Adrian Ellis wrote a thoughtful and well-reasoned essay for the Grantmakers in the Arts website recently on supply and demand issues in the nonprofit arts sector. His essay provides enough fodder to feed several months of blog posts, and I am likely to return to it again. He focuses, as so many writers about arts funding do, on the organization as the unit of analysis. The essay’s topic of interest is whether or not the supply of nonprofit arts organizations exceeds demand for the arts produced by them, a concern raised by NEA chair Rocco Landesman at the New Play convening at Arena Stage held January 2011.
Is the organization the appropriate level of analysis? Ellis notes that the increase in size of the nonprofit arts sector has outpaced demand for the sector. Yet, demand for artistic opportunity for individual artists is higher than the supply of jobs for individual artists (rather than cite a specific study, I cite the prevalence of artists with “day jobs”). Because artists make art for reasons far removed from the economic, they will likely make art whether they are paid to do so or not, often going deeply into debt in the process. And when they hit bottom, they will, by necessity, stop. Ian David Moss wrote somewhat indirectly about this issue a year ago, “I believe it’s critically important that, as we seek to impose structure and sanity on this world, we do not cut off the flow of new ideas and new voices in the name of triage.” The economics of supply of and demand for organizations risk doing just that.
What would happen if we reframe the funding conversation around individuals making art rather than around organizations presenting it? There was a flurry of discussion in various social media outlets recently about the crowd-sourced funding platform kickstarter.com being likely to provide more funding for arts than the entire NEA budget. Here we have the marketplace working directly in the funding space to assist individual artists. Does it replace public funding for the arts? Absolutely not. It does, however, fill a function that, in most other developed economies, is filled or at least supplemented by the government. Although not referring specifically to kickstarter, as a comment on Ellis’s essay notes, the private funding system “leaves the arts starved so by just about any measure, we will have an “over-supply” of arts organizations.”
Ellis reminds us of Musgrave’s term “merit good,” as a way of describing the arts. While there is much intrinsic good in a work of art and in the arts more generally, there is not anything intrinsically meritorious about the organization itself. Rather, the organization is what provides the extrinsic benefits we’ve heard so much about in recent years: job creation, community economic development, etc. Intrinsic benefits are, by definition, individual. So again, I ask, what if we shift the focus to the individual creators and find a way to fund them directly?
(I have a wild idea about doing this via a lottery system, which you can read about here)