The Rich Get Richer

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself, for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given him to till…”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

So the Getty has hired a fundraiser. (Story in the LA Times here.)

I have to admit that this bothered me, and it obviously stuck with a few other people too, judging by the number of links I’ve see to it around the web. The first reaction is obviously a visceral one to the idea of the world’s richest art-related nonprofit ($8 Billion) competing with everyone else for dollars. It feels like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates standing on the corner with sharp elbows and a tin cup. So far I haven’t seen anyone suggesting that they shouldn’t do it. But I’d say it stuck in a lot of craws… and now I’m really starting to wonder why.

I mean, they’ve got a right, don’t they?

James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust, is quoted in the Times saying that the Getty’s ambitions “have grown to the point where the expansion of our programs will soon outstrip the growth of our financial resources,” It boggles the mind, and yet it’s perfectly obvious, perfectly predictable. It’s a large and powerful institution, the people in it are doubtless (clearly) as ambitious in their field as the people at any large corporation, or governmental entity, or union, or local 4H club, for that matter. No matter how well funded they are today, sooner or later their dreams were going to outstrip their budget. The fact that their dreams have outstripped an 8 Billion Dollar Endowment may be startling (I admit it, I’m startled), but is really no less human – for all the zeros. Lots and lots and lots of zeros.

Which leads me to the conclusion that I’m jealous (maybe that’s not a shocker either). And that maybe a lot of us are, but we are not in all that much of a rush to admit it. So the story gets linked all over the web, and we all feel something while at the same time recognizing that it’s not quite tasteful, not quite acceptable, not quite something we want to say out loud in front of the whole class… because it is about art, about supporting something we are all supposed to want to support, on some level.

And Emerson came to mind on this, because I think the truth is that all of us want, for our institutions (which are at least as deserving as the Getty, are they not?), the ability to be that ambitious, to be that far-reaching, but it seems… impossible. We tell ourselves that the Getty was birthed into the world with a silver spoon that will never be matched, can never be matched, by us, and that it’s not fair.

Maybe not. But it’s what we’ve got now, it’s where we are. Emerson says we need to stop wasting our time and start tilling our own soil, and I think I agree with him. Government supported funding for the Arts is what it is – it isn’t going to get better in the near future. If the Getty can raise money to support its dreams with 8 Billion in the bank, more power to them. Seeking private dollars for the support of the Arts is not a zero-sum game; when the Getty (or the LA Phil, or The Center Theater Group) raises a dollar for itself, it doesn’t mean there is a dollar less for everybody else. If they can raise enthusiasm for their brand of culture, it doesn’t mean there is less enthusiasm for another brand. And maybe someday we can get to a world where there are many powerful, well-endowed arts institutions in our city, and many people will consider it expected that eventually, they will leave something from all that they have acquired in their lives, for the perpetual support of their own personal favorite slice of the American Cultural experience. Even if that particular slice has eight billion already…

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