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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 07, 2005

Separating ourselves

Great stuff here. Thanks to all for starting this conversation off with such challenge and vision. I'm particularly drawn to the specific challenges of talking about 'the arts' raised by Joli and Bill. Joli says:

For art fans, the task is to help people understand why we love the stuff we love. But it is also to become curious about, and respectful of, those who seem immune to the forms that give us such pleasure, and who instead find meaning and value in forms that give us the creeps.

Bill raises the valuable perspective that the nonprofit arts are only a fraction of the total cultural ecology, and only weaken themselves by struggling to remain separate:

I guess I'm arguing that at some point we need a bigger conversation how we find ways to intervene in order to improve the arts landscape -- in this day and age, gifts and grants to nonprofits just won't do the job.

It also recalls the challenge of the Rand report against existing studies of 'benefit' or 'value,' that ignore all the other things in society or in life that might provide a similar benefit. It's as if we've been afraid to engage the larger world of experience that makes communities work, for fear of losing the fight for funding or relevance. In the process, we may well have separated ourselves from the larger conversation.

It's a compelling question, especially with Bill and Joli and the rest of the gang challenging us to reconsider the limited language we use to discuss it.

Posted by ataylor at March 7, 2005 09:33 AM


It seems like there are two parts to this issue of making a case for the arts. On the one hand, any of us who are directly involved in creating the work need no justification for continuing to do so. We already get it. And the same goes for the core audience, those that really love painting or music or books, etc. They probably developed this connection on their own (or through their friends), and don't need to be convinced that the arts are good for them. Do we really need a larger audience, made up of a bunch of people that show up for the nutritional value? Is more really better? I'm not sure that it is.

If the goal of coming up with a case for the arts is to convince the government and business communities to support arts organizations, then I think the best approach is to just tell them what they want to hear. Businesses want to know how supporting the arts will help them make more money (PR value), and elected government officials want to know how supporting the arts will get them re-elected. For any case that's made we should keep in mind whom we're trying to convince, and why.

Posted by: David at March 7, 2005 10:29 AM

I am fascinated by this debate, and how all the different bloggers each bring his/her own unique experience and perspective to the table. It's a great example of how art impacts each person differently, as Midori says.

I am looking forward to the exploration of the chief recommendation of the RAND report; that certain forms of funding should be shifted to supporting access to art.

This is a huge can of worms that has yet to truly be opened. What would happen if we shifted our language to talk less about why art is good for us, and more about how to get more people to experience art? Would our creative engine stall? Would our advocacy efforts stall? Or would we find a more receptive audience?

Posted by: Jodi at March 7, 2005 11:13 AM

To paraphrase the Rand report, the "intrinsic" values include captivation (rapt absorption!); pleasure; expanded capacity for empathy; cognitive growth; creation of social bonds; and expression of communal meanings. And, as Andrew points out, "existing studies of 'benefit' or 'value,' ... ignore all the other things in society or in life that might provide a similar benefit." Look at that list again and see how many other facets of life bestow the same intrinsic values. You really ought to get more sleep, exercise, good food, sex, religion, conversation, join the bowling league...

Intrinsic value arguments are something to try out on the kids. Try a little art, son, it will make you a better person.

When it comes to convincing legislatures, organizations, or individuals to give more money to the arts (or any other enterprise), some more quantifiable measures might strengthen your case.

The Rand study's "key policy implication is that policy should be geared toward spreading the benefits of the arts by introducing greater numbers of Americans to engaging arts experiences." It's this kind of solipsistic and circular thinking that brought us to where we are today.

We need both kinds of arguments all the time. Art is inherently beneficial to individuals for it engages the imagination in particular ways with measureable physiological, psychological, cognitive, and social benefits. That's a good old-fashioned elitist (in the best sense) argument. One we ought to proselytize at every opportunity.

But, when asking for money, it takes more than our own faith and goodwill. The nonprofit arts, in general, have some demonstrable impact as part of socioeconomics of the cultural and/or creative sector, the community, the country, business ... something.

Posted by: Keith Donohue at March 7, 2005 11:37 AM

I don't quite know where to insert a topical comment into this discussion -- what with the good principal commentators standing front and center and offering their intertwined streams of thought. I'd like to comment on the intrinsic/extrinsic benefits chapters of the book. And I've chosen Andrew Taylor's discussion stream as a place to speak. Andrew is not responsible for any of this.

My reactions to Gifts of the Muse come from my world of research on learning and child development. "Gifts of the Muse" spawns much to think about, and this blog-fest may be good fun.

A close reading of "Gifts" raises three puzzles for me. First, the chapter on extrinsic benefits is held up as a literature review; it is clearly accepted as such, judging by the words of the invited panelists. However, it's not. Only four specific studies are cited and actually discussed in the review of research on extrinsic benefits; and these four studies, the authors state, in fact reach valid positive conclusions about important extrinsic benefits. The arguments critical of research on instrumental benefits are not based, as reported, on the reviewing of research studies by the authors; they are drawn entirely from a study of studies by Project REAP (2001). REAP remains highly controversial; this is because every one of the academic effects reported in their good research syntheses was positive. This is curious – how could RAND get this wrong? I think they got it wrong by reading and quoting only REAP's Executive Summary – not through an independent review of the underlying studies. Any conclusion that REAP found no instrumental effects of the arts simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Second, the authors of "Gifts" argue along the following lines when introducing their chapter on the INTRINSIC benefits of the arts: "In the previous chapter, we rightly downsized the overblown literature on the academic and social effects of the arts; thus we largely disavow the existence of such effects. In this chapter we turn to the intrinsic benefits of the arts. However, we must admit that we have no research to support the assertions we make about intrinsic benefits -- these are things we simply all know." (My paraphrase.) So, at work are two very different standards when it comes to preferred and less preferred benefits. Nonetheless, I found the intrinsic benefits chapter engaging; it seems likely to find its way into a future of cheering, musing, and vilifying -- perhaps to debut this week.

Third, in the chapter of "Gifts" explicating the intrinsic benefits of the arts, children are not mentioned; nor are intrinsic benefits said to come to anyone involved in artistic learning, age 1 to 100. I think the authors just forgot. Because a surely unintended conclusion of "Gifts" hangs in the balance. Since there is scarce documented extrinsic benefit related to learning in the arts, and since there are no intrinsic benefits to children, then why support arts education at all?

"Gifts of the Muse" will either advance debates about the "benefits" of the arts, or (as some commentators suggest) leave readers a bit tired of it all. To me, artistic learning plays well on both sides of the argument. Learning to draw, play the violin, dramatizing Romeo, or dancing Juliet all promote cognitive and affective growth that is bound to impact the way children think, learn, and feel.

I'm in the profession of sorting this all out in sometimes-painful detail. At the same time, I'm glad there is way more to the discussion than this.

James Catterall
Professor of Education

Posted by: James Catterall at March 7, 2005 04:28 PM

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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.

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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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