Defining Our Value

BatterseaThe recent flurry of articles around the “failure” of the creative class to save our cities—as Richard Florida’s writings have been characterized as promising—and the challenges of measuring the value of “creative placemaking” has me wondering if we are nearing the end of the road for all of the instrumental arguments we have been making for the nonprofit arts over the past 30 years.  Or perhaps we ran out of road a while back but just didn’t notice.

One of our most beloved arguments for support of the arts has been the idea that they contribute to economic development.  With varying degrees of success and with varying qualities of arithmetical conjuring, we have clung to this instrumental argument in any way we can—because it has resonance with those who control the purse strings and because it gives the work we do gravitas in an aggressively free market economy.  We aren’t frivolous—we are remaking our cities and helping the economy.  But a recent article in Grist by Susie Cagle demonstrates how imprecise and dangerous it can be to equate successful gentrification with social justice.  Flourishing commercial art galleries don’t address the growing wealth inequality in America; they are beneficial as thriving businesses paying taxes and providing jobs, but that is all they are—and all they need to be.  Why then do we expect and even proclaim that the nonprofit arts will solve so many problems that everyone else is failing to solve, and that they will do it by improving economic performance measures?

The appetite for instrumental (rather than intrinsic) measures of why the nonprofit arts matter is understandable.  As a country, we talk in numbers and outcomes.  We use market metrics not just to measure but to also legitimize most of what we do, even when these metrics are inappropriate for what we are trying to achieve.[1]  And the language around the intrinsic value of what we do is often received as vague, irrational and even sentimental.  I think there is an important truth contained in both intrinsic and instrumental measures, but think we have selected the wrong ones in the latter category.

In his outstanding lecture at a conference in Baltimore in 2009, Jerome Kagan of Harvard talked about why arts education matters—to all of us.[2]  Dr. Kagan highlighted that “an excellent predictor of juvenile crime in a town or city is the magnitude of the difference in achievement between the top and bottom quartiles on the basic talents of reading and arithmetic.  The size of this difference is also an excellent predictor of the incidence of adult criminality, depression and addiction to alcohol or drugs.  America has one of the largest gaps between the top and bottom quartiles as well as the largest percent of incarcerated juveniles and adults of any developed society.”  Dr Kagan goes on to describe how important active participation in cultural activities is for helping young people develop both procedural knowledge (linking what our hands do with what our brains do) and schemata (having the ability to create in our own minds representations of the world around us.)  The latter is closely associated with success in scientific discovery—but doesn’t come as a result of drilling scientific formulae.  Involvement in art and music require and develop the skilled use of both of these types of knowledge, and having this ability increases performance in other areas of academic work.  The NEA has recently released reports that underscore this link.  In addition, Kagan reminds us that “The combined use of hands and imagination makes an important contribution to what it means to “know” something.  You cannot learn to play tennis by reading a book.”

What if our value had nothing to do with how much money we generated, but by how we create opportunities for people to rehearse the skills of civil discourse (Martha Nussbaum’s compelling argument) or for people to have the right to an expressive life, as Bill Ivey has coined the phrase?  What if the very fact that we are not concerned with money as our most important metric is in fact the greatest value of the work that we do?  What if bringing people together to form, however briefly, a community of experience is what we set as our highest aspiration, rather than a transactional measure of how much money this generates.  We need money to operate our organizations, but what if every measure of our success by our own reckoning was how successful we were in creating those communities for the greatest number of people, no matter how our organizations need to be restructured and reframed to do this?

The picture of the bee in this post comes from the floor of the Battersea Arts Centre in London.  Built with small subscription gifts from many hundreds of Victorians who wanted a community based arts building, the motto inscribed near the bees, a symbol of industry and collective effort, is Not for me, not for you but for us.  It may be that our biggest instrumental value is that we care about us as an idea and as a necessity if we are to advance as a society.  Perhaps we should start talking about how much this matters without defensiveness and with a great deal of pride.  The creative economy is a by-product, not an end game.

[1] Michael Sandel, What Isn’t for Sale?, Atlantic Monthly, February 2012.

