A Public Conversation Among People Who Care
Daily Archive: March 09, 2005We shape our arguments, and they shape us
It's been interesting to watch the media and others frame the nature of the Rand study as against instrumental arguments, and for intrinsic arguments. This columnist in the South Florida Sun Sentinal was about as extreme as they come in this regard. And I've enjoyed the depth and context of this weblog conversation immensely. To me, it's the conversation, not the conclusion, that the Rand study is really about.
We've all agreed (as Ben and Glenn have noted) that we will use any reasonable argument to advance a cause in which we believe. You want economic impact? Sure, we've got that. You want educational benefit? That's us. You want pro-social behavior among at-risk youth? We're the folks that can deliver. And the Rand study doesn't say these arguments aren't true, just that they lack the depth, nuance, and evidence of causality that you'd like to find in a policy conversation (but honestly, seldom do).
In my work (training and fostering management professionals primarily for the nonprofit and public arts), the true blessing of the Rand effort is the way it helps us frame and understand the arguments we use.
Persuasive and resonant arguments are among the most essential 'soft tools' of cultural management. And as with any tool, if we are not the master of it, it will master us. Two of my favorite statements will help to make this point. The first is an old constulant's aphorism:
If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
The second is attributed to Winston Churchill (the font of all great quotes):
We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.
Adrian has already spoken wonderfully of the ecological implications of our instrumental arguments (more and more fixed cost and infrastructure, without the operating support to truly maintain it). I'm speaking here, instead, of the individual organizational and management implications of using arguments without truly understanding their basis and their aftermath.
For example, when you promise economic impact for your facility, you are making a promise about volume...more heads equal more hotel beds equal more drinks, more babysitters, more dinners out. To the extent that that volume comprises more affluent people than not, more good news for economics. The rub is that volume and affluence often run contrary to the reasons you formed as a nonprofit in the first place.
The answer, of course, is to use these arguments, but use them with mastery, with insight, with elegance, and with care. All of those attributes are difficult to attain when your industry is closed and silent about how the arguments work (or don't work).
Which is why this report, and this conversation, is such a welcome breath of air.The Nonprofit Dilemma
Ben's response to my assertion that creativity and experimentation is being squeezed out of non-profit arts world encourages me to expand on those thoughts a bit (See, don't answer back, it'll only encourage him!).
I agree with Ben that there is creativity and risk taking in the theater, and, I guess, we could review the content of twenty or thirty subscription seasons presented by companies with varying budgets in order to make some judgement about the degree of experimentation that exists across the board. But, then our opinions would be burdened with fact and the conversation would be less fun.
I'd rather point out the three converging tendencies that, to me, make it very difficult for nonprofits to use creative freedom as a compass with which to steer programming. First, as I mentioned the other day, the entire non-profit cultural sector has probably grown to a point at which we're competing tooth-and-nail for every penny that gatekeepers are willing to assign to "culture;" popular programming becomes an essential survival strategy. I'm a card-carrying arts populist, so I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but we need to acknowledge the fact that in many museums and performing arts organizations programming decisions are driven by the need to feel confident about audience or donor support. And, because nonprofits are perpetually undercapitalized, they have much less ability to tolerate failure than, say, a for-profit record company that operates knowing that only one in eleven CD releases will make money. No modern nonprofit could tolerate the failure rates accepted in movies, TV, or record business.
Midori's very strong point about the tyranny of "results" also highlights part of the problem. The entire field of cultural funding has become more outcome oriented in the past decade: corporate sponsors want exhibitions to actually sell products; foundations expect community transformation or youth development; everybody wants big audiences. As Midori indicates, the multitude of donor demands and expectations forces arts nonprofits to take their eyes off the creative ball. As we take money for projects targeting economic development projects or at-risk youth, we force ourselves away from core artistic values. Of course, we can walk away from promising big audiences, transformed communities, or smart, well-behaved kids, but we would do so knowing that our sector would instantly get shrink, because the pot of philanthropic and public money available for a "pure" artistic agenda is a lot smaller than what's out there for social transformation.
