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Cultural Life Task Force missed an opportunity

By John H. Clark
Special to the Observer

The Cultural Life Task Force organized by the Arts & Science Council (ASC) a year ago to study the cultural sector and recommend ways to financially sustain the organizations that produce art, exhibit science and showcase history recently issued its recommendations. The study was needed and had the potential to set Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and eventually the surrounding region, on a positive course. That course would increase the number of audiences and donors and connect them directly with the music, dance, theater, art, science and history about which they could become passionate.

The unfortunate thrust of the Task Force recommendations is to keep the Arts & Science Council at the center of power and influence in our cultural sector. The people at the ASC, its board and staff, mean well and truly care about the culture of our region. It is no surprise, however, those individuals in and close to the ASC are not going to recommend a significantly diminished role for the organization. But they should have.

Here’s why. A thriving cultural sector is one in which thousands of individuals and families are engaged directly with art, science and history – not only attending performances and exhibits but being moved to give money to those producing groups to support their activities. A key result is a sense of investment and pride by those donors in the groups they support.

Workplace giving, which the ASC and the Task Force want to retain, does not achieve the passionate connection direct philanthropy creates between donor and cause. First, donations from the employees go to the ASC. Only very recently has some choice been introduced. Second, an employee may prefer to give to an organization that does not receive funds through the ASC, yet must give to the campaign. Third, many employees feel pressured to give through workplace giving which creates resentment. Workplace giving is efficient in collecting dollars, but what are those dollars for?

Currently, those funds support the ASC: a third-party broker which produces no art, exhibits no science and showcases no history. The ASC sucks up millions of dollars from the community, determines which organizations receive some of that money and consequently wields too much power over the future development of those groups.

By giving major annual grants to the selected cultural organizations that often made up 20-30 percent of their budgets, the ASC helped create a dependency of these cultural organizations on the ASC. For example, the Charlotte Symphony – one of the most vital organizations in our cultural life – was receiving about $2 million from the ASC before the recession of 2008. The CSO board and staff then had to raise only 75 percent of its total operating expenses.

The recession had a devastating impact on this ASC-centered model. For example the ASC grant to the Charlotte Symphony dropped from $2 million in 2008 to just over $800,000 last year. Employees in the companies of the annual ASC work-place campaign felt no connection to this third-party. Many donors who gave directly to the cultural organizations did step forward, because they had the passion for the arts, science and history. Today there is still a large gap between pre-recession and post-recession support for our cultural organizations.

For the long-term, the ASC needs to move from center stage and begin to phase out workplace giving as it helps the organizations become truly independent and self-sustaining. Clearly, the current structure, which has been in place for a half century, cannot turn around on a dime. A transition period of a decade should be established to move to an approach in which the organizations which are directly engaged in art, science and history are the key players. The ASC can play a catalyst role and some of the recommendations in the task force report are most appropriate for that purpose.

Efforts should be made to advocate for a cultural life in which those individuals and groups which make art in our communities and neighborhoods are connected to those individuals and families who experience it, come to love it and willingly and even joyously support it.

John H. Clark was station manager of public radio WDAV for 18 years and also served as executive director of Chamber Music at St. Peter’s.
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