50+ years of backing away from the hazardous ledge of imagination

Last week the NEA announced a round of 34 grants totaling $11.5 million as part of a new program, ArtPlace, which aims to integrate artists and arts groups into local efforts in transportation, housing, community development and job creation as an important tool of economic recovery. ArtPlace is a joint-initiative of the NEA and a consortium of foundations, corporations and federal agencies. Luis A. Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation and chairman of the ArtPlace Presidents’ Council, is quoted saying: “The arts are inherently valuable, and they’re also part of what’s going to get us out of this economic problem we’re in.”

I must admit I winced as I read this quote. The nod to the inherent value of the arts seems somewhat insincere nuzzled as closely as it is to the rather bold statement that the arts are going to save us from our economic woes. On a whim, I pulled from the shelf my copy of the W. McNeil (Mac) Lowry edited book, The Performing Arts And American Society. Lowry was the much revered grants officer at the Ford Foundation. As director of the arts and humanities program (starting in 1957) Lowry recommended massive infusions of capital into the cultural sector over a period of approximately twenty years.  On p. 5 he lays out the ten claims, as he calls them, that were being made for the arts in American society in the 1950s: “The arts were said to be:

  1. Important to the image of the American society abroad.
  2. A means of communication and consequently of understanding between this country and others.
  3. An expression of national purpose.
  4. An important influence in the liberal education of the individual.
  5. An important key to an American’s understanding of himself, his times, and his destiny.
  6. A purposeful occupation for youth.
  7. In their institutional form, vital to the social, moral, an educational resources of an American community.
  8. Therefore good for business, especially in the new centers of population.
  9. Components for strengthening moral and spiritual bastions in a people whose national security might be threatened.
  10. An offset to the materialism of a generally affluent society.”

At the end of the list Lowry remarks,

Note that the arguments advanced for the arts in the fifties almost totally accept their role as a means to some other end. It is equally noteworthy that many of the proponents of these claims were busy translating their interest in the arts into buildings, a rash of cultural centers across the country. The so-called ‘cultural explosion’ of the fifties and sixties was in great part promotional.

Indeed, when you think about what was going on in the world in the mid-twentieth century and read this list it’s quite clear that the arts were being promoted as a symbol of freedom and capitalism and democracy.

Later in his book (p. 206) he writes,

At [a] philosophical and moral level, we must deal with what remains of the Puritan dilemma in American history—the ideal versus the useful, the sacral versus the materialistic. Though we are more than three centuries beyond Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, how strongly does this influence persist? Or is it largely our historical consciousness of a stereotype that makes us wonder whether the public accepts artists or their creations only as instruments to educational and social ends? Who needs them?

And (on p. 181) in a section sub-titled The Hazard of Imagination:

The metaphysic of intellectual and moral energy is no simple matter. The human imagination, poetic or scientific, has few limits. It is impossible, and once one might have thought it undesirable, to try to control either. Imagination—lyrical, artistic, or mechanical — is the mortal enemy of habit and routine. Anything  threatening habit or routine, those relatively safe paths by which we endure to survive our hazards of accident or circumstance, causes suspicion and fear in various kinds of degrees. The scientist, since he or she is associated with metrics which impinge upon the necessity of maintaining breath and blood, is always protected and supported more than poets or artists whose imaginativeness, invention, or fantasy are both unmeasured and immediately unmeasurable.

Economic impact arguments may fail to fortify the footing of the arts in society in any meaningful or sustainable way; but by George, they sure do succeed in talking us back from the hazardous ledge of imagination, invention, and fantasy (oh my!).

And thus, over the past 2-3 decades, in the absence of good metrics for assessing the value of our distinctive qualities and in the midst of one economic crisis after another, we have increasingly defaulted to economic impact arguments to make the case for the arts. Even in this so-called ‘creative economy’ it seems it’s not actual artistic invention that is valued; rather, the arts are valued for symbolizing and signaling the trendy variety of ‘creativity’ that is perceived to lead to economic regeneration and that cities, regions, and industry so desperately want to coin.*

Is it worth noting that the inherent value of the arts is no more easily measured in France than in the US?

