Monday, March 28, 2011

Martin House Dollars & Sense

As impressive as the effort to restore Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex may be, the fundraising effort behind the project is equally incredible.  To date, 41 million dollars have been raised from both private and public sources in support of this unprecedented and painstaking restoration.  Even more impressive is the fact that the funding formula has been an almost even split between public and private sources.  An incredible coalition of financial support has formed around this project.  This week, two announcements of additional support (again, from both public and private sources) toward the $6 million still needed to fully restore the Martin House have made the news.  All great news and a testament to the vision and determination of Buffalo, right? 

In an economically-challenged community like Buffalo, struggling all the more in the midst of a national economic slump and a state that Governor Cuomo has called “functionally bankrupt,” what would appear to be a tremendous success story also raises eyebrows and stirs the debate over cultural funding at the intersection of public and private spheres.

To dive into the recent debate swirling around Erie County funding for the arts would be problematic (not to mention all-consuming) given my polemic position as scholar and champion of the Martin House.  But, at the risk of dipping my toe in, I’m compelled to make a few points, as objectively as I can:

A significant distinction tends to be lost in sound bytes on these issues:  the County Executive’s proposal of a $500,000 challenge grant to match the first $1 million of funds raised from the private sector in support of the final phase of restoration of the Martin House was made with the crucial distinction that these are capital funds.  That means that County Executive Collins’ commitment is an investment in a permanent cultural asset.  Not a dime of that proposed grant will go toward salaries, overhead or programming support for the MHRC.  Yes, the MHRC was fortunate enough to retain operational funding via Erie County this year, when many worthy cultural organizations were cut; but that’s a separate discussion, and there's help on the way for the de-funded organizations.*  For that matter,  the Martin House Complex is hardly the only Western New York asset that has received public sector support; it may receive more scrutiny of this support, however, due to the high (and unavoidable) cost of such an ambitious restoration. 

Those who cry foul over the “haves” and “have-nots” in this scenario often miss the fact that we’re not talking about disproportional slices of one pie, we’re talking about two different pies.  Operational funds are needed by organizations every year; capital funds are one-time investments in assets that will produce returns in the long run.  Both funding streams are necessary, but it’s an unfortunate reality that they become conflated in the realm of public opinion.  There will always be those who argue that both of these funding “pies” should be eliminated entirely (and permanently), but I hate to think of what that would mean to the quality of life that we currently enjoy in Western New York.  Arguably, complete privatization of culture means the withering of culture as a whole.

The Martin House is a bricks-and-mortar investment (literally and figuratively), part of the irreplaceable historic fabric of Western New York.  It is embedded in the past history of Buffalo, and will surely help shape the city’s future as a magnet for cultural tourism.   

As Wright himself said, “if you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”  Let’s invest wisely, Buffalo—we only get one shot at this.

*You can help leverage $1 million to support 46 cultural institutions in Western New York by participating in the Give4Greatness campaign, sponsored by Artvoice, M&T Bank and Channel 7:

As of this post, it seems there is funding from the City of Buffalo in the offing, which may offset much - if not all - of the losses of County funding.

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