Thoughts on Arts Management in China - by Laura Zucker, Executive Director, Los Angeles County Arts Commission. Second in a series of posts from the members of California's first official cultural mission to the People's Republic of China.
As might be suspected, I was the arts management maven of the delegation, keenly interested in the changing systems of support for the arts in China. China, like many countries around the world, is trying to move away from being the sole supporter of its arts and cultural institutions. While we may wish for more support from government here in the United States, other countries that have much more robust governmental support of the arts, China included, view our system of multiple support streams with envy and want to know the recipe for our secret sauce.
China does have provisions for nonprofit organizations; the Long Museum, which houses a fantastic collection of Chinese contemporary art in Shanghai, established itself as a nonprofit, but nonprofits in China have to pay taxes just like commercial ventures, so the distinction has dubious benefits. A nonprofit can solicit and receive contributions, but whether or not these contributions are tax deductible is still a point of confusion. One of our hosts from the Ministry of Culture explained that the tax deduction exists but that the process for claiming it is so cumbersome that few do so. Others equally knowledgeable, including a professor of arts management from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, do not believe this even exists as an option. Either way, like many in Europe and elsewhere, citizens believe they have already contributed when they pay their taxes and there is no tradition of individual philanthropy.
Registering as either a nonprofit or for profit organization triggers taxes, so many artists avoid doing either, soldiering on as informal collectives. This has led to an interesting dichotomy in Chinese cultural organizations between those still primarily supported by the government that are being pushed to expand revenues--primarily earned revenue through sponsorships--and the scrappy private organizations that seem to be bubbling up everywhere. All organizations are hoping for private contributed income, but are actively pursuing earned income whenever possible through ticket sales. Many events are as pricey, if not more expensive, than similar events in America. One museum, while free for most of its exhibitions, charged $60 for a special exhibit!
Organizations with the luxury of still benefiting from significant government support, such as the Shanghai Peking Opera Company, get perks that it's our turn to envy. Artists at the opera receive government-paid housing and live together in a beautiful apartment complex, just steps away from their rehearsal hall.
There is a budding recognition on the part of the Chinese Ministry of Culture of the importance of preserving and fostering folk and traditional arts. There are 57 different ethnic groups within China; how little we know about these diverse cultural traditions in the west. Like our realization that not all Chinese food is Cantonese, there's a lot of arts and culture unexplored here.
As we were whisked one evening through Xi'an--whose food is spicy and delicious, by the way--we passed a group of elders dancing to a boombox in a park. When I asked our young interpreter Nicole (her English name for our benefit) what arts event this was, she replied that it was just another group of older people--like so many everywhere in China--who get together in the evening and dance. Like her grandmother, who participates weekly in a similar group, they self-organize and arrange their own meet-ups. Everyone knows all the same dances because they were taught them in school as part of the curriculum. It's both exercise and a social event. Nicole thought this all a somewhat boring manifestation of an older generation, but I thought it was an amazing example of the benefits of ubiquitous arts education and public engagement in the arts. Both of which seem to be taken for granted in China,and both for which we in the United States continue to strive.
Laura Zucker has been Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission since 1992. She oversees a staff that administers a $4.5 million grant program funding more than 300 nonprofit arts organizations and is Director of the Arts Management Program at Claremont Graduate University.