Reflections on September 11

Susan Beresford, Robert L. Lynch

September 11 and Beyond
The following is excerpted from a March 2002 interview with Susan Beresford (president, Ford Foundation) that is included in September 11: Perspectives from the Field of Philanthropy, published August 2002 by the Foundation Center, 79 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10003, 212-620-4230. It is published by permission of the Foundation Center.

FC: It was common in the weeks after 9/11 to hear people say that the attacks had changed everything. Did September 11 change everything?

Susan Beresford: No. September 11 changed many things, but not everything. It did create a sense of vulnerability in this country that I don't think we had experienced for a long time. And that prompted, in turn, an outpouring of patriotic sentiment that we hadn't seen for a long time. However, I don't think it has yet prompted what needs to occur, which is a spirited debate about the role of the United States in the world. It's still hard to do that. I think fear and the understandable desire to strike back, the kind of war-footing mentality we've seen, makes it difficult to have a thoughtful discussion about our role in the world. But I think it will happen, and has to happen.

September 11 also changed some grantmaking agendas. It certainly changed some of the work we do here — intensifying it, as it were, if nothing else. Many of our staff said that they felt their work was more urgent than ever, that they wanted to get on with things, to get to the end point quicker while discarding some things that didn't seem to be as significant as they did before the eleventh.

But what's important to remember is that we still have an agenda in this country independent of 9/11. And that agenda has to do with poverty and diversity and school reform and the health and life of our cultural institutions and issues of race and gender and sexual preference and so on. So while 9/11 should and will change some things, other things will remain as they were and deserve our full attention.

FC: A final question: Are we on the threshold of a golden age of philanthropy? Or will the dislocations caused by the transition from the industrial, fossil fuel-based economy of the present to the knowledge-based economy of the future overwhelm our most cherished institutions, including philanthropy as we know it?

SB: I'm not sure I know what the phrase “a golden age of philanthropy” means, exactly. I would say, however, that I think the philanthropic impulse in this country is strong, and that the huge amount of wealth created in recent decades means that we can look forward to new stimuli in the foundation field, with new monies coming in and donors bringing new ideas to the table. And that's very important.

What also is terribly important, if we want this to be a great age of philanthropy, is that we not overly constrain it. This country is filled with many different kinds of people from many different kinds of backgrounds. It's that diversity of personality and background and opinions and ideas that makes us such a strong and vibrant society. It's also what makes philanthropy strong. It would be a mistake to say to a foundation, “You should look like this, or only exist for this period of time, or only do this kind of work,” Obviously, there have to be some legal parameters within which we operate, and I think the government has done a good job of establishing those. But by the same token it's the creativity of the field that we really want to preserve. Think of it this way: the money foundations give out in the form of grants is risk money; it's money that's not driven by a bottom line or the need to provide short-term value to shareholders. A lot of things we work on take a long time to get traction and yield results. We need that kind of risk capital on the social benefit side of the equation, just as we need it on the entrepreneurial business side. So we have to be very protective of the freedom foundations have to take risks and to innovate. At the same time, we have to trust that people in the future will be as inventive as they have been in the past. We have to trust that certain qualities fundamental to philanthropy — human imagination and the moral commitment to changing conditions that cause human suffering — won't disappear or lose their appeal. And as long as we keep those things at the heart of the field, we should be fine.

A Post 9/11 Look at the Nation's Arts Community
Robert L. Lynch

As I write this today on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I am still struck by the unfailing generosity of this country's artistic community in response, both immediate and over time, and especially in light of ever-increasing economic hardship.

At Americans for the Arts we began using our Web site and email mechanism right away to capture as much information as we could about who was doing what. One of the earliest and most poignant stories came from William Harvey, a student violinist at Juilliard, who wrote of playing for hours at the Armory in New York City for the families of the missing and the soldiers of the 69th division who spent the day digging through rubble (See GIA Reader, vol. 12, no. 3, fall 2001, p. 5).

We learned that fifty-eight members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale sang the William Byrd Mass in Four Parts in the downtown library as hundreds of people stood among the five levels of the atrium. The Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut asked patrons to sing “God Bless America” after each show and collected money for the United Way. A free tribute concert dedicated to victims and rescue workers was presented by the Delaware Symphony Orchestra in lieu of their annual black-tie opening night fundraiser. I got to experience first hand the impact of a free concert by Yo Yo Ma for the families of Pentagon victims.

