The Value of Arts is Not Going to Be Found in Economics

Photo: "Snowflake" by Michele Morgan from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

This post originally appeared on the National Endowment for the Arts’ Facebook page.

The true value of art cannot be measured in economics alone. If that were the case, we’d be in trouble. It’s impressive that, per the new NEA research note Time and Money, the cultural industries contribute $70.9 billion to the U.S. annual GDP—but the total U.S. annual GDP is $14 trillion, which basically means the entire cultural sector contributes .51% of the entire GDP in any given year. On any given day, 1.5 million people partake in our performing arts events, which sounds impressive—but in any given year, per the Survey on Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), only 34% of the whole US population, or about 78 million people, go to any performing arts at all. Nothing to sneeze at but still, we’re relatively tiny—important, but tiny.

We spend a lot of time, however, valuing ourselves economically to various audiences (notably, government and private funders), and I guess that’s the real question: if you’re going to discuss the true value of art, you have to first answer, “The value of art to whom?” Because to those restaurants next door to all those theaters across the country, that extra money our shows contribute to their bottom line is surely valuable. But, I’d argue, it’s not really the way we should be talking about ourselves (at least not exclusively), because it misses the true impact of art: empathy, intellectual stimulation, artistic growth, spiritual fulfillment, social connection.

Toward the end of the note, the author, Bonnie Nichols, suggests that it may be time to start using Happiness and Life Satisfaction surveys in the arts as a method of measuring value. I would agree. The truth is that happiness and life satisfaction, as well as other abstracts like emotional fulfillment, social tolerance, and empathy, actually sit much closer to the core of why we really do this stuff.

Measuring economic indicators as stand-ins for value forces arts organizations to shift away from our core missions. It leads to the problem, highlighted by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, of regional theaters shifting away from their founding principles as incubators for work that often emerges out of the local artistic and social communities in favor of the same slate of 15 plays that happen to be more economically-viable. And, perhaps more dangerous, it starts framing what we do economically to government officials, which moves art from “essential public good” to “esoteric luxury.”

Recently, I received an email from Andrew Taylor (blogger at The Artful Manager and head of the Bolz School of Arts Administration). I’m sitting on a panel on value and evaluation that Andrew is moderating at the Americans for the Arts conference this June, and Andrew passed on a quote from Donella Meadows the he thought was apropos of the topic: “We try to measure what we value. We come to value what we measure.” It’s a good cautionary statement, and, in reading through the NEA note, I found myself curious about whether time and money, even as measurable stand-ins for “intention,” were the most useful ways to look at artistic value.

Per the note, the population in aggregate spends more going to performing arts events than to movies each year. That’s interesting (and, to me, surprising) to see. But, for every theater ticket a person purchases, he or she can get three to ten movie tickets for that same pile of cash. Either this means that laying down money for a theater ticket requires three-to-ten times the intentionality as buying a movie ticket (the quality argument), or it means that people see a lot more movies than theater pieces because they can be entertained more often for the same amount of money (the quantity argument). In one case, we can pat ourselves on the back for being important enough to spend that money on. In the other, we’re on the losing end of the realities of economics of scale. In neither case are we able to understand whether our three-to-ten times as expensive is three-to-ten times as impactful on the individual.

The reality is that the immediacy and required proximity of a live arts event makes them more expensive and less accessible. It’s for this reason that I think it’s important to start looking more scientifically at what the arts do to those people who can access the work. In 2010, we at Theatre Bay Area commissioned the first national-level examination of the intrinsic impact of a piece of art on an individual (in this case, through theatrical productions). The ongoing research, conducted by WolfBrown, eschews basic questions like whether a person “liked” a show in favor of more interior reflections, asking, for example, whether a person experienced a point of view they hadn’t before or were stretched or challenged by the work. By comparing survey answers to the goals of the piece established by the staff at the producing theatre, we can evaluate the show’s effectiveness and thus its relative value to the community.

The arts are so individualized. They’re so difficult to talk about in aggregate. I think that’s why we have fallen back on easy constants like dollars and hours as measures of success. But the simple fact is that, by those metrics, we’re really not that successful. Where we are successful, and wildly so, is in manufacturing moments that transform individuals, make better human beings, and create transcendent memories that inform the way people live their lives. We need to start valuing ourselves in this way, understanding our impacts beyond economics for ourselves, and then we can start explaining our case to our government representatives, our funders, and the 305.5 million U.S. citizens who don’t participate in our arts activities on any given day.

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