Deep Pockets: Funding the Arts During the Pandemic

Hamlet may be a good start: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Then are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The bard is telling readers and theater audiences that human knowledge is limited. Looking outside of the window of the study where I write in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, it seems more than an irony that human knowledge is limited: It, limited knowledge, needs more of an exclamation point now. From the political left, it looks like Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind,” or Poe’s “a dream within a dream.”

These hills provide the home for a group of cultural venues where music, theater, art, and dance take center state primarily during the summer months. Most venues have suffered financially during the Covid-19 pandemic either shutting down entirely, or operating with limited performances in limited settings.

The same forces that drive the US economy also fund, to some extent, these venues. Ticket sales don’t pay the bills, so venues look to donors, some with enormous pockets. Such is the case in what will continue soon into the “winter of our discontent.”

As masses of people face hunger and shelter insecurity during the pandemic in the US and in the larger world, reading about two massive donations to two theater venues here may leave the reader wondering about how income inequality plays (no pun intended) itself out. One donation was for $732,000 and the other for $681,000, with a provision within the latter to pledge another $350,00 in a matching grant (“Yes, We Liked the Berkshires Shows. Here’s $2 Million,” New York Times, October 29, 2020).

Here’s the “rub” (to quote Shakespeare again) with the amount of money that’s been donated to these cultural venues: Big money from investments in the US usually comes from sources such as the so-called defense industry, the financial sector, and oil giants. Money is made from endeavors such as through real estate and elsewhere, but the bets are on huge multinational corporations that often pay little in taxes and despoil the Earth in ways now seen daily and everywhere. Investments in horrors such as private prisons end by placing innocent migrant children, some alone without a parent(s) in facilities that would shock most. Guns for domestic consumption also fuel the investment industry. A few investment giants manage most of the vast sums of money from these sources.

Critics may counter about socially responsible investments. The big bucks needed for those kinds of investments still speaks to income inequality at astronomical levels.

This is the Pew Research Center‘s report on pre pandemic income inequality in the US (“Trends in income inequality,” January 9, 2020). Taxes on the company that produces the computer on which I write are laughable!

Here, in the Berkshire Hills, a local food pantry has seen a rise in demand for its services. Food pantries and similar organizations get many contributions, but the big bucks usually go to the more visible cultural institutions that fuel the local tourism industry, an industry with low wages as its base.

The federal government’s New Deal funded performing arts and other creative arts during the Great Depression. It was a public endeavor. This society has moved far away from that level of public funding of the arts and artists in ways it once did during a national and international crisis. Since the 1980s, the far right has challenged the meaning of the arts and the work of artists in funding clashes over what constitutes art (“Public Funding Of Controversial Art,” Freedom Forum Institute, June 2006).

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).