Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tropical Storm Irene’s Unwanted Offspring

In the nearly nine months since Tropical Storm Irene ravaged Vermont, much has been reported about the outpouring of support for those impacted and the speed and efficiency with which communities and state agencies (particularly the Agency of Transportation and Commerce/Community Development) responded to the destruction of roads, bridges, neighborhoods, and foliage/holiday-season tourism.  Those efforts were truly outstanding, and continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  Looking at the huge swaths of Rte. 107 along the White River that were affected and rebuilt within a few short months gives anyone driving a sense of awe about what Vermonters accomplished.

One of the particularly gratifying responses came from the arts sector.  Final numbers may be impossible to pinpoint but within a few months of the disaster, at least $2 million had been raised and deposited in various funds at the Vermont Community Foundation mostly from artists, notably Phish and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, stepping forward and offering their services.

There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of events and activities that have supported the Irene Recovery effort—most in the form of community concerts, arts and crafts auctions, house concert parties, and a very successful graphic design (“Vermont Strong”) that, as a license plate, has raised several hundred thousand dollars for the State’s long-term recovery efforts.  Artists of all genres and abilities have participated in this outpouring of support and their efforts have been greatly appreciated, whether they netted a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.

Here we are, however, nearly nine months later contemplating what I fear may be an unintended (though perhaps not unexpected) outcome of this magnificent response to Irene: the disappearance of contributions to other charitable-purpose organizations, specifically arts organizations.

In the last few weeks one of Vermont’s pre-eminent cultural institutions has been turned down flat by its second long-standing business supporter in a row.  The reason?  Those businesses are focusing all their charitable giving to the Irene recovery effort.  This isn’t really an example of “Donor Fatigue.” This is more like “Donor Abandonment.”  And it should be nipped before it buds.

It would be extremely short-sighted for arts-friendly corporations to abandon their support for cultural entities in their zeal to “set Vermont back on its feet.”  First, most of those cultural entities were, and continue to be, at the forefront of raising funds to support the same effort.  Second, individuals were able to dig deeper than ever this year to put a few extra dollars towards the Irene Recovery effort, so why can’t businesses be expected to do the same without compromising their other commitments?  Third, and perhaps most important, Vermont’s cultural organizations tend to live pretty much hand-to-mouth even in years where the economy is good and people are gainfully employed.  Simply saying no because of a single natural disaster does nothing more than reveal how much, or little, those businesses value the presence of art and culture in their lives and communities.  Is this really the message business wants to convey?  What kind of Vermont will be set back on its feet if it doesn't include the arts?

We are already seeing that in our zeal to repair many of Vermont’s waterways we have removed all the large rocks and downed trees from many riverbeds, thus (ironically) exacerbating the damage future flooding could cause.  Are we ready for similar consequences should it turn out that in our zeal to support the near-term Irene Recovery effort, we do permanent, long-term damage to the cultural sector’s financial sustainability?

It is probably true that no single decision that any one business makes about whether to support an arts organization it has supported for years is going to make too much of a difference to the health of Vermont’s arts sector.  But before two “Nos” become a trend, I want to make sure the good people in charge of making corporate funding decisions understand that their actions could have grave consequences for a field that adds so much to our way of life.