Benjamin Franklin's advice for Miami's arts and culture
By Michael Lewis
When he risked charges of treason by signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Benjamin Franklin supposedly said "We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
Those were perilous times. Success of the breakaway colonists was chancy. So leaders of competing colonies set aside differences and united efforts to break from Great Britain and start anew.
They had to hang together.
Fast forward 233 years to July 2009, also perilous times. Private and government funds for culture are shrinking. So competing cultural groups need to set aside their differences and unite to survive.
Like it or not, they must hang together.
Even as recession craters and then begins to lift, recovery will be gradual. Major contributions and government aid for culture will remain scarce.
Meanwhile, culture's pain intensifies.
Friday, the Miami Science Museum e-mailed an SOS lamenting that planned $11 million budget cuts in the Department of Cultural Affairs and clampdown on county grants "could ultimately mean that the current museum may have to close its doors...."
The museum noted as well that it is "already stretched thin" trying to raise its share of funds to build in Bicentennial Park downtown, a project for which $175 million in county aid is due — if the county can issue general obligation bonds as its own revenues shrink.
Other culture groups fight similar pressures. The venerable Concert Association of Florida recently closed. More may follow.
How, then, are cultural groups to survive?
In January we called on the cultural world to convene a no-holds-barred summit to find ways to work jointly, perhaps combining to reduce overhead and eliminate duplication.
The community didn't act, but county Commissioner Rebeca Sosa did, creating a panel of leaders to seek efficiencies in a cultural world better known for independence than unity.
Even before Ms. Sosa's team gets going, however, four key arts organizations have taken a long and quite commendable stride to cooperate.
As we reported last week, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts has united with its three remaining resident companies (the late Concert Association was the fourth) on a single November fundraising cruise.
Remarkably, this is the first joint effort in memory among cultural groups to lump what equates to four individual galas into a single one-ticket-buys-all package.
Think of the advantages: promoting one time instead of four, organizing one instead of four, tapping major funders once instead of four times, paying costs once instead of four times, finding a donor like Carnival Corp.'s Yachts of Seabourn, the event underwriter, one time instead of four.
It's so sensible that regardless of whether the Miami City Ballet, New World Symphony, Florida Grand Opera and Arsht Center hit the full half-million-dollars-apiece jackpot from tickets, every cultural group should try the united mode to maximize income at minimized cost.
Think of the efficiencies of the United Way, which fundraises for many charities rather than each having to mount a campaign with its own staff. The benefits are obvious — more revenues, fewer costs.
That same model, and even mergers, could work for culture.
Arts groups' fierce independence helps broaden cultural fare. But when the opera, ballet, symphony and arts center can see the benefit of sharing efforts and rewards alike, the model needs others' scrutiny — and quick action, before it's too late.
Think of it as a reverse Declaration of Independence. Call it a Declaration of Cooperation.
Instead of a United States, perhaps we'll get a United Cultural Community, comprising fewer independent bodies but far more long-run stability — just recall our nation's 233 years and counting.
Giving up independence might vex cultural boards, just as 13 colonies moved hesitantly into a single nation. Members might accuse leaders who advocate unity of treason, too.
But Dr. Franklin was right: If cultural organizations do not hang quite closely together — perhaps even merge — many victims of an economic executioner will surely hang separately.
Start now to unite and in a decade we might emulate the nation in another way. We might develop a Cultural Constitution that formalizes a strong, united and lasting cultural community with economic staying power.
That surely is benefit enough to get culture to hang together. Thanks, Ben.