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Thursday, July 29, 2004

Value revisited

In any business, social, or personal endeavor, value weaves through like a underground stream. In non-commercial arts activity, value has proven to be an elusive stream to discover and define in a public way. Witness the NEA battles of a decade ago, the current debates in state and city governments about funding arts in a down economy, and the continual struggle for audience attention, money, and time.

Ben Cameron, Director of Theatre Communications Group (a national service organization to professional theaters), has often taken on the subject of value to great effect. He did so again, more directly than ever, in a recent keynote to the Southwest Arts Conference (available for download in Word format).

With a background in both public arts support at the NEA and in corporate philanthropy at Target, Cameron has a wonderfully balanced perspective of where value lives in the arts, and where our arguments stumble. To begin with, he defines an important difference between intrinsic values that guide our organizations and our lives, and extrinsic values that describe the impact of our work on a larger world, specifically, he says:

Intrinsic values guide organizationsí choices, give clarity in decision making and distinctive profile

Extrinsic value -- the value of our work in a larger world -- are useful to cultivate investors, in shaping and promoting public policy, in building consensus between those who love the work we do and those who perceive that our experience is of minimal importance to their lives. Extrinsic arguments ask the listener to rise above the issue of taste in the arts and embrace larger, common values -- values that intersect with those he or she may hold dear beyond the arts themselves.

It's an essential distinction, since so many of our public arguments for the arts, and our defenses against those that see only negative values in more edgy, creative work, have been based on intrinsic values (those that drive us), rather than extrinsic (those that impact others). That disconnect puts us in a weak position, often screaming into the wind. Says Cameron:

In the arts fields, we must be far better about conveying, not only the quality of our work, but this [extrinsic] value. Every arts organization must be able to answer three basic questions:
  1. What is the value of having my organization in my community?
  2. Harder: What is the value my group alone offers, or that my group offers better than anyone else? Duplicative or second-rate value will not stand in this economy.
  3. Hardest: How will my community be damaged if we close our doors and move away tomorrow?
If you canít answer those three questions, the only likely supporters you will find are those already seated in your seats.

Even when organizations can answer these questions to funders, politicians, and communities, they must understand that there's another set of values that drive personal connection to creative experience:

Has anyone here ever looked across a table at a husband, wife or partner and said, 'Gee honey, if we go to the theatre tonight, kids in our community will do 80 points higher on the SATs. Grab your coat.'

Instead, he suggests, organizations must also understand their market value, or their 'ability to meet positively the seven points of compatibility defined by the retail world':

  • Emotion -- it engages us viscerally, whether through ebullience of comedy or the deep rewards of penetrating tragedy;
  • Aesthetics -- it appeals to our senses, visually and aurally;
  • Product identity -- it has a distinctness that separates it from others;
  • Impact -- it makes a difference to us in some way, either emotional or pragmatic;
  • Ergonomics -- ease of use, both from physical and cognitive points of view;
  • Core technology/reliability -- it has a certain consistency;
  • Quality -- of course, that ultimate trait that encourages reinvestment.
Three separate value systems to juggle and master, all of them essential to the healthy and engaged arts organization. The complexity and challenge of it all make this particular keynote well worth an extended reading.

posted on Thursday, July 29, 2004 | permalink