Producing Notes – A charity, or not a charity: that is the question


I was recently having a conversation with a family member about Acting Up Stage. I was explaining the business model of the not-for-profit arts and how 50% of our revenue comes from ticket sales and 50% from fundraising through donors, sponsors, foundations and government grants. When I was explaining why donors choose to support us, I heard: “I know you are a charity, but you are not REALLY a charity.”

I hear this statement all the time. In 2006, the government issued us a charitable tax number. Most of our colleagues, and certainly Canada’s largest institutions (e.g. Stratford, Shaw, Soulpepper, NAC, Canadian Stage, etc.), are charities as well.

The main benefit to being a charity is issuing tax receipts. Why? When someone donates to Acting Up and gets a tax receipt, they use it to reduce the amount of income tax that they owe the government. Put simply, when the government approves a charity, they give the public the opportunity to ‘choose their own cause’. Instead of paying tax and having the government decide how to distribute the pool amongst various social goods, the individual has a stamp of approval to make his or her own decision amongst a set of preapproved groups.

In that regard, by granting arts organizations charitable status, policy makers are deeming the arts as equally important as other charities including educational institutions, community projects and hospitals. But there is a disconnect. While the government recognizes the arts as a full-fledged charitable industry, many people in society can’t fathom the arts in the same camp as other social benefit organizations.

So why is the arts a charitable sector?

If I only have 30 seconds to make a pitch, I’ll talk about our education program. Training young people for free instinctively ‘feels’ charitable. Subsidizing tickets for student audiences and offering free workshops to secondary schools instinctively ‘feels’ charitable. People nod their heads in agreement right away. But while most not-for-profit arts organizations do have a youth education element, it’s not (in most cases) the core business. Our core business is making art. And explaining why that is charitable is a little more difficult. But here’s my best attempt:

1. Recognizing our past

History is important. We all took history throughout our schooling because there is an intrinsic desire to pass on cultural heritage, national identity and world events. The arts are a major player in historical education. Many customs in cultures of heritage are relayed through song or dance. Classic theatre, museums, and visual arts offer a window into historical practices and documentations. In many cases, artists are key historical figures in textbooks, and their work becomes their legacy, allowing us to still experience their greatness today.

2. Building our national identity

Italy is Michelangelo. Germany is Brahms. Russia is Nureyev. Artists help to define a country and represent it around the world. Physical artworks themselves can become a major tourist attraction and are synonymous with the national identity that gets broadcast. Supporting the arts builds our national identity for ourselves and for the world. Without support, would our future artistic geniuses ever create their masterpieces?

 3. Making a healthier society

Unfortunately the strongest argument is the most indigestible. The arts are a charity because the profound experience that art can unleash leads to a healthier life. Listening to a great piece of symphonic music, or watching a superb dancer, or staring at a master painting unlocks something very unique deep within us. That experience makes life richer. Collectively it helps to build an engaged, sympathetic, and healthy society. In Arts Council England’s 2007 report “Can the arts have a positive effect on health”, they found that attending the arts has a positive impact on anxiety, heart rate, blood pressure, immune system and pain perception. A 2002 National Endowment for the Arts report found that individuals who attend arts events at least once a year are more likely to participate in various civic associations, exhibit greater tolerance towards minorities, and behave in a manner which regards the interests of others above those of oneself. The 2010 “The Arts and Quality of Life” study by Environics Research found that 95% of Ontarians feel that the arts enrich the quality of their lives. Through the arts we make ourselves and the world around us better. It is a core social service. And it’s one that requires subsidy to ensure accessibility for as many citizens as possible.

Who knows if you find my arguments compelling. While the arts are no less of a charity than hospitals, schools, environmental organizations and social programs, their value can be harder to explain. Those who agree with my 3rd point, will do so on a visceral level – it’s not an intellectual debate.

Meanwhile, so often when we make a case for the arts, we do so in terms of economic impact – how our business is helping to support the commerce of the city. But the arts cannot be argued with dollars and cents. No one gives money to hospitals because of the economic benefit to the internal cafeteria franchises.

When people ask questions like “How can you actually be a charity?” and when government leaders and constituents see arts budgets as expendable, we have failed as a society. Something that historically was known to be a major priority and a major society builder has become something that only few appreciate as such. How did we get here? How do we fix it?

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