The Art$

I was invited recently by the Municipal Art Society to do a research project called “Who Pays for the Arts.” The goal is to create a tool using data provided by the Cultural Data Project (CDP) to better understand how arts organizations in New York City make their money.  To whit:  in order to apply for public funding in NYC, you have to submit lots data points to CDP.

I started digging through the data and the very first question I asked was: What does the distribution curve look like? Given that I’m looking at total 2010 revenues for 723 organizations, and that the whole group all mushed together made $2.5 billion, how many groups are on the high end, how many in the middle, and how many on the low end?

And this is what I found: There are a few cultural organizations that make a lot of money.  A LOT of money.  And pretty much everyone else doesn’t make that much.  As a matter of fact, in the data set that I used, to quote from my project:

The majority of total income went to a small group of very large organizations. Just five organizations (all with annual incomes of more than $100 million) accounted for nearly $1 billion of the total (or 40 percent), and just 40 organizations (all with budgets more than $10 million) accounted for $1.9 billion of the total (or 76 percent). Indeed, average income for all organizations in 2010 was $3.4 million, while the median income was less than $250,000, indicating that all revenue categories were strongly skewed by these very few large organizations.

It’s long been understood that New York City's cultural landscape is dominated by what’s called the Cultural Institutions Group. These 33 organizations are located in city-owned property and the city heavily subsidizes their operations. It includes many of the biggies that are globally recognized: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, the NYC Ballet, Carnegie Hall. But is also includes high quality regional venues like PS1, Snug Harbor, and Wave Hill.

Still, you have to admit it's a pretty sweet deal to have the city kicking in to keep the lights on.  Of those top five revenue generating organizations, four are CIG members. What’s more, these four organizations reported a total of $133 million in city support for 2010, or 45 percent of all the city money reported as contributed in the year.  

Believe me, this reality has been discussed and debated by folks far more articulate and capable than me. If you ask me, what it boils down to is this: these CIGs (with total annual revenues between $100 and $300 million) do hold some of the finest art in the world, and they have boards and major contributors made up of hugely powerful and influential people. The ability of these institutions to attract world class leaders and talent (and their associated wealth and power) is beyond question.  But in a city that prides itself on creative innovation, it’s also clear that up-and-coming artists are being squeezed out by the overall cost of doing business here.  The vitality behind new creative engagements drives the future of our “innovation class” (I just made that name up!), and we neglect this part of the creative sector at our peril. 

I will be using the research I worked on with the Municipal Art Society to discuss a number of other interesting features of the cultural landscape in NYC, and to articulate some thoughts about how to strengthen this sector overall.

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