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The MacArthur Foundation, The Moth And The Arts

Last fall, when the National Endowment for the Arts announced the creation of an Interagengy Task Force on the Arts and Human Development, I didn’t pay too much attention. I should have. And what prompted me to reconsider was today’s announcement that, of all the creative activities being offered by all the creative arts institutions and organizations in the world, the MacArthur Foundation chose to give the one arts-related award among its 2012 grants for Creative and Effective Institutions, of 15 awards, to The Moth. $750,000 because it’s “dedicated to the art of storytelling to document our common humanity.”

I have nothing against The Moth; I’ve been to a few of its programs and I was entertained, maybe moved (one was clear and only comedy, though…at least I didn’t get meaningful message). But I find it hard to believe that it’s the most or best creative or effective arts institution… At least in terms of impact on people. Go here to see a couple of the events that impressed the MacArthur jurors, but the group’s own website provides a more well-rounded look that leaves me underwhelmed.

A look at past winners shows no other arts-related groups.

The MacArthur awards are chosen from nominations — organizations do not apply — and the nominators are secret (many years ago, I was one, for the “genius awards,” but my two candidates did not win). But I can’t help but believe that art museums (and other arts groups) are having more impact on people’s lives, especially the lives of children and youth, than story-telling evenings and podcasts. Clearly, the word is not getting out. I myself have only occasionally learned of and written about creative efforts at education — at MassMOCA, at the de Cordova Museum and at The Center for Childhood Creativity, for example. They may not be the best, but they are the ones I’d heard of at the time.

Which brings me back to the NEA task force, a group of 14 federal agencies and departments that aims “to encourage more and better research on how the arts help people reach their full potential at all stages of life.”  It was created because of research contained in a report called “The Arts and Human Development,” which stated that “In study after study, arts participation and arts education have been associated with improved cognitive, social, and behavioral outcomes in individuals across the lifespan: in early childhood, in adolescence and young adulthood, and in later years.”

It then says we have to share, coordinate and do better research. I agree. And, clearly, we have to get the word out about all the creative things arts institutions are doing that MacArthur nominators ought to know about. So the press release that landed in my email box this morning came at the right moment. In it, the NEA announces that the task force’s next webinar will be Wednesday, Feb. 29, from 2 to 3 p.m. EST. There’s more information here.

Talk begets other talk. Of course, participants can just listen too, but then they may find something to talk up and hope that nominators are in hearing distance.





  1. Leonard Jacobs says:

    Meaning no disrespect, but it’s one thing to disagree with a choice of recipient, it’s another thing to question the selection of The Moth in terms of its “impact on people” since no one knows what criteria is used, or was used, to measure “impact” in the first place. One person’s impact is another person’s “that’s nice.” In a purely subjective process, anything is possible — and anything ought to be.

    Surely we can agree that impact ought not to be a strictly numerical measure. For if it were, the MacArthur folks could merely tally up and verify attendance records and that would be that. If impact, whatever that means, is a critical criteria, then is it not an ineluctably fungible, malleable, unwieldy, delirious impractical idea designed to yield, now and then, curious, surprising, bizarre, out-of-the-box and controversial choices? (Although, quite frankly, the idea of The Moth being considered a controversial choice strikes me as borderline absurd.)

    I agree that the cultural community ought to “get the word out about all the creative things arts institutions are doing that MacArthur nominators ought to know about.” But shouldn’t that be standard operating procedure all the time anyway? Let’s not make the real reason we exhort people to “get the word out” be because we need to somehow atone for The Moth’s selection. Let’s be positive; let’s say “Good for them!” And the next time, the arts recipient may well be a group with whom you jive more strongly.

    Impact can be as great on one person as it is on a million, a thousand or a hundred. Who, beyond the secret coven in the room that made this decision, is to say otherwise? Let us celebrate a creative community diverse enough to inspire such debate.

    • with respect, I agree with many of your points! I didn’t mean to imply that The Moth had no impact, just that I find it hard to believe that it was the worthiest arts organization in the entire world last year.

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