Why on earth would anybody give their hard-earned money to the arts?
It is truly a vexing question, particularly for us artists, who have always relied upon the kindness of strangers to keep our boats floating.
I’m not certain there exists any kind of definitive answer to this question. If there does, it exists in the cracks of our awareness. It pops up unbidden, like a daffodil from crumbling bits of pavement. It occurs to us subconsciously when we come to the end of that novel or that play and we wish that it would continue on longer. It sings to us lightly when we remember that song we heard by that musician that one time, and whatever became of her?
I suppose I’m making the “beauty” argument here, ie that experiencing beauty is somehow fundamental to the experience of being human, that the arts direct our perception of beauty in a certain way, that, therefore, the arts are a fundamental human need. Why? Who knows? As Shakespeare says in The Rape of Lucrece, “Beauty itself doth of itself persuade the eyes of men without orator.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t answer the question in any satisfying way. Rather it sounds like I’m saying people should support the arts “just because.” And maybe they should.
Still, since the current economic downturn began in 2008, money – or, more specifically, “wealth” – has become a part of public discourse in terms more polarizing than I can remember from years past. “The one percent” has entered our lexicon. It is a tangible thing, this top tier, and calls up a wide variety of associations, predicated primarily upon whether or not one is a member of the club.
Whether or not this current awareness is a good thing or a bad thing, I leave for people smarter than I am to discuss. Still, I’ll repeat here that artists have relied upon “the one percent” to bankroll their activities since long before Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. Let’s put that aside for a moment.
What is more interesting to me, here in the early 21st century, is that we now live in a digital age. With the advent of the Internet, people can create and disseminate their works of art much more expediently than at any other time in human history.
Moreover, more arts funding than ever before now comes from grassroots, online crowdfunding efforts. According to Katherine Boyle in a July, 2013 issue of the Washington Post, crowdfunding website Kickstarter now “raises more money for artists than the National Endowment for the Arts.”
This excites me for numerous reasons.
First, as an artist myself, and thus firmly a member of “the ninety-nine percent,” this means that I can actually help to support my fellow artists. It means that I don’t need to have a spare twenty million dollars in order to help fund a project. In teaming up with like-minded people, our cumulative spare change can actually fund a brand new work of art.
Second, as the executive director of an arts nonprofit, this means that I can say to you, with complete honesty, “yes, your twenty dollar donation will actually be helpful to us.” With whatever you have to give, combined with what your friends and ours might have to give, we can, in fact, continue to make theater that will reflect something about the world we all live in, that will move you and make you think, that will be, in its way, beautiful.
It now sounds as if I’m answering the question by saying, “you should give to the arts because even a little bit is helpful.” And that is also sort of true.
Perhaps I should re-frame the question a little bit and ask “why theater?” instead.
In this I will cheat a bit, and borrow from Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director of Washington DC’s ground-breaking Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. He goes into greater detail at this link, but here, in a nutshell, is his list of “7 Reasons Why Theater Makes Our Lives Better:”
The theater does no harm, it expresses a basic human instinct, it brings people together, it models democratic discourse, it contributes to education and literacy, it sparks economic revitalization, and it influences how we think and feel about our own lives.
I would add to that the theater reflects our beauty and, when done well, is just really, really cool.
I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s worth kicking in twenty bucks for.
So go ahead! Click that orange “Donate” button. Every little bit helps.