The Party of Can't And Won't (So Let's Change The Conversation)

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Mitt Romney said last week he’ll kick funding for the arts and public broadcasting to the curb if he gets to be president.

“We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird is going to have advertisements,” Romney said, while speaking at Homer’s Deli in Clinton, Iowa.

Like virtually every other conservative candidate, Romney has had it — had it! — with government expenditures like public broadcasting, and he wants to save taxpayers money by cutting federal funding to programs like PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts.

There are many good arguments – aesthetic to social to economic – for using public money to fund the arts. There are also arguments – philosophical and practical – for not using public money this way.

But Romney’s threat/promise isn’t about arguments. For the past 30 years, opposition to government funding for the arts has been a rote exercise for Conservatives wanting to demonstrate ideological bona fides. It’s not just about opposing arts funding, it’s about actively seeking to defund the arts (two different things). Arts funding is shorthand for a laundry list of evils; from rampant government handouts to profligate spending, suspicious values, and out-of-touch elitism. Framed in these terms, who wouldn’t be opposed? Opposing arts funding checks the boxes on numerous fundamentalist Conservative issues.

Because it does, no amount of argument – good things the arts do, what a great return on investment they are, or the mountains of studies designed to convince – makes a whiff of difference. It isn’t about the arts.

It’s a cliché, but true: Those who frame an issue control it. Republicans want to win the support of moral absolutists and those who believe, as Ronald Reagan famously said: “government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” In this fight, the arts are collateral damage, symbol rather than target. For all the right reasons. The arts are shades, not blacks and whites. The arts are messy collective investment and experiment. They’re about undependable ideas often intended to provoke rather than reaffirm. The arts represent, for a certain class of politician, a threat to “traditional” values.

As long as fundamentalist ideological conservatives are able to define the issue, the arts lose. Period.

I think as long as it’s about money, the arts lose. As long as the conversation starts with funding, the arts lose. Yet that’s where the arts often start; if the debate is about money, then we try to prove what a good investment the arts are.  But the problem with economic impact studies is that if someone isn’t in the market to invest – no  matter how good the return is – they won’t. Concurrently, the problem with arguing aesthetic value is that if the aesthetic values aren’t my aesthetic values, they don’t sound compelling to me.

Conservatives have been successful not because they have a better economic case, but because they make an argument about values. In a time when people are angry over a sour economy and a lack of accountability for those they perceive got us there, they preach caution, living within our means, and trying to impose more responsible behavior. Argued in these terms, again, who wouldn’t sign on?

Against this, how does arguing for public funding for the arts get anywhere? The argument seems so… small… so self-serving. By the time it’s about money, the argument has already been lost. The arts actually are about values. The question is how to argue them before the argument ever gets to funding.

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Comments

  1. Elaine Martone says

    This frames the issue so that I can stop just being angry about it, and help look for a BETTER path to having people get how essential the arts are to all of life, and moreover to a life that’s worth living. EXCELLENT, Doug

    • says

      Doug- This argument gets framed by people who serve the basest of human instincts. Fear and protection against the unknown-after all, you never know what those unpredictable artists will do, they do “new” things. Music, Visual Arts, Dance- experimental fusions of the arts are just too scary when you have never seen or experienced them because you have been told not to. The fact that music was supported by the Catholic Church for centuries has no merit in their thinking.

      The appreciation of the different arts isn’t going to happen when people are being fed nonsense all day by these particular ‘argument framers’. The conservatives who oppose the arts have an entire culture of disinformation that they feed to people, in order to keep them in lock-step. Some of the hardest core anti-arts opponents see the solution by preaching a kind of home schooling to further remove their children from mainstream and what we call the Arts in this country.

