The following is a conversation between Robert Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: There are thousands upon thousands of arts organization across the country – local theatre groups, art exhibits, musical performances in great halls, school programs – all adding to the richness, diversity, vibrancy, and economic health of America. But who represents their collective interests, speaks to their importance, and advocates on their behalf? Well, that is left to a nonprofit organization called Americans for the Arts. And with us this evening is their President and CEO, Robert Lynch. Good evening, Bob, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Robert: Hi. It’s great to be here.
Denver: Give us a brief history of Americans for the Arts and an overview of the work that you do.
Robert: Americans for the Arts was founded with a different name back in 1960, and it grew out of a movement of local arts councils, local arts agencies. There was one in 1947; that one came into being because a returning veteran from World War II wanted to see things happening in his own hometown of Quincy, Illinois. That one grew to some 100 and 4 state arts agencies in 1960, and they formed this national service organization way back then: the Associated Arts Councils of America.
It had three goals. It’s “Let’s get more local arts agencies to happen here in America!” And today, there are 5,000 of them all across the country. “What about a national arts council?” they said, and so our organization was the lobbying entity to create the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. And then there should be more of these state arts agencies because they all fund the arts…those three levels of government. And so there was a plank put in in the middle of the night in the appropriations enabling bill for the National Endowment for the Arts that said “Any state that had a state arts agency could get matching money.” So within a year, the 4 became 50.
Denver: It’s funny how those things happen.
Robert: Yes, absolutely. So that was the beginning of our organization. And then over the years—I’ve actually been there now for 32 years, amazingly, as of two days ago—we did six mergers: a merger or two with organizations that were focused on the arts and the business world; arts and individual philanthropists; and then also state arts advocates and arts education organizations. We brought them all together, and it became Americans for the Arts back in 1996. That’s who we are.
Today, our work is to focus: one-half of the work on serving the needs of those 5,000 local arts councils who themselves fund and serve the 100,000 nonprofit arts organizations out there. And the other half of the work, with a 501(c)(4) political wing of our organization, is to lead the advocacy effort for federal, state, and local government support for the arts.
Denver: You’re sort of three organizations rolled in one. You have the 501(c)(3) with the members, and you have the lobbying piece with the 501(c)(4). But you’re also a political action committee, and you support candidates who are favourably disposed to the arts. So, let me take that last one for a moment. What do you anticipate from a Trump administration in this regard? And how do you think it’s going to differ from the last eight years under Obama?
Robert: The work that we do with the political action committee, it’s called the Arts Action Fund PAC. The work is to basically look at leadership at the government level, particularly House and Senate, and find pro-arts– either candidates or incumbents– and reward them to the extent that we can. And so we probably do in a best election cycle: a hundred gifts, which is a lot. And the gifts are simply to recognize that they have recognized that the arts are important. What we see now with the Trump administration coming in, and what’s important to realize is that there’s the presidential cabinet and the administrative part. There’s also a very different House and Senate profile, and they all have to work together. The Republicans themselves have differing points of view.
So, we have people who are not supportive of the arts for a variety of reasons. The biggest one has nothing to do with the arts. They don’t think federal government should be involved. It’s a philosophical issue. And then for other reasons, others do support the arts. We did a survey with The Washington Post of Mr. Trump’s feelings a few months before the campaign ended—we actually got all the presidential candidates to talk about their arts positions—and his position was that he likes the arts; he’s supportive of the arts; he wants to be, he said, “an advocate for the arts.” But as far as decision-making, he thought maybe that was something he would leave to Congress, so there’s that split again. And as far as decision-making for things like education, he thought that should be a state or a local issue. So it’s unformed at this point what he will actually do, but the good news is that he’s not against the arts.
And other people who he has listened to in this campaign were adversaries in the past, like Newt Gingrich, for example. But even Mr. Gingrich, we had a conversation a couple of years ago, was much more interested in the arts at that particular time as something that was good for the nation and good for communities, and maybe the government could be involved. So we’re hopeful that there will be some positive energy. We know that what the arts can do around issues like jobs, economic impact, community development, infrastructure are things that the Trump administration has already said they want to focus on early.
Denver: Talk to that a little bit, if you would. What is the economic case that you would make to potential donors and to the government on why they should support the arts?
Robert: The truth and what people know is very far apart. Because the arts are often seen as something that’s poor, that has to be subsidized, that has to be a charity. And in fact, the government itself– the Department of Commerce– pegs the nonprofit and for-profit arts in America as a $704 billion industry, 4.1% of gross domestic product.
Denver: It’s a lot bigger than many other industries that we would think were bigger.
Robert: Absolutely. Bigger than tourism itself.
Denver: Bigger than construction.
Robert: Bigger than construction. And that figure is something, I would venture to say that almost nobody knows, and certainly nobody knows the comparison that you just made to other industries. So that is important, and it’s important from both a domestic point of view, which the Trump administration is very interested in, and an international commerce point of view because we are, as a nation, exporting things that can be exported. And we’re trying to attract people here, and tourism is something to be attracted. So, it’s an interesting case.
Now, when you go to the nonprofit organizations, which is about 100,000 of about 700,000 organizations that we can see are art-centric organizations… those 100,000—we did a study five years ago (the new arts and economic impact study will come out this summer), but the last one showed that the nonprofit arts in America were a $134 billion industry– a huge chunk– and that they supported 3.1 million jobs in America, directly and indirectly. We’ve done that survey every four years, and it keeps increasing. So it’s a growth industry; it’s got big economic numbers, and it is something that mayors, for example, from an economic point of view, continually invest in. Those are the biggest government investors– local government money. The mayors have a 15 or 17 point plank for the new President of the United States, and they have taken 2 of those planks to be about the arts because they feel it’s so important for the economic and community development growth.
Denver: Digging a little deeper on that, how are the arts funded in the United States? What’s the breakdown in that source of funding?
Robert: Every arts organization is different, and they will tell you this if they hear my numbers. But when we looked at, and also the National Endowment for the Arts separately looked at, the almost 100,000 nonprofit arts organizations out there, it looked like that about 60% of the money today is from earned income. Now, that’s a big change from 25 or 30 years ago; it was much less back then. But before the National Endowment for the Arts, it was much higher because there was no money coming in. So the 60% is earned income, so that means they’re small businesses. They’re out there actually generating income from ticket sales or restaurants that they might have as part of their bigger institutions; 30% is from the private sector, mostly individuals–about 20% of them–and followed by foundations at about 5%, and corporations at about 5%.
What’s interesting about that is that that’s a lot less than people think. People think that the corporations and the foundations are doing a lot more. I’m often asked to speak in Europe about this. They want to follow the American model. They think the American model is 100% corporate because corporations have been so good at getting their logos on everything. So that’s the second chunk, the private chunk.
And then the last piece is about 9% government– mostly local government, then state government, which is almost $.5 billion in a given year, and then finally federal. And federal, if you looked at everything that the federal government invests in, it could be up close to $2 billion, but that includes the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center and our national treasures as well as even pieces of the military, and so on. If you just look at what is given out by the federal government to the rest of the nation, that’s under $150 million. There’s the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for Humanities on top of that.
In my opinion, it ought to be at least $1 billion that the arts should get…we have a national treasure and a contributor to the economy here in the arts, in the nonprofit arts, and it’s proven that we ought to invest in it.
Denver: Yes and that’s about 46 cents per capita, right?
Robert: For the arts, yes.
Denver: And you’ve been looking to get it up to a buck.