A Public Conversation Among People Who Care
Daily Archive: March 07, 2005Making the Case...
At the outset of our conversation about making the case for the arts, we need to remind ourselves that we're not talking about THE ARTS, as in the whole spectrum of art making, but rather about that part of the arts system that makes a moral claim on philanthropy and public largess. If one subtracts most art galleries, boutique literary presses, independent film makers, record companies, cable and broadcast television networks, Broadway theaters -- all of which are for-profit and do not make much use of the kind of case making the Rand literature review is talking about -- we end up with a conversation about the needs of non-profit cultural organizations and the kinds of arguments that might encourage foundations and government leaders to give money. Gathering evidence and argument to justify public and philanthropic support for non-profit cultural organizations has engaged many smart people over the years, and the task remains an ongoing challenge, but it's important to remember that gifts to cultural nonprofits don't, in aggregate, possess the "oomph" required to really improve the character of our overall arts system. If we, as the subset of citizens most interested in culture, want to increase the vibrancy of the arts system in order to better serve the interests of artists and the public, we need to engage an entirely different set of issues than those that Rand is talking about. For example, we need to think about the FCC and media regulation, and about the way copyright extension does or doesn't work for artists and citizens, and why networks like HBO with "Angels in America" and other spectaculars are eating public television's lunch. Taking on these sorts of issues in order to insure the continuing vitality of the U.S. cultural scene requires plenty of case making, but these real issues, problems, and their solutions lie well outside the scope of what Rand is talking about. So, I guess I'm arguing that at some point we need a bigger conversation how we find ways to intervene in order to improve the arts landscape -- in this day and age, gifts and grants to nonprofits just won't do the job.
But, now that that's off my chest, I'm always willing to think about the needs of the non-profit arts. A question: why is the Rand report surfacing just now? Why did Wallace want to commission such a study? My guess is that there exists a widespread feeling in the non-profit cultural community that revenue streams have about topped out given the persuasive power of arguments used to date. Get me new arguments; these old ones are worn out! Well, ok, but the non-profit cultural sector has expanded dramtically since the 1960s, when the big NGOs, philanthropy advocates, and then government agencies began to encourage growth through gifts and matching grants. Yes, we may just need new arguments, but we also may be pushing against the outer limits of aggregated public sympathy for the demands of the non-profit community. Institutions, agencies, and individuals have plenty of worthy destinations for empathy and charitable dollars. And, yes, we're a good destination, but not the only one and probably not even the most deserving when we think about tidal waves, HIV, and the like. So, maybe our problem is bigger and more basic than what can be addressed by the quality of our case making.
And, just to continue my early-morning, post-four-martini-weekend rant, I'm not all that thrilled by a return to advancing "intrinsic value," even as it's been dressed up in a new outfit by the very smart folks at Rand. To me case making is about language and ideas that make sense to other people, not just to us. I've been in plenty of meetings in which the secretary of the symphony board from some midwestern city tried to convince a member of Congress that classical music "uplifts the soul." I prefer talking about economic impact and reading test scores, even if I cross my fingers and toes while I proudly "make the case."
And, by the way, do we think advocates who are trying to raise money for environmental protection or medical research only make completely documented claims? Give me a break! All's fair in love and war, and quite a bit is fair in fundraising...Bring it on!It's not about the spinach
Is there a better case to be made for the arts? The case we’ve been making—that the arts are good for us instrumentally and extrinsically—is one well worth challenging. The Wallace Foundation report is a wonderfully useful review of the literature, and a helpful critique of the more dubious claims of social science. And it offers arts advocates a clear “takeaway” message: we should move from extrinsic to intrinsic arts benefits, from instrumental arguments to something else.
But we need to be careful that we don’t replicate the same instrumentalist problems, now made “intrinsic.” If we argue that the arts are good for us personally, not just socially, we’ve just repackaged the same “cultural spinach.” We’ll end up arguing about personal and spiritual uplift, for individuals not communities. What I want us to do, instead, is to recognize and celebrate why the arts are good, not why they are good for us.