      It is a matter of re-education. Friends and I founded a youth orchestra nine years ago. We continue to struggle to teach parents and potential supporters the incredible value to children, families and the region in which we live. We reach out to the homeschooling community and it has worked out, to a point. The few participating kids and families are very happy with us. SURPRISE! When we all do it, we will all reap great rewards. Sesame Street does teaches for all. And the candidates have never watched Sesame Street. Their greed extends to having Big Bird have commercials to feed little minds even more commercialism. Education of and by the arts is a hard sell. But it is so very worth it. Apathy by good Arts-loving people plays a huge part in this relentless anti-arts movement, too, and it may be the answer to this. We need to agitate the comfortable.

      I agree that the framers of the argument wins every time. We need to get out ahead of the anti-arts crowd, (who, by the way, are anti-everything if you notice-they have no answers, they have no workable answers these days.)

      It is we who have to outlast them. Certainly the Arts will outlast them, and we are stewards of the Arts. They wage a campaign of attrition. Well, guess what guys, we’re not going anywhere, Thy need to know that. We recognize that their arguments don’t hold water-it is a part of their fantasy world in which they think they call the tune (so to speak) and are used to getting their way.

      They must be told flat out and publicly, “NO! You are wrong, your judgment is faulty and you are full of hot air!” I’ll be more than happy to join a campaign to do that. I am just so sick of these people and their willful ignorance. The scientists feel the same way. Have you ever noticed how may scientists are also artists? Keep up the wonderful work on the national scene, an we’ll keep up with the local.
      Katrina

  2. says

    Off hand, two possible approaches to the problems you describe come to mind. The first is that we move our focus away from the Federal Government, and create arts funding programs based in local governments. Europeans rely almost exclusively on public arts funding for the arts, and the large majority of the funding comes from the municipal and regional levels of government – about 75 to 95 percent depending on the country.

    This local orientation is why their public funding systems work so well. Since the funds are raised and distributed locally, people feel more connected to the arts. (The largest funding sources are generally municipal.) The administrators and peer review panels that distribute the funds have very direct contact with their local community, so they have a close understanding of the local public’s cultural needs and interests. They are also in good positions to know which artists and organizations provide the best art in the community. So we need to stop thinking that arts funding should come from the Federal level. No country does that, because the idea that government that far removed from communities could fund the arts is ridiculous. Culture is by nature inherently local, and so its funding systems should also be local.

    Local governments are also generally healthier than our gridlocked, lobbyist-ridden, corrupt, Federal Government. Local conservatives are more inclined to put the well-being of their community before a blind allegiance to their party, because the people and community they serve are in front of their eyes on a daily basis. These conservatives are sometimes referred to as “Main Street Republicans,” because they maintain collegial and neighborly relations with local Democrats and eschew the radicalism that has affected the national levels of the GOP. It is easier to work with them because they are more moderate, and because they can directly experience the benefits the arts bring to communities.

    Unesco recommends that governments reserve one percent of their resources for cultural activities. A practical approach to this would be a local sales tax called something like “A Penny for the Arts,” or “A Penny for Our Hometown” where municipalities use a one percent sales tax to fund local arts programs. Another approach would be for municipalities to raise a part of the penny and their state government raise the other portion as a matching fund. To begin, it would not even need to be a penny. Even a fraction of one percent would raise very large sums for locally administered arts programs.

    The NEA could encourage such programs by publicizing the Penny for Our Hometown concept, and offering a ratio of matching funds to local communities that initiate such programs. The NEA could also develop and publish materials that teaches communities how to establish and administer such programs.

    The second approach to the problems you mention is to show how *all* other developed countries in the world have comprehensive public funding systems, and that those systems work much better than our private funding methods. It is not very difficult to demonstrate that Europeans have richer cultural lives because of their public funding systems. One could also easily demonstrate how dysfunctional and ineffective our private funding system is. And one could demonstrate that the disfunctionality of our private funding system is once again allowing Europe to obtain the foreground in a wide range of intellectual endeavors, including the sciences, arts, and humanities.

