Music Festival Played Into Donor's Hands
By Henry Goldstein
Reprinted with permission from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, July 1997

The Grand Teton Music Festival has struck a sour note by letting a politically motivated donor call the tune.

The Jackson Hole, Wyo., festival recently accepted a $40,000 gift from the philanthropist Foster S. Friess-on the condition that it turn down about $11,000 in government support, most of it from the Wyoming Arts Council, which in turn receives most of its money from the National Endowment for the Arts. The festival's board apparently reasoned that if private philanthropy could replace government funds at a ratio of nearly four to one, the deal must be a good one.

It was not. For an additional $29,000-representing less than 3 per cent of the festival's budget-the board not only acceded to Mr. Friess's audacious condition but also managed to encourage the pernicious idea that government support for the arts is a waste of taxpayers' money.

Gifts with such conditions should be turned down flat. It is only a short jump to other donors making other unacceptable demands, such as which staff members to hire and, in the case of an orchestra, what music to play.

In posing his challenge, Mr. Friess professed concern that working-class people not be forced to subsidize his seats at the festival through involuntary tax payments-a curious argument but an old one among bashers. They do not, of course, bother to ask working-class people how they feel about having local arts and cultural programs available to their children.

In a perverse way, Mr. Friess's gift validates the One of the fund's principal purposes has been to inspire private giving. In this case, it worked. Would the festival have been offered Mr. Friess's $40,000 without the 's money to attack?

In making his offer, Mr. Friess found an ingenious way to take on an agency that he abhors. But perhaps what really bothers Mr. Friess and other detractors-including a majority of the House of Representatives, which voted in July to scrap the agency, is the eternal truth that artists, dancers, musicians, writers, film makers, and other creative people are, by their nature, essentially outsiders. Their distance from social norms and expectations-and a free society's willingness to extend the borders of permissibility to include them-is the best test of democratic values there is.

Also problematic for both opponents and supporters of the agency is the fact that creative expression and aesthetic judgment are intrinsically unmeasurable. Cost-benefit analysis just does not work very well in the arts.

The result is that conservative members of Congress are emboldened to use arbitrary political power to define standards of taste or to express cultural judgments. That, in turn, encourages people like Mr. Friess to tell their towns' citizens what is good for them-and pushes weak boards into knuckling under.

Like Mr. Friess, I have problems with the , but for different reasons. Unhappily, the now seems pretty well shot as an important force in American cultural life. The larger, better known, and more successful arts institutions-who reap the lion's share of public arts money-only minimally represent the diversity of the cities and towns in which they are located, and their commitment to such diversity is seldom convincing, at least to me. In its best days, however, grants were pivotal in fostering shoestring arts groups that promoted the crossing of cultural, gender, racial, ethnic, and social divides.

Mr. Friess and I do agree on one point: Neither of us favors allocating public funds to government functions of which we disapprove. For example, I would prefer that less of my tax money go to the Pentagon and that more go to social-justice programs. But part of living in a democracy is that elected officials make those decisions.

Government support for the arts has many benefits. Federal funds help stimulate local economies by drawing tourists and by encouraging patrons to spend their money. In poor neighborhoods, the arts are an opportunity for people to transcend the hardships of their daily lives.

The music festival board should have recognized those benefits and not gone along with Mr. Friess's political agenda. Strings belong on the instruments, not on the gifts.

Henry Goldstein, president of the Oram Group, a fund-raising consulting company in New York, is a regular contributor to these pages. Click here to send an email.