Let's not forget the arts nonprofits, reader says


One of the difficulties of writing about the nonprofit sector is that it is so diverse.

Nonprofits include more than the familiar social service organizations that we grew up with -- institutions such as our neighborhood Y, or service providers such as Planned Parenthood, and umbrella organizations such as the United Way.

Nonprofits also include the local chamber of commerce, your national professional trade association, and the myriad arts organizations and cultural institutions which enrich our lives.

Too often, I neglect to cover the issues specific to the latter, which prompted Peter Savage of Baltimore to pull me up short recently.

"As a supporter of the performing arts," Savage wrote to me, "I often find your column disheartening -- your focus is often on entrenched charities such as United Way. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the Handel Choir, the Naked Foot Dance Company, among others, are not 'worthy' charities under United Way and there is not Alexis deTocqueville Society status for those who make five-figuredonations to them."

Savage is right, in my opinion. Social service needs often loom so large, they obscure the view of other important nonprofit issues, ones that address the core of human nature, like music and dance.

Savage's letter reminded me of a conversation I had last year with John Gidwitz, the executive director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Speaking with Gidwitz, one is struck by how thoughtful and passionate this man is about his work and the role the arts play inour lives.

"Because of the economy and other factors, our culture is missing something very wonderful," Gidwitz said in response to a question about funding arts programs for children.

"Our music series for children are always sold out. Why? I think that in these days of cutting music programs in our schools, many parents realize that we owe it to our children and our culture and our nation to educate the whole personality," he said.

"All children should have a chance to participate actively in the arts. The arts feed the spirit, the right brain, if you will.

By focusing exclusively on objective measures of schooling we are in danger that our success there will become our larger failure," he said.

As I get older, the importance of the arts to one's spiritual development is ever more apparent to me. How does one weigh issues of funding for social services vs. arts? It's not easy.

Most large donors I know understand the push and pull of these two faces of philanthropy. Do I invest my money in helping others through direct services? How much do I value feeding the spirit through investments in art, music and cultural institutions? Government agencies, too, are faced with the dilemma. How do we justify an arts center amidst raging poverty, drug abuse, and illiteracy? The answer obviously is that we must do both.

"In general," Savage goes on to say in his letter, "performing arts suffer in times of recession. Perhaps it is the ephemeral nature of the product that make them the stepchild of hard times -- it is hard to affix a brass plaque on a song or dance.

Elevation of performing arts to the status of 'legitimate' charitable beneficiary would certainly be a positive step in getting them public recognition. Your column would be an excellent forum for making the stepchildren 'legitimate.' I urge you to consider making the case."

I am.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at Th Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202, (410) 783-5100.

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