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.
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.


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