The Corner

The Artful Beggar

There’s a lot of begging going on. Now that the banks and auto industry have their booty, America’s non-profits are angling for what they believe is their share.

Yesterday’s Washington Post carried a plea on behalf of arts institutions from Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser. Kaiser’s unsubtle message basically asked “Where’s ours?” But what it lacked in suspense it made up for in melodrama. “As we print billions of dollars in bailout money,” Kaiser crooned, “isn’t it time to ensure that we are saving our soul as well as our economy?”

Having written a book on art and art institutions, I’m a verifiable art lover. I had even attended a performance at the Kennedy Center the very day that Kaiser wrote. But museums and opera houses don’t top my list of soul-saving institutions. These are places we go to see or to hear great art, not to confess our sins and seek redemption. There is a difference.

Back to the begging. Kaiser’s appeal comes two weeks after 30 of our nation’s public universities made a similar plea. In the space of a two-page New York Times ad the schools argued for a no-strings-attached infusion of $40 billion. Interestingly at least 10 of the signatories are institutions that are sitting on tax-free endowments greater than $1 billion.  

The tax-free status our academic and art institutions enjoy is the greatest gift taxpayers can ever give. Rather than begging for more, schools and museums should be trying to prove that they are spending the tax-free funds they currently oversee in service to the public. Non-profit status should not be taken for granted in these trying times.

 – Lynne Munson is former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and author of Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance.

  

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