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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
A Public Conversation Among People Who Care

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Daily Archive: March 08, 2005

Let's Get Real...

It's only possible to "make the case" for a moral claim on public support or philanthropy if there's general agreement that the sector making the claim serves the public purpose by enhancing quality of life. "Arts people" certainly agree that the arts serve the public interest, but most of the gatekeepers are unconvinced. For sectors like transportation, health care, environmental protection, or defense there exists a general understanding that each contributes to quality of life and that an investment of government or NGO funds will serve the public interest. Gatekeepers and policy leaders share no such understanding of the arts as a priority, so case-making arguments are often delivered into an unreceptive void. Five or six years ago I was talking to David Obey, a fire-breathing House Democrat and big supporter of the NEA. Obey said, "Now that we've got the deficit under control, we can appropriate funds for some of the 'grace notes' in life." I was happy to have his support, but I cringed, 'grace notes' are not the heart of the tune and can be readily passed over when the basic melody gets tough. But Obey's metaphor was on target; he would never have called Medicare a "grace note," but the arts don't have the stature of other areas of public policy that are assumed to be important to the public interest. If we want to modify this reality, our sector needs research that links citizen contact with a vibrant arts system to overall quality of life, so the health of our cultural, transportation, and health care systems are one day considered to be of equal value by policy leaders. This is a daunting task but I have come to see it as essential.

Second, it is problematic to be in the position of asserting a moral claim for art in relation to the public and philanthropic wallet when we're almost always only talking on behalf of the kind of art we happen to think is best. After all, Americans are deeply engaged in art, but it's North African hip-hop on satellite radio, vintage jazz on an I-Pod, a cool new suit, a CD from Starbucks, the hot new band at the local pub, some nice looking dishes from Pottery Barn, a Saturday afternoon rehearsal of an amateur bluegrass band, and an argument at the water cooler about the relative virtues of "Sideways" and "Million Dollar Baby." Sure, sometimes it's a night at the non-profit theater or a museum visit, but those engagements with our non-profit world are not where most Americans, most of the time, make or consume art. Too often, our case making suggest sternly that all these everyday creative connections are not real art, or real art engagement. We want money and attention directed at our sense of what is important in the spectrum of art making, and we often come off like missionaries trying to convert the unwashed even as we try to get them to help pay our bills. America's cultural mainstream is profoundly vernacular, so changing our approach means rethinking basic assumptions about value and artistic hierarchies -- another daunting challenge, but if we are going to connect art and art making with quality of life in order establish sufficient agreement on value to support our case, we've got to derive meaning from the way citizens really engage art every day. That's where art connects with quality of life and the public interest.

posted at 07:08 AM | Comments (4)

So let's get real - continued...

I take all Bill’s points about the partial view of cultural life that an overly narrow focus the nonprofit sector implies. Bill’s insistence both on a more plural definition of cultural activity and a commensurately deeper understanding of its political and social context is salutary. But the nonprofit arts sector is still a big area of cultural life and of civic life and one we need to get right.

One of my fears is that the arguments developed and deployed to secure public funding for the nonprofit sector of the arts – and that have indeed channeled significant sums into the sector and often against the odds – have left it expanded but weakened, with a feverish bloom on it rather than the deep glow of good health. Much of the funding that has gone into e.g. capital projects has increased the sector’s fixed cost base faster than it has increased its access to earned or contributed income required to maintain that base; and the increasingly directive policy orientation of foundations and public funders (though not of individual philanthropists) has led to under-funded programmatic expansion in non-core areas.

The broadly ‘instrumental’ arguments cut more ice both because they are quantifiable and because they align the arts to policy goals such as economic development and education that resonate more deeply with policy makers and their stake-holders than does support for culture per se.

But they provide the rationale for forms of expenditure that may not actually encourage a vibrant cultural life but inadvertently weaken it. The net effect has been to leave the nonprofit part of the sector weakly capitalized and over-extended. Meanwhile, as the RAND report points out, the level of demand has not matched the expansion in supply, and the competition for audience not just within the nonprofit cultural sector but between the sector as a whole and other demands on leisure time and discretionary expenditure, grows ever fiercer.

