Some believe that the symbol of a great democracy and the expression of what makes us human is public support for the arts. Others decry agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts as welfare for cultural elitists. Lindsay Pollock, former editor-in-chief of Art in America, examines the continuing conflict and institutions that have found other avenues to success. On a warm September afternoon, at one of the busiest intersections in downtown Richmond, Virginia, a man paces near lanes of traffic. He holds up a cardboard sign asking drivers for money. Fifteen years ago, the same area was known as a destination for drug dealers and prostitutes. Much has changed since then, and many in this town are counting on an asymmetrical building with a silvery carapace, just across the street, to help forge the way to a more prosperous, and perhaps even more equitable, future. On a corner of Belvidere and Broad, where some 60,000 cars pass each day, an ambitious construction project is underway on land previously used as a parking lot. Inside the building, workers in hard hats and dusty boots apply plaster and paint to the walls of soaring white galleries, completing work on an angular and futuristic zinc-clad building, designed by Steven Holl Architects, that will unquestionably catch the eye of drivers cruising by. One month later, in October, museum officials were elated to announce that a $37 million capital campaign to fund construction of Richmond’s newest arts venue was complete. The Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University is slated to open on April 21, 2018, offering rigorous programming, free admission, a public garden, educational events and a social and political agenda beyond the traditional scope of an art museum. The inaugural exhibition, titled “Declaration,” will showcase more than 30 artists, many of them known for making work that explicitly and forcefully addresses social and political issues. They include Tania Bruguera, Cannupa Hanska Luger and Amalia Pica. “The ICA is going to offer the best of the world of contemporary art,” says its director, Lisa Freiman. “More than ever before, we need public spaces that can connect people and act as a catalyzing force for deep dialogue.” Richmond’s new ICA provides a case study in how arts institutions are currently funded in the U. S. The project exemplifies the way organizations pay for themselves by conducting big-ticket capital campaigns, ultimately tapping a matrix of funding sources, mainly without the benefit of corporate or government support. “In today’s world, in both the recent past and the foreseeable future, government support is really lacking and corporate support has become a thing of the past, so the museums are more dependent than ever on private funding,” says Arnold Lehman, who served as a museum director at several institutions over the course of 45 years, retiring from the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. Fortunately for museums, a strong economy has buoyed art philanthropy, which has increased for the last five years. Contributions by individuals, foundations and corporations grew 6.4 percent last year, according to the nonprofit group Americans for the Arts, totaling $18.2 billion. “Charitable giving to culture continues an upward trend,” observes Arthur Cohen, CEO of LaPlaca Cohen, a consulting firm whose clients include Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Culture Track, a survey organized by LaPlaca Cohen, recently found that 41 percent of “cultural consumers” plan to donate to a cultural organization in the next year, up from 33 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, public funding has not kept pace. Public funds for the arts—from the local, state and federal governments—totaled $1.3 billion in 2016, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. “The NEA and NEH are still in the 1980s and 1990s in terms of their support structure,” says Lehman, referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “There is an urgency in this country to get government back into support for the arts and humanities at a level that reflects the breadth and depth of what is happening in this country.” While public funds are meager compared to private resources, government support is crucial. “Every state agency comes up with a state arts policy, and they are really focused on serving underserved communities,” says Ryan Stubbs, research director at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. “Overall, they are trying to create more opportunities for all citizens in their states.” Forty percent of NEA grants support state arts agencies, Stubbs explains, with states typically receiving between $700,000 and $1 million apiece. Recent grants include $25,000 to Space One Eleven in Birmingham, Alabama, to support two exhibitions featuring female artists, and $20,000 for an artist residency in Portland, Maine, organized by Space Gallery. Beyond the loss of much-needed arts funding, also imperiled is a program that enables museums to borrow important and valuable artworks for loan exhibits. The NEA administers the federal government’s long-standing museum indemnification program, which reduces otherwise prohibitive insurance costs. Recent major exhibits benefiting from this subsidy featured works by Agnes Martin, Edvard Munch, Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso and dozens more. Lehman’s prescription of increased government funding for the arts seems unlikely in the near term. Earlier this year, the White House presented a plan to axe the NEA’s relatively small $147.9 million budget. This plan elicited op-ed columns, lobbying and pleas from the arts community for continued government support of the arts. Many were outraged considering that the NEA’s budget accounts for much less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending—an amount many supporters feel is already too small to make a difference. But critics argue that cuts must be made to manage uncontrolled