Defending the spectrum

SOURCE: Flickr user 96dpi

SOURCE: Flickr user 96dpi

Diane Ragsdale takes on happiness, joy, and meaning in the current post of her Jumper blog. In a think piece about using ‘happiness’ as a metric for success in the nonprofit arts, she wonders:

What’s the happiness exchange that we’re striving for? We deliver experiences (a play, an exhibit, a concert, an opera) that make people happy (because they are out and about and liberated from mundane chores and cares), and they deliver money to us in the form of ticket sales or contributions and make us happy in return (because we get to stay in business another day)?

Happiness without (much) meaningful exchange?

That’s good – but is it enough?

It’s an essential conversation for every governing board and granting agency to wrestle, since it’s their job to define success and measure the organization’s progress against it. But attempting to define a universal metric for all nonprofit arts activities wanders rather close to the curse of the generic topic. It’s tempting (I do it a lot) to point at a complex system and describe how it should behave and what outcomes it should generate. But in reality, complex systems generate complex outcomes. It’s what makes them both endlessly frustrating and brilliantly robust.

To my mind, the complex system of the nonprofit arts exists to defend the spectrum of voices, expressions, and experiences available to a community and a society, rather than to focus on a specific range on that spectrum. A work can be silly or giddy or bawdy or glib if the people who made or experienced that work would not likely have done so in the commercial sector. And that includes those vexing experiences that might be commercially supported in one community and not in another (like the touring Broadway show). The public purpose lies in giving voice and witness and scope and scale to expressions unavailable through a traditional market. I think it lies less in telling those voices what to say.

We can certainly hope for and work toward a more generous balance along that spectrum, that includes challenging and deeply meaningful work. But an outcome to help people laugh together has meaning, just as valid as an outcome to help them think or cry or connect in other ways. And if we start to narrow that band of acceptable goals, in a generic way, we presume a lot about an experience by looking through a dangerously narrow lens.


  1. Clay Lord says

    Andrew, I think your point is interesting, especially around the generic principal that not just happiness but a lot of other proposed success metrics exist, but I also think that you are overly equating happiness with comedy and ease. Happiness as a metric, I think, is most about relevance — it is about the driving function of wanting to “spend time” doing one thing for the effect it has on you as opposed to doing something else. For a certain group of people, that would mean being confronted, or being forced to think, being active and activated–and for other people, it means going to Mamma Mia. We can’t, I don’t think, limit the possibilities of impact measurement before, you know, attempting them–that does a disservice to the whole field. I do think, though, that you are right on point about the fear of putting some sort of generic measurement in place without understanding or taking into account the idiosyncrasies of each organization–but even if what a company does is only deep, dark and stormy, there is some group of people who find that work impactful, satisfying, and happy-making–and if not, then they aren’t meeting their mission and should be held accountable.

  2. says

    One of my most memorable arts experiences ever was at a Broadway theatre in 2006. I was in New York City for work, and as usual, was making a last minute decision about what to see. I caught the rave review of Rabbit Hole by Ben Brantley just after it was posted to the New York Times website and somehow was able to snag a ticket for the following day. I went alone and was completely rocked by the production. By the end, I, like pretty much everyone around me, had tears streaming down my face. This almost never ever happens to me. If you’ve seen the show, you know. It’s terribly sad.

    Still, if you’d asked me if I was feeling good, or satisfied, or happy as I was leaving the theater — I’d have had to say: YES, I feel glorious. I felt so so so lucky to have been able to see that production. Even more so for the serendipitousness of my ticket purchase while in NYC for a quick visit.

    To Clay’s point above, happiness economics can measure more than smiles. And while we should wait and see, I suspect the arts can be a major winner if cities, states, and nations decide that “happiness” is something to encourage. Several U.S. states and cities are already experimenting with these concepts. Suppose we find that people are just as happy after a concert or joining a salsa dance night in the park, as they are when leaving a softball game. Perhaps then we’d ask that our public policy do as much to encourage cultural options as it does for sports in the parks.

    Happiness economics treats measures of well-being, quality of life, and and life satisfaction as something to be maximized, as an alternative to focusing solely on income, wealth, or GDP/GNP. The concept of Gross National Happiness was coined by a King of Bhutan, taken seriously by academics there, and now includes “eight general contributors to happiness—physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality.”

    The OECD offers a happiness index for use by member countries, the result of a report by Nobel economics prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz. France and the UK have measures, and there is a group of scientists working with federal funding to consider such a measure for the U.S.A. too.

    It’s easy to imagine how the spectrum of arts could boost a measure, given what we already know from the Mappiness Project, and contributors like the ones measured in Bhutan.