But, of course, they do have something the US doesn’t have. Among other interpretations, Mr. Lowry’s book (written in 1977) can be read as a plea for the articulation of a cultural policy. Absent a cultural policy (as we remain nearly 35 years later) we are left to induce the purpose or role of the arts in US society from the nature of grants made (or initiatives supported) by the NEA and the public statements issued about them.

PS: Those who have been following this blog since I started it last November will know that I am not a fan of the economic impact defense. (See my first two posts on this blog here, and here for some thoughts on the topic.)

20 Sep 2011 amendment to this post: Carol Coletta has clarified that “ArtPlace is not a program of the NEA”. My sincere apologies for misconstruing it as such.

* For more on this topic see Chris Bilton (2006), Management and Creativity, pp. 158-66.


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  1. James Steeber says

    This is a wonderful examination of imagination and the role it plays in playing off the American religion of commerce.
    In the 50’s, even the State Department made use of American artists (everyone from Louis Armstrong to Daniel Pollack) in spreading the word – particularly behind the Iron Curtain – that USA IS A-Okay. There was a strong political purpose in rebuilding an image of America, not as biased policeman to the world, but as a source of happiness and freedom. I have spoken to former denizens of what had been socialist nations about their strong and irreplaceable memories of visiting artists from the West (whether it be Toshiko Akaiyoshi or Dave Brubeck or Leonard Bernstein), which constituted that extremely rare ray of sunshine and a glimpse of artistic and humanistic freedom. These memories were clearly attached to a strong fantasy of escape — that one day they would be seeing the same artists perform on their own turf.

    Added to today’s attack on imagination is that advertisers and manufacturers wish to parade imagination and creativity within a cloak of their own design. This extends even to the long-standing fad of building ostentatious performing arts centers in every city and large town, whether there is anything to stage in it or not. But it must be understood that real thought containing real truth and a real internal exploration is very much considered along the lines of cultural heresy today. It’s one thing to be shocking and, for want of a better term, gross, in creating controversy and thus notoriety (this abrasiveness having become the very mainstream in places), but real thought and imagination are now zero’ed-in-on and not considered salable in increasing situations.

    Incidentally, eleven and half million bucks is barely money these days. It’s the kind of money the US Treasury might sweep up from the floor every night.

    The reason for having creative and performing arts does, indeed, conform to the list you sighted. It’s very much a shame that in an age where such creation should be easier than ever, it has been made nearly impossible by the same economics which it was once credited with aiding.

    But this focus on imagination is welcome and important. Thanks for

  2. says

    What I find very exciting about the work that ArtPlace seems to be setting out to do, is precisely that they AREN’T making the same old economic impact argument. This work seems a leap forward from the economic impact studies the field has relied on for the last years (which primarily focus on butts in seats and ripple effect spending by arts patrons.) Rather, ArtPlace is focusing much more on embedding the instrinsic value of the arts – indeed, the “imagination, invention and fantasy” – into the core of cities and communities. Instead of just making a case for the arts, it seems to me that ArtPlace is actually about demonstrating, particularly to public leaders, the value of art and artists as a key ingredient in healthy economies and cities. Of course, the effectiveness of this strategy remains to be seen, but it’s the first approach at this national level that I’ve seen in a long time that leaves me hopeful about future cultural policy.

    • says


      It’s terrific to hear this perspective and your optimism is encouraging. I look forward to seeing what may come of these seed grants. I certainly think that the additional resources leveraged from other government agencies for the arts is positive … But I remain wary (in general) of holding up economic growth as a deliverable by arts organizations when this is (1) typically not their core purpose and (2) might not, in fact, be something they can deliver even IF they are delivering meaningful artistic experiences that increase quality of life, etc.. But I do understand that this is the climate we are in and the Chairman has kept the arts in the picture and the NEA is still kicking … again, this is no small feat.

