As PONCHO regroups, Seattle arts struggle

The key problem is the shortage of public funding for the arts, as private donors are realizing they can't shoulder all the costs.

PONCHO, long a pillar of arts funding in Seattle, has just announced another change in leadership and focus. The organization had been criticized four years ago for spreading itself too thin and spending too much on its extravagant auction parties. A new leader was hired, and now Gordon Hamilton is leaving. What's behind all this?

Like other funders who take in money from many sources and serve as a central disburser of funds to many organizations, PONCHO is clearly experiencing some of the same pressures as other umbrella funders, and of the organizations they support. After 40 plus years, PONCHO will give up the spring gala auction, which was losing money, and focus on smaller art and wine auctions. But other choices cannot be so easy.

When PONCHO began in 1963 (the acronym was based on Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural, and Charitable Organizations), its sole beneficiary was the Seattle Symphony, which needed bailing out after the large expenses of its production of Verdi's Aida at the 1962 World's Fair. PONCHO not only paid off the Symphony's debt but raised enough seed money to start Seattle Opera. Soon the beneficiaries included the Seattle Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and ACT. Today, the beneficiary group includes 170 organizations, yet the funding has not grown at the same rate as the beneficiaries in either size or number.

It's easy to imagine the difficult questions within PONCHO today: Inclusive or exclusive? New growth or old growth? Excellence or access? A few large grants or many small grants? Shiny object or infrastructure? Of course , a healthy arts community is not built on the either-or of these questions. It is built on all of it together: access to excellence, a broad spectrum of aesthetics, healthy old growth institutions and vigorous new growth, an appreciation for tradition and for rebellion.

Building such a cultural environment is not possible, however, without vastly increased public sector support, here this region has traditionally been stingy. We lack arts education in every public school curriculum, and we have not taken a principled stand that access to the experience, practice, and appreciation of art is a right of every American. Unfortunately, the lack of arts education (a public sector decision) removes the joy of access to excellence from much of the population, making some of the best art as incomprehensible as the game of cricket is to most Americans. Without knowing the rules and skills of a "game," it's not possible to appreciate the finer points.

Instead, and sadly, our public policy has tended to place a label of elitist on any artist who does not work in a mass market and on any organization that relies heavily on private funding. Public cultural policy is built on the premise that the arts are primarily a private sector responsibility. Accordingly, the financial elite of our communities provides most of the funding for access to the arts. It is as populist a purpose as you could hope to have, since these donors are giving in order to make art accessible to more people. Yet these donors are often dismissed as self interested and elitist.

Philanthropy in American cannot address the issues of excellence and access in the arts if the public sector doesn't become a much more significant player. As of now, it is the philanthropists who are making it possible for the public to afford the arts at all. But the private sector has private interests and will never replace the broader social interest that the public sector should address.

Susan Trapnell served for many years as managing director of ACT Theatre, was head of the Seattle Arts Commission, and served as managing director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. She has long played an important role in formulating arts policies in Seattle. You can reach her in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jul 25, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent piece: This article sums up the dilemna of arts funding concisely and elegantly. I always assumed that arts funding in Seattle would be at least as healthy as we have in the Twin Cities. I was shocked and appalled when I learned that wasn't the case.

It's ironic that the people putting out money to provide access to the arts for all are labeled as elitists. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!
wcollins

Posted Sat, Jul 26, 1:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Times change: PONCHO was partly a victim of its success. The auction idea it introduced is now so widely imitated that it could no longer generate the kind of money or attention it once did. Maybe the organization ought to declare victory? One idea would be for PONCHO to focus its smaller auctions on just one aspect of the arts, such as arts education. It might also make sense for this more focused part of the organization to combine with ArtsFund, saving on overhead.

Susan is right about public funding as the key missing element in our arts. The Seattle area supports a large number of arts organizations, many with budgets near or exceeding $10 million. They make do with small endowments. Meanwhile, corporate giving is leveling off, as headquarters move away or corporations focus more on pressing social needs. The wealth from the New Economy is not flowing to the arts as much as a previous generation's did. And costs have escalated dramatically as our arts organizations built new facilities, expanded seasons, and completely professionalized. We're heading for trouble. The most appropriate way to head this off is to find a formula for broad, generous, stable public funding. Spread the funding over several counties (who need to catch up with the arts boom) and the cost per household would only be, as it is in Denver, about $25 per year. Put this idea to the people, and I bet they'd like it.

Posted Sat, Jul 26, 6:40 p.m. Inappropriate

The arts are for everyone: One of the reasons I have returned to non-conservatory college teaching is to assist in the creating of seed corn for the arts in the 21st century.

America often reminds me--in many unrelated ways--of a giant high school; the arts are an elective: not compulsory for graduation. You get some math, some English, and a marching band for half-time at football games. When budgets are tight, when levies fail, the first to go are the so-called electives. To mix metaphors, the arts are always the frosting on our cake, but we can eat it plain, thank you very much. It's still dessert.

I am sometimes envious of the magnitude of attentions given sports and have held the mostly-serious opinion that handed a generation, with 5 minutes devoted in every local broadcast to the arts (the collaboration and teamwork of the temporal arts: opera, dance, theatre, symphony, the competitiveness of auditions, the athleticism of ballet, the realization that drawing and painting and sculpture have more to do with observation than not, and reveal more about the viewer than the artist) and I'll have parents clamoring for the inclusion of their children. There is nothing effete or elite in that. Susan's wonderful example of access in order to understand the "rules and skills of a 'game'" in an effort to better appreciate the arts, was spot on. (And, truly, a cricket match is only momentarily incomprehensible until you know how the critter works.)

Sparta eschewed the arts, ridiculing and relegating Athens to that end. Today, all that is really left of Sparta is a wind-swept plain--and the stories left to us by those Athenians.

Laurence Ballard

Posted Sat, Jul 26, 7:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Ms. Trapnell make the arts sound like a forest!: old growth replanting how about a little weeding?
music education in Seattle high schools once produced noteworthy jazz musicians. but do the young musicians then have local venues? not really. rock and punk and hip-hop have inherint limitations which not even the best in the lot from here or elsewhere have overcome or turned to advantage. the symphony and ballet and opera, form my p.o.v. ,are indulgences of people who have the money to go to bayreuth and italy or new york, and they do not connect with the young or with contemporary music, which means music of the past 100 years!! in that particular museum world. it's Carl Orff hitching a ride on the swan of tunella i recall putting it cleverly a while back!
indeed, seattle is a city without an eye as i realized in no time, has been at least for about a 100 years now. whether that can ever be remedied through arst education now that the counter culture has enshrined and commercialized the aesthetics of "ugly" my eye cannot really foresee.
Bart Sher at Intiman has an idea of centrality of theater whether he knows that theater means catharsis and a sense of the tragic, and what that
would be? what playwrights write with that in mind i have no idea. theater certainly no longer serves the social function it did during Ibsen and Strindberg's time to put it that way.

i much like ms. ballard's comment: yes, all those sports bars and jocks! all thousands trooping to see the same old same old game!
mikerol

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