Silence for the Poor

by David Nocenti

Published August 23, 2012 in the New York Nonprofit Press

No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop thinking about Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  But it isn’t the painting that I’m thinking about, it’s the auction sale price – $119.9 million, which is the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction – and the priorities that figure represents.

Much has been written over the past year about “The 99%” and the Occupy Wall Street movement. But perhaps nothing crystallizes our societal divide better than the main auction room at Sotheby’s that one night in May, with bidders in their seats and on the phone, and The Scream sitting silently on an easel, looking on.

The minimum bid for the painting was $50 million, and the Sotheby’s press release stated that eight bidders “jumped in” at that price, all willing to pay at least that amount for the right to own this iconic work of art. One was successful. Seven were not.

Do the math. These seven patrons of the arts who “lost” the opportunity to own The Scream were collectively ready, willing, and able to spend $350 million that evening. With someone else now in possession of Munch’s painting, what will they do with that money?

Here in East Harlem, $350 million is an unimaginable sum. Local residents struggle to save $20 to buy food for their families. Senior citizens skip days of medication to make their prescriptions last longer. Single mothers work multiple jobs and still earn barely enough money for child care. Finding money for necessities like milk and diapers is a daily hurdle. Paying the rent is a monthly wall.

For the social service agencies that assist these residents, $350 million is unimaginable as well. Facing constant cutbacks in funding, we spend inordinate amounts of time seeking donations and grants to keep essential programs operating, even at a bare bones level. Most of those requests go unanswered, leaving the agencies as close to poverty as the individuals they serve.

What could we do with those combined opening bids? For one hundredth of one percent – $35,000 – we could run an entire program to help low-income students stay in college, provide supplemental tutoring to elementary school students, provide job training for out-of-school youth, or deliver meals to homebound seniors.

One art collector’s $50 million minimum auction bid, invested here in East Harlem, could singlehandedly stabilize dozens of local organizations, ensuring that for years to come their programs will remain available to the tens of thousands of residents who desperately need child care, housing assistance, afterschool programs, food pantries, job training, homebound care, mental health counseling, English language classes, benefits assistance, health screenings, senior centers, and so much more. These programs change lives – and often save them – for a few hundred dollars per participant.

Think of the tremendous good that could be done by all seven collectors together, if they decided not to wait for the next auction, and instead chose to spend their $350 million now, on any or all of these immediately pressing needs. Think of the difference that could be made in this world by just seven new patrons of the urban poor.

The cry of existential despair Munch’s painting depicts captures something indelible about modern life, and it could be argued that such works of artare “priceless.” There are many other priceless things, however, that weave together the fabric of the city life we share – things like providing care to our elderly, education to our young, and opportunity to those least privileged. Without those services, we invite thousands of cries of despair that will never be framed on a collector’s wall.

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David Nocenti is the Executive Director of Union Settlement Association, the oldest and largest social service provider in East Harlem.