    We could also reverse the values question. One could argue that a lack of public arts funding actually creates values problems in the USA, since without it we have fewer alternatives to the mass media and its qualities that are all to often rather demeaning. One could also demonstrate that by ignoring the arts, we are neglecting some of the greatest accomplishments the human mind has ever achieved. This approach could be effective, because there are strong correlations between appreciation for the arts and traditional values. This could be stressed without resorting to any sort of cultural chauvinism.

    We should also remember that the political left has conducted its own ideological war against the arts. Through a rather one-dimensional use of postmodern theory, they too have led a zealous campaign to deride the arts as elitist that has been as dogmatic and short-sighted as anything the right has done. In fact, it has probably been even more harmful.

    We thus see that the problems with creating public arts funding in the USA are multi-dimensional. The problems are not limited to one party, or one theme like values or small government. We thus need many different approaches that include considerations of values, economics, politics, elitism, cultural infrastructure, public relations, the education of arts administrators, aesthetic philosophies, the importance of locality in arts adminstration, and a better understanding of how other countries use public arts funding. We also need to give people a sense of hope that we can join the rest of the developed world and create a comprehensive public funding system for the arts. It will be a long struggle, but ultimately the victory will be ours.

    Thank you for this blog, which is very thought provoking and raises some vitally important questions. It deserves a better response than my sribbled effort.

  3. Leonard Jacobs says

    We must be careful — meaning precise — with our terminologies. When we say we lose the argument when it’s about “money,” we should distinguish between money spent, which fits into the anti-arts, anti-government meme of the radical right, and money earned, which fits into the more rational, fact-based point that economic impact of the arts is a real, tangible, measurable (and some would say indispensible) thing.

    Frankly, I’m disturbed by this trend to blithely discard the economic impact argument as insufficient, hollow or ineffective. Not only am I disturbed by it, I find it short-sighted. Why does our sector pivot from silver bullet to silver bullet? Shouldn’t it be the totality of the bullets in the chamber, smartly aimed and fired?

    Making the case for public arts funding need not always be a purely partisan issue if we have our arguments and facts ready for deployment. And, yes, that even means when the power center shifts to those with whom we vociferously disagree. Remember how, in the Tea Party-fueled run-up to the 2010 election, the radical right tried hoodwinking voters into believing the GOP’s focus would be “jobs, jobs, jobs”? I know, I know—many of us find the radical right’s program abominable. But if the moment in the zeitgeist was “jobs, jobs, jobs,” surely it is not reasonable for us to ask, in hindsight, whether our sector was fully prepared to prove how public arts funding creates jobs. I don’t think we were. And with all due respect to my colleagues in the advocacy world, I continue to believe that our institutions of advocacy do a middling job of making many of our arguments, not just the economic one. We’re less creative than we could be. So when we say the economic argument doesn’t work, I would in turn argue that that is our fault, not reflective of some fatal flaw in the argument itself.

    There is a greater point I used to stress, to the consternation of anyone with a pulse, while I was running my blog, The Clyde Fitch Report. It is that reliance on any one single argument is — let me use a sophisticated, academic word here — dumb. I want multiple arrow — multiple quivers. Americans for the Arts has those neat statistics showing the total number of jobs supported by the arts economy is in seven figures. Ask yourself this question: Is the community harnessing those numbers as well as it could?

    Some of you will find these assertions offensive. I would argue that our institutions of advocacy are reflexively timid — unwilling to fight using all tools available, all arguments in existence, to achieve its aims, just like any other constituency or group.

    I recall the America in which, in 1995, before the Web’s ubiquity, before social media, the African-American community achieved superlative results with the Million-Man March on Washington. If the numbers we hear about our sector and its economic impact are true, if the fiscal power we drive, exert and leverage are what we believe, trust and know they are, why is a Million-Artist March such a laughable idea? But you’re laughing right now. Instead, you’re saying out loud, “Well, the economic impact doesn’t work, let’s try something else.” I disagree.

    We need as many arguments as exist. We need our institutions of advocacy to think better, bolder, louder, braver — even scarier. Until they do, and until we avail ourselves more fully to the cause, until we’re ready to move beyond sitting at our computers in states of high dudgeon, then it isn’t one particular argument that is losing us the battle. It is us.

