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Home » Officer Columns » Arts Councils – Public Funding Traffic Managers

Arts Councils – Public Funding Traffic Managers

  -  AFM International Secretary-Treasurer

Every major city in North America has an arts council—some type of public service organization whose mission is to disburse dollars, usually public funds, in support of visual or performing arts. These fund granting councils are staffed by professionals but depend on volunteers from the community to assist in allocating those funds and deciding which are the meritorious projects that fit the community’s needs.

Serving as a volunteer board member on one of these councils is both a privilege and a serious responsibility. A good arts council member would be a person of selfless integrity, with an awareness of the locale’s arts scene, and perhaps endowed with a particular knowledge about a specific aspect of the arts.

Not so many decades ago, local union officers or prominent members of a local music community were fixtures on these arts council boards. It made sense, of course. An arts council would need a specialist’s eye and mind to vet grant applications, and where a musical performance project was being proposed, who better than someone tied to the instrumental community to help with that task.

In the years that have since passed, however, union representative participation on these arts councils has dwindled. In the 1980s, “union” was considered an unseemly term by the local culture vultures. As union representatives’ terms of service on these councils ended, they tended to be replaced by lawyers, financiers, municipal “influencers,” and societal ladder climbers. The union’s influence and expertise were gradually airbrushed out of the local arts scenes.

As an adjunct to my recent participation with the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees work on prevailing wages for projects funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, I did a quick survey of the membership of arts councils across the Canadian provinces and US states. The survey revealed that today the working musician has virtually no representation on these councils.

True, the performing arts are represented, but often by an entrepreneurial personality, or a lawyer who represents a bunch of musical organizations, or a banker or other business exec, each of whom may be simultaneously serving on parallel councils at the state, provincial, or national levels. I was struck by the similarities between the populating of arts council boards and corporate boards—an emphasis on networking and connections, with only a tip of the hat to specialized expertise.

It’s time to put our expertise back into the deciders’ arena. Take a look at your municipal, county, and state or provincial arts councils. Is your local represented on the council? Or is a respected and fair-minded rank-and-file member of your local union on the council?

If the answer is “no,” bring it up with your local officers, or at a union board or membership meeting. Help start the process of learning what it takes to get your union voices back on those councils to regain the influence over how those public dollars get spent and, when it’s for music performance, that the musicians get paid appropriately.

We’ll be expounding on this topic in subsequent issues. Stay tuned.