Friday, March 5, 2010

Taking on Those Who Buy Ink by the Barrel - Part A

Posted by Bruce Miller
A. Barton Hinkle's Op/Ed piece in this morning's Times-Dispatch (Picking Apart Arguments for Funding the Arts) is a classic example of how ideology can trump rational thought and respectful debate. I often hold Mr. Hinkle's editorial writing in high regard because he usually builds his arguments on facts. In this case, as he joins the chorus seeking to eliminate the Virginia Commission for the Arts (VCA), he is either unaware of the facts or he chooses to ignore them.

I appreciate his mentioning that my friend Phil Whiteway "scores a nice point when he notes that politicians are quite happy to trot out the arts ... when trying to court Fortune 500 companies," although Phil's comments were more respectful and serious than A. Barton's condensation.

But Hinkle goes on to say "stripped of the rhetorical filigrees at which the arts community is so adept, the plea reduces to: The arts are nice and do good, so they should get taxpayer support." He misrepresents the position of most arts supporters in an attempt to paint us as frivolous and flighty.

Certainly there are a few in the arts community who have been focusing their defense of the VCA on the intrinsic values of arts in society, and that is their right. But many if not most of us have been saying that the main reasons to keep the VCA in the Virginia budget have to do with economic development, education and tourism. Hinkle, like his ideological cronies, deliberately avoids these more conservative arguments.
Hinkle compares the arts to the "Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts," "health-food stores," "newspapers," and "churches, synagogues and mosques," stating that they also are “nice and do good.” He then reasons, if these nice organizations receive no state funding, why should the arts?

The answers are simple, so it is hard to understand why Hinkle even poses the question.

The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, both of which I support, are membership organizations that admit some and fail to admit others. Fundamentally, they exist to meet the needs of their members. Unlike nonprofit arts organizations, their programs are not open to everyone and they do not exist solely to serve the public good.

Now, if someone wants to argue that not all nonprofit arts organizations put the public good front and center, I'll agree with them in that argument, and together we can go after those slackers. But that has nothing to do with the industry as a whole.

Looking at health-food stores and newspapers, both of which I support, anyone among us can point to entrepreneurs who have made their fortunes owning and operating such businesses. That business model exists in abundance. Nonprofit arts organizations are not owned by anyone. They belong to the public, just like libraries and parks.

I co-founded Theatre IV 35 years ago, but I don't own it. When I retire, there's nothing for me to sell and no financial rewards for me to reap. We can all name grocery and newspaper magnets who have made tens of millions and more, but I challenge anyone to point out to me a person of any wealth whose fortunes came from founding a nonprofit arts organization. Such a person and such a business model simply do not exist.

Considering churches, synagogues and mosques, all of which I support, they are religious organizations. They admit members who share a common religious belief. Fundamentally, they exist to exalt the particular religious belief that is shared by their members, and to serve the community in the name of their God. And God bless them for it. But the reality is this. They have existed for centuries in the United States without public support.

Conversely, there are virtually no thriving nonprofit arts organizations that now exist or have ever existed in our nation without public support from their state government. You will be able to find a few unfunded nonprofit theatres, orchestras, dance companies and visual arts organizations, but it will be impossible to find any that maintain professional standards and thrive without state support.

I'm not speaking only of Virginia. Hinkle fails to mention that if Virginia were to eliminate its arts commission, it would be the first state in the union to do so. Are all the other states just stupid, or might it be that they understand sound financial arguments that the ideologues of Virginia simply choose to ignore?

Coming tomorrow – Part B: Rolls Royce and “a Medicaid Patient’s Physical Agony”

--Bruce Miller


Steve said...

Bravo, Bruce!

I think the gentleman also forgets that arts are jobs. And he is arguing to put people out of work instead of keeping them employed.

Would he rather me be educating the children in creative expression or collecting unemployment and doing nothing?

Anonymous said...

Well said, Bruce. Please tell me that this or a piece similar to this is being submitted to the RTD as a response to this thoughtless article(?). I'm heading now to the opinion section now to voice my feedback as well.

Good for you.

Anonymous said...

Is the Hinkle article online? I can't seem to find it?

Jacquie O. said...

Please tell me you sent this in to the editorial section! Well said sir!

Bruce Miller said...

I too tried to find Hinkle's Op/Ed piece on line today, so that I could link to it. I couldn't find it either. But then again, the Times-Dispatch website is VERY hard to navigate.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to be the only nay-sayer in the bunch. So go ahead and attack.

First of all, I agree with everything you say. Every point you've made is true, correct, and you write beautifully and make an excellent case for the arts.

However, everyone needs to wake up and smell the reality here. The government, and the idiots who run this state (and this country) do NOT care about "the little people", and the arts. They just don't. No amount of reasoning, begging, pleading, phone calling, making cases, and showing up at state buildings in throngs (not thongs!) is going to change anyone's mind. Does it show support? Yes. Does it prove we are fighting for our rights? Yes. But at the end of the day, these powerful people who have lots of money in their own bank accounts and very little worries who decide the future of everyone - their main concern is the bottom line, and the bottom line is that if something has to be cut, it will be. And if it's the arts, then so be it. Phil is right when he says that politicians enjoy trotting out the arts, and courting Fortune 500 companies. Those companies make money. The arts, simply, do not. And money, to these people who govern our land, is all that matters.

I am a performing artist myself - I've worked on your stages many times, Bruce. This infuriates me as well, so please don't think I don't care or I'm not supportive. I'm just a realist. The reality is that it's time to start thinking about the future, and how to survive "on our own." Maybe it's not possible. Maybe it is - that remains to be seen. And maybe, by some miracle of miracles, the VCA will be saved and this will all be a bad nightmare we can wake up from.

But something tells me it may not be a bad dream, and that we'll all wake up soon and go, "Well...this sucks."

All this being said, keep fighting the good fight. Keep writing commentary - but just know that Mr. Hinkle and all the lovely senators and government people - they really don't care about the arts. Some do - thank goodness for the great tenure of Tim Kaine...but a brand new day is at hand, and the sunrise in the distance doesn't seem very bright anymore.

Bruce Miller said...

I know exactly what you're talking about, my anonymous friend, and what you're feeling. But I do think the efforts are making a difference and will make a difference. I think all these efforts, and they are legion, are going to prevent the elimination of the VCA. My own delegate, who is a Republican and NOT a conferee, stated clearly a couple days ago that he thought the tide had turned and elimination was no longer on the table. I think there are now enough legislators who don't want blood on their hands. Blood doesn't get votes. I hope he's right. But if he's wrong, and the elimination happens, count on the fact that I'm going out with a bang and not a whimper.

Lynn said...

I must point out that religious groups DO get public support in the form of all kinds of tax relief which those of us who are not members subsidize.

Gordon Stettinius said...

Well done, Bruce! I am just catching up here (been out of town, though VA has sadly been in the news elsewhere for this concern as well as Cuccinelli's anti gay rights direction to rescind collegiate protections, not to mention news of rest stops closing) Brilliant articulation. Thank you for helping me refine my own position on this. Though the realism floating around does have significant traction, we should be working for idealism.