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


At the risk of attacking the question we've all come here to talk about, I have to confess that the intense attention arts people spend on trying to get the wider world to pay attention to the arts makes me a little uncomfortable.

In covering arts organizations over the years as a critic and journalist, I have developed a "McLennan's Law" test. It goes: the effort an arts organization expends on trying to get butts in seats is often inversely proportional to its overall health. That is: You can always tell a theater or symphony orchestra is in trouble when it starts worrying more about getting people in the seats than it does about inspiring audiences; that’s the point it has become a follower rather than a leader. On the other end - a really successful company with a hot product doesn't worry much about how it will attract an audience, it pours its efforts into a product it believes in.

Maybe it's an instinctive distrust of those trying too hard to tell me they're cool. But the more I'm subjected to ernest arguments about why the arts are good for me, the more I'm turned off. Why does proselytizing for the arts so often sound so evangelical? This particularly applies to arts impact studies, of which there are now so many, they seem like just so much noise.

So, to whom are we "making a case for the arts"? Obviously the case changes depending on the audience (whether it's kids or legislators or Jo Q. Public). But isn't some of this effort a bit counter-productive? You don't see Hollywood constantly trying to convince us that "movies are good for us." There, it's all about the product...

Posted by mclennan at March 6, 2005 08:07 AM


The Art World, similar to the Democratic Party, abandoned its most important arguments during some temporal defeats in the 1980s and 1990's. We allowed our detractors to define us, and rather than looking at this challenge as an opportunity to re-invigorate support of the Arts as necessary to a healthy world, we attempted to justify our existence on our enemies terms. Namely, we attempted to justify the arts, which exist in an artistic currency, into an accountants' financial currency. Thus, we lost before we began to respond. This society has abandoned many of its currencies to the bean-counters: Artistic, Philosophical, Political, Spiritual, Educational, Quality-of-Life, Environmental. All of these have become subservient to, rather than co-existing with, the financial currency.

The societal body, like the human body, has a variety of systems whose interactivity are necessary to the health of that body. For many years now, the societal body has been trying to reduce all activity to the judgement of one currency, and while it's true that without a healthy economy the the societal body doesn't work, that is merely enough to keep it alive, even if it is in a vegetative state. It is simply not a full life without the senses operating; without electrical activity in the brain; without the ability to think and feel and taste and digest and hear and respond.
It is certainly not a life any of us want to live.
I believe a portion of the Rand report was correct; we have stopped focusing on Arts purpose: to provide the artistic currency of life, without which, life is incomplete, less worth the living. That is surely something we can explain to people in terms they understand. In fact, I believe that they have innate understanding of it. We just have to stop trying to justify ourselves by somebody else's standard.

Peter Ellenstein
Artistic Director
William Inge Center for the Arts
Independence, KS

Posted by: Peter Ellenstein at March 7, 2005 03:14 AM

In a recent, brilliant cartoon in the Washington Post, (Richard's Poor Almanac: "Whither Classical Music," 5/5/05), Richard Thompson postulates: "Maybe the trouble started when people tried to quantify classical music's 'therapeutic benefits,' reducing it to dietary fiber for the brain." This succinctly goes to the heart of the problem: until a person has been touched by the arts, you cannot convince them through argument that the experience will be good for them (implied: but unpleasant). Trying to convince the world of the benefits of the arts, educationally, financially, or even culturally, is a waste of time and resources, which could be better directed towards creating the art itself.
Most of us can trace our commitment to the arts back to a single experience, an awakening brought about, not by arguments touting the benefits of the arts, but by an actual arts experience. Only by reawakening people’s souls, so many of which been lulled into passivity by tv, computers, video games, muzak, etc., can we re-establish true grass roots support for the arts.

Posted by: Chris Patton at March 7, 2005 07:13 AM

As usual, we will discuss the public value of the arts by ignoring the public arts. Where are the arts of the daily public realm - graphic design, product design, fashion, architecture, urban design, landscape design and even the official public art? All the arts discussed require someone to go inside a box - classroom, theater or museum and usually pay for the opportunity.

Everyday in South Florida, I work with very sincere people in all walks of life. Directed by planners, elected officials and citizen volunteers, they strive to enhance the visual and pedestrian quality of their community. Every city has discussions of design guidelines, signage ordinances and streetscape programs, to name a few. These are active, passionate civic discussions about the value aesthetics in their communities.

Now what about the weekend attendance of 100's of thousands (maybe millions) of people in Florida attended street fairs in which the broad definition of the arts in the ONLY reason to visit. Every city in Florida supports these events as a regular part of life. All smart cities know that activating the city requires a diversity of arts from high to low and loud to quiet.

The community branding concepts from New Zealand and other places focuses on the recognition of the aesthetic qualities of a place and then reaches community consensus on the attributes to reinforce. The community aesthetic awareness becomes public policy through discussion and implementation by each citizen.

Every city government in the USA spends gobs of money on aesthetics, but not on the black boxes. Why? Because nobody but the government can pay for roads and police. The arts have other possible sources, so it has a lower priority for government cash. But the arts have connections and make a good fight for money anyway.

OK so I agree that the finest aesthetic experiences of my life have happened in a black box, quiet chair or an empty landscape. And I agree with RAND that only that experience persuades someone to join the lovers of the black box experiences.

