Rocco’s Lore of Supply (& Demand)

Remember the heat that NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman took last year for suggesting that the arts & cultural sector is suffering from over-supply?

He was quoted by the New York Times saying, “You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

As you may recall, he noted that the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) reported a 5 percentage point decrease in arts audiences in this country while there was, simultaneously, a 23% increase in not-for-profit arts organizations.

Scan the Google results (Landesman +Supply) and you’ll discover a long list of articles and blogs decrying the Chairman’s seeming call for widespread non-profit organizational euthanasia.

Others may argue the public-policy merits of the over-supply premise.  Is the question still up for debate?  While I certainly don’t believe that the Chairman caused this situation, I am concerned that he articulated a rationale that unfortunately justifies the continuing erosion of government, philanthropic and corporate support of the arts & cultural sector.  That the supply of organizations (and their productions, exhibits and activities) is going to decrease in the future now seems a forgone conclusion.

A year ago, the implicit threat of reigning in “over-supply” got all the headlines.  But, truth be told, there’s not much that we who lead and work within the arts & cultural sector could do about that situation.

This is not an opportunity to fight fire with fire.  I have no economic argument to counter Rocco’s lore of supply and demand.

We need to fight fire with water!  Let’s acknowledge that economics is a lousy foundation upon which to base the rationale for supporting the arts & cultural sector.  Economics tells us that the house is burning down – but it doesn’t give us any useful tools to fight it.

In retrospect, too little outrage greeted the Chairman’s assertion that “Demand is not going to increase.”  That’s a shame because this IS the area that we can, should and MUST do something about.

We have (so far) failed to deploy our most compelling argument.  But it is not too late to do so!

The very best articulation I’ve ever seen of the arts & cultural community’s most compelling argument is contained in the mission statement of Theatre Bay Area, an association of theatre and dance companies, which begins with the expected, “unite, strengthen, promote and advance the theatre community in the San Francisco Bay area” – and then advances to these profound words:

“…working on behalf of our conviction that the performing arts are an essential public good, critical to a healthy and truly democratic society, and invaluable as a source of personal enrichment and growth.”

Essential public good.  Democratic society.  Personal enrichment.  These are ideals that deserve our attention and efforts.  These are principles that speak to the heart of what American society is all about.  These are values that transcend partisan politics.  These are virtues that describe a tolerant, engaged and vibrant society.

This is the foundation upon which we stand to engage even greater levels of arts & cultural participation.

Every organization and every community faces its own unique and serious financial challenges.  But we must not allow economics alone to DEFINE the scale and scope of ambitions that arts & cultural activity can empower.

Despite severe economic hardships, these are times of incredible opportunity – both to share artistic visions and to engage audiences meaningfully.

The nation’s arts & cultural sector possesses incredible resources to advance that goal.  What economists would call “increasing demand,” we can think of as “engaging participation.”  It is not just a product to be “sold” but rather an expression of community spirit that can be invited, nurtured, inspired and served.

Our future must not be defined by the economics of scarcity – but by the limitless possibilities of human imagination.

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  1. says

    Rocco Landesman’s insistence that “demand for the arts is not going to increase” shows an ignorance of the basics of American ingenuity. Hasn’t he ever heard of education, leadership or the free enterprise system? Although some purists will be repulsed by the idea of marketing the arts, it is all that is needed. Thinking clearly about the intersection of the public’s desire to to moved, entertained and amused, there is a world of possibility that most organizations hardly ever think about.

    If American promoters can get people to buy almost anything, surely there is a way to attract warm paying bodies for those cold empty seats. The proof is in those small communities where a large percentage of the population takes part in the arts. The examples are there if we really look.

  2. says

    Leonard Jacobs wrote a pretty strong response this my post on Facebook:

    And I wrote this reply:

    It was great to talk to you by phone, Leonard – and delighted to discover that ours is a disagreement borne of our rather different community PERSPECTIVES.

