In terms of raw numbers, the news looks pretty good. A report by the Giving Institute says contributions to the arts grew faster than any other sector of philanthropy in 2012, increasing by almost 8 percent from the previous year to a total of $14.44 billion. (Giving to educational enterprises was second place on the list with a 7 percent increase.) For the first time, the levels are now back up above where they were before the recession.
Giving to the arts isn’t just about contributions by individuals, of course, and the news looks better there, too. Americans for the Arts reports that business contributions to arts and culture groups are now up 18 percent from a low in 2009. More than 80 percent of those contributions, moreover, are from small and mid-size businesses.
The Business Committee on the Arts has recently released its annual top ten best businesses for the arts, and this year it includes a skiing company in Aspen, Colo.; a salt company in Staten Island, N.Y.; and banks in Buffalo, N.Y., Pittsburgh, and Dubuque, Iowa. Indeed, local businesses of all sizes are regularly approached each year by arts organizations asking them to help support everything from symphony seasons to arts festivals. At the same time, businesses that are accustomed to dealing with the bottom line can be understandably skeptical about getting involved in a field so subjective and amorphous as the arts.
To publicize ways in which businesses benefit from a strong arts scene and why it therefore makes good sense for them to support the arts with their donations, Americans for the Arts has formed a group called “the pARTnership movement.” Its purpose is “to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage.”
For starters, it has put together a cogent brief on eight reasons why businesses benefit from supporting their local arts organizations. These reasons range from the more idealistic (the arts help create the kind of community where their prospective employees would want to live), to the more material (the arts help you get your message — i.e. your brand name — in front of more people and do so in engaging ways). By the way, 62 percent of businesses that contribute to the arts say that the arts significantly increase the quality of life in a community.
The organization also publishes a series of “success stories” on its impressive website explaining how hotels, banks, insurance agencies, and energy companies have all benefited from supporting the arts. Overall, the “pARTnership movement” is an organization that can help any business that’s interested in improving the arts climate of its city but wondering if it makes sense to do so.
But hopeful news in reports like these is tempered somewhat by the fact that despite the gains in growth, gifts to the arts still constitute the second smallest percentage of overall giving: Just 5 percent of total philanthropy went to the arts.
As Mike Boehm recently pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, that small percentage — and the fact that contributions went elsewhere when the economy turned bad — hints at a widespread belief that the arts are less critical to society as a whole, that mere personal interest is often driving donations rather than a deeper conviction that the arts are crucial.
“Nice to have,” Nonprofit Quarterly notes wryly, is a label that arts organizations “simply can’t afford to carry, and certainly doesn’t deserve.” But that perception also explains why school districts tend to slash arts programs when their budgets get tight. Broader private support for the arts can lessen the effect of education cuts.
(This post, originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald, is one in a weekly series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage. Visit our website to find out how both businesses and local arts agencies can get involved!)