Is not part of the preoccupation with re-grounding the arguments for public and philanthropic funding for culture driven by our awareness that, uncomfortable though it is to say, the nonprofit cultural sector will inevitably need to contract if there is to be some sustainable equilibrium; and that the current arguments in support of culture do not appear to give us very nuanced criteria for managing that contraction and managing the tough choices with which arts administrators and arts funders are being faced?

posted at 08:28 AM | Comments (1)

Packaging, Zeal and Varieties of Aesthetic Experiences

In his wonderful essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy raises the problem of symbolic packaging—he says we must learn how to wrest meaning from experiences that inevitably come to us prepackaged (and therefore lost to us) by our assumptions and expectations.

The smothering of artistic experience via symbolic packaging may be what we are up to when we seek ever-more persuasive arguments for the arts. Doug’s starting question could be restated: “what is the best—most effective or convincing--packaging for arts experiences?” The emerging answer in this discussion is that it may be extrinsic economic and civic benefits for some audiences, and intrinsic cognitive or emotional effects for other audiences, but with problems if we choose one over the other.

What I want to suggest here is that we simply stop wrapping up the arts in any benefits packaging whatsoever. In other words, maybe the packaging is causing the problems. As Adrian argues, it has fostered cultural expansion that ultimately weakens the non-profit sector. As Bill points out, it always makes us come off as missionaries trying to convert the great unwashed. By extrinsic and intrinsic logic, various arts experiences are defined as “good for you”—and by implication “better for you” than other kinds of popular or commercial cultural experiences. This instrumental logic is always insulting to the vast numbers of people who usually choose and enjoy non-art forms.

I want us, instead, to focus on aesthetic experience itself, and to acknowledge how aesthetic experiences are available in all levels and kinds of culture. As John Dewey pointed out long ago, the fine arts aren’t the only routes to aesthetic experiences. If what we want is to broaden and deepen the varieties of aesthetic experience for others, then our concerns should be with enhancing access across groups and styles and hierarchies.

I want us to become willing to call ourselves arts fans or arts enthusiasts, thereby recognizing that our zeal for our chosen forms is akin to the zeal other people have for their non-art forms of engagement. And then it becomes our job to demonstrate to non-arts types what is so delightful, engaging and wonderful about the stuff we love. It’s up to us to share our enthusiasms, rather than to keep offering potential customers an ever-shifting package of imagined benefits.

If we let go of the “benefits packaging” we let go of our role as self-appointed missionaries, and we are out of the business of offering social, civic, cognitive or emotional medicine--or snake oil. Instead, we are sharing our arts zeal with all the passion and energy we can muster. And that allows us to contribute much more honestly and directly to a rich, diverse and respectful cultural mix.

posted at 11:05 AM | Comments (1)

Other comparisons

Bill Ivey makes an excellent point that those of us in the public arts arena, to our constant frustration, encounter almost daily: the implication that the arts are simply not as important or deserving of public support as other "essential" services. While we in the arts field believe the arts serve a public purpose, "most gatekeepers are unconvinced."

And it's precisely because of this attitude that we are engaged in this blog. The gatekeepers are policy makers, like David Obey or my own county council members. They love the arts, ...as long as health and human service needs are addressed first. And of course, we hear, they have to deal with education, affordable housing, law, safety and justice, transporation, and water management. After those essential, more important services are taken care of, they'll see what's left for the arts.

I have a colleague, the director of a municipal arts agency, who made his agency's annual budget pitch to his City Council immediately following a group that was working to reduce infant mortality rates in minority populations.

Do the arts have a moral claim for public support? And if, so, what is the basis of that claim?

I suggest we examine two other publicly funded activities: libraries and parks. The benefits of both are instrumental and intrinsic. Few would argue that libraries and parks are not important services of government. Democracy cannot flourish without an informed, discerning, educated citizenry. And everyone needs recreation, a place to play ball, picnic, gather, exercise. Reading and exercising primarily benefit the individual, but in subtle, intangible ways, each contributes to the collective health of a community.

I have never heard a public official suggest that we have too many libraries, or that libraries should raise significant portions of their budgets in the private sector. Libraries may have to absorb budget cuts when city budgets get tight, they may have to reduce hours of operation, or lay-off staff, but they are acknowledged to be important community assets. Last year, Seattle tried to eliminate its bookmobile to cut costs, and the public outcry was immediate and loud. The bookmobile was funded.