To do this, we need to let go of a social science dominated model of the arts. The alternative option the Wallace report offers is about the intrinsic “uses and gratifications” allegedly offered by the arts. We’ve been down this road in communication studies, and I find it wrongheaded. I prefer understanding varieties of culture as socially constructed and sustained, rather than trying to measure what art does for us personally and psychologically. The value of the arts isn’t about how it allegedly satisfies various personal needs, or fills in various psychological gaps. Instead, it’s about how various forms of culture have meaning and value for various social groups. Their “message” is in their meaning. And what the “arts” mean to arts-engaged types is very different from what they mean to arts-disengaged types. That’s what we need to understand, and work with.
So what happens if we adopt this more interpretive, ritual view of the arts? What happens if we define the arts as particular versions of socially constructed and sustained culture? What cases can we make if we understand the fine arts as arenas of meaning, not transmitters of experience? We can find out more about what the fine arts mean to people who mistrust or dislike them, and we can sort out how cultural experiences vary or stay the same across forms of culture like crafts, hobbies, and sports events, as well as the fine arts. We can consider the kinds of public sphere questions and cultivation arguments that the RAND report raised, in relation to the varieties of kinds of cultural forms people choose for, and against.
In the end, we are all fans, just of different forms of culture. For art fans, the task is to help people understand why we love the stuff we love. But it is also to become curious about, and respectful of, those who seem immune to the forms that give us such pleasure, and who instead find meaning and value in forms that give us the creeps. That’s where I think we need to begin.Separating ourselves
Great stuff here. Thanks to all for starting this conversation off with such challenge and vision. I'm particularly drawn to the specific challenges of talking about 'the arts' raised by Joli and Bill. Joli says:
For art fans, the task is to help people understand why we love the stuff we love. But it is also to become curious about, and respectful of, those who seem immune to the forms that give us such pleasure, and who instead find meaning and value in forms that give us the creeps.
Bill raises the valuable perspective that the nonprofit arts are only a fraction of the total cultural ecology, and only weaken themselves by struggling to remain separate:
I guess I'm arguing that at some point we need a bigger conversation how we find ways to intervene in order to improve the arts landscape -- in this day and age, gifts and grants to nonprofits just won't do the job.
It also recalls the challenge of the Rand report against existing studies of 'benefit' or 'value,' that ignore all the other things in society or in life that might provide a similar benefit. It's as if we've been afraid to engage the larger world of experience that makes communities work, for fear of losing the fight for funding or relevance. In the process, we may well have separated ourselves from the larger conversation.
It's a compelling question, especially with Bill and Joli and the rest of the gang challenging us to reconsider the limited language we use to discuss it.Reader Comments & A Note For Ben
Readers have been commenting on the discussion so far. You can read full comments here. A sampling:
"We allowed our detractors to define us, and rather than looking at this challenge as an opportunity to re-invigorate support of the Arts as necessary to a healthy world, we attempted to justify our existence on our enemies terms. Namely, we attempted to justify the arts, which exist in an artistic currency, into an accountants' financial currency. Thus, we lost before we began to respond."
