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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 06, 2005

A Matter of Relationships

All of us who work in the professional not-for-profit arts arena probably wish that we didn't have to make the case for the arts. How much more delightful life would be if we could spend the time currently consumed in fundraising, government advocacy (including championing the NEA, for example), foundation meetings, etc., on the art itself. I know no manager who wouldn't rather be in the performance hall or the rehearsal room than in a meeting with a corporation, pleading for arts support.

Unfortunately, that's not the way life is, at least these days. And if those culture wars--aren't you amazed that it's an early posting and they've already come up?--taught us anything, it was the liability of taking public appreciation and understanding of the arts for granted.

The Rand report rightly, I think, distinguishes between those who have a deep relationship with the arts--for whom true intrinsic benefits like pleasure, captivation and the like--and those who infrequently attend the arts, if at all. For the former, Midori may be right: the music will be its own best argument (and what music lover could fail to be swayed by Midori any time she plays?); for the latter group, arguments need to be made--arguments that Rand again rightly characterizes as extrinsic benefits, e.g. educational achievement, economic benefit, etc.

The not for profit sector by definition relies on charitable support: on average $.47 of every $1 in a theatre budget came from a contribution last year, not from the box office. And in a world where the clamor for charitable contributions has increased--where the competition is now the fire department, the school system, the AIDS clinic and more--we must be articulate about why supporting the arts is important--articulate, as often as not, to people who are not necessarily arts patrons or arts afficiandos.

The loudest voices I hear asking for arguments that will rally support often come from Board members--passionate supporters of the arts who are often frustrated by the own inability to convince their friends and business associates about the importance of the arts. And why do managers try to raise such record sums of money? Because, I think, they love the art--and want to provide optimal conditions and better loves for the artists who change our lives. Arguments about the importance of the arts ultimately serve that end.

On a closing note, I must take exception with our host about the worry of attendance as a harbinger of artistic failure. The not for profit was granted its status precisely because there was a visionary sense that there were worthy activities that the market could not support--hence the government's willingness to allow the charitable donation. With the erosion of those structures that created professional arts organizations--with the declines in state and local funding (when adjusted for inflation), corporate support, and with shifting patterns in socializing (see Robert Putnam), the pressure to meet expenses through earned revenue--the box office--becomes even greater--hence the worry about audiences.

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? While the message isn't quite as overt, perhaps, the millions and millions spent on advertising media--probably the billions and billions--is exactly spent trying to persuade us that movies are good for our social life, for our entertainment and captivation, for our ability to be current--the Must See TV line in television, for example--in other words, reinforcing the very intrinsic values that the Rand report urges us to add to our own vocabulary in advocating the fullest range of the arts.

The danger lies, not in worrying about the audience, but in anticipating their desires as the rationale for the work we create: as not for profit arts groups, at least, we aspire to lead our audiences by being just ahead of them, rather than following our perceptions of their tastes slavishly and tailoring work accordingly. Thank God that Tony Kushner didn't listen when people told him no one would attend a six hour play on politics and gay issues, but went ahead and wrote ANGELS IN AMERICA; that Ibsen wasn't deterred when audiences stormed from the theatre and demanded his head; that Strinberg wasn't discouraged by the lack of audiences and more. Try to create a hot product and you're likely to end up with JOEY on NBC: the true artist follows the inner voice in a very different way--and the organization, deeply supportive of the artist, is right to want to give that work the broadest and most powerful exposure.

Posted by bcameron at March 6, 2005 07:49 PM


As ever, insightful and fair, Ben Cameron helps us in the non-profit arts world keep our sanity. By extension, my thanks to all the other bloggers in this dialogue.
Rafael de Acha
Artistic Director
New Theatre
Coral Gables, FL

Posted by: Rafael de Acha at March 7, 2005 04:11 AM

Ben makes one very important point that is often overlooked in these conversations-although I'm not sure that my take on it was his intention. The movies spend millions or billions of dollars in advertising and marketing. The arts, chronically undercapitalized, spend ridiculously little. And when we do bestir ourselves to advertise we announce, we do not sell. We show our prettiest picture and we print our best quote. We say, "Here we are, take us or leave us." Since the Medicis and the Czars are, alas, gone we must look at butts in seats as our lifeblood. Living as we do in a society totally influenced by marketing, we MUST learn to market. We must not change the art to fit the market (the "Joey" parallel is a good one) but we must find ways to communicate the experiential quality of art - what are those regular attenders seeing and feeling - and how do we let those not attending know about it? To my mind, this is the essential question we face in this society at this time.

Posted by: Bob Yesselman at March 7, 2005 11:51 AM

"I must take exception with our host about the worry of attendance as a harbinger of artistic failure. The not for profit was granted its status precisely because there was a visionary sense that there were worthy activities that the market could not support--hence the government's willingness to allow the charitable donation."

This statement for me struck a sympathetic chord in light of the recent changes of format from classical music to news/information among several mixed format public radio stations. As an employee of a public radio station, and a former arts management student, I (and many others) have been asking similar questions about how classical music will sustain itself on-air.

But that is the wrong question for our guiding purpose.

We program classical music not to win audiences, grants, or even increased pledges. We do it to serve underserved audiences that cannot benefit from having a full library of CDs, or subscription tickets to the world's finest musical organizations. Our non-profit status is predicated on the belief that we can offer our communities something unique and valuable, no matter how many or how much patrons or listeners can give.

Like performing arts organizations, public radio stations face many of the same issues, but also many different ones including the fact that music itself is not implicit in the public broadcasting charter.

A true sense of mission, in my opinion, comes from within. What should be offered to the community should come from a direct reflection of an organization's values, and not simply from the largest market share or dollars donated. Those are environmental indicators, but not the reason for being -- especially in the arts.

Thanks for having this wonderful discussion.

Posted by: Thom Pease at March 8, 2005 07:54 PM

"I know no manager who wouldn't rather be in the performance hall or the rehearsal room than in a meeting with a corporation, pleading for arts support."

Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but as an arts manager, I disagree. There are people who create the art and the people who manage it. From an early age I knew that I wanted to be "behind the scenes" rather than on stage. Being on stage confirmed that. The first play that I acted in as an adult reinforced that I possessed the theatre bug, not the acting bug. The more I worked on the production side and in advocacy, the more I wanted to.

In the case of individual artists who must be their own manager, yes, I agree. I see this more in the context of visual arts or literary arts, or maybe even with musicians in bands, than in performing arts. The field of "Arts management" or "arts administration" exists so that there are people to do the fundraising, government advocacy, foundation meetings, etc., It is our (poor paying) job to make a case for the arts. That's why we're managers and not artists.

I was recently in a room of over 300 people arts managers from Ontario, in which Andrew Taylor made a keynote speech. Seeing that many in one room reinforces that we are part of something big and there's enough to make change.

I agree with everything else you said. Well put.

Posted by: Andrea T. at March 9, 2005 06:47 AM

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