The arts must be a Jewish communal priority

The arts must be a Jewish communal priority

The announcement that the UJA-Federation in New York will not be renewing the innovative Six Points Fellowship Program is part of a trend that reveals that funding for the arts is falling even further down on our list of Jewish communal priorities.

More discouraging evidence of this trend can be seen in the recent Next Gen Donor report issued by 21/64 and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, which tells us that the next generation of philanthropists is even less likely to support the arts than their parents and grandparents. The evolving nature of Jewish philanthropy presents additional challenges to the arts, where the emphasis on basic needs, measurable impacts, and hands-on donor involvement, along with a distrust of traditional institutions, present unique cultural problems for arts institutions and artists to respond to. The closure of the Six Points Fellowship in New York (the Los Angeles branch continues for now), JDub Record’s shut-down in 2011, and the attrition of Jewish art producers like the Traveling Jewish Theater in San Francisco and cutting-edge art venues like 92Y Tribeca, has yet to provoke a thoughtful conversation about and advocacy for the importance of Jewish arts in the thriving Jewish communities we are seeking to create.

It is vital for arts institutions in the Jewish community, Jewish artists, and the generation of philanthropists that does support the arts to begin to make the argument that support of the arts is not a distraction from the values the next generation of philanthropy seeks to support, but instead central to them. Further, Jewish art-makers and art presenters must adapt to new ways of presenting their art that allows for more interactive, dynamic, and engaging relationships with their audiences and donors.

This is all achievable, but it will require arts administrators and artists to step outside of their traditional comfort zones.

First, the argument that art deserves an important place in Jewish community priorities must be made. Rather than relying on traditional and sentimental appeals to the transformative power of art, true though they are, we might be better served by pointing to the revolution in urban planning that has accompanied the revival of America’s great cities over the past 20 years. During that time, the creation of mixed use zones to provide a combination of living, shopping, and entertainment opportunities in urban communities has been a central practice that has enjoyed tremendous success and has become the national model in cities from Washington, DC, to Seattle, Washington. Dedicated arts spaces in these new planning schemes are central both as attractions that spur other commercial activities such as dining and shopping, and as builders of community that provide a common cultural gathering space. At a time when municipalities, governments and secular foundations are investing more in ensuring a thriving creative community, the Jewish community would be wise to make similar investments to ensure a strong and knowledgeable Jewish voice.

The golden ages of Jewish life always have revolved around cities – Jerusalem and Cordoba, Krakow and Warsaw, Berlin and Prague, New York and Tel Aviv. One of the key factors in those golden ages were strong creative voices in poetry, theater, music, film, literature, dance, and visual arts. We need to recognize this is something our people need for a healthy communal eco-system, particularly when it comes to the crucial tasks of identity formation, education, and critical examination of our society. This is a task for which the arts are particularly well suited. If it is true that civil rights, the environment, and advocacy are emergent priorities for Next Gen donors, then we have to make the case that those issues long have been incubated and found their most articulate expression through the arts.

It is not enough anymore for art to speak for itself, just as it is not enough for Jewish education to be an end in itself. We must make a strong case that both these priorities provide a way for us to be in the world, as a vessel for our values and a framework for our actions.

Similarly, it is incumbent on Jewish artists and institutions to recognize the blurring line between art creators and art consumers. Engaging audiences can no longer just mean providing panel discussions following a performance, but actual engagement in the creation of art itself. The online world has broadened access to the world of art-making, and we must find a way to harness that energy into effective and compelling projects of real artistic merit. One intriguing model is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord initiative, which involves massive collaborations across various media and is now ramping up its own television show.

This is the challenge for the next generation of artists, philanthropists, and institutions. While it is certain that artists will continue to create art – true artists have no other choice – whether we will harness those individual and collective energies into an asset for the Jewish community remains to be seen.