China Eyes U.S. Lessons
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China Eyes U.S. Lessons

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A few months back, I wrote on the differing challenges facing theaters and other cultural institutions in the United States and China and noted that China’s theater scene is still in the early stages of development. As Brooklyn-based the Bridge Project noted, China’s “non-government troupes struggling to find space and funding and censors controlling what goes on stage.”

So I was interested to hear that Michael Royce, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), had traveled to China last summer to teach arts management to those running cultural organizations in Shenzhen, Luo Yang and Beijing. 

Government involvement in the arts is of course a perennially tendentious issue in China, and so I wanted to hear more about Royce’s experiences sharing American strategies in a very different culture, and indeed how he ended up getting involved with China in the first place.

I was told that a delegation of Chinese officials reached out to Royce after hearing about his supervision of NYFA’s turnaround (over the last five years, the reinvigorated organization has built up both earned and contributed revenue streams). Chinese officials contacted Royce to request a meeting when they visited New York with the aim of gathering information that would enable them to understand more about how noncommercial cultural organizations in the United States secure private funds. (In China, dependency on state funding is entrenched and few efforts are made to raise money from other sources).

As I mentioned here, China’s Central Committee is prioritizing cultural matters and as part of efforts to boost international awareness of Chinese culture. More self-reliant, energetic arts organizations would undoubtedly help to diversify the country’s cultural landscape and would no doubt encourage international dialogue. So it makes sense that part of this effort is an attempt to restructure the operating models for NGOs.

So, how did things pan out? Following the Chinese delegation’s New York trip, they invited Royce to join other arts administrators from the U.S. and Europe to speak at the series of three conferences, each attended by 250 to 400 people, where he talked about individual giving and how the system rewards both donor and recipient in different ways.

In practical terms, the big challenge for China is to create a philanthropic culture such as exists in the United States (and increasingly in Europe as inflation and austerity policies challenge assumptions about government spending). Indeed, the Chinese government may even be considering the establishment of a system to help incentivize giving that resembles the U.S. tax deduction for charitable contributions.  But the tax deduction is rarely the most significant motivating factor in Americans’ charitable giving; it’s also about feeling involved in a community and caring about a cause – sentiments that I think are worth reproducing whenever possible.

The complication is that independence implies not just financial self-sufficiency, but also ideological self-determination, something that is obviously not the Chinese government’s goal. Can China lead a revenue diversification initiative while also maintaining control of content?  Western funding models are time-consuming, but the variety of sources promotes freedom of speech because no single benefactor can claim a majority stake. The Chinese government’s biggest challenge will therefore be importing fundraising strategies without also importing its implications.

One question that apparently came up several times throughout the tour was this: audience members asked how to adapt the recommendations given the official Chinese discomfort with direct requests for money. But they needn’t worry – Americans find that hard too, so the response given is the same one that would be given anywhere…just do it!

Veronica R. Bainbridge is a fundraiser, event producer and development consultant in New York City.  She has served as Director of Development at Vineyard Theatre and LAByrinth Theater Company, as Business Manager for The Directors Company, and as a panelist for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

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