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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

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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

Posted by mclennan at March 9, 2005 07:04 PM


I believe there have been many excellent points and insights from the panelists and commentators, but what appears to me to be more present than ever is a lack of consensus regarding what the "the arts" are and what exactly it is we are trying (or should be trying) to achieve. How can we possibly be advocators of the arts and communicate their value to the public and government, if we can't be clear and consistent in describing what "the arts" are?

If we want to move forward, the arts discussion needs more focus than ever before. We all need to take a step back and work towards defining what "the arts" entails, as one of the panelists mentioned. Without a more clear and consistent definition of "the arts,” the arts will remain enigmatic as will their place in society.

Once we figure out what "the arts" are, then the task is to evaluate where the arts currently exist in American culture, because the arts, depending on how we define them, are not the be all and end all of culture in this country (in fact, I would argue they are currently a shrinking part of American culture).

We can’t move forward if we don’t where we’re starting from. If we know our starting point, we can more easily set an optimistic, yet achievable goal(s) for the arts, be it more funding, accessibility, whatever. It is then from our starting point that we can define the problems (I personally prefer challenges) the arts face in reaching our goal(s). Clearly (Specifically) defining the problems will allow for more effective solutions.

For example, if we say the arts need more funding, we will get a broad array of solutions with more than one focus, so how do we choose one and do we get any effective solutions upon which we can act?. And what resources are wasted looking for so many solutions? If we say the arts need more government funding, the list of potential solutions will narrow in focus.

We can take it a step further, to specify local, state, or federal government, and then to which department do we make the case, and so on. The more specific we get in defining the problems the arts face, the more specific the possible solutions we get will be; increasing ability to create and implement plans of action and affect change.

Posted by: Derek at March 10, 2005 10:26 AM

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This weeklong weblog is now closed, but will remain on-line as an archive of our conversation. In addition, the entries and reader comments are available for download in Adobe Acrobat format, suitable for reading on-screen or printing. You will need the free Acrobat reader software to open the files below:

Participant Entries (~880K, pdf)
Full text of the posts of our 11 invited participants.
Reader Comments (~900K, pdf)
Full text of reader comments posted to the site.

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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