Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nonprofits and Cultural Heritage

Arts, Inc.

While reading Bill Ivey's Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights for ARLIS/NA Reviews, I was particularly stuck by this passage (pp. 45-47):

“Most of America’s twentieth-century culture was produced by for-profit arts industries, and much of our cultural heritage has been no better treated than assets such as buildings and furniture. But what about the network of orchestras, dance companies, theaters, and opera companies—organizations that grew up on the nonprofit side of America’s cultural playing field? And what about libraries, archives, and personal collections—have they managed to serve the public interest by preserving intangible heritage and making it available to citizens? When it comes to preserving work they create, nonprofits haven’t done very well, and our underfunded public and private archives have struggled to keep up with expanding collections, expensive technologies, and an increasingly burdensome intellectual property environment.

As record executive Dan Sheehy notes, tapes and films are “much more ephemeral than most other broad categories of human achievement,” and, although operating under public service charters, most nonprofit cultural organizations have simply never had the resources required to adequately manage historical materials generated by their own work. Often boxed in by restrictive union regulations, orchestras, opera companies, and nonprofit theatrical production companies have often found it difficult or impossible to legally memorialize their own work. Even when recordings of productions are generated, it’s far too costly for the typical nonprofit to maintain archives of those film or tape recordings that can be authorized. Consider that the New York Philharmonic generates fifteen hours of new recordings each week; multiply that total by the two hundred or so orchestras that archive their own work, and add the fields of dance and theater, and the scope of the ongoing preservation challenge emerges.

Even museums and historical societies, nonprofits with stated preservation and public access mandates, have done a far from optimal job of preserving creativity from the past. This is intangible heritage we’re talking about, sounds and images captured on discs, tapes, films, or hard drives that have value only because of their content. Museums and historical societies have had their hands full simply dealing with buildings, artifacts, and monuments—tangible things you can walk up and touch. In 2005 Heritage Preservation (a Washington-based heritage advocacy organization) surveyed 30,000 collections in museums, libraries, and archives and discovered that more than half had suffered damage from water or light and that ‘many institutions lack basic environmental controls that prevent photographs from losing color [and] keep rare books from crumbling to dust.’

Financial pressures have not only prevented museums from protecting collections; they have encouraged museums to continually look to their holdings as potential sources of income. Tight preservation budges mean that sometimes holdings are simply sold, usually after a committee has quietly declared them ‘surplus,’ arguing that the artworks don’t line up with core collection policies of the museum. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman pummeled the New York Public Library following the deaccessioning (sale) of the Asher B. Durand painting Kindred Spirits. Noting that little public debate had preceded Sotheby’s auction of the piece (which was purchased by the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation, of Wall-Mart fame), Kimmelman concluded that today, “in America, celebrity and money are the measuring sticks of cultural value.” Historical assets attached to nonprofits that aren’t in the culture business have fared even worse: witness the dismal handling of speeches, letters, and other documents by the Martin Luther King Jr. estate. After decades of attempting to earn royalties by licensing the civil rights leaders’ words, the King collection was on the verge of being liquidated by, you guessed it, Sotheby’s. (A consortium of Atlanta-based universities stepped in to acquire the King material at the last moment.) Although nonprofit status exists to serve the public interest, financial constraints, union policies, and contractual commitments have made it difficult for tax-exempt institutions to set a standard of preservation and access significantly better than what has evolved in for-profit arts industries."

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