(Of course, this is just a version of the "art versus commerce" argument that cuts across the entire cultural system, not just the nonprofit world. Here in Nashville, songwriters, record producers, and recording artists complain bitterly that the demands of radio progammers (who have very specific needs around songs that prevent audiences from "tuning out"), hold too much sway in the entire creative process. The record industry can, of course, walk away from the demands of radio (and some boutique companies do avoid radio), but the post-radio record business would be a lot smaller than it is with broadcasting as a marketing arm. The same holds true for a film director who resents the presence of a studio "watchdog" executive on the set. So, these issues of balancing artistic vision against the demands of those who are paying the bills for their own reasons cut across the for-profit and non-profit sectors. However, because nonprofits lack the financial reserves necessary to encourage risk, and because we often have a hand-to-mouth relationship with funders, I would argue that right now our very large non-profit sector is more inclined to compromise art for commerce than for-profit arts companies. We could choose to be more creative, but I think we'd be choosing to get smaller at the same time.)
Was there a third point...? Oh, I remember: one challenge unique to nonprofits is the fact that organizational mission is always bigger than available resources. That means, of course, that if we have good years we always use excess earnings to grow programming, not to create reserves that would free us to invest in future experimental work. Oh, I'm certain there are exceptions, but I know I'm right on the rule. From time to time the NEA and other entities have funded the creation of cash reserves, and we all quickly learned that, after a couple of years, the reserves somehow migrated into operations. I believe this is a perpetual management issue that is an inevitable result of the accurate perception that a cultural nonprofit can always be doing "more." This is, of course, a noble aspect of non-profit character, but one that keeps us in a fiscal backwater that forces too much emphasis on attracting big numbers and pleasing donors.
Some of these problems are the result of the way we are forced to "make the case" in a scramble for limited resources. Employ instrumental arguments, and your organization starts to serve somebody elses agenda; fall back on "intrinsic value," and your company might end up performing for quarters on the stairway leading down to the Flatbush Avenue Express.Artistic Risk
Bill and Ben's riff on the relation between all this stuff and artistic risk is perhaps THE issue...
Many of the newer, more instrumental responsibilities that arts organizations have embraced are often inimical to the protection of informed artistic risk-taking, which I for one regard as a central responsibility of anything that deserves the name of a cultural organization. (How one defines 'artistic risk' would require several more blogs but anyway I'll assume we all have an least heavily overlapping if not identical ideas of what it is.)
There is, I think, an innately problematic relationship between the transgressive modus operandi of artistic expression and the agendas of community builders. They may well coincide on a given issue, and the coincidence can be a source of strength to both art and community, but an arts organization needs to be able to choose the terms of its engagement with power. Organizations that are weighed down by wider civic responsibilities and the financial obligations that are required to exercise them risk losing that ability to make choices - especially when financial survival is dependent upon the ability to demonstrate effectiveness as an instrument of someone else's policy.
This dilemma has grown more acute as the criteria that funders expect to be met have become more explicit and the methodologies of evaluation more exacting, which in turn has led to a greater interest in those areas that can be measured and a neglect of interest in many of the ineffable qualities that are the raison d'etre of artistic expression.
Whether the source of funds is the public sector, foundations or corporations (but as Glenn pointed out way back when -- Monday I think -- less so individuals), they are all increasingly strategic in their purposes, increasingly willing to call the organizations they fund to account, and less and less willing to fund general operating costs as opposed to the variable costs of specific programs that further their strategic agendas.
In seeking at least a partial escape from this dilemma, many organizations look increasingly to new sources of earned income - expanded retail and catering, licensing, partnerships with for-profit organizations etc. etc. These can absorb considerable time and effort from senior management and board members that displaces attention paid to core functions and pushes organizations into new and unfamiliar areas of risk - and that as often as not tempt organizations down the path of imagined cross-subsidy that subsequently fails to materialize.
Many of the organizational and physical means required to dispatch the newer, more instrumental ends that arts organizations pursue are themselves often inimical to risk-taking. The inclusive, often cumbersome, structures of governance; the generally consensual and process-heavy nature of the managerial paradigm that has become received wisdom for non-profit management in the United States; and the rapacious demands of planning, constructing, occupying and maintaining high profile civic buildings (a.k.a. the edifice complex) all militate against the maneuverability and entrepreneurial opportunism that is the breeding ground of artistic innovation - and indeed of commercial success.One additional thought..