Three years ago, King County told its residents that it could no longer afford to operate its extensive parks system. Voter approved initiatives had stripped the county of much of its discretionary revenue and the county simply lacked the resources to keep the parks open. Once again the outcry was immediate. The county was accused of punishing voters for approving the tax reducing initiatives. Hours of operation were reduced, the ownership of some parks was transfered to suburban cities, but no parks actually closed.

Where was the outcry when California practically eliminated its state-wide arts council?

The arts should have the same claim to public support as libraries and parks. Maybe more so. Libraries open our minds, parks keep us physically healthy, and the arts fuel imagination. How can we possibly address the challenges of the future without the power of creativity. Who's helping us exercise that muscle?

posted at 02:34 PM | Comments (0)

Nice Thoughts...

Adrian is very smart and I agree with his point that the non-profit sector is important and big on its own, and also that it has perhaps grown bigger than its current justifications might allow, which has produced nervousness.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the non-profit model has truly dominated the U.S. cultural enterprise only among organizations that present or preserve the European refined art forms; it has had some application but is by no means the primary business model in theater, jazz, and folk arts. The vast mainstream of cultural work, including things that arts people love, like independent film, literary publishing, and galleries in Lower Manhattan are organized for profit. Unfortunately, making the case for strengthening the cultural system by investing in nonprofits always always seems to get tangled with arguments encouraging citizens to "move on up" by coming to their senses and embracing the superiority of our refined arts. The resulting mixed message is not helpful.

I think the key to refreshing our argument is to link up research in art participation with research on happiness and lifelong quality of life. To me, somewhere in that constellation is the magic bullet (mixed metaphor!)that will allow us to make the big case and confidently package intrinsic value as a component of public policy.

Just left the dentist and feel the need for a beer...More in the morning.

posted at 02:47 PM | Comments (2)

Since the hand grenade pin has been pulled...

OK, I forget to log in one day and come back to see hand grenades thrown in my direction, as both Bill and Russell say....

Before I lob it back, I must say that I'm taken with the way in which much of what we say really is in agreement--that we're frustrated with the general inability to move the arts forward more successfully on the public agenda, that we want more support for the arts, that we sense the traps inherent in pitting the arts against other pressing social demands, and we all want a healthier arts environment. From such common cause, great things will grow, I hope.

Two quick observations to earlier comments: pitting the arts against other causes IS a trap. For a healthy society, it should be a both/and and not an either/or. Many of the past questionnaires ask us to prioritize how we spend money--e.g. which is more important between infant mortality and the arts--rather than asking us to describe those characteristics that comprise a healthy society. If we could look at the latter, there would be room and a necessity of a creative approach to policy--one that seeks to promote a more holistic sense of national health in which the arts MUST be counted--rather than the traps of competing causes.

And to Bill's point. In EVERY industry, growth implies greater reliance on more people--a relationship that implies a move to the middle and, quite possibly, a more mainstream aesthetic take. To fault large theatres for more conservative fare is both a fairly soft point (in many cases) and not really indicative of what is going on in the FIELD. Putting the large institutions aside for a moment, the VAST majority of theatres in this country operate on $1,000,000 or less these days--and it is often in these smaller groups that a different kind of work is seeded and blooms. ANGELS IN AMERICA started at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco who commissioned it, long before Broadway; it's the not for profit who have given us Suzan Lori Parks, the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, the whole explosion of exciting young work--Elevator Repair Service, Big Art Group, Richard Maxwell, Rude Mechanicals--the list goes on and on and permeates the country.

Judging a field by the behavior of 70 or so large groups--a fraction of the professional community but a fraction that thankfully provides deeply meaningful experiences and joyous encounters to those faithful audiences who have built them and attend in huge numbers--is not the same as saying that a field has abandoned innovation and experimentation. The national theatre community stands in stark rebuttal to that oversimplified, and unfair, assertion.

posted at 02:55 PM | Comments (3)

From Midori: Returning "Results"

Midori is stranded in a snowstorm in an Italian airport and asked me to post her latest blog contribution:

One of the greatest challenges of advocating for the arts is in designing the programs to fulfill our fundraising promises. In order to receive grants and donations, we wine and dine potential grantors, we dance and sing the benefits that the funding would bring, and attempt to persuade funders of the potential worth of their donation. When the funding is secured (usually for a limited time only, as no funding source is ever a bottomless pit), it is only a beginning. The real challenge comes after the grant is received. It's now time to execute the promised activity/project and to prove its worth. Sharp development administrators must do even more. In order to be truly successful, they know they will require continued support so, in order to demonstrate the success of a given project, they must demonstrate the "results" in terms that funders understand and appreciate. Documents such as the RAND Study are very helpful for fundraising purposes, not only before the funding is secured but afterwards as well.