[2] Jerome Kagan, Ph.D, keynote speech for Learning, Arts and the Brain, held at the American Visionary Arts Museum in 2009.


  1. says

    Outstanding article! Art’s value is priceless to individuals and communities. It is a basic form of human expression and communication, and, like language, it is utterly foolish to try to put an economic value on it which would always be vastly underestimated.

  2. dave driver says

    Now how do we get the bean counters to see there is more to life than”who is most cost efficient/what will generate the quickest profit”?

  3. Joaquin Ortiz says

    I am in support of the spirit of this article, and think the message is one the arts field needs to embrace. However, the recent gentrification driven by the “creative class” has come at the cost of many low-income communities overtaken by the trend of Brooklyn-style “creatives”. This group tends to be drawn to these neighborhoods because of low-rents and the availability of space, not to support the long-term community interest. In my experience they rarely offer much back to the communities they come in to in terms of direct employment opportunities and community development.

    When I see people use a term like “bean counter” it reminds me how unwilling the arts field is to better measure and understand what we do. There are numerous ways for us to measure our impact beyond money, and I know the author is saying we should move in this direction. The systems are there, we need to be better about incorporating that into our practice. We also have to be prepared to learn we don’t have the impact we think we do.

    • says

      do you have a suggestion as to measure what we do, as artists?
      I know that there are community opportunities to volunteer every second we have. Giving time is difficult in this culture that is consumer-based.
      Our culture is based on capitalism and bean counters.
      I sew seeds as an educator, but rarely see the impact of these seeds.
      I know it is important to be a part of art, because I would feel totally worthless, just to live, if I did not make something, even if it is not for sale.
      connecting to the arts
      I see this as important and hear it on voices, but I am having difficulty being creative enough to generate a better venue to go forward. your words seem to imply that you have an idea up your sleeve and I would like to hear more.

  4. DD Hilke says

    I found your article through a Linked-in Group: Museums, Community, and Social Responsibility. Discussion is just starting there. Here is what your article inspired me to say. And, of course, Thank you!

    Taylor challenges me/us with: “What if bringing people together to form, however briefly, a community of experience is what we set as our highest aspiration, …what if every measure of our success by our own reckoning was how successful we were in creating those communities for the greatest number of people, no matter how our organizations need to be restructured and reframed to do this?”

    Indeed, what if…

    In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, this week, I am reminded of the then small Children’s Museum of Utah in 2002. The Museum listened to a social worker’s concern about the children who had ‘lost their birthdays’ to the 9/11 tragedy… and the Museum changed its plans.

    On September 11th, 2002, the museum threw open its doors to “take back” 9/11 with these birthday children and their families in the lead. The experiences of healing, hope and community that found root in that day (and in the months that followed) were powerful, poignant and far-reaching. The museum gave its heart and its entire program capacity to the need of its community and it was experienced as transformative.

    If we agree with Taylor that it is transformative, shared experiences that are our highest aspiration, then we must have the courage to attend to the final phrase in the quote above: “no matter how our organizations need to be restructured and reframed to do this.”

    This is work we have yet to complete.

    We must continue to invent and nurture ways to put experience and community-building first. We must listen to and partner with those around us, seeing our missions as inseparably tied to those of the communities we serve. And, of course, we must creatively support the development of our own resources (money, collections, experiential tools/exhibits, etc.) that are the essential support for our ongoing capacity to spark these experiences and truly serve our communities.

  5. Caitlin McQuade says

    Yes. I think one of the best defenses for tax-exempt organizations is the very tax law that defines them. As a society we have recognized that value is not exclusively measured in financial capital.

  6. Michael Hirsch says

    Well said. When I was in Britain in the 1970s, every town had community theaters subsidized by their local town council. Aspiring actors and writers had ample opportunity to prove themselves and their communities were well–served. That was unheard of over here, and barely exists now in Britain after the Thatcher and New Labour austerity years. If theaters were indeed economic engines, they were little engines that could. Their main task: public service. They did that nicely.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>