- Peter Ellenstein
"Until a person has been touched by the arts, you cannot convince them through argument that the experience will be good for them (implied: but unpleasant). Trying to convince the world of the benefits of the arts, educationally, financially, or even culturally, is a waste of time and resources, which could be better directed towards creating the art itself." - Chris Patton
"As usual, we will discuss the public value of the arts by ignoring the public arts. Where are the arts of the daily public realm - graphic design, product design, fashion, architecture, urban design, landscape design and even the official public art? All the arts discussed require someone to go inside a box - classroom, theater or museum and usually pay for the opportunity. Everyday in South Florida, I work with very sincere people in all walks of life. Directed by planners, elected officials and citizen volunteers, they strive to enhance the visual and pedestrian quality of their community. Every city has discussions of design guidelines, signage ordinances and streetscape programs, to name a few. These are active, passionate civic discussions about the value aesthetics in their communities." - Glenn Weiss
"Given that maximum accessibility is imperative, how can people who head arts non-profits say things like that or support them when they charge exorbitant admissions fees that price out many people, particularly young people?" - Tyler Green
"We spend a lot of time bemoaning the anti-intellectualism that seems to have taken hold in the US over the last few decades, but in my view, this issue is simply a red herring distracting us from the larger problem, which is that arts groups have been left in the dust by a finely honed science of marketing/branding which has been embraced by nearly every other profession. The good news is, this sorry condition ought to be completely reversible, if we can just get over our own profundity and start acting like the entertainers we are." - Sam Bergman
"It seems like there are two parts to this issue of making a case for the arts. On the one hand, any of us who are directly involved in creating the work need no justification for continuing to do so. We already get it. And the same goes for the core audience, those that really love painting or music or books, etc. They probably developed this connection on their own (or through their friends), and don't need to be convinced that the arts are good for them. Do we really need a larger audience, made up of a bunch of people that show up for the nutritional value? Is more really better? I'm not sure that it is." - David
To Ben: I think we're essentially saying the same thing.
"I hope Doug does not truly mean to suggest that a "hot product" somehow is more worthy--do we value Alien vs. Predator more than Sideways because it was #1 at the box office for many weeks? Does he really mean that movies don't spend time telling us movies are good for us?"
I hadn't meant my comment of "a hot product" in terms of box office, but in terms of an artistic product. My point was that in focusing so much on the box office and in trying to make a product designed for maximum sell, that the art itself often seems to be following and passionless rather than leading.
The Hollywood reference is a flawed one, to be sure. I meant merely to suggest that you don't see Fox campaigning for the value of movies - they're too busy trying to up the sizzle factor of whatever specific movie they're trying to promote. I think it might be an important distinction...The public view
I head a local arts agency, funded by county government, serving one of the largest counties in the country by population and land area. At its cultural center is Seattle, known for its high tech, biotech, aerospace, caffiene fueled, creative economy. Seattle is surrounded by sprawling suburban and rural communities. Those to the east are fairly prosperous; to the south, not. We are a Pacific rim community with a richly diverse population. In one small neighborhood is south Seattle, more than 40 distinct ethnic populations, with different languages and traditions, co-exist.
Our community is a microcosm of the national blue-red divide. The rural areas are anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government. The urban areas are much more tolerant and liberal. Seattleites tend to support school levies, parks levies, and transportation projects. The more conservative surrounding areas tend to question the wisdom of every tax-funded program. This is my world.
I agree with Bill Ivey that there's a whole host of policy issues that could positively benefit the arts that are not being addressed in our usual discussions, but, at the risk of being overly mundane, I must say that the one issue that is of paramount importance to our cultural community is funding. Private and public support for the arts are in decline, and we need to make a better case for arts to reverse that trend.
To me this isn't an esoteric or intellectual discussion. My agency is currently mired in a battle in the state legislature regarding the future of arts funding in King County, Washington. Every day I have to respond to inquiries from legislators about the value of the arts. I have to be very pragmmatic in my approach.
We have used all the familiar arguments: economic benefits, education benefits, life-long learning, improved test scores, providing creative opportunities to at-risk youth, enhancing sense of place, community building, exploring creativity as a path to personal fulfillment, the value of memorable experiences.
Whether we like it or not, in the public realm the instrumental arguments work best. Policy makers can be persuaded with good economic impact numbers. They respond well to the arguments about educational benefits. They like hearing about improved test scores; they understand that local festivals encourage people to inteact with their neighbors. Since policy makers represent the public, they want to hear the public case. So we give to Caesar what is Caesar's.
I don't believe the "case for the arts" can be made to the general public. Our duty to the public is not to explain to them why they should enjoy the arts, not to tell them the many ways it will improve them as individuals. Our duty is to involve them in the arts on some level in the belief that they too will experience the benefits of the arts first-hand and will become new advocates for the cause. In other words, we have stop talking about the arts and start doing art.