government spending. “These grants are really important, and they leverage other fundraising,” notes artist Barbara Ernst Prey, a member of the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA on grant allocations, among other matters. “The NEA is a stamp of approval.” In this fractious political climate, will the 52-year-old agency be defunded? Prey remains upbeat that the endowment will survive. “I’m very positive,” she says. “I’m going to be voting on grants in October. Everything is fully funded for next year.” So where is all this private arts funding going? The last decade has seen an unprecedented expansion of arts institutions. Museums in the U.S. plowed nearly $5 billion into construction projects from 2007 to 2014, according to a report published last year in The Art Newspaper. That’s equal to what the rest of the world spent on museum construction projects during the same period. Museum trustees seem to be particularly generous when it comes to bricks and mortar, or at least convinced that the axiom “If you build it, they will come” applies to art museums. Recent big-ticket projects include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s $504 million Art of the Americas wing, opened in 2010, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s $305 million expansion, completed last year. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s $600 million extension is slated to break ground in 2019. “A lot of money was spent to support capital growth, including new wings and new buildings,” says Lehman, speaking generally. “But money to support programming, or security forces that are needed to make sure those buildings are secure and safe—that kind of money has not been forthcoming.” This dearth of private donations for unglamorous but essential operating funds has forced several of New York’s biggest museums to trim costs, including downsizing staff. “It’s axiomatic that our expenses grow faster than our fundraising,” said Daniel H. Weiss, president and CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, at a panel on museum relevance last fall in New York. The museum’s 2015 tax return bears out Weiss’s assertion: It notes a $41 million deficit, with $466 million in expenses not covered by $425 million in revenue. In January, then-director Thomas Campbell announced that the museum was indefinitely postponing plans for a new $600 million wing for modern and contemporary art and stated that the Met would not have a balanced budget until 2020— despite the fact that the institution has one of the wealthiest museum boards in the world. A month later, Campbell’s departure was hastily announced. The Met had raised $214 million in fiscal year 2016, including $29.4 million from New York City, to offset operating, infrastructure and energy expenses. Across the East River in Brooklyn, the city’s other encyclopedic museum is helmed by a dynamic new director who is also facing stark financial realities. “Don’t expect a big capital campaign from us anytime soon,” quipped Anne Pasternak during a fall breakfast event for the press. “We don’t have the donor pool.” The Brooklyn Museum, like the Met, has split its top job into two parts. The director is responsible for curatorial vision and execution, while the president and CEO handles operations, administration and financing. Pasternak’s other half is David Berliner, a real estate veteran who was plucked from the museum’s board. “There’s a big vision for transformation here, and there’s a lot to do,” says Berliner, president and chief operating officer since 2016. “But we are faced with a lot of financial challenges. It’s no secret we have a structural deficit.” Berliner and Pasternak have trimmed costs with layoffs and other reductions. “You can’t cut your way to greatness,” Berliner notes. They are now focused on finding new ways to boost revenue. Plans include more ticketed exhibitions, like the forthcoming David Bowie traveling show arriving in Brooklyn in March, organized by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and sponsored by Spotify, the Swedish digital music distribution company. Special ticket prices range from $35 to $2,500 (for a curator-led tour when the museum is closed). The institution also recently teamed up with Google, which sponsored an exhibition titled “The Legacy of Lynching.” Amid the contraction of government and corporate funding, there are some new experiments taking place. Philanthropist Alice Walton is funding a new nonprofit foundation called Art Bridges, which aims to make artworks and exhibitions accessible to museums that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to present them. “We are looking at institutions with budgets of less than $5 million in operating costs,” says Niki Ciccotelli Stewart, the chief engagement officer at Art Bridges and Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. “We are focused on providing access to great works of art.” In its first year, Art Bridges provided $131,450 in project funding, a sum expected to increase as the organization grows. “A regional museum in central Kansas—that’s the kind of place we would reach out to and ask, ‘What’s your vision?’ We want people to try new things and to reach new audiences.” Art Bridges currently has a 20-piece collection whose works it makes available for loan to museums, but the plan is to partner with large museums that have many more artworks in storage than they are able to exhibit. Art Bridges would pay all costs, including shipping, programming and education. One of its first projects is “Selections from the Studio Museum in Harlem,” organized by the American Federation of Arts. Art Bridges will pay the fees for six museums that couldn’t otherwise afford to present the show, including the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Richmond occupies a place of power as the capital of Virginia, symbolized by the 1788 State Capitol building, designed by Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clérisseau, a riff on a Roman temple that sits atop a majestic hill. During the Civil War, the city was named the capital of the Confederacy. Today it’s home to 223,000 residents, 49 percent of whom are African-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 figures. The city is growing and prosperous. Eight Fortune 500 companies, including Altria and CarMax, are based in Richmond. The city’s largest employer happens to be Virginia Commonwealth University and its VCU Health System. The VCU School of the Arts, or VCUarts, was established in 1928 and today serves about 3,000 undergraduate and 200 graduate students. Prominent alumni include artists Tara Donovan, Teresita Fernández and Stephen Vitiello. “VCU was a different place when I was there,” says Donovan, who received an MFA in 1999, the same year she was selected for the 2000 Whitney Biennial. “It had a small-community feel. Out of that tight-knit community, things have evolved and changed. People have stayed and invested in Richmond. Since so many other cities have become so exorbitant and Richmond is so much more affordable, there was more of an incentive to stay and make it more of a city.” The school has become a source of pride. It has consistently been the highest-ranked public college in the nation on U.S. News & World Report’s list of best graduate fine-arts programs. Tuition rings in at an affordable $13,076 for in-state students and $31,608 for those from out of state. By contrast, high-ranking private schools such as Yale or Columbia cost $50,000 or more. For the past 86 years, the Anderson Gallery has served as a space for VCUarts exhibits. About 15 years ago, Richmond art dealer Beverly Reynolds began dreaming up a plan for a new exhibition space for the burgeoning art school. Reynolds, who died in 2014, was instrumental in making the ICA possible. When the new building opens in the spring, her legacy and contribution will be visible, with her name above the entrance to the first-floor gallery. “Richmond has a big-town small-town feel, and the people are incredibly generous,” says Carol Anne Baker Lajoie, the ICA’s director of development and external affairs. “If the government’s not paying for it and the private economy is not paying for it, there’s a solid group of people who step up to the plate.” The ICA’s fundraising campaign got off to a propitious start. Two couples reached into their wallets to produce checks for $5 million apiece. And with that, more than a quarter of the capital campaign goal was achieved. “The ICA is important on so many different levels,” says Steve Markel. He and his wife, Kathie, were one of the two couples. “VCU has one of the top art schools in the country, and to not have a facility like this is lacking. It makes sense to solidify VCU’s position in the art world.” Markel admits he has “less knowledge of the art side of the world,” but he is still a big believer in the ICA’s mission. “We want the institution to be open to everyone in the community. It will be an open place where people can have honest dialogue.” Soon after the Markels made their commitment, Pamela and William A. Royall, Jr. Matched the Markels’ largesse. The Royalls are longtime art collectors who display some of their holdings at a private gallery space, a former Try-me soda bottling plant. For the past few years, they have focused their collecting on emerging artists—both those from Richmond and those with international reputations—as well as on African-American artists. In 2016, they donated 18 works to the city’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, including pieces by Thornton Dial, Jack Whitten, Rashid Johnson and Titus Kaphar. The Royalls are credited with being instrumental in expanding the vision for the ICA. “We said we are interested in a bigger idea than a replacement for the Anderson Gallery,” Pamela Royall explains. Mindful of the role of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Royalls helped create a plan for an arts space that would be distinct from the city’s flagship 81-year-old art museum. The ICA was conceived as a noncollecting institute, different from a traditional museum and serving a broader audience. “The ICA is not the monuments on Monument Avenue,” says Pamela Royall, referring to the controversial Civil War statues. “It’s inclusive and it’s open. It is welcoming and it recognizes that the people who are driving things in our community are no longer the first families of Virginia.” William Royall, a VCU alumnus, was drawn to the ICA project because he believes in the transformative power of art. At the age of 10, he attended the School of Creative Arts, a summer camp on Martha’s Vineyard. The experience was indelible. “Once you learn to look at art, once you engage with art, once you make art, even on a student basis, it forever changes how you look at the world,” he says. In Richmond, museum officials were delighted to obtain a $25,000 grant from the NEA to help fund the inaugural show, a rare accomplishment for a new nonprofit organization. The sum reflects the only government funding for an institution that will ultimately cost over $50 million, once $12 million is raised to fund its endowment. Such is the state of cultural funding in the U.S. that the ICA will materialize through the grit, determination and generosity mainly of private donors, buttressed by corporations and foundations. “We have a strong commitment to making Richmond the capital of creativity rather than the Confederacy,” Pamela Royall says. “We are looking forward, not backward.” “In today’s world, in both the recent past and the foreseeable future, government support is really lacking and corporate support has become a thing of the past, so the museums are more dependent than ever on private funding.” –Arnold Lehman Such is the state of cultural funding in the U.S. that the ICA will materialize through the grit, determination and generosity mainly of private donors, buttressed by corporations and foundations.
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