An Rx for the Arts?

A "united arts" effort may not solve fund-raising problems

Gloria Ray deserves a lot of credit for bringing her Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation to the rescue of several arts and cultural organizations whose accustomed funding from Knox County had been eliminated in County Mayor Ragsdale's budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

With Ragsdale's blessings, Ray took $185,000 of the $2.5 million in county hotel/motel tax revenues that go to KTSC for tourism promotion and reallocated it to cultural attractions that had been zeroed out. Among the biggest beneficiaries were the Dogwood Arts Festival, the Knoxville Museum of Art, and the Knoxville Opera/Rossini Festival, which got $25,000 each. African American Arts/Kumbah Festival, James White Fort, and Ramsey House got somewhat lesser sums, and several others including the Knoxville Symphony got restoration of funding that had been reduced.

At a press conference with Ragsdale at her side, along with the executive director of the Arts and Culture Alliance, Liza Zenni, Ray portrayed the allocations as one-time "emergency" aid "to assist these organizations as they transition to a more permanent funding solution for arts/culture." To which Ragsdale added, "What I'd like to see is a situation where all non-profit groups become less dependent on government dollars and more dependent on private-sector donations. I believe we live in a community that will do just that when presented with the challenge—maybe with a ‘united arts' drive... We're much better suited to raising money together than working independently, and that's true when it comes to the arts or anything else."

That put (or punted) the ball to Zenni to take the lead in coming up with ways to supplement most (if not all) of around $250,000 in public funding that Knox County provided in the current fiscal year, not to mention the strains that a slumping economy have also placed on private contributions to the arts. It's a daunting challenge indeed for the head of a three-person organization that's been primarily concerned with providing support, including a gallery, for individual artists. But nearly all of the city's performing arts and cultural heritage organizations—more than 50 of them—belong to the Arts and Culture Alliance that was originally envisioned to be an umbrella organization for them.

Unfortunately, the cure that Ragsdale proposed for what ails them could well be worse than the disease. Building a united arts organization to conduct a major fund-raising campaign would inevitably entail substantial cost, and such a campaign could well compete with existing fund-raising efforts more than it would complement them.

The last thing the city's major arts organizations need right now is another set of philanthropic mouths to feed and another claimant for precious donor dollars. Both the Knoxville Symphony and the Knoxville Opera have done remarkable jobs of coming through this difficult year with balanced budgets—$3.3 million in the symphony's case, $1.3 million in the case of the opera. Both get well over half their revenues from private donors, and their professional development staffs are complemented by guilds of dedicated women volunteers. Much the same holds true for the Knoxville Museum of Art.

One need look no further than Chattanooga to see that consolidated fund-raising for the arts is anything but a panacea. Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga, which supports 16 affiliates there, has fallen far short of its $2.1 million fund-raising goal for the year. And the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera (which is a single entity) has canceled its 2009-10 opera season.

Smaller organizations, such as Carpetbag Theater, Circle Modern Dance, and Jubilee Community Arts, might stand to benefit from consolidated fund-raising if it could be segmented from the majors akin to the way Community Shares operates in relation to United Way here. But as one looks down the list of Arts and Cultural Alliance's 50-plus members, it's easy to imagine that allocating funds among them could be fraught with contention.

Zenni is sensitive to all of these concerns and says that, "There is no point in us pursuing any kind of united arts endeavor if we don't have all the people we are here to serve comfortable with the way we're going to do it." But she goes on to insist that, "We truly believe there's new money to be found out there without taking away from anyone else's fund-raising efforts." For example, "I know there are foundations that will participate if we can set up something that will benefit arts in the aggregate."

Zenni also believes there are potential efficiencies and economies to be derived from consolidation of functions such as accounting and grants available as a reward for doing so. For example, the Tennessee Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga got a $250,000 grant from the Lodestar Foundation in Phoenix for their collaboration.

As a step in that direction, she is presently working with Knoxville's historic houses—Mabry-Hazen House, Ramsey House, James White Fort, and Blount Mansion—to "help them examine the way they operate and search for possible opportunities to collaborate... Would it make sense for them to join together for purposes of packaging their sites or perhaps for fund-raising or for maintenance?"

There's no doubt that the ACA has an important role to play in fostering support for Knoxville arts and culture. But so does local government. And Ragsdale and Ray are doing Zenni a disservice in trying to foist upon her the role of some kind of savior.