Destroying the ballet in the name of artistic freedom

Destroying the ballet in the name of artistic freedom September 23, 2013

A commission of 80 executives, choreographers and dancers recently introduced a plan they say will revitalize ballet in America by reinvigorating artistic freedom.

With all due respect, I think their plan is a terrible idea. If enacted, it would mean the end of ballet in America. In the name of artistic freedom, these folks would destroy the art form, replacing it with something else — something completely unrecognizable, something that has little to do with dance or art or freedom.

Ballet societies and academies are non-profit institutions. They sell tickets and subscriptions, and they pay salaries and utility bills, but most could not survive with a for-profit business model. They depend on the generosity of their loyal donors.

The Executive Committee for the Freedom of Art says that ballet companies must be free to endorse political candidates and engage in partisan electioneering and lobbying campaigns — tax free.

Those donors are able to be so generous because their donations are tax-deductible charitable contributions. That charitable tax status is the lifeblood of the ballet, but it is also a privilege that comes with certain rules and restrictions. Those restrictions, the commission says, are a threat to artistic freedom.

Specifically, the commissioners say their freedom is hobbled by the rule that forbids tax-deductible charities from political campaigning, electioneering and endorsing candidates for political office.

What does any of that have to do with ballet? you ask. But that’s exactly the commissioners’ point. It shouldn’t be for you, or me, or the IRS, or anyone else to decide what is germane to their art. Artistic freedom cannot be constrained and still be called “freedom.” We may think that the rules for tax-deductibility are perfectly reasonable, but those rules limit that artistic freedom and thus, in the commissioners’ view, the IRS is meddling and interfering with their ability to be artists, to follow their art wherever it leads them.

The commissioners demand, then, to be allowed to keep their tax-deductible status, but without any of the restrictions that go along with it for every other charitable organization. They demand that the ballet be permitted full, unfettered artistic freedom — including the freedom to endorse candidates for political office and to participate in partisan campaigning and electioneering.

One obvious objection to this plan is that the commissioners do not seem to understand what the privilege of their tax-free charitable status means. They are demanding — in the name of art — that they be given special rights without any corresponding responsibilities. They are demanding what would be, in effect, a special no-strings-attached subsidy paid to them by taxpayers.

That’s not a problem just because it would give them an extra-special privilege at the expense of everyone else. It’s also a problem because such a scheme would drastically restrict their artistic freedom. It’s effect would be the opposite of what they claim to want.

The government subsidy the commissioners are demanding would be a form of establishment as a kind of official artistic branch of the government. The commissioners imagine that such establishment could happen without any corresponding intrusion of public accountability for how it spends that subsidy, but that’s a fairy tale. Public funding will always, ultimately, entail some form of public accountability, and they would inevitably become entangled in state business in a way that would severely constrain the very artistic freedom they’re claiming to champion.

But set aside such concerns about the establishment of official, state-sponsored art and let’s just consider what would happen first if the commissioners’ wish were granted: It would very quickly destroy ballet in America.

Imagine that you are a partisan political billionaire — like Art Pope or one of the Kochs or Waltons. Right now, you’re spending millions of dollars every year to promote your political agenda. You’re pleased with the return you’re seeing on that investment, but it’s still quite an expense. You’re writing checks to candidates all over the country, and you’re writing checks to the party at national, state and local levels, and you’re writing even more checks to various committees, PACs and Super-PACs.

Those political contributions are not tax-deductible. If the commissioners’ plan were enacted, though, you could write checks to the ballet instead — tax-deductible checks that could still be used to fund and promote the same partisan political purposes as the checks you’re writing now. It would be a simple matter to ensure that these donations to “the arts” would be spent mainly on the same politicking, electioneering and lobbying you’re funding now. (You simply make that a condition for your multi-million-dollar donations.)

If you are a rational economic actor presented with this choice — a $100 million expense vs. a $100 million tax deduction — you would be a fool not to redirect most of your political spending into the new outlet, the new outlet incentivized by the commission’s plan.

The only problem would be that these ballet companies lack the capacity and the expertise to handle all of that political money and to rechannel it into effective lobbying and campaigning. So the next step, obviously, would be for them to start hiring — using your contributions to endow all the new staff positions they would need to effectively handle all the money now rushing their way. Their small staffs of artistic directors, music directors and choreographers would be vastly expanded to include political directors, campaign consultants, pollsters, direct-mail fundraising experts, canvassers, speechwriters, aides, lobbyists, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, and all the rest.

This new staff would outnumber the vestigial original staff and would quickly set about transforming the ballet into an effective political machine. The ballet’s mailing list of subscribers and supporters would be vastly expanded, segmented and exploited into a tax-free communications and political-fundraising powerhouse. New offices would be leased — not necessarily anywhere near the ballet’s performance and rehearsal spaces — where all the lobbyists and consultants could carry out the work of the perpetual media campaign that is modern politics.

The ballet itself would continue, of course. The dancers would still dance. But art would become an ever-shrinking fraction of a vastly expanding budget.

Maybe that’s what the commissioners are hoping for. If you’re running a struggling non-profit limping along with a $1 million annual budget, it might seem like a windfall to be transformed into the artistic wing of a political machine receiving, say, 5 percent of a $100 million annual budget. That might mean finally renovating the stage, replacing that old boiler, patching the leaky roof, hiring a larger orchestra …

That promises increased financial freedom — a wave of cash that’s desperately needed. But it would be foolish to think this influx of political money would mean an increase in artistic freedom. Artistic concerns would become, in practice, just what they are in the ballet’s new, vastly larger budget — a tertiary concern, an afterthought, and a tiny fraction of the larger agenda.

And we haven’t even yet mentioned the potentially devastating effect that this new, partisan political identity could have — dividing the ballet’s audience and chasing off many of the dancers, composers and choreographers it needs to fulfill its mission.

The commissioners say they’re friends of the ballet. They’re posing as champions of artistic freedom. But their plan is a terrible idea that would, in practice, destroy the ballet and abolish artistic freedom.

I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t their intent.

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