But we live in the USA where putting down the arts can be a public sport. Concentrate on utilizing the public agreement on the aesthetics of the public realm to slowly push the art haters into the background. As has happened in many, many communities, make it embarrassing, foolish and even stupid to be publicly against the arts. Fight for money for black boxes and support every public discussion on the aesthetics of the public realm.

Posted by: Glenn Weiss at March 7, 2005 07:25 AM

The recent discussions of how to increase public value for the arts is motivated by the monumental challenge our administrators and boards face on a daily basis. How do we earn more money to pay our bills?

That’s the wrong motivation. We can not argue that the public has little appreciation for the arts when art is a part of everyone’s lives, some more that others. By assuming that there is little appreciation for the arts because the public is not buying tickets to the opera, symphony, or ballet is wrong minded.

Perhaps we need to look at why these art forms are appreciated by a thin sliver of the public and looked upon as elitist by a wider margin. As well, we should explore why traditional art or art reflective of a specific groups experiences are often undervalued in discussions about art.

If we limit the discussion to “fine art”, then many of us have little reason to engage. Instead of asking how to make the case for the arts, we should be asking, how art is relevant to the public, particularly in troubled times. How does it speak to people who we perceive as having little value for the arts but are moved by Judy Bacas “Great Wall” that is on view everyday at no price to the viewer. Why does El Teatro Campesino attract audiences that most US theaters never see and can’t seem to bring into their houses? Why do exhibitions of Latino art in US museums draw large numbers of visitors who don’t attend otherwise?

Perhaps shifting the discussion might bring about a deeper discussion about who is defining art and from whose voice do they speak.

Thanks for this opportunity to dialogue with others about this and other questions.

Marie Acosta
California Latino Arts Network

Posted by: Marie Acosta at March 7, 2005 11:22 AM

With all due respect, Mr. McLennan has got it totally wrong, just like hundreds of others I've talked to in the theatre "business" here in L.A. You seem to feel that worrying about the money side is beneath you, not worth thinking about, beyond the pale, declasse, and generally not something you ought to be doing.

Maybe that explains the inadequate budgets you're mostly dealing with and the constant need to scounge for favors and make-do's and volunteers, etc.

The point is: you're leaving readily available box office money in people's pockets, or worse, in their wallets at home on their nightstands because they even haven't left home to come see your shows. Why? Because you're simply not doing most of the very easy and basic things you ought to be doing to bring larger audiences to your shows. Like reaching out to all the people who have already proven they enjoy theatre. Like incentivizing and motivating them to come to more theatre, and to bring their friends. Like fostering an environment -- in your lobbies and in the general culture -- where a wide range of theatre information is readily available and easily taken home for noting in a calendar. Like rewarding people who come to your shows -- of course with a good performance -- but also with additional experiences and opportunities that are free and easy for you to provide but are perceived as extremely valuable by the people in your audiences. Like maximizing the revenue from your available empty seats (which, as soon as the curtain goes up, become worthless), just like airlines and hotels have learned to do.

I'm not stupid, of course. I realize that if it were easy for you to be doing this kind of thing, you already would be doing it. That's why I'm not asking that you do it. That's why, instead, I'm organizing a Theatre Co-Op to do it for you. I'm not asking for any money up front. I'm not asking for any effort on your part. I'm not asking you to do anything different from what you're already doing. I'm certainly not interested in telling you what shows to put on or how to cast them or to mess with anything else that might fall under the "artistic" umbrella.

All I'm saying is that, if theatre-makers cooperate, a Theatre Co-Op can be operated that will bring larger audiences to the very same shows you are putting on now in the very same theatres in which you're presenting them. And of course, once there's a co-op, it can begin to provide more resources for larger purposes and improve your theatrical lives in lots of different ways that don't intrude on, but rather facilitate, your artistic vision.

To me, the bottom line is: why should anyone exhort theatre artists to become marketers -- particularly when you have shown an aversion to it -- when there is a huge body of knowledge about theatre marketing, along with people eager and willing to help you by doing what they know how to do and enjoy doing?

It's totally not a question of only "followers" generating the big bucks (along with some negative overtones or connotations) while people at the other end of the "artistic" spectrum must endure their destiny and survive on tiny budgets. Reframe the situation and you can see that the greatest writers, greatest artists, and greatest producers (read: most talented, most skillful, most daring, most ground-breaking) can easily attract larger audiences. What you're doing is already great. Lots more people would want to experience it. All you gotta do is tell the right people about your shows at the right times and in the right ways. And you don't even have to do the telling. All you have to do is allow the Theatre Co-Op to do it for you.

But no one is forcing you to join the Theatre Co-Op. If you'd rather work your a-- off for a night's revenue that doesn't even half pay the rent, please go right ahead. You wouldn't be the first. When "humans" first climbed down from the trees those many millions of years ago and started walking upright on that ancient savannah, I'm sure there were plenty of their friends and family hanging back and dissing them for compromising and abandoning their values and their heritage. In a sense, they were. They were throwing away the old, outdated, worthless parts of their history and their tradition in order to reach for something they thought might be better, more fruitful, more worthwhile.

I'm glad they did. Are you?

Robert Moskowitz
P.O. Box 108
Venice, CA 90294
Mobile Phone: 818-613-7348

Posted by: Robert Moskowitz at March 7, 2005 12:58 PM

No case, old or new, for the arts can afford to neglect W.H. Auden's simultaneous warning and celebration, "Poetry makes nothing happen."

Posted by: Tobi Tobias at March 7, 2005 05:56 PM

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