What’s next for nonprofits?

Now that government regulation of investments and markets is suddenly back in vogue, it’s only a matter of time until the reformers and the ethical cleansers train their sights on the least regulated market of them all–the art market. This will take time, but stay tuned. As last week’s exchanges made clear, taking a measure of post-bailout art values is also an exercise for another day. Only the November auctions will give us clear signals about the market’s health or decline.

This gives us breathing room to look further afield. What are the wider effects of the financial meltdown? To launch what might be a recurring feature about “What’s next?” let’s look at what the latest turn of events means for nonprofits. The postmortems have already begun. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published articles over the past weekend about nonprofits bracing for the worst. The Journal points out that U.S. charitable donations grew a paltry 1% in 2007–that’s before the bad news hit. And although, as the Post reminds, corporate donations amounted to only 3% of the contributed income of nonprofit arts groups, some of the most generous sources of corporate giving are likely to vanish, at least for now.

So what is a nonprofit leader to do? As always, the worst-hit will be mid-size groups with high overhead and weak fundraising potential. These would do well to take a look at the astonishing flexibility that giant financial firms have shown in this crisis. If Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, arts organizations, too, can adapt. For museums, there are undeniable threats in this new environment, including the possibility of tougher Congressional scrutiny of tax exceptions and loopholes. But there might also be a distant silver lining in the form of lower acquisition costs and more revenue from visitors–museums are an inexpensive family pastime, especially compared to a weekend in Turks and Caicos.

The real benefits of an economic downturn for nonprofits may be less obvious. The pendulum may be swinging back to a point where nonprofit art-world institutions start to matter more again. Creative Time’s current event series, Democracy in America, which culminated with the well-timed opening of a sprawling exhibit of political art at the Park Avenue Armory last weekend (see picture) may be a sign of good things to come–evidence that the art world may be ready to rejoin the “reality based community.”

2 thoughts on “What’s next for nonprofits?”

  1. There was a fascinating panel of artists and administrators at Eyebeam last Friday, “Artists as Foundation: Giving it Away,” who are in the exhibit, “Other Options.” This exhibition began at InCUBATE (Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and the Everyday) in Chicago. Cofounder Ben Schaafma In his essay introducing the show cites Grant Kester’s “Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector and Imaginary Publics”: “…it seems apparent that paradigms to justify public arts funding in the United States are going to change. A great deal depends on the ability of the art world to reformulate the relationship between publicly funded artists and the publics they hope to represent.”

    Each of the artists who spoke reformulated this relationship according to a specific economic model. Josh Greene’s Service-Works is a nonprofit foundation that uses his earnings as a waiter one night a week to fund the project of another artist. Service-Works sounds a lot like the model provided by Donors Choose, where in a move towards privatization schoolteachers submit their classroom project proposals online and individuals can privately fund them. Of all the artists who spoke, it was Greene who was willing to promote his own self-interest.

    Joanna Spitzner’s Joanna Spitzner Foundation explores the bureaucratic institution of the nonprofit as a form of economic transparency, exposing the conditions of lived existence in capitalism. Her book, 399.75 hours, describes in detail her days as a checkout girl at the local Price Chopper, providing the funds for paying the artists her foundation supports. For Spitzner it is such things as the excessive paperwork of providing a paycheck or applying for nonprofit status that makes transparent and simultaneously troubles the sense of economy and value.

    Geraldine Juarez models her Tanda Foundation upon the tanda, an investment practice of illegals who, unable to use a bank, will collectively throw their savings in a pot and rotate these savings from person to person. Upon visiting her site, one finds the economy very small – there is a cap on the donation of $20.00. Different from the tanda is that much like Donors Choose, you can either vote for or directly fund a project. Around her neck she wears a token given to her by friends in Mexico to protect her from greed.

    Finally, Abigail Satinsky, cofounder of InCUBATE, discussed their Sunday Soup, based on what appeared to be a food cooperative in which the profits from a bowl of homemade soup are handed to the project that wins the collective’s vote.

  2. There are socially conscious nonprofits which feed the hungry, house the homeless, work with runaway or HIV-positive youth, engage in natural disaster relief. And there are arts/cultural nonprofits, generally sharing a left-liberal orientation. The two should be sympathetic and cooperative. Artists, for example, are often moved to donate work to auctions that benefit socially or politically active causes. But as the economy shrinks, organizations dealing with subsistence and survival will likely be favored over artistic endeavors. There will necessarily be increased competition for fewer dollars. This could endanger the natural affinity between good causes and good art.

    The Democracy in America extravaganza is a “big tent” event at the Park Avenue Armory. Creative Time and curator Nato Thompson are to be commended for the ambition and timeliness of this effort, which mirrors the size and clamor of national party conventions in this election year, and gathers a lot of political art and partisan noise under the high, vaulted ceiling of the Drill Hall or off in side rooms and hallways.

    This “Convergence Center” revisits public art projects previously done under the CT aegis. It gives Steve Powers’ Waterboard Thrill Ride a new home after its Coney Island run, and includes a huge, two-screen projection of Mark Tribe’s Port Huron Project, his re-enactment of several radical New Left speeches of the 1960s by Cesar Chavez, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and others. Pia Lindman’s Soapbox Event, staged on Wall Street back in April, gives speakers another chance to sound off, for one minute, with a big megaphone.

    There is humorless, densely texted, self important post-MFA work here – it seems unavoidable in a group show of political art – but a preponderance of gems makes a visit to the one-week event (it closes on Saturday, September 27) essential. Don’t miss Jon Kessler’s brilliant thingamajig of doll torture, video cameras and a barrage balloon; Ken Tin-Kin Hung’s Residential Erection, an obsessively layered, savagely funny animation that takes no prisoners in its caricature of the candidates; Duke Riley’s aquatic adventure, his reconstruction of Revolutionary War submarine The Turtle, brooding here in lacquered splendor amid the trappings of other wars, but shown in action in a TV mockumentary as it performed an “attack” on the QE II in New York Harbor; the Center for Tactical Magic’s anarchist ice cream truck, filled with Fudgsicles, progressive literature and surveillance equipment; Steve Lambert’s interactive Pentagon coloring book, the doodled pages tacked onto a long plywood wall; Luca Frei’s Bruce Nauman-ish spiral of neon letters that references Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti (tucked away in the mezzanine); and the Steve Kurtz/Critical Art Ensemble shrine to the fragility of free speech in our post 9/11 world and his reprehensible persecution by rabid FBI agents. In addition, a full schedule of speeches and performance events is listed on the Creative Time website.

    So do go to the Armory. But when you go – and to my mind it’s a very big BUT – you will probably be unaware (as most attendees are) that two floors of the building also house a Womens’ Shelter. They might as well be living on another planet. The only interface between the privileged art world (which uses the front door) and the homeless (who enter from the side) comes in the elevator to Sharon Hayes’ fourth floor installation. I am not suggesting an artwork “using” this homeless population; that would be exploitative and inappropriate. But the opacity, the lack of any acknowledgment that we are interlopers in the building and the homeless women its regular inhabitants, seems a glaring omission in the context of this sprawling, overtly political exhibition. It inadvertently provides a lesson in the discontinuity between social and artistic nonprofit efforts.

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