      • says

        I agree with Laura about this. The focus of the ArtPlace seems to me to be on “placemaking,” and while that word is starting to annoy me a little bit lately, I think it is based in a movement toward localizing the arts that is positive. The NEA keeps wanting to refer to the economy, and I think that’s not particularly worthwhile — nobody believes it, artists or politicians or business people. But the arts can make a place more pleasant to live in, and can help create a sense of identity. But only, in my opinion, if the arts actually reflect the place where they are — the day of generic, one-size-fits-all art is waning, I believe.

  3. says

    Great post, thanks.

    Thinks: cultural policy can merely tend though, to simply reinforce with the ubiquitous and disinterested bureaucracy, the stereotypical notions you have so deftly identified. In Australia we’ve had a few goes at a national cultural policy, in fact we are having another go now, rest assured, nothing much happens.

  4. says

    You raise a valuable point that I know you and others have been raising for a while – the slippery slope of economic impact arguments, which is exacerbated by the often flawed structure of arts economic impact data. I don’t disagree, but I have come to believe that the “intrinsic vs. instrumental” divide does not really have to be as great a schism as it seems to be. What give the arts its instrumental value IS its intrinsic value. What makes arts education important to the 21st Century workforce is that it fosters imagination, creativity, understanding of other cultures, ability to work in teams, ability to understand the concepts of ambiguity and “no right answer.” These qualities are important not just because they make kids more employable in today’s economy, but because it makes them better, more fulfilled human beings. It is “both/and,” not “either/or”. I also agree with Laura that it is important to not characterize ArtPlace as being “about” economic development and jobs, even if part of the announcement rhetoric seemed to imply that. As I understand it, it is about supporting the power of the arts in placemaking. I don’t think promoting the value of the arts in creating neighborhoods, helping to define our communities, make them places that offer a rich, remarding, creative life for citizens is a retreat from the role of the arts in imagination, but a reinforcer of that role. I have also – to be blunt – seen in my public sector role the effectiveness of making policymakers and decisionmakers aware that the arts DO have a tangible economic value, and that this value can be measured (even if some may poke holes in methodology) – the arts mean lots of things,and that includes (especially when you include the interrelated for-profit creative economy) is jobs, taxes, tourism, business attraction and retention, etc. The value ALSO includes the countless human and social benefits. I actually see the creation of ArtPlace as a very important and promising development for the arts.

  5. Joe Spencer says

    I would also add that ArtPlace is a very exciting tool for those of us who are passionate about PLACE; on a block by block level, in our commercial corridors, CBD’s, and neighborhoods. We know that when artists invest in their cities and Cities invest in their artists, the result is a street corner that nourishes its artists and artists that nourish their street corners. Every artist I know cares deeply about quality of place – they seek out interesting places that feed their souls and their artistry.

    This kind of investment will help us understand which strategies create the most reciprocal value – for communities and their artists. I find that to be tremendously exciting. If, in addition, it add another case to make in support the creative aspirations of our people, then all the better. In a world where we need more than one reason to make our case for the arts, we should all be thrilled to find yet another.

  6. John Abodeely says

    What argument for the arts is not instrumental? If we consume or make art for joy, it’s instrumental. If, like Vonnegut wrote about, we consume art so as not to feel alone in the universe, it is instrumental.

    I think the battle we fight is because we’re trying to expand the role of the arts beyond existing consumers.

    I also think that, at the core, where resistance to expansion is born, is a spiritual and practical M.O. that, like your author notes, is Puritanical, i.e. practical.

    Thanks, Diane, as ever, for thoughtful, smart, researched, and cogent writing!