We have limited public dollars at our disposal, but we're constantly asked to support another study, plan, reseach project, etc. Instead, my agency made a conscious decision to support art projects that increase audiences exposure to and participation in the arts. Most of us agree that you will never appreciate the intrinsic value of the arts if you've never experienced the arts. So let's dedicate ourselves to increasing people's exposure to the arts in all their permutations.
Several years ago, we began sending Seattle-based dance artists to rural and suburban communities to perform in high school auditoriums, community centers, and performance venues. We believed that the best way to recruit new audiences was simply to show them the work.
This fall we are launching a site-specific performance festival. A local playwright is creating a theater piece to be performed in department store furniture showroom. After all, you already have a living room set, bedroom, kitchen, dining room. The actors can easily move from "set to set." The departments store is crowded on weekends, an instant audience for new theatre work. If it's as brilliant and creative, as I suspect it will be, maybe, just maybe, some will say, "hey, that was fun; let's go to the theatre on Friday night!"
Sometimes the case has to be made one at a time.
I'm joining the conversation a bit late, from a hotel room in Boston--a city that should give comfort to anyone who despairs of maintaining a large and vibrant arts community. But already I'm reading language that I find striking. A reader, Peter Ellenstein, writes "we attempted to justify our existence on our enemies' terms..." And Jim Kelly reminds us of the difficulty of making and funding art in a community that reflects the current "red state, blue state" political and cultural divisions of the United States. I wonder if this is evidence for something big shifting in the way people who love art are thinking about people who don't, and vice versa. In the past, the "non art" population was generally considered to be a bit of a blank slate, a body of people who would most likely love art if only they had access to, and education in, the arts. It was a passive body of people who needed motivation, perhaps through arguments, or simply exposure. But what if they're not passive in the face of the arts, but openly hostile? What if Mr. Ellenstein's word--enemy--is what we're dealing with? We try so hard to avoid condescension that we're all careful to avoid descriptions of the target audience that in any way belittle it. And though I ask this question, I'm hesitant to openly embrace its implications. It's all too easy to demonize, all too easy to forego the efort at understanding. But maybe, just as an experiment, we should contemplate the possibility that some significant proportion of people in this country aren't just suffering from arts deprivation, but are rather hostile to the very kinds of things that others find so richly rewarding in art. If so, it really doesn't matter if you try to entice them with the intrinsic or instrumental values of art. And open hostility is something very different from the usual sense of the non art crowd as vaguely anit-intellectual. The problem is art, with its invitation to independence, ambiguity and vulernability.The Big Begged Question
I think Glenn Weiss is right about not attending enough to the ways most Americans connect with the arts every day -- fashion, graphic design, architecture, and so on. It's interesting that these activities have mostly not organized themselves on a non-profit basis at all...Hence, perhaps, the lack of attention from those of us caught up in the well-being of cultural nonprofits.
A quick hand grenade to Ben: I think it's been many years since the non-profit sector has been able to claim any real across-the-board, categorical, artistic superiority when compared to for-profit arts companies. I think financial pressures are to blame, not the absence of artistic vision or lofty standards. For a minute just think about the number of Mozart festivals, the annual flood of Nutcracker productions, the search for yet another Impressionist blockbuster...and, even in theater, conservative seasons featuring one Sam Shepard and, of course, the requisite August Wilson in February. There are always sparklers that light up here and there, but it's pretty hard to characterize the non-profit sector as a bastion of experimentation and creativity these days. And the same challenges, with slightly different causes, are right in the face of for-profit arts managers. They're being forced by parent companies to chase shareholder value and quarterly earnings to the exclusion of long-term artist development and risk taking. Everybody working for record companies here in Nashville complains about it. Years ago, when Goddard Leiberson was President of Columbia Records, he had sufficient creative elbow room to maintain a classical division even when it didn't help the bottom line. There are only a couple of executives left in the entire global record business who possess that kind of freedom today. That's why the HBO model is so interesting to me: they've basically created a demand for a modern-day "subscription series" by creating a powerful image of their brand as hip, cool, cutting edge, creative, etc. They have moved beyond ratings (beyond "butts in seats"), and seem to have freed themselves up to take some pretty heady programming risks. Maybe we can learn something here.
