Last week I received a letter from Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera company. He called my attention to the fine work the Met has done over his decade or so at the helm, described the severe blow given the institution by the coronavirus outbreak, and asked me to give any additional financial relief in my power during this time of trial.
Unfortunately for Mr. Gelb, he is not the only supplicant at my door. Like everyone else reading these words, I am surrounded by petitioners, calling on me to rescue them from likely oblivion if I do not open my heart and wallet to them. These are not the indigent and homeless I see every day hoping for a handout from the rare masked stranger hurrying by. These are the occupants of the citadels of art, nakedly acknowledging that the perilous financial path they walk every day has been erased by an avalanche.
The common trait I find in these appeals is that each petitioner seems to be trying to keep my eyes focused on theirs, as if to prevent my noticing the crowd of fellow-supplicants around them. As soon as one does, of course, the futility of the attempt leaps to the eye. The threat is clear, but in aggregate far too great to be alleviated by the usual pan-handling techniques dialed up to 10. It is not one dance company or theater troupe confronted with extinction but the whole rickety structure we’ve jury-rigged to keep our allegedly precious cultural heritage in operation.
The current situation of “the non-profit arts sector” has probably never been so dire in our country. But the saddest thing about the situation is that those threatened seem so far unwilling to admit that they are in the same leaky boat in a heavy sea, that their survival can’t be ensured without joining forces with each other to assert their need and society’s obligation to recognize it.
And the reciprocal is true: “the arts” must cease lobbying just for themselves but for their just share of support alongside other “non-profit” instruments of a just society; essentials like universal public heath, public education, basic income. The time has passed for arts funding in the United States to depend in large measure on the discretionary largesse of multi-millionaires and billionaires who can be shamed or flattered into sharing those less fortunate with a taste of “the good things of life.”