The Art$

It was weird.

Dear reader, your Man About Town has been to the very precipice, where I stood and looked down.  It was weird.

You see, it all started when some of the lovely folks over at the Municipal Art Society (Hi Mary! Hi Anne!  Hello Vin!), invited me to come and do a research project for them called “Who Pays for the Arts.”  The job was to tool through data provided by the Cultural Data Project (CDP) and better understand how arts organizations in NYC make their money.  To whit:  in order to apply for public funding in NYC, you have to submit, like, a gajillion data points to CDP.

Exciting!  Data geek that I am my little heart just fluttered with glee.  Numbers!  Charts!  Oh yeah!  Uh huh!  That’s right!

So I started digging through the data and the very first question I asked was, you know, 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:

Whoa.  Now that’s what I call skewed!

Basically, this chart says that 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 myself):

…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%), and just 40 organizations (all with budgets more than $10 million) accounted for $1.9 billion of the total (or 76%). 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.

Membership Has It’s Privileges 

It’s long been understood that NYC’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.

Members of the CIG tend to be concentrated among the largest nonprofit culturals.  All the CIG members included in my study appear in the top 1/3 of all organizations by total revenues.  Of the top 40 organizations (all earning over $10 million in annual revenues), 15 are members of the CIG.  Of the top 5 (all earning over $100 million), there are 4 CIG members.

How can this be?  Well, you’ve gotta admit it’s a pretty sweet deal to have the city kicking in to keep the lights on.  The top four CIGs reported a total of $133 million in city support for 2010, or 45% of all the city money reported as contributed in the year through my study group.  Yowza.

People have pretty much known this for a long time.  Believe me, this reality has been discussed and debated by folks far more articulate and capable than me.  What I’m trying to do is provide some dimension to the conversation – because that’s something we very rarely see.  And the concentration of resources, particularly among very wealthy institutions is, as you can imagine, somewhat controversial.

If you ask me, what it boils down to is this:  these top four 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.  This is not an insignificant issue.  NYC has to compete in the global market with other highly attractive cities, and having powerful cultural institutions where powerful people make powerful relationships is, well, kind of a selling point.  What’s more, the biggest of these institutions has a direct relationship with city government itself, because it’s one of their largest funders.  By a lot.

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 many believe we neglect this part of the creative sector at our peril.

Look, all I’m really saying is I think there should be much more research conducted on the value proposition behind CIG membership for the cultural sector.  I’m up for it, and I’ve already been chewing over the numbers, so if you’re out there and reading this and you agree, drop me a line.

In the meantime 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.  And just to give you a taste of what’s coming up, here’s one more slide:

This slide shows % of total revenues by type, and they way that it begins to break down by organizational size is both fascinating and telling.

Stay tuned for more.


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