Beyond the initial performances and benefits, we then saw arts organizations involved directly with dialogue and healing. The Arts Council of Indianapolis launched a multi-media public service campaign called “The Arts Can Help.” An emergency residency program that provided studio and living space for artists from New York City and Washington was initiated by the Santa Fe Arts Institute, with Southwest Airlines picking up the airfare. The Oklahoma Arts Council sponsored a workshop on the arts and trauma, pairing artists from its residency program with mental health professionals.

These are just a few examples among the nearly 2,000 email messages we received documenting activities. This is a remarkable response, given that 9/11 events were add-ons to what are already incredibly busy schedules of arts managers and their organizations. But the financial picture was less uplifting. We did a quick Web-based survey to local arts agencies at the end of October 2001 and received eighty-four responses that yielded no surprises. More than 75 percent of respondents projected that the arts would experience decreased funding, especially in communities that rely on hotel/motel taxes, corporate donations, and individual gifts.

As time has gone on, we've come to see that the economy was already in a downturn prior to the attacks because of the drop in the stock market, the dot-com bust, and the looming recession. When there is a funding crisis in the arts, it usually tends to affect only one or two of the arts' core funding streams. But after September 11, we found that this crisis seemed to affect all five: earned income, individual giving, foundation grants, corporate support, and government funding. Every state and every community has felt the impact, and especially hard hit, of course, were cultural institutions in New York City, which experienced a huge drop in tourism. With many foundations suffering dwindling portfolios and facing many competing needs, it was particularly important to see leadership such as that exhibited by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with its $50 million fund to assist New York's artistic community.

The arts enjoyed a fairly long-term growth cycle starting with the creation of the NEA in 1965 and ending with the robust 1990s. Last year the arts entered a new and difficult financial era, and it is likely that in this current climate the arts will be struggling for some time yet. The 2002 fiscal year saw a 6 percent aggregate reduction in state support to the arts. This reduction, after years of record increases, was largely due to cuts in New York and California. Interestingly, thirty-two states actually increased appropriations in 2002. However, 2003 is looking to be an even worse financial landscape for state support.

On a more positive note, some state and local officials are seeming to better understand that investing in the arts is investing in their community's development. The 2002 budgets of the fifty largest city arts councils held flat (.5 percent aggregate increase, and if New York City is taken out of the equation, the aggregate growth was 6.8 percent). However, 2003 will show the negative impact of lost hotel/motel tax revenue in many cities. The national economic impact study released by Americans for the Arts in June positions the nonprofit arts as a $134 billion industry, and we hope provides a useful tool for arts leaders to continue making the case for government support and private investment in any economic cycle. The study was a key lever in getting the U.S. House of Representatives to appropriate a $10 million increase for the NEA this summer.

The reality of financial concerns kicking in with no fabulous solutions looming on the horizon does not, however, seem to dampen the resilient spirit of our nation's arts community as we look to commemorate September 11. From documentary film festivals, poetry Web sites, television specials, public art installations, photography exhibits, free concerts, new play readings, outdoor quilt displays, public radio sonic memorials, and football halftime shows to Bruce Springsteen's latest album, the artistic response is nothing less than overwhelming. The bulk of the nearly 2,000 arts events reported to Americans for the Arts came in the first three months after September 11, but in the last two months the number of commemorative arts events have reached similar levels.

Today, on September 11, 2002, the New Jersey Symphony will play Verdi's Requiem at Liberty State Park, overlooking the Manhattan skyline. The Children's National Medical Center in Washington will unveil a Wall of HeArts created by students from a school that lost a teacher, a student, and two parents in the Pentagon attack. Arts organizations all over will partner with their community's mayors, city and county governments, chambers of commerce, veterans groups, school districts, service clubs, firefighters, police, and more. Is it even possible to imagine any memorial event anywhere taking place without the arts? In fact I am currently amazed at how consistently our nation and its leaders turn to the arts for solace, or meaning, or memorializing, and yet how difficult it remains to translate that human and demonstrably national instinct into a stable policy of support from both the public and private sectors.

Mixing artistic vision with the public good is exactly what the arts community does. With the country's attention once again focusing on the healing nature of the arts, we can harness that inherent power to help unite, renew, and repair our collective hearts. The arts have demonstrated unmistakably the essential role that they play in our nation's emotions and its strength. And when the next funding rounds begin, perhaps the notion that the arts are a frill will recede even further in the public's consciousness.

Robert Lynch is president and CEO, Americans for the Arts.