Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On a National Cultural Bank

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which more fully develops and details the need for a bank and how it would function, here.

In its Taking Note post on Nov. 5, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) research staff analyzed some high-level economic data prepared by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Looking at the nationwide investment in “long-lived artworks” -- which the government defines as artworks “exploited” in physical media for more than one year -- the data indicates that over the past 15 years, we have invested in some sectors much more than in others. Without other, corresponding data however -- such as whether more movies are being created, or that fewer movies with bigger budgets are being made -- this high-level data cannot draw an accurate picture of whether investments in the cultural sector are ensuring a rich, flourishing sector, or how they impact individual artists. (See my more detailed look at the data here.)

The nonprofit sector, especially the cultural sector, is perpetually undercapitalized. This is understandable since the sector’s financial structure does not provide mechanisms for capital investment like the for-profit sector does. Nonprofits must rely on earned revenue and tax-based incentives to philanthropic giving for its capital because the underlying reality is that nonprofit markets generally cannot and do not generate sufficient surpluses of earned revenue -- which would be a source of needed capital for investment -- to sustain itself over time.

While we cannot know what the future will look like, this much we do know: the “traditional” institutional and industrial pathways for funding the creation and distribution of artistic product that existed during the latter half of the 20th century is largely gone. While artists are adjusting and finding new ways to express themselves, they are, at the same time, shouldering economic burdens formerly handled by others. Data such as that analyzed by the NEA can help us understand the macro trends in our creative sectors, but it cannot really tell us where investments need to be made. This can only be ascertained by a thorough analysis of the entire ecology of how artists are creating, distributing and making sure there is an audience for their work. But even if we did have, or did develop, such an analysis, we would still then need a mechanism to fund the capital necessary to deliver systemic support and relief.

When we talk about “systemic investment support where it is needed,” we are indeed talking about a national scale -- a monumental effort that may seem impossible in an era of partisanship infecting all conversations, cultural or otherwise. But assuming we could one day have such a conversation, a self-sustaining National Cultural Bank offering investment capital where a particular sector’s need can be demonstrated could provide the necessary systemic support and investment.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

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