Just one quick additional observation. Before we get too enamored with the notion of experimentation and innovation as the raison d'etre of the not for profit, let me just add that it is one--but not the only--reason that justifies our existence. The notion that we make a social/ educational/ cultural contribution may or may not translate into innovative aesthetics.
Many theatres work to give voice to communities who have been historically denied a larger public platform. Theatres of color, gay and lesbian theatres, theatres working to capture rural traditions, theatres for the deaf--these and many more--are a critical part of the not for profit landscape and are vital to our larger social health, even if they choose to operate within relatively conventional dramaturgical structures and patterns (as many, but by no means all, of them do). I worry that in our emerging focus on innovation/experimentation, we're inadvertantly distorting the shape and value of the sector as a whole.
I’m thrilled we’re all talking about instrumental arts-support logic. I’ve tracked this instrumental logic back to Walt Whitman and up through the culture wars (in my book Is Art Good For Us?) and I really believe it is ultimately harmful to our cause. It’s a dream come true for me to have so many smart, arts-dedicated people exploring the implicit and explicit claims we’ve been making. As Andrew points out, understanding the consequences of the language we choose is important work….thanks so much to all of you. This is (alas!) my last post for the week—I’m away from the Internet for spring break starting tomorrow. So one final entry:
Assuming that our common cause is fostering and sharing the arts that we love, how do we best make our case? I want us to give up instrumental logic, and adopt a more expressive logic in support of the arts. Expressive logic is based not on extrinsic or intrinsic benefits, but on the value of aesthetic experience. If we adopt it, we’ll have a much easier time getting non-arts types to try our favorite forms. But to adopt expressive perspectives, we’ll have to let go of our self-serving assumptions about the powers of art to uplift, refine, transform, empower etc.
If we are to adopt expressive logic, and define the arts as public goods, like parks and libraries (nice connection, Jim) then we need to explore how and why the arts, natural spaces and information collections offer us valuable, worthwhile experiences. Historically, the presumed instrumental value of public parks and libraries was what got them funded--both were seen as ways to assimilate and uplift immigrants and the unwashed masses. Such hopes may have helped convince philanthropists in the late 19th century, but libraries and parks (at least here in the heartland) are too often dismissed as “frills,” compared with other social services. I’m all for the arts, for parks and for libraries, but not because I think they will uplift, civilize or refine anyone. They are good things that I love, and I want to make them happen, and I will support them when they do, and I yearn to share them with my fellow citizens.
Which brings me to the garage band model of cultural performance. Sometimes you don’t need to be widely popular or prosperous to exist and do well. All you have to do is keep things really cheap. My husband has a small theatre company here in Tulsa that has successfully staged four oddball plays a year for the past five years. He started it with $2000 and he still has $2000 in the bank, which he uses to stage mostly terrific shows that need no more than about 25 people per night (at $10 a person) to break even. Some shows lose money, some make it, but he has never assumed that he needed or deserved extra funding to put on the stuff that he likes, and that other local theatre companies can’t or won’t do. His is the garage band model for theatre, and it offers quirky but high quality cultural experiences to all participants.
The most frequent question he gets when people call for tickets is “what should I wear?” A subset of them ask about food, and most have clearly have never heard of a black box theater. But when they show up for Beckett or Havel, they find out that there’s something other than musical dinner theater, or Our Town that can be called theatre. And they don’t have to wear fancy clothes, and even weird sounding plays done by local actors can be worth going to.
Obviously symphonies and operas can’t be garage bands (of course we shouldn’t be lumping museums with orchestras with local theater groups, as has already been pointed out). But we need to remember that garage bands (and many forms of fine art) don’t need a very big audience to exist and to continue. Maybe we shouldn’t spend so much of our energies seeking revenue streams to help us grow bigger and more popular and more prosperous. Maybe we should just keep doing our oddball stuff in our own passionate ways, and do our best to help other people see why we’re so dedicated to the cultural forms we call "the arts."
The RAND report mentions in passing the role that the arts play in the creation and maintenance of social identity. Instrumental logic too easily fosters an elitist and pedantic identity for the arts, an identity that rightly puts off all kinds of people. Expressive logic, and a garage band sensibility, fosters an arts identity that is more open, democratic, egalitarian and experimental. With it, the arts can become more welcoming and inclusive, without commercializing or pandering. And that can only help the arts—and all of us--from here on in.
