Seattle Report #1

My apologies for some of the manufactured statements in my earlier post. I mean, some of the things I said were just not as funny as they could have been.

But now that I'm here in Seattle I am prepared to share some glimpses of what is being discussed here. Yesterday (Wednesday) was a pre-conference workshop for local arts agency administrators who are also engaged in private sector initiatives (like RACC is doing with Work for Art). AFTA datahead and amateur comic Randy Cohen presented an overview of arts giving in America, supported by three recently released reports that are, I’ll just say it, discouraging.

A study conducted every 4 years by the National Endowment for the Arts tells us that the percentage of Americans attending live arts events decreased in 2008. It had been fairly steady at 40% in the 80s, 90s, and earlier part of this decade, but now stands at 35%. Now because the study tracks “benchmark” activities – theater, opera, professional dance, classical music, jazz, and art museums – it’s possible that some of the decline is simply attributable to the fact that many Americans are consuming art in different ways -- poetry slams, participatory arts, contemporary music festivals and the like. We also discussed our theories on the extent to which technology is playing a role. Randy pointed out that record and CD stores have declined by 50% during the same period, but that certainly doesn’t mean we’re listening to less music, we’re just downloading it.

The annual Giving USA report, which we referenced last week, shows that overall giving to arts, culture and humanities is down, from $13.67 million in 2007 to $12.79 billion in 2008. Even more distressing is the fact that the arts are losing ever-more market share of all philanthropic contributions. In 2001, 4.9% of every philanthropic dollar went to the arts; in 2008 the arts’ share was 4.1%. That might sound like only a small gap, but the trend is concerning (when does it end?), and it represents a very significant sum: $2.3 billion (which is how much more American businesses, foundations and individuals would be giving today if they were still giving 4.9% to the arts).

Meanwhile, the national BCA (now merging with AFTA) has a new report that focuses on business support for the arts. Between 2003 and 2006, the percentage of businesses that contribute to the arts increased from 36% to 42%, but total cash support decreased 5%, from $3.32 billion to $3.16 billion. That was during a period of economic growth; obviously, this number is going to worsen over the next couple of years. I’ve read many reports that a majority of corporations plan to hold their contributions flat in 2009, but I’m thinking, yeah right.

Which brings us to the convention proper, which began at noon today with a prayer. (It was a Snoquomish tribal blessing, so it's OK). I’ll be following the Private Sector track throughout the conference, with some dabbling in the advocacy and civic engagement tracks, to see if we can’t uncover some best practices and other forms of inspiration to combat these conditions and reverse these trends at least in Portland.

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