Michael Wilkerson, on the ArtsJournal blog, made an interesting proposal to fund the nonprofit arts sector: tax for-profit cultural products and funnel those restricted funds to the nonprofit sector. A day later, he backpedaled from the proposal, on the advice of his son who pointed out that such a scheme would not help artists/creators/producers operating outside the traditional nonprofit organizational model. On the same day, Scott Walters posted the first of a two part series that “compared the income and wealth disparities in the American economy to that of the philanthropic support of the nonprofit arts economy.”
Reading these two threads as a dialogue with one another (although neither acknowledges the other) highlights a problem endemic to the arts ecosystem: a focus on arts organizations rather than on artists. Walters sees the concentration of arts funding in the hands of large organizations to be a social justice issue. As long as those large organizations are dominated by one majority demographic, it is that. Wilkerson’s son sees the arts funding problem as one of economic equity, and it is that too. So, here’s a radical idea: remove the middleman (or middlewoman) that is the arts organization. Get funding directly into the hands of the artists and makers. To be clear, I’m not advocating the dissolution of arts institutions, but rather a revisioning of the way artists are funded.
What if individual (that is, institutionally unaffiliated) artists and producing arts collectives – playwrights, painters, choreographers, composers — could apply to a large fund – perhaps funded through Wilkerson’s tax on for-profit cultural products – and then have funding distributed quite literally as seed money without curation or reporting. Funding would not be decided based on past performance (I’ve written before about the problems caused by the three-year rule) but on a lottery system. Any artist meeting some sort of minimum qualifications would have equal chance at securing funding as any other artist. No reporting necessary – unless that artist wants to go on to second round funding beyond the seed level, in which case some evidence of having produced something would be required.
This idea grows out of the work I do with Phoenix Fringe Festival. I support the fringe because the opportunity for independent artists to present their work is the lacuna of the arts ecosystem. These independent artists may be, as Wilkerson describes them “outside our comfort zone,” but they are the artists of the future. Large 501c3 organizations, and the 501c3 structure in general, are designed to reduce risk. But, without risk there will be no innovation. By taking the 501c3 out of the equation, by funding artists directly, who knows what artistic innovation may result?
REMINDER/REJOINDER/DISCLAIMER: This blog is a place for me to throw wild ideas into the wind and does not necessarily reflect the rigorous scholarship I insist on in my day job.