What to Measure

By Bill Ivey, Director, Curb Center, Vanderbilt University

Andras asks what would be measured in determining the state of expressive life.  I would make two points: First, this is not about selecting artists and art forms for special attention or support.  My assumption is that in a more-coherent approach to the arts system we would still have agencies like the NEA that would gather expert opionion and dispatch checks (larger than those sent out these days, we would hope) to art making or preservation efforts deemed worthy.  Government and philanthropic intervention in cultural vibrancy is important and, in an environment that honors expressive life as a public good, this part of the policy regime that deals with the arts should grow.  But I don't think better coordination of policy affecting exprssive life should be about shaping content or picking winners and losers.

So the second, and to me more-critical point, is to bring some coordinated public-interest attention to the underlying structure, to the gatekeeping and pricing mechanisms that constitute the "rules of the cultural road" -- the laws, regulations, and practices that control access to heritage, to the tools of creativity, to the work of artists and arts organizations, and to bodies of shareable knowledge.  Once we make the small leap of faith that believes an open system that enables access is "better" -- is a public good -- then there are plenty of things we can measure or count to see how different parts of the system are working.

So it's a bad thing if our copyright regime is so "heavy" that a classroom teacher is, for example, reluctant to produce a CD of classic African-American musical performances for student study because her school administration fears legal action.  It's probably a good thing if a community features a number of neighborhood book stores.  Likewise, it's probably good if there exists a mechanism to fund Internet connections for homes in poor neighborhoods, or that zoning restrictions are loose enough to make it easy for small Mexican restaurants to both sell beer and feature live music.  It is probably good if the work of a symphony orchestra can be made widely available.  If we take some time to list the many components that make up expressive life (and that process will be fascinating, fun, and not without argument), we will find many things that can be measured or counted, and many underlying policies or corporate practices that can be assessed and critiqued in relation to whether they open or clog the essential processes of creation, distribution, and consumption.

Now, the ultimate value -- the "big why" of all this -- requires another leap of faith.  Andras quotes an arts leader: "Art makes better people."  Artistic heritage and creativity are at the very center of expressive life, so this statement is not far off the mark.  But how are we to justify or defend it?

A quick thought experiment:

Imagine a young man, reared in the Islamic faith in Nigeria.  He's part of a well-to-do family, and with all best intentions, his father ships him off to a fine boarding school in England.  He is devote, and struggles to fit in to an alien environment.  Emails suggest he is lonely, without friends, and longs for a path to a meaningful life.  He connects with an inspiring jihadist on the Internet, and leaves school on a path that leads to an attempted suicide bombing.  Observers are stunned that a well-off, well educated youth make such choices.  But imagine someone cut off from heritage and denied voice who finds a way to restore expressive life through devotion to a charismatic leader who offers a deep connection to heritage and an opportunity -- albeit a violent one -- to express his individual voice.  Is the destruction, search for, and reconstruction of expressive life a useful lens in describing the terrorist impulse?

Or imagine American society reset to a persistantly-lower standard of living by the current recession.  What is the pathway to quality of life in a post-consumerist democracy?  A deeper connection with heritage and personal creativity -- a vibrant expressive life -- may not be the only alternative to materialism but it is a good one.

I've gone on too long.  But art is at the center of expressive life, and it seems that expressive life, framed properly, does have an opportunity to aggressively claim a defining role in the lives of indivduals and communities: the kind of role meaningful to mainstream policy leaders.  To state it simply, maybe art does make "better people?" 

January 29, 2010 7:41 AM | | Comments (2) |


Hello Bill, et al –

Yes art does make better people, participants in this blog for starters. But our rhetoric about why and how often crashes into the reality that the majority of our fellow citizens do not focus on the arts in their daily lives and our intrinsic arguments about the importance of art to a well lived life do not persuade our neighbors the arts are a public responsibility of a functioning society. Our instrumental arguments are rarely more effective often stumbling on competition with other more compelling ideas about how to bolster an economy.

