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March 09, 2005

We 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.

Posted by ataylor at March 9, 2005 06:28 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:

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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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