But, it's hard to make the case for non-profit cultural organizations today by arguing that their non-profit status automatically positions them at the front line of American institutional artistry...
Hey, do you want to know what I think the most-significant future problem will be? Tax reform! How do we make certain that upcoming revenue-neutral tax reform doesn't eliminate deductions for cultural nonprofits on the basis that there's insufficient demonstration of public benefit? These policy conversations are beginning right now; how do we make certain our point of view is at the table early on?To Whom? For What Purposes?
Doug has asked us “Is there a better way to make a case for the arts?” and at this point we are risking talking at cross purposes because we’re losing track of a basic question—to whom are we making the case? How are we imagining the audience(s) for our rhetoric?
If we are trying to make the case to “the public,” then how do we think of that public? Are they unified or diverse? Organized by class or social status or education or taste culture? Are they predisposed for or against certain logics or arguments?
As Kennicott points out, we may imagine the public as a bunch of would-be art lovers who only need the experience of art to turn them into advocates. Or perhaps they are instead, as Ellenstein suggests, “the enemy,” actively engaged in hostility to art and art advocates.
Or perhaps the imagined audience is not “the public” but philanthropists and other funders. Or perhaps policy makers and various lawmakers. If so, do these groups need or deserve a different rhetorical approach, as several posts have suggested?
Or maybe we should stop trying to make a case to any of these groups, and instead just do art, with passion and conviction and ability, as Kelly and Midori have clearly suggested.
So should we be making ANY case for the arts (rather than just doing art) and if so, to whom should we imagine making this case? And once we get THAT figured out--for what purposes would we be making our case—to get their money? To put their butts in our seats? To get their support for school curricula? To get them to leave us alone?
And now it's getting lively. If I can just insert a thought before Ben pulls the virtual pin out of the hand grenade Bill tossed to him . . .
The general theme of our commentary seems to be drifting in a familiar and revealing direction: we are hyper-critical of ourselves while attributing sinister motives to what may just be an impersonally changing environment. (I do think that there is hostility out there, I'm pretty certain that there is far more indifference.) I think that Adrian's use of the word adjacent is a good one -- we tend to see ourselves as adjacent to a lot of areas rather than part of a dynamic whole, an attitude which is no doubt the plight of the long term supplicant. Joli makes an excellent point when she asks us to consider the value of getting alongside the folks who don't participate in anything we do -- and also asks us to think about what we do as a social construct rather than, with apologies to the Blues Brothers, a mission from God.
I agree with Bill that we are looking at a tiny part of what the general public considers to be the arts. The 501 c3 model is not nimble, not preferred by a great many creative endeavors, and presents some pretty challenging inflexibilities insofar as it requires keeping a vast number of stakeholders happy all the time. If we look at it as one part of a much larger system we might begin to see more possibilities and broaden our definition of audience, and also gain a little perspective that is slightly more Copernican. Certainly we should keep looking at the horizon, as larger policy questions and tax reform that is ignored by our field will only make us feel more victimized in future.
From the few conversations I have had with the folks at HBO, I am confident that they didn't get where they are by deciding to serve up a televised version of gnostic cultural experiences. All of the creative focus is indeed on the work itself, on pushing back boundaries and making the work fresh. Perhaps we need, as one of NAS leading faculty members has commented with regard to strategy, to do less better?Does milk do a body good?