Although no one is specifically “anti-arts” many assumptions and misperceptions undermine our effectiveness in building public will to support the arts and the sector. Fighting against a shared civic responsibility to support the arts are deeply held public opinions such as: the arts are a product or experience to be purchased and should compete, succeed or fail, in the marketplace of “entertainment” options and many feel the arts are a “private choice” why should the many pay to support the tastes of the few?

And we’re further hampered as a sector since “the arts” are not a distinct public good such healthcare, education or clean water. Many would dispute a definite of “the arts” and there is not broad consensus on what deserves public support especially in a recession when the “basics” are at risk for so many fellow citizens.

But I do believe language can connect as well as divide and reframing the conversation is essential to building broad based support for the arts. I’m not convinced that enabling an “Expressive Life” will generate the commitment and connections we seek. The Wallace Foundation funded a program called START in the middle “aughts” (2002-2006) to support State Arts Agencies (SAA) and help them become more effective stewards of public resources and exponents of the public value of the arts. The initiative coincided with the last mini-recession and many state arts agencies were fighting for survival.

One SAA, the Montana Arts Commission, faced with near extinction took the conversation to the critics and conducted a policymaker listening tour asking legislators to describe the value of the arts to their constituents. The results were chilling -- most said that the arts had little or no value and were at the bottom of the list of candidates for public support. Turning the conversation to shared values, SAA interviewers asked the question a different way – “How important is creativity to the health and future of Montana?” This reframing ultimately transformed the way the commission funded the arts and, even more importantly, the way they articulated the value of the arts to every citizen in every community in the state. (Reports on the START initiative are available for download at www.wallacefoundation.org.)

This question of reframing is hardly new but I commend to your attention a brand new report by the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund: The Arts Ripple Effect: A research-based strategy to build shared responsibility for the arts. (available at www.fineartsfund.org.)

Not to steal the thunder of this excellent report but the basic premise is this – the arts seemingly promising messages about civic inspiration and human universals didn’t move the needle among the “moveable middle” of citizens – those who aren’t focused on the arts in their daily lives but do care about the health and vitality of their neighborhood and community.

The bottom line is simple but perhaps profound – the messages that resonated emphasized one organizing idea: “A thriving arts sector creates ‘ripple effects’ of benefits throughout the community.” The most compelling of these? Just the ones that the arts uniquely provide – 1) Neighborhoods are livelier, attracting tourists and residents to the area and 2) Diverse groups share common experiences and by hearing new perspectives understand each other better.

Of course a thriving arts sector produces those local benefits (which is of course why artist rich neighborhoods gentrify faster than others – often resulting in artists being unable to afford to live there!)

One of the political leaders I was privileged to work with during my time at Wallace was Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia. When asked why he was such a strong supporter of the arts he replied (I’m paraphrasing) “For me, it’s not about art, it’s about how the arts and artists make people want to come to, hang out in and stay in Philadelphia – and that helps me keep the city lively and livable.”

So there you have it, Simple? Profound? Maybe the arts can be each community’s “ruby slippers” reminding citizens why “There’s no place like home?”

Thanks bloggers for helping us consider the important tasks of building public responsibility for the arts and to Doug for providing the forum for the discussion.

Thanks for this very interesting topic. There is so much to digest here, and I would like to simply offer the following:

"Expressive life" is a very nice alternative but I think it could only resonate in a society where the arts are already more integrated with everyday life, or at least more visible. For the general public to be able to use the term "Expressive life" and know what this refers to would signal a massive shift in collective consciousness. The term is more an aspiration than a statement of being (I suppose the hope is that the term would perform itself into being) but we are not ready for this mental shift as a society and the term would risk making things even more confusing.

Most importantly what is needed is more focus on the artist as cultural bearer and an awareness of each person's ability to shape culture. More events like the Folklife Festival, hands-on workshops with master artists and opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration are needed throughout the country. At http://www.createculture.org we value the contributions of each and every artist and the stories that they tell about local tradition and creativity through their work. I think this is when we can start talking about “Expressive Life”.


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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Mary Trudel commented on What to Measure: Hello Bill, et al – Yes art does make better people, participants in this ...

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