Gifts of the Muse

In February 2005, the Wallace Foundation released its long-awaited report (at least, long-awaited by me), Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts. The 100-plus page study takes a hard look at all the benefits we claim for the arts — economic, social, educational, therapeutic, etc. — and works to inform those claims with actual studies, evidence, and causality.

In a nutshell, the report finds most of the ‘instrumental’ arguments for arts in communities (arguments that claim positive, measurable outcome of arts activity) to be thin on solid research and fairly oversold. Specific problems with much existing research, the study suggests, include:

  • Weaknesses in empirical methods — often, existing studies show only correlation between arts and desired effect, not direct causality.
  • Absense of specificity — ‘the arts’ tend to be clustered as a single thing in many studies, which doesn’t shed much light on which specific arts activities most impact the benefit under review. Without specifics, policy can only be vague in its attempts to encourage the system.
  • Failure to consider opportunity costs — the elephant in the room for any conversation about instrumental benefits is this: if those specific benefits are our goal (economic growth, pro-social behavior, better academic scores, etc.), are the arts the most effective means to get us there? The trap for arts advocates is that many of these benefits can be achieved in other ways. Without including those other ways in the analysis, it’s a bit like picking only weaker competitors for a prize fight to ensure your guy will win (which I think was the plot of Rocky III or IV, or whichever one had ‘Mr. T’).

The report isn’t saying that the arts don’t have instrumental benefits to the larger community. It’s just saying our existing research doesn’t clearly and compellingly define to what degree they do, or how specifically they accomplish those benefits.

More importantly, the report suggests that in our zeal to craft instrumental arguments for public funding and support of arts activity, we’ve downplayed or ignored the vital power of creative engagement — the ‘intrinsic’ benefits of enjoyment, connection, absorption, and such. Says the report author in this LA Times article:

”People get involved because they think the arts are fulfilling; they don’t do it to get better grades and increase their income,” Kevin F. McCarthy, a Rand sociologist and the report’s lead author, said in an interview. ”But the arts community is afraid to talk about this because they think it won’t convince the skeptics.”

It will be fascinating to watch how this report and its findings ripple through the arts advocacy community. For a fairly long time, the weakness of empirical research on our claimed benefits of the arts has been a bit of a family secret — something we don’t discuss out loud. The arts build strong cities. The arts build strong schools. The arts build strong communities. Give us cash.

In the LA Times piece, Robert Lynch, the president of Americans for the Arts (the country’s largest arts advocacy group, and champion of the instrumental benefits of the arts) is showing one likely reaction to such a calling out — to question the motivation of the questioner:

“It’s confusing. I’m not exactly sure what the motivation is for this.”

In my head, here’s the larger point: The arts are essential to vibrant cities, dynamic and balanced schools, connected communities, and engaged citizenry. If we believe it, we should make every effort to understand the complexity and depth of those connections. That means asking tough questions, and not being afraid of discouraging answers. If we need to rig the research to be sure that we win the argument, we’re not crafting the right argument. And we’re only buying time, not credibility.

There will be much more discussion coming about this particular report, and lots of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth (or just a healthy dose of denial and suppression). There are large chunks in the document that I will question and dispute — particularly surrounding its conclusions and recommendations — but that spirited conversation is likely its intent.

In the meantime, I extend a hearty thanks to the Wallace Foundation, Kevin McCarthy, his co-authors, and all those involved for calling the question with such deliberate and reasoned effort.

Go read it.