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U.S. Culture Suffers From Malign Neglect

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In an article in the Wall Street Journal online, Terry Teachout cites a national decline in audiences for the "high arts" and uses it to reiterate his position that orchestras, opera companies, museums and other arts organizations fail because of their in ability to innovate.

In order to survive, such institutions will have to constantly re-examine their missions and adapt to the brutal challenges of American culture in the 21st century.

Anyone care to argue? Bueller?

Of course not. As far as it goes, his point is simply that arts organizations need to do their best to stay relevant to the changing communities and shifting conditions. Cultural institutions have known that -- and talked about it and tortured themselves over it -- for at least 50 years. My article last week What's Killing the Orchestras of the United States? offered more or less the same point as a conclusion, that to be successful, an orchestra needed an effective, working board dedicated to immediate and long-term planning.

But the key words in the Teachout quote are "brutal challenges of American culture." With those words, he would like to let the wealthiest Americans in position to help these organizations off scot free. in the course of my article I laid out some of the many challenges facing orchestras. Teachout would like to sweep those aside and put the onus solely on the failed institutions. Do your job better, he implies, and all will be well.

That argument is an old capitalist rationalization. Businesses that fail deserve to fail. It allows us to walk away from the free marketplace with a clear conscience each day. But applied here, the argument trivializes and obscures known problems in education and in funding that currently plague the arts. It also ignores the special place the arts have in society, treating them as more or less disposable.

As I've said before, the wealthiest Americans have made a killing over the past three years but their charitable donations have not risen proportionately. A study published by the University of California at Berkeley found that from 2009 to 2012, the top 1% of U.S. incomes grew by 31.4%, while the rest grew at 0.4%.

In the meantime, charitable donations in general have not yet recovered. Giving USA estimates that if the current rate of giving continues, it will take a full six or seven years to reach pre-Recession levels. The small slice for arts and culture has been rising faster than giving in general, but still not enough to make up for the damage done by the drop-off beginning in 2008.

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