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Philanthropy Feature 3: Art Philanthropy

Tuesday, October 22, 2002 at 2:37 PM

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Americans give billions of dollars to charity each year - with roughly three percent of that going to arts and culture organizations. But some in the field are worried that percentage is on the way down for some traditional arts groups as audiences get older. This "aging of philanthropists" is one of the main reasons why Cleveland is playing host later this month to a gathering of more than 700 CEO's from non-profit organizations. ideastream correspondent Tanya Ott reports.

While grandma and grandpa may be attending the opera… or enjoying live jazz… their children and grandchildren likely are not. Or so finds a Vanderbilt University study that tracked arts participation for classical music, opera, ballet, musicals, jazz, plays and art museums. The researchers found that the average age of participants for all these art forms had increased since the early 1980’s… there were also significantly fewer people under age 30 enjoying these arts. The researchers declared a looming crisis - and Melanie Beene of the William and Flora Hewett Foundation says they may not be too far off.

Melanie Beene: Most arts organizations are earning, let’s say, on average 50 percent of their budget. And the other 50 is coming from a combination of government sources, individual donors, foundations and a small amount from corporate donors.

But government support for the arts has been severely limited in recent years… meaning arts groups are increasingly reliant on individual donors. Fewer patrons of the arts - means less financial support and, Beene says, that could leave arts organizations in a real bind.

Melanie Beene: And so, just imagine being reduced by 25 percent. You would either be smaller, less effective, have less impact - or you wouldn’t exist at all.

Peter B. Lewis: Good. This is a market driven economy and the market is philanthropists.

Peter B. Lewis is Chairman of the Progressive Corporation and an outspoken philanthropist and supporter of the arts.

Peter B. Lewis: Symphony won’t die. That music’s not going to die. Ballet won’t die. But if there’s two ballet companies in the country instead of 400 - who the hell cares?” Certainly supporters of the hundreds of local and regional ballet companies would care - and that’s why leaders of arts organizations are paying so much attention to this so-called “graying of the audience” - trying to figure out why younger people aren’t attending. They have some ideas. For one - boomers are just busier than their parents were at the same age. They had kids later in the life - and more moms are employed ... so between work and family, there’s just not a lot of time for regular attendance at the local playhouse. Also, says Melanie Beene, many boomers - especially younger ones - weren’t taught to appreciate the arts.

Melanie Beene: They don’t learn to play instruments and they’re not going to come, when they’re 50, with any way in to understanding this if they haven’t had some kind of basis of experience.

There’s also the theory that many boomers who do give to charity are torn between giving to the arts and giving to social causes. That’s the case with Jeff and Donna Davis… the self-employed parents of three teenagers.

Jeff and Donna Davis: We want to support artists. I mean artists, what do they get? 2 and a half cents an hour for the work that they do? They’re never going to be compensated for the fabulous work that they do and we love art so we do want to support art and artists. But, at the same time, if you say to me what’s more important? Taking care of somebody at who’s an abused woman, who’s got a couple of kids, who’s trying to get back on her feet and has no resources - or paying for that dump truck to call it art? I’m gonna support the woman who needs help before I’m gonna spend money on art. I think that for most of us you can’t afford to do both.

Another thing working against arts organizations - their vulnerability to the economy. When the economy goes south - as it has - people are less inclined to give to charity in general ... and those who do give are more inclined to give to social service agencies helping those put out by the bad economy. It creates a dynamic - though for some, uncomfortable competition, according to John Yankey of the Mandel Center for NonProfit Research at Case Western Reserve University.

John Yankey: We find many more organizations coming into being in the nonprofit sector, all of which require some sort of financial support. There is not question that the emphasis on fundraising that is a part of all nonprofits has never been as high as it currently is.

And that’s why attracting younger audiences is so critical, observers say. Just how symphonies, ballet troupes, opera houses and the like will attract those younger audiences remains to be seen… but the Pew Charitable Trust, in one of the most comprehensive looks at the health of the performing arts, says if mid-sized performing arts organizations don’t grow their audience base, many of them will face such serious financial strain that they’ll be forced to close their curtains permanently. For 90.3 WCPN, I’m Tanya Ott.

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