Making The Case For The Arts As A Jewish Communal Priority
06/18/2013 - 11:58
Joshua Ford

It is vital for arts institutions in the Jewish community, Jewish artists and the current generation of philanthropists that support the arts to begin articulating the argument that the support of the arts is not a distraction from the values the next generation of philanthropy seeks to support, but central to them.

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 can be seen in the recent Next Gen Donor report issued by 21/64 and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy which relates 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, “hands-on” donor involvement and 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 NY (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 current generation of philanthropists that support the arts to begin articulating the argument that the support of the arts is not a distraction from the values the next generation of philanthropy seeks to support, but central to them. Further, Jewish art-makers and art presenters need to examine their practices and 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 needs to be made that art deserves an important place in Jewish community priorities. Rather than relying on traditional and sentimental appeals to the transformative power of art (true though it is), we might be better served to point to the revolution in urban planning that has accompanied the revival of America’s great cities over the past twenty 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, but also 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 have always 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 (depending on the era) 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 as it regards the crucial tasks of identity formation, education and critical examination of our society – all roles the arts are particularly well-suited to. If, as is reported in the 21/64 report, Civil Rights, the Environment and Advocacy are emergent priorities for Next Gen donors, then we have to make the case that those issues have long 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, but to strongly make the 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 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 need to 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 currently 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.

Joshua Ford is Associate Executive Director at the Washington DCJCC.

This first appeared in eJewish Philanthropy

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The arts are more than entertainment. They are wisdom born from creativity of all kinds - intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and all things meta. They inspire us to be more than we are and they take us on journeys to places we never knew existed. The writings of great Jewish poets, the music of great composers, and the stories that have beguiled and entranced us even as they have helped us to survive in the darkest times - these and more make us the rich culture that we are which is part of the great cultures of the world. The need for justification is already a critique of Jewish communal funding priorities, though I applaud Joshua's blog post.

nothing is as disheartening as the effort to divert funds from primary Jewish education which is necessary for the survival of Jews

art is nice - when you've already insured that every jewish child can read chumash