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

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March 09, 2005

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.

Posted by bivey at March 9, 2005 02:04 PM


And speaking of Coyote.....What would Coyote do(WWCD)? You can insert your favorite mythical jester figure in my question, but it remains a good question. The jesters of the world have provided wisdom, but with cleverness and humor. They have made things work, but sometimes without paying attention to the prevailing laws or rules. Usually they switch the point of view. In short, Coyote is a creative meddler, given to surprise approaches and solutions. Let's pretend to be Coyote as we talk about this issue. We have facts, and research, and data. Now all we need is the twist, the spin, the message that suits the various audiences we need to address. We are 'artistic', after all. The other thing that Coyote does is get different viewpoints working in competition, but toward the same goal. Why isn't there a common thread to the fine arts and the not-so-fine arts, and community building and philanthropy and public funding and market-driven economies discourse? What, exactly, are we arts folks all 'het-up' about, anyways?!

Yesterday I watched Dr. Phil (yes, I watch Dr. Phil even though I love the arts)explain to a controlling husband that underwear on the floor is not major issue in a good marriage. Well, intrinsic or extrinsic or however you want to put it....what is the public benefit of the arts that even John Q. Public can and should understand? What IS the major issue? Are the arts too powerful or too destructive of the public good or too something else? Or are they simply pocket-lint (like our budgets) that has no virtue?

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?

Posted by: Bitsy Bidwell at March 9, 2005 02:52 PM

Since Bill Ivey mentioned the NEA, I would like to raise an issue about the Endowment that has long concerned me. First, some relevant observations.

In his introduction to this "public conversation" (an apt phrase), Doug McLennan asks: "Have we neglected what ‘Gifts of the Muse' terms the ‘missing link': the individual, private experience of the arts that begins with early engagement and intense involvement, and that is the gateway to other, more public benefits? Is there a better case to be made for the arts?"

For many years—first as a public school teacher of English, as well as of art and music appreciation, and for the past two decades as an arts critic, editor, and independent scholar—I have argued that the terms "art" and "the arts" (as in the present context) properly refer only to the traditional major forms, and that the individual, private experience of the arts is the only reason the arts deserve support.

Jacques Barzun's thoughts are worth noting here. In a 1978 lecture delivered before the National Art Education Association, he urged art teachers to trust their common sense in considering "the idea of art." "What do you think it covers?" he asked, before suggesting music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature [i.e., fiction, poetry, and drama]. (Two decades later, another speaker told the annual meeting of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, that the National Endowment for the Arts was "charged with bringing [guess what?] music, dance, theater, literature and painting to the American people." That speaker, by the way, was none other than Bill Ivey, NEA's chairman at the time.)

Barzun went on to say that the arts should be taught in the schools, but he implicitly excluded such activities as film, journalism, broadcasting, photography, weaving, and pottery-making (all among the spurious art forms often supported by the NEA). More germane to this discussion, he was critical of what would now be referred to as the "instrumental" benefits and slogans of arts education, such as "transmit the cultural heritage . . . supply an outlet for self-expression. . . acquaint the child with foreign cultures . . . engender general creativeness . . . build ethnic identity [and] enhance problem solving." Sound familiar?

"It is all Inflation," Barzun concluded. "It inflates the plausible or possible into the miraculous." (For a fuller discussion of these points, see What Art Is, the book I co-authored. Interested readers might also want to consult the full text of Barzun's address, "Occupational Disease: Verbal Inflation," reprinted as Chapter 8 of his book, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning.")

If there is a case to be made that the arts deserve government support (and I do not think there is), then at least there ought to be a better "definition" of what qualifies as art than the one that the endowment has operated under since its inception. And there ought to be more forthright representation of the sort of contemporary work it often funds. Much of it would not be recognized by most ordinary people as having anything to do with art, or the arts.

Just last year, for example, the NEA supported the making of an experimental "documentary film and installation work [entitled ‘Milk'] that will examine the controversies surrounding the many uses of this fluid food." The film explores such topics as the health of children and the relationship between consumers and industry. Still other documentaries on topics ranging from stem cell research to the death penalty have been funded in recent years by the NEA—whose slogan, ironically, is "A Great Nation Deserves Great Art." The number of grants made by the endowment, in every category and discipline, to support projects unrelated to art—i.e., the "fine arts"—is astounding. If the general public, and Congress, only knew.

Louis Torres
Co-Editor, Aristos (www.aristos.org)
Co-Author, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

Posted by: Louis Torres at March 9, 2005 03:48 PM

Bill Ivey writes:
"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."

I hope I am not taking the term 'consume culture' too literally. I think the general goal is to have more people consumed by 'culture' the way so many are consumed by, say, sports. If that is true, we would do well to see how the sports world does it. It isn't just having great players achieving at incredible levels. When the equipment is on the hands and feet of the fans, their hearts and minds follow. This is especially true of the young. The problem is that there are two jobs to be done: Getting meaningful participation in art, drama, and music back into the lives of young people _and_ making sure that there will be a generation of artists ready to engage them when they grow into adulthood. The problem becomes maddening because there apparently isn't enough money to do either well. Corpore sano is taken as a fundamental right - no justification is necessary. Mens sana takes the back seat - no justification seems sufficient.

Ravi Narasimhan
Redondo Beach, CA

Posted by: Ravi Narasimhan at March 10, 2005 12:46 AM

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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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