Making the Case for Culture

Fundraising for Arts and Culture in the Arab Region
By Oussama Rifahi

Why culture? I am sitting in front of a businessman, obviously already pre-occupied with his next meeting. I have about twenty minutes to answer this seemingly straightforward question. There is no room for hesitation: it took me two months of arm-twisting with his executive assistant to be here and I had to do it right.

There is much at stake. To receive this much-needed contribution was going to be essential for reaching the declared targets of fundraising from Arab sources for the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), an Arab fund now recognized as a major trusted independent institution, deeply rooted locally, and one of the few legitimate source of support for creative people in this region.

I usually start talking about the inherent importance of culture, how it helps in addressing issues of identity and change, confronting difficulty through innovative means, tackling reactionary forces, thinking critically, breaking stereotypes, inspiring and imagining a better future and retaining talent and how it has long-lasting and meaningful impact on our societies. I might even go further and throw in some statistics about creative industries and the economic impact of the arts and culture on development and GDP.

I could vehemently argue for the crucial role of artists and cultural practitioners in today’s turbulent age and marvel about how artists have suddenly been catapulted to the forefront of events after being relegated to the backstage of history for many decades.

Or I can be a bit more alarmist, and claim that arts and culture is the most efficient agent to counter extremism in times of change, that it acts as the cohesive bond for societies and caters for stability; that it is logical and necessary to invest into culture, not out of morality, but because we are aiming at long-term sustainability and want our businesses to continue to thrive economically.

I could be blunt and talk about the visibility he or his corporation will benefit from, should their logo appear on our website, publications and the press wall of our events. I would be ready to talk about the number of unique hits on the website, list names of VIP friends of AFAC or suggest associating his name to a new special program.

I would know if I am doing well at that stage, if I start hearing some questions. If not, I would have no other choice but to charge ahead, asking them to myself, rhetorically and to make the point: What expectations do we have of artists? Should they help us conserve our collective memory and take the role of the documentarians of shared identities? Is the artist the philosopher that reflects on values and helps mobilize people around just causes and rally them under the banner of action? Is the artist an educator, a narrator, the most appropriate one to reach out to the widest audience possible in our societies?

But the real punch line comes when I pull up my stack of grantees stories and push them unto his desk; the stories would be arranged in a very specific order of country, genre and topic. This is when I am able to tell if I am successful or not. My time is up! I either get the dreadful handshake with the polite goodbye or the business card with a personal number, inviting me to a second exploration when things are not so hectic.

Time and time again, as professionals involved into funding arts and culture in the context of absent public support, we have struggled to make the case for “Why Culture” is important. We are easily put off by questions such as: “Culture is less important than education; Art is a luxury, it does not need support; Art is removed from society, it sits on an ivory tower; Culture is the playground for wealthy oil countries busy with branding and nation building”, or “How can you ask for support to the arts when wars are raging, countries dismantled and people made homeless?”

Meanwhile, young institutions dealing with culture are ill-equipped to reach out effectively to the myriad of fundraising sources – foundations, corporations, high net worth individuals or crowd funding, each with their own sets of peculiarities and limitations. Thrown into confusion by the concepts of key performance indicators, logical frameworks and accountability often forget that the simplest way to convey the impact of culture is through the power of the story.

Do we have to re-learn how to talk more effectively about the work that we do? Or are we to simply learn how to ask? I wanted to share with you some of these stories on this link, from our website, with the hope they resonate well and answer the question of “Why Culture?” matters.

Read more on arts and culture philanthropy for social justice and peacebuilding:

Why Philanthropy Should Support Arts for Social Justice and Peace by Chandrika Sahai
Art and Social Justice by Tanul Tiwari