Guest column – Arts are worth supporting

By Michael Lowder

At a meeting I attended earlier this year, the director of a rural arts agency said, “I’m talking about social justice and my board chair’s only concern is fixing enough of her ‘world famous’ crab dip’!”

Stories regularly appear in local newspapers in which arts executives bemoan the sluggish economy, the impact of the war, the winter weather or another round of anticipated local and state government funding cuts.

Meanwhile, many nonprofit arts presenters watch their audiences grow older and smaller.

Those of us who raise money for the arts face some unprecedented challenges that transcend those experienced during the first Gulf War.

The current economic downturn and Iraqi War may not be the problem.

Instead, they may be revealing some fundamental flaws in the case we have been making to public and private sector funders in recent years.

These arguments, which attach the value of the arts to some greater social goal, include:

* The arts generate substantial economic impacts.

* The arts help our kids achieve academically.

* The arts revitalize declining downtowns.

* The arts help heal the wounds of discrimination.

Each argument is true, and each has motivated donors to contribute.

But when times are tough and future prospects appear bleak, funders choose to support primary causes, not ancillary ones.

To maintain the arts’ share of philanthropy during these difficult times, we must broaden our definition of art beyond the prevalent stereotype of tuxedos and cocktail parties, work hard to engage younger audiences from all walks of life and reshape our case for support.

We must articulate to current and potential supporters that the arts have intrinsic value.

At its core, supporting the arts is no more about opening night receptions than it is about achieving social justice.

Instead, it is about nurturing the creative spirit, innovation and diversity of expression.

A thriving and inclusive arts community is fundamental to a democratic, civil society, where merit and determination determine an individual’s future prospects.

A social order that values art — creativity, innovation, and diversity of expression — will prosper, and that is worth supporting.

Michael Lowder is executive director of Artsplosure, Raleigh, N.C.

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