For example, most funders like statistics and proven facts, like numbers. They want an outcome that is expressed in business terms, like a scientific model. These are facts of life for those of us seeking funding and we have to live with them. In fairness, funders certainly deserve to know how their money is spent, but for an arts organization sometimes painful choices must be made between quantity and quality.

Numbers, seen concretely on paper, are easier to comprehend and more persuasive than descriptions and, for this reason, they have become extremely powerful in the non-profit world. In reality, only a few of the decision makers in the granting organizations actually have the opportunity to directly observe the programs which seek their funds or to get to know an organization first-hand. The rest of the decision-making body therefore must rely partly on the appraisal of a few who have observed a program, and mostly on the funding application, which is filled with hard facts and numbers. With individual donors, this can be less of a problem, but it remains difficult to grapple with the entire scope of an arts activity unless one has direct and ongoing involvement. As a result, numbers have taken on an even more powerful role.

The Executive Director of one of my non-profit organizations often talks to me about the dilemma of quantity vs. quality. When resources (in terms of finance and personnel) are limited, having both quantity and quality is impossible. It is also difficult to convey the concept of quality, or depth of effectiveness, within the narrow confines of a grant application. In short, quantity has become ever more powerful as a fundraising tool. Could this be caused in part by the mass culture that seeks massive solutions?

In my own experience and that of colleagues who also advocate for the arts, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make an argument to potential funders for an increase in the quality of a program versus the raw numbers of individuals the program will reach. If we want to increase the funding for a program in order, for example, to give 1,000 children the opportunity to paint in oils as well as watercolors, often the potential donor will require instead that 2,000 children be given watercolors. We find that donors and granting organizations feel the need to prove their effectiveness by citing the number of individuals served rather than the quality of the service provided.

For administrators (and artists), it's a Catch-22. We have to supply the numbers to prove ourselves so that we can get our projects funded. Without the funding, we can't deliver anything--including quality. But, in order to meet the huge quota demand, we risk having to spread ourselves thin, thereby reducing the quality of the programs we provide.

How can we begin to resolve this?

We need more artists actively involved in all aspects of advocacy and fundraising. We need artists, administrators, and funders to be partners. More artists and more involvement means, at least, more artists to supply the "quantity" but less of those artists having to spread themselves thin.

We need more opportunities to make ourselves (artists and organizations) more accessible, to cover larger geographical areas.

We need more concrete training possibilities to be made available to artists, so more artists can qualify to provide quality.

Needless to say, all these initiatives require money, and lots of it. More opportunities for fundraising! I'd like to see greater collaboration and dialogue among those of us who are involved in arts advocacy, and this blog is certainly a step in the right direction. It might also be very helpful to have a conference to discuss our shared challenges. Ultimately what we need are concrete actions, based on a realistic assessment of where we are and where we want to go.

posted at 03:28 PM | Comments (8)

More Reader Comments

To read all of the reader comments, please go here.