  3. says

    Hi Andrew! Thanks for your post. You write, “The public purpose lies in giving voice and witness and scope and scale to expressions unavailable through a traditional market. I think it lies less in telling those voices what to say.”

    I’m not suggesting that the government should govern content or that experiences that make people laugh are not as legitimate as those that make them think serious thoughts. I am suggesting, however, that merely entertaining people (if that’s what some equate with “being happy”) is not an adequate goal for nonprofit arts organizations. If bringing people together and providing a spectrum of high quality cultural goods not being supplied in a traditional market qualified an organization for 501c3 status, arguably, many good restaurants would qualify. I’ve lived unhappily in cities that were unable to support a diversity of great restaurants. That’s one of the downsides of living in a small market. Living in a small city may also mean that Broadway musicals won’t stop in your town.

    I’m not “starting to narrow the band of acceptable goals.” I’m merely reminding us that the IRS has already done so and we are compelled to pursue those goals. For better or worse, whether wisely legislated or not, 501c3 status is not granted to arts organizations to provide entertaining or high quality experiences not supported by the market. It is not even granted to the arts for contributing to the quality of life of a community or nation. 501C3 status (as we all know) is a special form of nonprofit status that supports the following purposes: “Religious, Educational, Charitable, Scientific, Literary, Testing for Public Safety, to Foster National or International Amateur Sports Competition, or Prevention of Cruelty to Children or Animals Organizations.” Among these, the arts have traditionally, specifically, rested on the “educational” purpose.

    It’s a tedious point to raise, perhaps, but this is why I asked whether we can consider ourselves to have fulfilled our purposes if we succeed in delivering a happiness that derives from a night out on the town (what would seem to be something akin to the “mere happiness” that the Atlantic article references); or whether we need to hold ourselves accountable for doing something more in our communities.

    I would argue that our intentions in this matter. I sincerely hope that this new frame can help policymakers and funders recognize another kind of value that the arts provide in communities. But we can’t let ourselves off the hook for our educational mandates simply because there is now a new frame called “the happiness economy” and the arts produce goods and services that, indeed, seem to make people happy.

    I also noted your suggestion that I had raised one of the generic topics you are now eschewing. I agree with you that we learn more by debating the specifics. For what it’s worth (and perhaps I failed in this) I was trying to get past what was, for me, a troubling lack of specificity about what we mean by “happiness” in the context of the arts and the new “happiness economy”.

    You certainly have made me think more about what I mean by (and perhaps what the IRS, most arts organizations, and funders mean by) our “educational mandate.”

    • says

      Thanks Diane! So helpful to read your response and ponder it through. And sorry that in my own wrestling with such an important and nuanced issue I misread or misrepresented your fantastic post. It feels like the nut of the issue, at least between our two perspectives, is in your very last sentence above…thinking about and clarifying what we “mean by (and perhaps what the IRS, most arts organizations, and funders mean by) our ‘educational mandate’.” Every nonprofit board either inherits or affirms this mandate by operating as a tax-exempt entity…assuming they don’t plan on testing for public safety, or launching an international amateur sports competition.

      I suppose I’m suggesting we should give ‘education’ a wide berth in our fieldwide descriptions of what that category does or doesn’t include…donors, funders, public agencies, and perhaps eventually the IRS will make those determinations for each case they encounter. As an example, I would see it as entirely consistent with current standards and practices for a well-appointed restaurant to organize as a nonprofit — beyond the community kitchens and food banks that now organize that way. I can see all sorts of educational impact in a well-crafted meal to learn about culture, agriculture, culinary arts, and even science. The idea also makes me a bit woozy, as it dances at the edge of public purpose, but so do cultural organizations.

      Personally and professionally, I’m entirely in favor of nonprofit arts organizations deeply considering and relentlessly advancing the most meaningful expressions and experiences they can muster. They get all sorts of public privilege from their tax status and their philanthropic income. And that privilege brings responsibility. But as a matter of policy, I’m less inclined to define what ‘education’ looks like, or doesn’t look like, absent the specific context of each organization and each community.

      • says

        Andrew, I don’t think you misinterpreted my post at all and I took to heart your own. And I take your larger point. At the policy level I am not seeking to lock down or narrow the definition of education or happiness, etc. However, because nonprofits are not immune to confusing means and ends or displacing goals, it’s perhaps worthwhile to recognize that the less policymakers and the IRS define what is meant by “educational purpose” (and, thus, the more open it is to interpretation) the easier it is for nonprofits to interpret that mandate in such a way as to serve something other than long term social goals (for instance, short term financial needs). I’m not arguing for a consensus on the definition, merely thoughtful consideration by individual organizations of these gray areas. Thanks for your response and email. You’ve given me a lot to think about (as always). 😉