    • says

      Leonard: I’m not disparaging economic impact studies. To me, they often make good logical arguments. My argument is that for people like Romney, this isn’t about arguments. It isn’t about the arts. Funding for the arts is not about “funding” for the arts. Reflexively wanting to defund the arts is code for a set of larger values he wants to signal. You can’t convince him about the arts because he isn’t arguing arts economic impact studies and aesthetic arguments, and no amount of arguing them will change his mind.

      I am not saying that we should abandon impact studies because they don’t work with the Party of No. Or that we should abandon all our arguments in favor of some new silver bullet. I’m trying to make the point that arguments don’t work if the people you’re arguing with aren’t arguing the things you are.

      The Romneys take these positions because they believe there’s political gain. You have to look past the reflexive position to consider why there’s political gain. They’re arguing values, values which have nothing to do with the arts. Or so they would make you think, by framing the arts the way they do. The argument is not that the arts don’t have value, yet we respond by arguing that the arts have value. Huh?

      The less cynical side of me wants to believe that if we find a better way to make the argument about values – values important to conservatives – that the arts have a great case. My more cynical side suspects that winning political points matters more than the values.

      • says

        To counter the argument that government is the problem, we need to show why societies pool their efforts for the common good, and make this a part of our advocacy. We could also show why neo-liberalism has actually been harmful to society. (Neo-liberalism is the technical term for the concepts of small government, privatization and trickle-down economics popularized by Milton Friedman and that the USA has employed since about 1980.) The current economic crisis is a direct and obvious result of neo-liberalism, but since both major parties embrace it, its opponents in America have no political voice. Hence the malaise Doug has described.

  4. says

    Thank you for this post. As was made clear in the 2004 Rand Corporation study (http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG218.sum.pdf), we shortchange the arts when we rely on the economic arguments, which are often flawed.

    In addition to moving from a dollars to a values argument, the arts community needs to gain control of the dialog and cease to be on the offensive. I’m not sure how we do that, but the present course of rallying the troops with each new attack by throwing statistics at legislators just isn’t working.

    • says

      The development of a public arts funding system that is consistent with the norms of the rest of the developed world will require a considerable transformation of American consciousness. Since this change is very slow, we need to be careful about peremptorily declaring that one approach or another isn’t working. Small increments can lead to sudden tipping points, like a chisel splitting a boulder in two – especially in politics. We might have a few thousand more boulders to split after that, but we begin to see what works. The point is for everyone to develop their own approach based on their own skills, and that we all keep at it with a multi-pronged, concerted effort. What Doug is doing, is framing yet another approach that could be very useful.

  5. says

    Great conversation here – thanks! It’s one that is (and has been) taking place in one form or another for years – at conventions, meetings, legislative buildings, back offices of theaters, online @ Jumper / the dearly missed Clyde Fitch Report, here at Arts Journal and elsewhere. And it’s past time to start making serious progress in reframing the debate.

    A couple of quick rambling thoughts – in between organizing Washington’s Arts & Heritage Day (advocacy efforts in Olympia) – and our Cultural Congress in April (where I hope to have many similar conversations).

    First, we need to continue clarifying what we mean by the arts in these discussions. We need to include for profit and nonprofit – the entire arts ecosystem. Second, conversations about who’s getting what funding and why (and why not others), is deeply intertwined with making the case for why that funding is important. And, while direct government funding is vital – the prospect of eliminating or capping tax deductions (which was under consideration at one point by the so called “super committee”) is scary and would have dramatic repercussions on the entire field – the fight about funding is expanding in new and dangerous ways.

    Finally – I’m a proponent of the many arguments perspective. “The arts create positive ripple effects throughout our communities. Our job is to help celebrate the intrinsic value of the arts and illuminate its instrumental effects on engagement, education, and the economy.”