  7. Sasha H says

    Aw, optimism! While you echo the half full glass of Charles Landry and early Richard Florida, very few economic development projects focused on arts in the US have done much more than exploit artists as catalysts for gentrification. Here’s what planners used to do: They used to say, wow, look at all the poor (usually non-white) people living downtown. Man, what a slum. Let’s build a mall/convention center/performing arts center/stadium/city hall/condo complex/highway there instead. Now, due to our city governments’ (just) slightly more enlightened view on poverty (and race/ethnicity), that’s a little harder to do. In fact, some of these mid- to late-century urban renewal projects are being razed or partially razed to make way for mixed use development. The “new” urban renewal is less physical redevelopment and more economic development. Many of these new policies focus on reinvesting in the local “creative economy,” attracting the “creative class” and, for a lack of a better word, creating a “creative city.” While those terms were largely derived in the last 10 years, they pull from the ideas of many New Urbanists, among whom the most infamous might be Andres Duany. His paper “Three Cheers for Gentrification” pretty much sums its up: if you can attract the “risk oblivious” (artists, students, gays), they will attract the “risk aware” (empty nesters, boomers, bobos), and then, TA-DA! the “risk averse,” i.e. developers. I bet you can guess what happens. The end goal is almost always gentrification, not “creative place making.” So the artists come and go without affordable live, work or live-work spaces (with long term leases). The creative spaces for experiencing art often come and go without affordable commercial spaces (with long term leases). A great example of Duany’s failure at creative place making is Providence, Rhode Island. He created an Arts District that is now home to few artists and not much more than a few theaters and clubs (there are a couple great exceptions like AS220). Of course, artists were living in warehouse surrounding the urban core, both legally and illegally. But, since creative place making was not the goal but gentrification was. Most of those old mills were zoned for tax subsidies for conversion into condos… that artists can rarely afford to live in. So artists are evicted from arts district both formal and informal and what do they do? They move! Out of city, out of state. Whoops. ArtPlace has to be very careful if the goal is CREATIVE PLACE MAKING. Artists will have to be protected not exploited. Otherwise, the Ford and everyone else just funded the new form of slum clearance.

  8. says

    You are probably aware that during the 50s and 60s the CIA had a massive program to secretly fund modernist culture as a riposte to Soviet Social Realism. These programs were funded mostly through a front organization known as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. As part of these efforts the CIA also infiltrated the boards of arts organizations such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and the Kenyon Review to ensure that artists the CIA preferred were strongly supported.

    As one commentator noted, “The CIA was especially keen on sending black artists to Europe—particularly singers (like Marion Anderson), writers, and musicians (such as Louis Armstrong)—to neutralize European hostility toward Washington’s racist domestic policies. If black intellectuals didn’t stick to the U.S. artistic script and wandered into explicit criticism, they were banished from the list, as was the case with writer Richard Wright.”

    A couple good books on the subject are:

    Saunders, Frances Stonor. _Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War_. Granta, 1999/2000.

    Wilford, Hugh. The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Harvard University Press, 2008.

    Though quite left of center (by US standards,) I find the review linked below of Stonor’s book provides a very interesting analysis of the CIA’s “cultural” activities during this era:


  9. says

    Your delving back into history and into the evolution of thinking on this topic made me think of a parallel process that may be at work. It seems that the real difference between the ArtPlace initiative and other city- or location-centric approaches to community development correspond to a shift in how we think about economic development itself.

    The more traditional arts and economic development approaches (and at over three decades of this I’m comfortable calling it a tradition) seem to respond to a linear, sequential view of economic development, which I associate most with modernization theory. In this vein, local artists would ultimately get organized out as “better,” more “developed” arts organizations and practices come in.

    What ArtPlace seems, at least now, to be aiming for is the much more recent concept of culturally sustainable development. Culturally sustainable development is an idea that has gained much more traction in the south (the true deep south, e.g. Latin America) and, to some extent, Europe, and it is very interesting to see if make its way into the American cultural landscape. For this reason alone it is a very exciting development: the first large-scale culturally sustainable development experiment in the US.


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