Again, my thanks to everyone posting. It’s been great to be able to think out loud in such good company.
One element we haven't really addressed directly yet is the role of the professional argument makers in addressing the value of the arts. That would be journalists, arts journalists who regularly attend and review performances and exhibitions, and journalists who are engaged with improving civic life through editorializing and opinion columns. I've spent some time doing both kinds of work, reviewing music, and working for the editorial page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, making arguments for maintaining architectural landmarks, supporting arts groups, and rebuilding the fabric of downtown life. As an editorial writer, I often fought a kind of blank despair. We would craft arguments (using every rhetorical resource we could muster, instrumental, intrinsic, etc.) that seemed crushingly convincing, we'd send them out into the world, and nothing would change. It was good training in the frustrations of a one-sided conversation, which I imagine is what many in the business of promoting the arts feel, day to day. As a music critic, I rarely engaged with anything so bluntly promotional as a direct argument about the merits, uses, values, of great music. It seemed to me that my role was to demonstrate the relevance of music, rather than argue for it. And that demonstration came in the form (I hoped) of lively, regular reviewing. Which leads me to the one real point I have to add to the previous entries about the experimental vitality of the non-profit arts sector. There are a lot of "arguments" with the public about art going on at every level, in all sorts of different media. Television advertisments that make an evening out at the theater a glamorous thing are a kind of argument. And reviewing is an argument as well. If you want to harness the demonstrative power of the critical "argument," you have to provide critics something interesting to talk about. There's a reason why critics rarely cover community choruses, dinner theater, and so forth. Not because we think the world would be better without them, but because they give us so little material with which to engage a thinking public.At a Turning Point?
I like Joli's "garage band" approach a lot, and I've always suspected there's a lot of that kind of thing going on, but, of course, it doesn't get tracked because it's not part of the "case-making/advocacy" system which is about making big and pretty big things even bigger.
After noodling about it for a couple of days I've decided what I like best about the Wallace/Rand report is the opportunity it affords to take a breath and at least bring up some of the overarching issues that face the arts in the U.S. I've been thinking a lot lately about what we should be doing now, early in a new century, to try to shape a more vibrant cultural system that serves the public interest. Here's why I'm convinced that the time is right for us to take a step back to try some really different ideas:
Scroll back forty or fifty years. If you were an arts-engaged policy leader living, say, in New York, Boston, or DC in 1955 or 1960, and you wanted to come up with a few interventions that would make the arts scene more vibrant, what might you have considered? Well, first of all, you might have looked at your big-city nonprofits and said, "Let's nurture more organizations like this in other parts of the country; that will improve the cultural landscape." In addition, it would have been logical to think that it would also be helpful to tour performing arts groups and exhibitions produced by these major, big-city institutions out into the hinterlands: "By George, let's give them a taste of the real thing!"
If you could influence an NGO, then grants to these new and established cultural non-profits might be just the ticket; if you were positioned to invent and lobby for a new state or federal government cultural agency, that agaency could employ the same matching grant model to build up a sector that would provide an alternative to commercial culture and a healthier overall arts landscape.
And, what about TV, already, by the 1960s, declared a "vast wasteland?" Well, by mid-century citizens were spending their time watching one of three commercial networks, so..."Let's fund a public-broadcasting alternative; by making solid news and cultural programming a one-in-four choice, we'll improve the overall quality of TV."
Now, all of those strategies were put in play and, in retrospect, they appear to have been both appropriate and remarkably effective. If we'd looked at the situation in, say, 1980 or even 1985, we would have made the correct assessment that these three or four interventions in the U.S. cultural system had been "dead on."
But let's fast-forward to today, and, as arts-concerned public intellectuals, ask ourselves the same question: how we might intervene to enhance the vitality of our 21st-century arts system? We could, of course, answer the question by saying, "Well, we need better arguments so we can keep building nonprofits and touring non-profits, and we need to keep improving the content of public TV." Fine, but such an answer ignores the obvious fact that the backdrop against which we're strategizing has been transformed: our local public TV station is not one of four or five, but, for the 75-80% of cable-wired homes, one of 150 or 200. We're not starting our effort to advance classical music with 30 or 40 orchestras in place, but with 350 or more. And, at the same time, the expanded reach of copyright, mergers in art and broadcasting industries, and the loss of independent book and record retailers have narrowed the gates through which most artists build careers and through which most citizens consume culture. A whole new approach to nurturing and gatekeeping may be what's required.