    Thanks to everyone for their comments and Doug for the encouragement and platform to express such.

  6. Leonard Jacobs says

    Doug, the national press, the blogosphere and our institutions of arts advocacy do a poor job collectively and individually of asking candidates—and challenging them directly, specifically and repeatedly—about their positions on public arts funding and, more broadly and more importantly, how they perceive and how they would or would not leverage the creative economy in order to better the nation.

    Regarding Romney in particular, I’ll bet you $10,000 I’m right.

    I agree that when conservatives interpolate arts-defunding rhetoric into their campaigns, they’re doing so to burnish their radical-right bona fides. I don’t feel there’s anything in my previous comment that suggests naivete about that. Nor am I suggesting there’s too much that can be done to change their minds, for some folks are implacable. (Some believe Barack Obama is a Kenyan socialist.) I’m suggesting that not every argument should be made in the hope it will change a mind. I’m suggesting that some arguments should be made to rebut falsehoods. As some of the commenters have put it, those who frame the debate control it. When we throw up our hands and say that economic arguments will not change the minds of radical-right politicians, we make the tactical error of allowing the radical right to frame and then control the topic. I find that unacceptable. I find that a missed opportunity. I find it confirms and reinforces our political weakness.

    I’m intrigued by your point about values. You’re getting into the realm of believing that if only the arts could link their worth to the core values of the radical right, suddenly the radical right will think the arts are worth funding. What evidence do we have for that? The radical right already thinks the arts could never be linked to the values they pimp, distort and espouse. That is why discounting hard numbers is a dangerous game. True, we know there are plenty of people in the GOP who think 2+2 = $15,000,000,000,000. That doesn’t mean we should consider facts any less powerful, whether they have an effect on the other side’s thinking or not.

  7. Leonard Jacobs says

    Waddy,

    The problem is the sector is never on the offensive. In fact, it is perennially, nearly laughably, on the defensive. I agree that the “present course of rallying the troops with each attack” is not working, but I don’t think it has to do with the statistics themselves being “thrown.” If the only time the sector interacts, lobbies, pressures and postures with politicians is when there is crisis, it’s too late. I’ve seen this mistake over and over again.

    Let me detail this briefly. Name the last 10 nonprofit arts institutions to publish — and publicize widely — all the names of the legislators who visited a performance or an event during the course of a season. Ask yourself a question: Do you believe that nonprofit arts institutions do enough to engage, inveigle, cajole and celebrate legislators during the course of a year? Do you believe that nonprofit arts institutions have real strategies for creating enduring relationships with electeds? Do enough nonprofit arts insitutions have such strategies? Are such strategies holistic? I doubt you can answer “yes” to all of these questions. That, too, is the problem. Let us not blame statistics for the failure of the sector to, as I said before, ensure many arrows in the quiver.

    • says

      One reason this doesn’t happen is because arts administrators are employees of the wealthy and often conservative board members that oversee arts organizations. Advocacy for themes associated with the left could cost them their jobs.

      • Leonard Jacobs says

        Board members have a fiduciary duty to the corporation. No money = bankruptcy = who ends up being responsible? Board members. Funny thing is, I don’t hear much about conservative members of boards. Not saying they’re not out there, but it strikes me as unlikely that there are thousands upon thousands of anti-arts-funding conservatives sitting on boards of arts organizations.

        • says

          In general, the wealthy have obvious reasons to oppose progressive political trends that lead to the redistribution of wealth – which is part of what public arts funding does. Concrete statistical information about the political perspectives of board members would help us see if the theory holds true. Absent data we have to rely on logical inferences, even though they can be fallible.

    • says

      Great idea- I’m going to contact my legislators and ask them what cultural institutions they have visited in the past two years. I’m also going to ask them for their favorite kind of Art- music, what kind, visual, what kind, dance, what kind, etc. Ask them to be specific. IF we all do that, they will know something is up! Come on everyone, do this! Put their feet to the fire and see what kind of responses we get! Let us make sure that our legislators are knowing just what they are talking about — or don’t have a clue. Use the slogans “A Great Country Deserves Great Art” and the new NEA slogan “Art Works!” OK, I’m starting right now. Do it too and get back to this blog, and we can see just how knowledgeable these people ARE about the Arts! Thanks!

