Last week we conducted our first ArtsJournal poll, asking readers: What’s the biggest challenge facing the arts? We had 3,191 votes, with the largest percentage – 37% – answering funding. Second at 24% was “relevance/changing tastes” followed by “diversity” at 15% and “leadership” at 13%. Technology came in a distant fifth at 4%.
I will admit that the results surprised me a bit. Over the past year issues of diversity have become more and more visible. In theatre and what plays get produced. Movies and who makes decisions behind the cameras. Universities and who gets to say what and how they get to say it. The Oscars.
Then there’s relevance. I would guess that a good half of all the stories I see about the arts these days have something to do with changing tastes and winning the attention of an ever-more-saturated audience. So many arts organizations and artists seem to be turning themselves inside out (some happily, others not) to figure out how to appeal to overloaded people who seem to be expecting more than they’re getting.
But funding? I get that it’s tough to balance budgets and keep the lights on. But “funding” seems like a small ball answer. It smacks of not being appreciated enough, of unmet expectations, of entitlement not fulfilled. Americans spend a lot of money on the arts. The arts are a substantial industry with considerable assets. According to Americans for the Arts, “nationally, the industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity—$61.1 billion by the nation’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations in addition to $74.1 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences.” And just look at the billions of dollars in new museums, concert halls and theatres built in the past 20 years. And funding is the biggest issue?
But look inside the answer. Funding might not necessarily be so self-interested. Last week, the Atlantic published a story about the way the arts are funded in America and offered a take on why the funding issue is really a diversity issue:
The current state of the arts in this country is a microcosm of the state of the nation. Large, mainstream arts institutions, founded to serve the public good and assigned non-profit status to do so, have come to resemble exclusive country clubs. Meanwhile, outside their walls, a dynamic new generation of artists, and the diverse communities where they live and work, are being systematically denied access to resources and cultural legitimation.
The piece paints a picture of cultural haves and have-nots and rising inequality, with public funding – now broken and overwhelmed by demand – able to do less with less to bridge the gap. Public funding, of course, makes up a smaller proportion of today’s arts budgets than it used to. But slippage of the arts from Americans’ lives is surely a bigger issue than a growing gap in public funding. Do we think that the non-profit arts are the publicly-subsidized housing of the larger American culture?
ArtsJournal blogger Diane Ragsdale wrote a post Monday in response to a question by the Irvine Foundation which has been focused for several years on engagement in the arts: “Is there an issue in the arts field that is more urgent than engagement?” Her answer, a resounding yes.
While lack of meaningful engagement in the arts is indeed troubling, I would offer that a larger problem is that the nonprofit, professional arts have become, by-and-large, as commodified, homogeneous, transactional, and subject to market forces as every other aspect of American society. From where I sit, the most important issue in the arts field these days may be that the different value system that art represents no longer seems to be widely recognized or upheld — by society-at-large, or even within the arts field itself…
Here we are in the 21st century and it strikes me that the nonprofit arts have become increasingly dehumanized–which is ironic since arguably one of the primary benefits of the arts is that they stimulate the senses, awaken us to beauty, fill us with awe, connect us to others, and inspire us to be better humans.
Yes, but can you measure that (the “better humans” part)? I’m being facetious, of course, but it occurs to me that our frenzy to measure everything these days has made us bump up hard against the things that are, at least so far, unmeasurable. We’ve always measured art in one way or another. Those measurements haven’t been particularly scientific, accurate or objective. More critical and biased and personal. Messy. Like art.
But because we can now measure the neurons and DNA and clicks and “micro-moments” that are a window on human behavior, we’re building new matrices of value and currency around them, and we’re struggling with the relevance of things we cannot yet satisfactorily quantify, the arts certainly among them. And yes, because of it, our value systems are changing.
How many arts donors/funders do we know who are more interested in the “impact” of the art they support than whether it’s any good? Somehow it no longer seems enough just to support something just because you like it. And foundations have gone from asking artists what are the cool things they’re doing that the foundation can support to asking how artists can serve a foundation agenda. But then, what does “any good” mean right now?
So funding? Diversity? Relevance? My vote would be it all starts with leadership.