So, maybe we need to really reprise the process that was initiated in the early '60s, when the NEA, Dance in America, and state arts agencies were just various glimmers in various eyes. If we take on that task and take it seriously, I don't think we'll end up placing the highest priority on intervention through arguments and case making that are grounded in decades-old intervention strategies.
The Rand study has given us an "emperor's-new-clothes" moment, exposing the truth that our non-profit cultural community may be like Wile E. Coyote when he first runs off the edge of a mesa, standing secure in midair for the brief second before he looks down, realizes he's got nothing under him, glances toward the audience for a momemt of sympathy, and then comes crashing down.Know Your Audience
Sorry to be late to the blog. First I think it really important to differentiate among 1) personal love/passion for the arts and 2) methods for exciting and involving new participants in the arts and 3) what it takes to convince a decision maker to financially support the arts. They are three entirely different situations.
According to NEA statistics some 40% of the American public participate in the arts on an annual basis. That figure includes folks who attended just one event so the percentage of involved truly passionate folks is much smaller. I assume that all of us and all arts advocates are in my first category above. However, I assume that we have a lot of cultivation work still to do to get most of America's adults and children to become even marginally interested in what we love.
That comes first from there being an opportunity for these people to be engaged in some way and secondly once an opportunity (theater, dance, music, literature, an arts center, a close to home visual or performing arts venue, a decent art program in the local schools) is available there needs to be some way to involve and excite these prospects in an art form of their choice. This necessitates engagement and passion and people to help and guide others along that journey. But is that new? That is what some 50,000 nonprofit arts organizations in America try to do every day (up from 7,700 nonprofit arts organizations in America in 1965). This is always all done by getting people to experience intrinsic benefits.
No one comes to an arts event or gets excited about an arts course in school because someone has told them that they will be contributing to the community’s economic impact or that a child’s SAT scores will become higher (even though both could be true). And anyone who works in the arts knows this already.
So this brings me to my third area which is convincing decision makers--whether public or private; whether national, state or local--that they should do something to support the arts or arts education like allocate money or pass a policy. For now I am just focusing on the nonprofit sector (sorry Bill).
So just like all of America we can expect that the backgrounds and arts interests of these decision makers is a mix with a small percentage being really passionate about the arts, a bigger number being somewhat interested, and an even bigger number not really getting it because they have not really known the full wonder of the arts in their lives. The first rule of advocacy is: “to whom are you advocating” and the second rule is “what do they care about” not “what do you care about”.
Next week Americans for the Arts along with some 70 of our national arts organization colleagues will host 400 cultural advocates from around the country for National Arts Advocacy day to advocate for more federal arts dollars for the arts and arts education. These 400 advocates in tandem with thousands of email advocates from every state will reach 435 congressional offices and 100 senate offices and they will find a mix of receptiveness but every congressperson’s and every senator’s vote counts.
Some, the lucky ones, will meet a decision maker who already loves the arts and usually that is a vote we can count on but that is probably in my experience about 40%. Some, the very unlucky ones, will meet a decision maker who mostly on philosophical grounds will never support funding for the arts. These are libertarians and strict constitutionalist or fiscal or ideological arch conservatives.
In my experience at the federal level these days that is also about 40%. So to win a majority for the arts the middle 20% are key. And they will prove to be quite a mixed bag to those who visit them. Some care about the economy, some about jobs, some the federal deficit, some about kids after school, some about how kids grades in school compare to other communities, some pretty much only about getting more money to their districts, and all about getting reelected.
These leaders can and are tipped to support our issue only by what is referred to here as instrumental arguments, a term I don’t like. (I don’t like it because art is neither intrinsic nor instrumental but always both as all indigenous cultures know.)
Every year Americans for Arts consults the National League of Cities for their annual survey of elected officials, which highlights the top issues concerning their 1,600 city members. This year, like all years, among the top ten are (only the order changing from time to time) city economic conditions, health and housing, unemployment & jobs, racial & economic inequalities. The arts are never in this list but the arts make a contribution to each of these areas and we need more research to even more effectively draw these connections.
