As an industry, the arts suffers from a value problem. This was thrown into sharp relief for me in an interview I had with an artistic leader from rural Wisconsin, who pointed out, “We’re all bean counters because the people we deal with, what they count is beans.” In almost everything we do to advocate for the arts, we place financial worth front and center, and in so doing we allow, even encourage, the people we’re trying to convince of art’s value to forget that that value is much more than economic.
Explicating value is difficult, especially for something as impermanent and subjective as art. But we all know what that value is – we’re artists, we believe strongly in the ability of art to stretch across divides, to instill empathy, to educate about new experiences, to encourage creative and critical thought, to transform relationships. More than that, we believe in something even more primal to what we do, pre-language, pre-thought: an ur-impulse in art that, upon contact, rearranges something within us when we interact with it, changes our emotional and intellectual make-up in some fundamental way, and leaves us different. We believe that art makes better people.
And yet we spend all of our time talking about the fact that one dollar into the arts generates eighteen dollars out. We talk about butts in seats, and dollars per head, and return on dollar-for-dollar investment. We talk about side impacts to restaurants, businesses, parking garages, coffee shops. We count the beans we know how to count, and then present them to other people who know how to count them, and declare ourselves valuable.
The unfortunate side effect of this phenomenon is that we end up convincing people that art is a luxury, not a necessity. Sure, if that theatre shuts its doors, those other businesses are going to lose some traffic, but, when you’re looking at the beans we look at, the loss of this art or that art, seen in purely economic terms, is manageable. By not formulating and disseminating a vocabulary about the arts that includes terms for explaining the ethereal, or intrinsic, impacts of the work we do on the people who watch us do it, we’re turning off the part of the conversation that is about what a world without art would do to the people living in it.
The author Barbara Kingsolver, in her book High Tide in Tucson, writes about wants and needs, and the difference. She says:
“Want is a thing that unfurls unbidden like fungus, opening large upon itself, stopless, filling the sky. But needs, from one day to the next, are few enough to fit in a bucket, with room enough left to rattle like brittle brush in a dry wind.”
I would argue, and I think we would all argue, that art and the expression of empathy, emotion and connectedness that goes along with art, is as fundamental a need as anything else that would rattle around in that bucket, but it’s clear to me that not many others think that way. The NEA is under threat (again), arts education continues to disappear from schools, as it has for the last three decades, etc, etc.
It is time to start trying to grow some new beans, to start quantifying, as best we can, the formerly unquantifiable, most-important-part-of, art. And that’s what we’re currently trying to do in a national study of the intrinsic impact of live theatre. In 18 theatres in six cities across the country, we’re distributing over 49,000 surveys that have been designed by the research firm WolfBrown to quantify the intellectual, social, emotional, empathic impacts of the art we do.
Accompanying that work, we’re conducting interviews with audience members, artistic and administrative staff, and major thinkers in the arts across the country to try and better understand how they talk about the arts—all with a goal of developing a new vocabulary (and a new web tool to utilize that vocabulary) that will allow us to more accurately express why art matters.
For the sake of the field, and the betterment of the people we serve, we need to get started counting some new beans, and we need to teach the people who control our funding how to understand their worth.
For more information on the Intrinsic Impact study, visit http://www.theatrebayarea.org/intrinsicimpact.
This post originally appeared on artsmarketing.org in advance of my appearance on a panel on evaluative measures in philanthropy at the Americans for the Arts conference this June.