      • says

        And here is my first letter: January 12, 2012
        Dear Congressman Murphy,

        I hope all is well with you, congratulations to you and your family on the birth of your son!

        I noticed when I was trying to find the appropriate category for this letter, that there is no mention of the Arts. I’m wondering if that can be added as a topic on your Contact Me website page, for your constituent’s letters.

        I am writing today to ask you a few questions:
        What Arts programs have you gone to and what cultural institutions have you visited in the last two calendar years?

        What are your favorite types of music, visual arts, dance and other Arts pursuits? This information is important to me, and I’m sure it is interesting to others, too.

        As you know it has become quite fashionable to give the Arts short shrift and to ever disparage them – as Mitt Romney has promised to “Kick the Arts to the Curb.”
        Well, as the founder of a youth orchestra and an adult orchestra, that just doesn’t fly with me.

        Could you please reply when you have the chance?
        Thanks so much,
        Katrina Axelrod

  8. says

    The issue isn’t only money versus values, but that money is used as a proxy for power. While the arts sector can argue with power, it can’t really effectively argue about power, because it is heterogeneous, not monolithic, and argues with too many voices. When the arts are viewed by the many as absolutely necessary, then the sector will have the power it needs to argue for public funding. We can’t make the necessity argument on economic impact studies alone (in that we agree).

  9. says

    As mentioned in my comment above, “conversations about who’s getting what funding and why (and why not others), is deeply intertwined with making the case for why that funding is important.”, relates also I think to the current state of non-government funding, e.g. our very own ticket sales, donations, etc.

    The case (the connection? / the change?) that needs to be made is broader then just government funding…

    We can’t talk about government funding as though this – http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2012/01/more-clouds-gather.html, isn’t also a huge part of the current issue.

    • says

      The link is about the financial troubles of the San Francisco Opera. A few comparisons help contextualize the situation. Germany has 83 opera houses with fifty-two week seasons. The USA with four times the population doesn’t have any. Even the Met only has a seven month season, which is the longest in the country. We only have about six houses with substantial seasons. The USA has only three cities in the top 100 for number of opera performances per year, the Met at 7, Chicago at 66, and San Francisco at 81. Houston is at 109 and Washington at 129. All of these cities are far outranked by European cities with a fraction of the population. The difference is public arts funding. Why don’t artists, arts administrators, journalists, classical music fans, and politicians discuss what these numbers are telling us? Americans are in a state of denial about their isolated and dysfunctinal private arts funding system. (For the stats, see Operabase.)

  10. says

    Great piece Doug and hits the nail on the head. I’ve always thought that one of the big problems about the ‘value debate’ is that few people are able to see into the minds of others. It seems to me entirely logical that as an audience member what i really care about is the quality of the experience; as a writer or performer I want to give myself a voice; but a politician, perfectly logically, is probably most concerned about spending public money wisely and trying to find predictable ways of achieving good outcomes for lots of people – so that’s why they might be interested in whether drugs or painting classes help patients to recover more quickly. Hence different people and interest groups come at the question from a different standpoint. What you’ve done here is to get inside Romney’s mind and seen a difficult but fundamental truth: for some politicians, it’s not what works that matters, instead, it’s all about ideology. So we must fight on the ideological beaches, to borrow a phrase.
    all the best
    John

  11. Steven Miller says

    Doug has written and easy piece – what’s his suggestion to change the stupid argument from the right against the arts?