Anyone making a case for the arts to a public decision maker who ignores the full spectrum arguments necessary to reach the full spectrum of decision makers in todays environment of miniscule vote margins will lose. And the private sector decision makers are no less tough. There is no evidence that social good and economic arguments have begun to wear thin. To research this all anyone needs to do is look at the congressional record, state legislature and local city council and county commission voting records. It will be an eye opener.
Finally here are a few random thoughts. We need not decrease or de-emphasize any arguments we have but new arguments are very much welcome and needed. The landscape varies. The rise and fall of state government funding has risen and fallen in direct relationship to local state economies. The rise and fall of federal monies has been more ideological and political, and the pretty steady rise of local government funding has been directly linked to issues of community development. So there is no one size fits all. As Tip O’Neill said “all politics (insert arts politics) is local”.
There are suggestions that economic, educational, and social benefits of arts arguments are new since the late 80s and 90s. Not true. The United States evolved from very practical roots. Practicality and self reliance are still core values. Think of the John Adams quote we all know about the number of generations of practical endeavors it would take before the arts and letters could be a key part of peoples lives. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr in the first Nancy Hanks lecture produced by Americans for the Arts reminds us that the WPA Arts Projects in 1935 were for jobs creation.
The NEA itself came out of the House Committee on Education and Labor (note education and labor) and I myself was sitting across from Governor King of Massachusetts as early as the late 70s arguing to keep him from eliminating the Massachusetts State Arts Council budget of then $2.3 million when he instead chose to actually increase the budget based pretty exclusively on new economic impact data that we brought fresh from a young Tom Wolf at the New England Foundation for the Arts.
The reason that public money, private money, and earned income for the arts have all been challenged over the last four years has very little to do with the arguments and a whole lot to do with Sept.11th, the stock market decline, and the earlier erosion of the dot com industries.
It is important to recall that the 1995 slashing of the NEA by 40% for the FY1996 budget was part of a three year phase out plan voted by the Newt Gingrich Congress that most people pretty much thought was a done deal. Elimination of the NEA was turned around by enormous national advocacy efforts focusing on instrumental arguments that could allow moderates to find reasons to support federal cultural funding that were compatible with party policies which compelled the Senate to keep the NEA alive.
Then in 2000 we won for FY 2001 the first increase for the NEA in 9 years because of continuing enormous national advocacy efforts and the fact that some 20 moderate republicans crossed party lines and voted for the arts based almost entirely upon economic impact arguments because they could defend this rationale to their own constituents.. The Endowment’s increase was by three votes but signaled a major policy shift.
I have gone on too long. Supposed to keep this short. Too late.
I wanted to jump in here with links to a couple of stories posted on ArtsJournal last night: The first a story quoting Tony Hall (who runs the Royal Opera House in London), arguing that major new investments in the arts are an obvious benefit: "They are part of something fundamental and big, which is the creative economy, which is now what we live off. And when you look at it like that then arts funding becomes a no brainer - our future depends on creativity."
The second is amusing. A mayor in a town in Mexico has "ordered all 1,100 members of the municipal police to read at least one book a month or forfeit their chance of promotion. 'We believe reading will improve their vocabulary and their writing skills, help them express themselves, order their ideas and communicate with the public. Reading will make them better police officers and better people'."Supply and demand
New voices joining (welcome Robert Lynch) and others leaving (wish I had a chance to ask Joli to give a more tangible, practical definition of what "expressive logic" sounds like). Robert's first post lays out a good, workable three-part division of much of what has been said here. At various places, in different contexts, we have been talking about the deeply felt personal passion for the arts, strategies for getting new audiences to share that passion, and the ongoing work of convincing public officials to use public resources to make the arts accessible to everyone. Americans for the Arts does the unglamorous business of lobbying, and it's all too easy for people who are already deeply in love with art to find this sort of business a bit vulgar and dull, even anti-art in its practicality and compromise. I'm glad that this work is being done, but as someone who responds to art in an essentially erotic, sensual way, it seems a zillion miles away from anything that I know or care about music, theater, painting, dance. I need art in the same way that other people need bookies and dealers, so I 've read many of the posts in this web conversation with a sense of alienation, as if they're happening on a strange planet where all the usual laws of nature are reversed. Of course, if I can't get my fix, I'll be the first one on the barricades.