Finding support for the arts might be impossible in a democratic society. Where individual self interest is the prime political motivation (social security reform) where the common good is replaced with a individual with wealth, makes it hard to form a consensus on what is of value. - Charles Hankin
In this discussion, there is too much focus on justifying something which doesn't need it. Someone mentioned the defensiveness of the arts community, trying to prove its worth to the general public. The greatest effort should be made with public school boards and civic leaders to make the arts mandatory (as it is, under the "No Child Left Behind Act), using people who are successful in business to advocate; businessmen/women who have had arts experiences in their schooling.- Margaret Koscielny
I have seen a few comments that prioritize the arts behind more essential social services like health care and transportation. I have lived in Europe for the last 25 years. I have noticed that the societies that spend the most on things like public health and transportation, are also the societies that spend the most on the arts. It is not a question of either/or, but a different philosophy about the use of wealth for the common good. Show me a country with excellent mass transit and national health insurance, and I will show you a country with adequate public funding for the arts.- William Osborne
Extended arguments about art and culture are only listened to by those who care about art and culture already. What we need to find is a way of reaching the average American and getting the message across in bite sized chunks. But knowing that the Iraq war could have funded the National Endowment for the Arts for 1500 YEARS, or helped resolve the Social Security "crises" might help get the point across to some. Many of the people at the grass roots level that we need to convince don't like polysylables.- Peter Ellenstein
Implying that people who pay money to see a movie such as Alien vs. Predator do not appreciate art only creates a division and the sense that the self-proclaimed artistic community is truly elitist. No one learns to run before being shown how to walk. The practical arts advocate takes the positive and does not spend time bemoaning the artistically uneducated status of the populace. Introduce the visually-oriented Alien vs. Predator fan to the full body of Giger’s work, segue that into other surrealists, show them the full collection of your local modern/contemporary museum, ask them to volunteer at the next function, become a member, then a donor, etc.- Jack Bradway
For good reason it is commonly understood that public sectors such as transportation contribute to the quality of our lives and serve everyone’s interest. After all, a bus is a bus and a train is a train, and everyone knows perfectly well that both are modes of transportation that enhance our daily lives. But what of art? What is it, and what role does it play in our lives? Who can blame policy makers, not to mention ordinary citizens, for not fully appreciating that the arts are worthy of support when virtually any object or activity is considered art just because someone in the artworld declares it to be?- Louis Torres
I suppose this is a bit of a digression but it has long been my belief that the arts in general could benefit from the sort of national advertising campaign the United Way crafted with the NFL. Seeing an athlete better known for his blocking and tackling prowess interacting with small children not only humanizes the athlete, it puts a face on and brings health and human services into our consciousness.- Sally Everhardus
Many of us in the field of arts education and arts education research are growing weary of the arguments for or against the so-called secondary learning values of the arts when a wide range of learning outcomes is the inevitable outcome of any highly engaged arts experience. It is especially troubling to see that those who do testify or investigate arts learning outcomes that draw attention to phenomena out of alignment with some arts organizations’ notion of primary values of the arts ostensibly become “the enemy” of the best case for the arts.- Larry Scripp

posted at 09:37 PM | Comments (2)

Is there a better case to be made for the arts? more...

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Ben Cameron
Executive director of Theatre Communications Group more

Adrian Ellis
Managing consultant of AEA Consulting more

Bill Ivey
Director of the Curb Center, Former Chair, NEA more

Joli Jensen
Professor, University of Tulsa, Author: "Is Art Good for Us?" more

Jim Kelly
Director, 4Culture, Seattle, WA more

Phil Kennicott
Culture critic, Washington Post more

Glenn Lowry
Director, Museum of Modern Art more

Robert L. Lynch
President, Americans for the Arts more

Violinist more

Andrew Taylor
Director, Bolz Center, University of Wisconsin more

Russell Willis Taylor
President, National Arts Strategies more

Doug McLennan
Editor, ArtsJournal.com

Gifts of the MuseGifts of the Muse
Free access to the full RAND study at the core of this conversation, funded by the Wallace Foundation. An executive summary is also available. Other Wallace Foundation publications and reports are available through its Knowledge Center.

Top arts researchers will come together to present and dissect the latest data at Measuring the Muse, an unprecedented National Arts Journalism Program-Alliance for the Arts conference at Columbia University.

The Values Study
A collaborative effort of 20 Connecticut arts organizations, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and facilitator/author Alan S. Brown. The effort trained arts leaders to interview key members of their constituency, to discover what they valued about the creative experience -- in their own words. The process was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation's State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation (START) Program.

Valuing Culture
An initiative of London-based think tank, Demos. This effort brought cultural and policy leaders together to discuss the public value of culture in the UK. Resources include (with a downloadable briefing report by Adrian Ellis), a collection of speeches from the event in June 2003, and a summary report by John Holden called Capturing Cultural Value.

The Arts and Economic Prosperity
The 2002 report and related resources assessing the economic impact of America's nonprofit arts industry, based on surveys of 3,000 nonprofit arts organizations and more than 40,000 attendees at arts events in 91 cities in 33 states, plus the District of Columbia.

The Value of the Performing Arts in Ten Communities
A project of the Performing Arts Research Coalition, researched by the Urban Institute, exploring measures of value in specific cities across the United States. Reports are available for download.

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