The Air is Thin Up Here

By Alan Brown

This conversation reminds me of the time six years ago when Wallace Foundation and RAND released Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. After providing us with a terrifically erudite accounting of arts benefits, the authors' lead recommendation in the last chapter was to "develop language for discussing intrinsic benefits." And I wondered, whose job is it to create this new language? (Frankly, I'd hoped RAND might make some suggestions...) I imagined a room somewhere in the sub-basement of the NEA where wordsmiths were earnestly hammering away at new framing language that will, once and for all, tickle the funnybone of policymakers and convince them that the arts really matter.

I can contribute one data point to the language conversation. A few years ago, I led some focus groups with caregivers of children in low-income Dallas neighborhoods, in connection with the Thriving Minds creative learning initiative. We tested three terms for salience: 1) "arts activities," 2) "cultural activities," and 3) "creative activities," with the following results:

  • The word "creative" had strongly positive connotations associated with awakening the imagination, interaction and freedom of choice. It was also seen as a gender-positive term for boys who might feel social pressure not to get involved with "arts" activities.
  • "Cultural activities" were generally expected to be heritage-based and culturally-specific, and thus not for everybody.
  • "Arts Activities" took on the meaning of arts and crafts.

I can only imagine how they would've reacted to "Expressive Life."

The notion that every citizen has a right to an expressive life is a powerful and galvanizing idea, and a good platform for debate about copyright law and other policy reforms. I like it, I really do. But will it translate from insider to outsider? From policy circles to lawmakers and plain folk who care deeply about culture? It depends on who we want to influence, and what we want from them. Maybe we just need to hire really expensive lobbyists? (:~>)

As policy language goes, I am partial to 'creative vitality' as a core element of quality of life, and to 'creative capital' as the thing that gets measured. This train has already left the station. Creative Scotland. Creative New Zealand. The Creative Campus program, funded by the Duke Foundation and administered by Arts Presenters, is a good example. Increasingly, arts presenters are recasting themselves as catalysts of creativity in their communities, not just as presenters of touring artists. Business schools are looking to design firms for new ways of teaching young entrepreneurs how to think more creatively. Given all the positive energy around 'creative vitality,' and the direct links to civic engagement and economic competitiveness, I have to wonder why we would want to jump from the creative vitality train to the expressive life express.

January 26, 2010 8:46 PM | |


This Conversation Are the terms "Art" and "Culture" tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances "Expressive Life" as a new, expanded policy arena - a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside "Work Life," "Family Life," "Education," and "The Environment." Is Ivey on the right track, or more

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