    Here in Arizona, we push the “entrepreneurial” envelope pretty hard. Even in good times, we’ve never had the history or momentum of philanthropy, corporate support and public funding that have fueled so many other communities. We embrace entrepreneurship here because THERE ARE NO OTHER OPTIONS – and also because it aligns with the rugged, individualist narrative of the Desert Southwest. (That is, if you leave out the great collaborative & public/private initiatives that brought water to the desert.)

    I share your belief that arts & culture must be supported by a BALANCE of philanthropy & public support & business savvy. But here in Arizona the expectation of entrepreneurship is being expected to REPLACE the other two – and that is simply not fair or feasible.

    Chairman Landesman’s comments certainly didn’t cause this situation – but they are being increasingly referenced by (former) sources of philanthropy & corporate support as justification for why they are no longer funding in the arts & cultural sector.

    And that’s not just a shame – it is a tragedy in the making.

  3. says

    We also went looking for a compelling case to build broad support for the arts, embarking on this effort in 2008. We could see that the arts are vulnerable in the public dialogue. And so we concluded that the old ways of talking about the value of the arts weren’t working.

    Topos Partnership, a national organization, designed research for ArtsWave (a united arts fund in Cincinnati) specifically to uncover what value proposition for the arts moves people to see the arts as a public good.

    After a year of investigation into the topic, The Arts Ripple Effect: A Research Based Strategy to Build Shared Responsibility for the Arts shares an important finding — that the real value people find in the arts isn’t about dollars and cents ROI. In fact, talking about the dollars don’t help to build broad support.

    This research reveals that public responsibility for the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions that have nothing to do with government and everything to do with understanding of the arts. Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong, but how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns that obscure a sense of public responsibility in this area.

    For example, it is natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment. Problematically, entertainment is a matter of personal taste, not public responsibility, and is an extra not a necessity.

    Furthermore, art-as-entertainment is difficult to distinguish from other forms of entertainment, such as professional sports or reality television.

    Underlying what people say are several assumptions that work against the objective of positioning the arts as a public good:

    The arts are a private matter: Arts are about individual tastes, experiences and enrichment, and individual expression by artists.

    The arts are a good to be purchased: Therefore, most assume that the arts should succeed or fail, as any product does in the marketplace, based on what people want to purchase. [1]

    People expect to be passive, not active: People expect to have a mostly passive, consumer relationship with the arts. The arts will be offered to them, and therefore do not need to be created or supported by them.

    The arts are a low priority: Even when people value art, it is rarely high on their list of priorities.

    The end result of these patterns is that it becomes easy to see government aid, for instance, as frivolous or inappropriate. Even charitable giving can be undermined by these default perceptions.

    The existing landscape of public understanding is not conducive to a sense of broadly shared responsibility for the arts. To achieve that objective, we need to change the landscape by employing a message strategy that:

    Positions arts and culture as a public good – a communal interest in which all have a stake,
    Provides a clearer picture of the kinds of events, activities and institutions we are talking about,
    Conveys the importance of a proactive stance, and
    Incorporates all people in a region, not just those in urban centers.

    Holding typical arts messages up to these standards clarifies why some messages, even emotionally powerful messages, fail to inspire a sense of collective responsibility. Art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., all speak to private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages do not help them think of art as a public good.

    Messages that are more communal in nature, such as the commonly used economic investment message, or a message about creating a great city, fail for other reasons. For instance, traditional economic messages end up competing with other (usually more compelling) ideas about how to bolster an economy.

    Of the many communications approaches explored in testing, one stood out as having the most potential to shift thinking and conversations in a constructive direction. This approach emphasizes one key organizing idea:

    A thriving arts sector creates “ripple effects” of benefits throughout our community.

    We learned that the following two ripple effects are especially helpful and compelling to enumerate:
    • A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument.
    • A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.

    We’re beginning to see this idea resonate. A recent decision to double public funding in Connecticut was premised on the ability of the arts to create vibrant and exciting places.