Sometimes big ideas grow from small experiences.
One of my first encounters with corporate sponsorship was at an artists’ retreat, Ragdale, near Chicago. Located in a wealthy suburb, Ragdale occupied beautiful grounds that everyone wanted to see. We had standards. We didn’t do weddings and we didn’t allow private parties.
But at one point, I thought I had convinced a bank to sponsor an artistic event for us. As the planning grew more and more out of control and became the kind of loud corporate overdressed networking thing that would prevent artists and poets from ever believing they could create quietly at our “retreat,” I told the bank to scale it back, that it would not help us. “We need to sponsor organizations that will help our clients,” was the response.
The partnership ended.
Years later, as chair of a theatre company, I knew we had great plays, in the hands of a remarkable artistic director, on the horizon. Already we had been invited to take our one-acts to a Vaclav Havel Festival in New York; other literary and dramatic powerhouses were in the works, including a new play by a famous contemporary writer.
We couldn’t raise a nickel from businesses for that, but when we announced the children’s musical A Year With Frog and Toad, sponsors lined up as if waiting for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins.
When it was over, we had sold sponsorships for the poster, the lead actors, the matinees, even the concession stand – whatever we could tie to the uncontroversial magic of Frog and Toad. The production was stellar. Families loved it. And every year when the company needs cash, it puts on a children’s musical.
Which raises the question so aptly put by one of my students in a paper she entitled: “Corporate Philanthropy: Is There Any?”
Bill Ivey has long argued that the barrier between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors must come down. I agree, and rather than beg businesses to support something that won’t help their clients, let’s put a tax on arts tickets and blank media.
Such a tax – 3 to 5 percent, perhaps a round quarter on movie tickets, books, CDs, and DVDs – exists in Canada and elsewhere.
In the U.S., all these funds be systematically aggregated and sent to a new agency, called the Fund for U.S. Arts, which would be organized much as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant system is now. But the grants and the funds to support them would not be under the review of Congress, and the funds would flow, essentially, from the (for-profit) arts to the (nonprofit) arts.
Arts consumers spend about $160 billion a year.
Just three percent of that would exceed the current budgets of the NEA and all the state arts councils combined.
Five percent would usher in a golden age of public funding. The artistic freedom in such a system could a new vision for the arts sector in America.
Now we would know where to go when we wanted to present our Vaclav Havel play, while still funding Frog and Toad with corporate sponsorship. We would gain more money, less politics, and the ability to become unstuck from the perpetual economic and emotional drain of the “Culture Wars.”
Let’s join the arts and entertainment sectors together to build a new path toward solvency and sanity.