Two people are happy today, while all the rest tear out their hair and tear up their brackets.

Is the same thing going to happen in the arts?  Is the conservative Right going to wake up tomorrow happy while millions of Americans from all walks of life will wake up to the despair that results from no longer being able to access the arts and humanities?

Sure, the comparison here is a little bit false. With respect to the NCAA tournament, two people are happy now, but in a few more days, a new basketball champion will be crowned and everyone else on college campuses and communities across America will get back to business as usual. 

I only wish I could assure the arts sector (and everyone else, for that matter) of a similar outcome.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who's In?

On April 1, Vermont not-for-profit performing arts organizations who sold at least $50,000 in tickets last year will be required to collect a new 6% sales tax from their patrons.  Efforts to repeal the tax (enacted as part of the omnibus Miscellaneous Tax Bill at the very end of the 2010 session) have been met with quiet certainty in the Legislature and in the Administration that those efforts will fail. 

The harsh reality is that the State is looking for revenue under every rock, stone, pebble, and, in this case, grain of sand.           

On the surface it seems reasonable to ask whether a patron paying $20, $50, or sometimes even $100 shouldn’t be asked to pony up an additional $1.20, $3, or $6.  If one can afford $100, surely one can afford $106, right?  For probably 99% of all patrons (including me and members of the Legislature) this statement is true.

But what about the other 1%?  What about the patron who scrimps and saves every penny to be able to afford the good seats so that his/her family can see their first Nutcracker up close?  The reality is that for this person, the decision will be either to not go at all or, at best, to drop down to the next most expensive category of seats.  The result?  The organization loses that income completely, or the difference between the higher and lower ticket price. Multiply those few patron-decisions times the number of events in a typical season and the lost revenue quickly climbs into the thousands of dollars.

Again, no big deal right?  Well, on this there is a huge divergence of opinion. On one side (generally populated by people who have never managed a not-for-profit) the response is “Yeah, no big deal—what’s a few thousand bucks to an organization that’s bringing in $50,000 or more in a single year in ticket sales?”  On the other side are the arts professionals who have done their homework and know exactly what their “price points” are for any given production.  Furthermore, they know that even if they sell out every seat in the house, on average, the income from ticket sales will generate only about 35% of the costs needed to present the artist(s) in their seasons.  “A few thousand bucks” is frequently the difference between solvency and insolvency.  At the very least it's a few thousand bucks that has to be raised instead of earned.

What if there were a better way?

If the Administration and the Legislature are truly looking for more revenue, rather than tax patrons at the box office (which everyone in state government understands may increase current revenues from the sector by about $400,000), they should help the not-for-profit arts sector do the one thing that it has never been able to do for itself—market and promote the extraordinary programs available across the state to the millions of potential “cultural tourists” that live in Boston, Hartford/Springfield, New York, Philadelphia, Albany, Montreal, and Quebec.

Here’s why:  with NO statewide, coordinated marketing and promotional activity across the sector EVER, this sector nevertheless contributes nearly $19.5 million each year in state and local tax revenues (not to mention all the other public benefits).  Heck, it works for the ski industry, doesn't it?  Imagine what the arts sector will contribute once a little grease starts oiling its promotional wheels?

Taxing patrons will hurt the sector.  Spending a little bit on marketing will strengthen the sector and vastly increase state and local tax revenues.  We've already started and we have the baseline information to compare our efforts to, thanks to Doug Hoffer and Melinda Moulton.  Let's keep it going.

Who’s in?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Who will be first?

On day 30 of the 36-day Army-McCarthy Hearings in June, 1954, attorney Joseph Nye Welch finally had enough.  “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness...Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

I look at the cultural landscape of this great country during this very difficult period of deep recession, high unemployment, massive state and federal deficits, religious and ethnic mistrust, global warming, and polarizing media, and have to ask—“Have we left no sense of decency?”

Decency means many things in this context.  It means possessing a concern for others, a balanced sense of morality, a basic understanding of fairness, an ability to accept blame when it is deserved and offer forgiveness where it is warranted.  Above all else, it means doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons.

It feels as if our nation has lost its collective sense of decency.  We still fight two wars on the opposite side of the globe. Our Supreme Court considers corporations to be individual people.  We bail out incomprehensibly wealthy “people” who work in the financial industries (whose primary purpose is to collect transaction fees from the buying and selling of shares as opposed to producing anything of tangible value) and yet slam our working class union members including our public servants and school teachers.  Even worse, we elect political leaders whose best idea for solving our problems is to reduce Government’s capacity for serving the public so much that it fails completely.

Almost every day I read an article or have a conversation in the State House about the latest "indecent" proposal to cut programs and services from those most in need.  I see well-intentioned people try to make decisions about what to spend public money on based only on how much those services cost, not also on what benefit they offer.   I see teachers required to teach larger and larger groups of students; to serve as social service agents or as parental proxies to the point where I have to believe that we’re not actually teaching our children, we are simply stabling them until they’re old enough to make decisions for themselves.  And what kind of decisions can we expect from them?  I don’t think anyone contemplating this question needs a high school diploma to come up with the answer.

My wonderful niece, one of the most “decent” people I know, is a junior in college, majoring in local food production and management.  She recently told her mother (my sister) that she doesn’t expect to have children.  It’s not that she doesn’t like children or can’t have them.  She just can’t, in good conscience, bring them into the world that she will, in less than two years, have to face herself.  How depressing is that from a young woman who just turned 21?

So who is going to be first? 

Who is going to challenge corporate America and tell it that the real social contract lies in the old French concept of noblesse oblige: that those who have the means must take care of those less fortunate?

Who is going to point out the folly of fighting two foreign wars and paying for them by borrowing money from Asia, in effect saddling our grand-children and great-grand-children with crippling debt or worse, the humiliation of defaulting?

Who is going to explain to elected officials that their job is to lead and to govern, not follow the dictates of the latest opinion poll?

Who is going to explain to the public that too little government results not in less regulation but actual anarchy?

Who is going to explain that the “poverty line” is actually two or three times higher than policy-makers and economists say it is.

Who is going to remind our elected officials that their professional and moral obligation is to maximize revenues just as much as it is to reduce expenses?

Who is going to convince the electorate that returning to the tax structure of the 1990s is going to have virtually no impact on 98% of them, and that the remaining 2% can certainly afford the marginal increase?

Speaking of the wealthy, who is going to ask them what it's like, really, living in a gated community?

Who is going to tell the media that Sarah and Christine and Paul and Rush and their ilk are suitable for Entertainment Tonight, E!, or Comedy Central but, frankly, not so much for CNN, MSNBC, FN or any of the broadcast news programs?

Who is going to be the first one to stand up and tell the proverbial emperor (is it Rush or Glenn?) that he has no clothes; that he is lying to himself and to us? 

Who is going to say enough already?

Vermont, it seems. 

Are we ready?