I confess I found the Rand study a crushing bore. I respect its logic, and ultimately, I agree with the basic conclusion that if we can't communicate to new audiences the essential, intrinsic pleasures of art, we're not going to have new audiences. And yes, the problem is not supply, it's demand. But I'm skeptical of the idea that we can create demand through new programs, new educational efforts, new sources of support for arts groups. All of those are worthy efforts, and I officially support them (because they keep artists busy, and put food on their tables). But a deep, ongoing, sustaining passion for art requires a personal need for it that is (from my experience) generated internally, as a reaction against ugliness in the world. Our politicians are already doing admirable work in creating that need. They deluge us with lies and hypocrisy, cliches and euphemisms. They insult our intelligence and betray our trust. From this fertile ground arises the need for art. Needless to say, popular culture is also doing admirable work on this front as well.
See all reader comments here
I agree with Midori's suggestion that more artists need to get involved with advocacy and fundraising efforts. As a musician who is deeply involved in aesthetic education, I witness the affect on children when they are introduced to, in this case, classical music, by a living, breathing, composer. I believe that a long term solution in garnering support for the arts would be to make sure that every child is exposed to arts education in the schools. Current marketing practices in this country target children because they know they are building relationships that can last a lifetime. Nostalgia plays an important role in consumers' loyalty to certain brands. Children who have had creative, hands-on artistic experiences in the school will more likely become advocates as an adult. - Beata Moon
We need to hone this discussion to find some new jumping-off places that will explain our evangelical fervor about the arts. Then, maybe, we can craft (yes, craft or create...but, not necessarily document or validate)a compelling message that can be adapted to various audiences. We're all on different pages. As Jim Kelly says, parks as a public benefit are rarely questioned. What's the message that will give the arts this kind of acceptance? Maybe what we are seeking is not a definitive case for the arts, not THE case for the arts, but some new suggestions for presenting multiple cases for the arts. Some audiences need a brief-case, others a train-case, and a few a makeup-case. What do these look like? - Bitsy Bidwell
Art may still be significant to people, “the arts” are increasingly less so. This raises a key evaluation factor: for how many people do the arts have to be important, for art to be important? Why, as is reflexively raised by those from the arts, do the arts have to be uniquely important? (If so, can you demonstrate it: if not re-formulating the arts in society with other partners would seem the logical consequence.) My personal belief is it is not bums in seats but brains in motion that matter, and these do not have to be all brains in motion, let alone the spurious indicator of value of lots of bums in seats. - Terry Cheney
Perhaps the entree for answering this need for potential audiences is the garage band approach rather than the massive performing arts center. Maybe organzations should be putting their money into storefront theatres and stand alone black boxes where insecurities about dress code and ettiquette aren't as big an issue because everyone is wearing jeans. (We tell people they don't necessarily have to dress up, but then they arrive at the venue and the veteran attendees are looking snazzy which gives a contradictory message.) Once people feel comfortable and good about themselves, then you point out that if they enjoyed this, maybe they want to try the mainstage over on 6th Street--or just keep coming back. - Joe Patti
It is interesting how we refer to arts groups as “non-profits,” as if the arts can only be described for what they are not. In Europe, most orchestras, opera companies, theater troupes, and ballet companies are owned and operated by governments. I’ve seldom heard Europeans refer to arts groups as “non-profits.” It’s a curiously American way of thinking. We view the arts as if they were something inherently crippled, like one-winged birds. Most of our arts administrators rise in the profession because they are especially adept at working with these crippled, one-winged birds. Under the American system, which will always be ineffective and under-funded, it is inevitable that capital funds will have to be used for operating expenses. It is inevitable that “periods of contraction” will be recurrent, because the arts will always be starved. - William Osborne
Why is it that a case must be made? If the arts on which this discussion is focusing were a vital part of the lives of the majority of our population there would be no need for this weblog. To me, the question is not about the “case” to be made for the arts. Rather, it is what are the arts *doing* to make themselves vital to their communities. Good answers to the latter question make the former superfluous. - Doug Borwick