Sorry for the sidebar, but I can't resist the comparison. Just as we're all wrestling with the RAND study (a literature review that questions the instrumental arguments for the arts), the dairy industry has been smacked with a literature review that questions the positive health benefits of milk. Says one news story:
''Evidence linking bone health with dairy product consumption is weak,'' said the researchers....''Under scientific scrutiny, the support for the milk myth crumbles,'' wrote lead researcher, nutritionist, Dr. Amy Joy Lanou.
So, we can move on from the fallacy that we're the only industry struggling to prove broader public value for what we offer. Perhaps we should invite a few dairy advocates to compare notes.Common Sense
I am always amused by arguments for or against the instrumental value of the arts. Arts organizations in this country have learned to survive by making their case to mostly private and occasionally public sources of funding. They have used almost every argument imaginable and have been surprisingly effective at developing new strategies when necessary.
The Rand report’s suggestion that arts organizations need to concentrate on articulating the intrinsic value of the arts misses the point—the funding organizations to whom these arguments are being made need to change their criteria, not the arts organizations. Like anyone involved in the arts, I believe fundamentally in their intrinsic value and would argue that any other value that can be attributed to them is secondary and, ultimately, not all that interesting.
Successful arts organizations know that their success depends on the daring and quality of their efforts, in their ability to differentiate themselves from similar organizations, and to galvanize their audience’s belief in their importance. Common sense suggests that the instrumental value of the arts is in direct proportion to their intrinsic value and the greater the former the more significant the latter. But if arts organizations can and should work to be appreciated and understood for the quality of their programs and the value of their mission--it is naïve to assume that in a world that makes most of its decisions on instrumental values, funding organizations (either public or private) are suddenly going to make exceptions for arts organizations.
The culture wars for all of their divisiveness and destruction taught arts organizations how to compete in a hostile environment, to use the same tactics that other groups have deployed in order to convince those in power to support them, even when their activities seemed antithetical to prevailing times. This may have been a tough and unpleasant lesson but is has been well learned and we would do well not to forget it in an effort to be recognized for the values we believe in most.
Comments from readers are piling up. Check out full comments here.
"Gifts of the Muse" will either advance debates about the "benefits" of the arts, or (as some commentators suggest) leave readers a bit tired of it all. To me, artistic learning plays well on both sides of the argument. Learning to draw, play the violin, dramatizing Romeo, or dancing Juliet all promote cognitive and affective growth that is bound to impact the way children think, learn, and feel. - James Catterall
The Rand study's "key policy implication is that policy should be geared toward spreading the benefits of the arts by introducing greater numbers of Americans to engaging arts experiences." It's this kind of solipsistic and circular thinking that brought us to where we are today. We need both kinds of arguments all the time. Art is inherently beneficial to individuals for it engages the imagination in particular ways with measureable physiological, psychological, cognitive, and social benefits. That's a good old-fashioned elitist (in the best sense) argument. One we ought to proselytize at every opportunity. But, when asking for money, it takes more than our own faith and goodwill. The nonprofit arts, in general, have some demonstrable impact as part of socioeconomics of the cultural and/or creative sector, the community, the country, business ... something. - Keith Donohue
Until we stop assuming that our reasons for loving, attending and participating in the arts are the only valid reasons for loving, attending and participating in the arts, we will continue to miss great opportunities to show people what the arts can mean to them-- on their terms. - Maureen
Will we ever have levels of culture like Europe's without a similar system of public funding? Is our own cultural identity somehow less important than theirs? Will our arts ever really flourish and be secure with a system of funding based on donations from the wealthy? Why do we often avoid discussing the fundamental problem America has of an equitable regional distribution of the arts that public funding could help provide? We have used our private donor system for decades. Will we eventually admit that it often doesn't work very well and that the long term commitment to public funding used by the Europeans has shown far better results? - William Osborne
Another more frustrating question is what we mean by making a case for "The Arts" in the first place. Art galleries, museums, dance companies, small to large theatres, and major symphonies may have superficially the same problems of low and graying turnouts. But, do they necessarily have the same solutions? Their motivations, goals, methods of dissemination, and economics are not the same. - Ravi Narasimhan