  12. says

    Great article, Doug, and further valid argument for changing the conversation. This is, I believe, exactly what Chairman Landesman and the National Endowment for the Arts are doing with their new intergovernmental agency initiative task force to examine the effect of arts on human development. (http://nea.gov/news/news11/Task-Force-Announcement.html) When the conversation is focused on “quality of life” rather than amount of funding, the dialogue will be more productive. If data can be gathered to measure “the effectiveness of music in providing for faster recovery after chemotherapy treatments for cancer patients” hypothetically, then who is going to argue with the value of music? At that point, the dollars will be flying toward creating music therapy regimens for cancer patients.

  13. says

    The arts make our lives better, a little less mean and nasty. The arts are pursued for human development — that means spiritual development — rather than for profit or the constant acclamation of dead ideas and foregone conclusions. Art is more like science than it is like politics or economics. How are we humans different from animals? We make art. Art is our perceptual tool.

  14. says

    Starting a New Conversation to Build Broad, Shared Support for the Arts – The Ripple Effects Report

    Doug is right! We do need a new conversation or we should give up fighting for public funding. We can’t win the debate as it is currently framed by opponents.

    We completed a year-long research project designed to learn more about why arguments like Romney’s work on so many people – and how we can neutralize them.

    It does seem likely that public funding proposals for the arts are used as a target and illustration by opponents of larger funding bills, as happened when President Obama proposed an increase for the NEA in the stimulus bill. The NEA piece of that bill was tiny — yet it became an example. Why? Because opponents of the larger bill understand that public funding for the arts is vulnerable in the public debate. It’s a perfect target.

    Our research goal was to identify a new way to talk about the role of arts in community – to find something that most people love about the arts and which will build a sense of shared responsibility for the arts.

    After a year of investigation into the topic, this research finds that public responsibility for the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions that have nothing to do with government and everything to do with perceptions 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 non-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:
    1)The arts are a private matter: Arts are about individual tastes, experiences and enrichment, and individual expression by artists.
    2)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].
    3)People expect to be passive, not active: People expect to have a mostly passive, consumer relationship with the arts.
    4)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 – most of which are probably not unique to Cincinnati – 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:

    The arts create “ripple effects” of benefits throughout our community.

    It is especially helpful and compelling to enumerate the following ripple effects:

    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.

    These ideas can be expressed in a variety of ways, but the following is one example of putting them together in a brief text:

    Why do leaders of cities around the country think of arts and culture as important priorities? Because when creative activity is happening in large and small ways throughout an area, it creates surprising ripple effects of benefits, even for those who don’t participate directly. The arts ripple effect creates at least two kinds of benefits: 1) in the economic vitality of an area and 2) in how communities come together and understand each other. In economic terms, theaters, galleries, concerts and so on mean more energy and life in a community, more tourists, more renovated buildings, more people and businesses moving to an appealing place. A vibrant arts environment with music, storytelling and community cultural centers also means more people coming together to share experiences and ideas, connecting with each other and understanding each other in new ways. Cincinnati has historically supported the arts and enjoyed the benefits of these ripple effects. We should be proud of what we’ve built, and take responsibility for keeping our investment going.

    This organizing idea shapes the subsequent conversation in important ways. It moves people away from thinking about private concerns and personal interests (“me”) and toward thinking about public concerns and communal benefits (“we”). The arts are no longer just “nice” – they become “necessary” because practical benefits become just as apparent to people as the emotional appeal. Importantly, people who hear this message often shift from thinking of themselves as passive recipients of consumer goods, and begin to see their role as active citizens interested in addressing the public good.

    You can find our research report and related materials here:

    http://bit.ly/e130vH

    Connecticut recently doubled funding for the arts, creating a new focus on arts placemaking. Here’s how the state administrator described the funding goal:

    “Instead of the money going out with no strings attached, we are placing the goal of creating a more vibrant community,” said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commission of the state Department of Economic & Community Development, which runs the Office of the Arts.

    Sound familiar?

  15. says

    And before we get to far off into the weeds targeting “the party of can’t and won’t”. It was in fact President Obama’s administration that proposed the most recent cut in funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. There are more people to convince of the benefits than just republicans…

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