an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

The Arts and Social Capital

As the “economic rationale” for supporting and funding the arts has fallen into disuse, another has risen, and one of much more substance, that of “building social capital.”

The “economic rationale” was bound to have a short life, as it never factored in opportunity costs, e.g. what if a sports arena had been built downtown instead of a performing arts center, wouldn’t the restaurants, hotel and parking income and taxes have been as great, if not greater? The arts sector voices repeatedly proclaimed that the arts stimulate tourism and downtown economic activity. And while I am convinced that this is true to some extent, it have never given a solid reason for supporting and funding the arts. Building social capital does.

What is social capital? — from Social Capital Research (

“Social capital is about the value of social networks, bonding similar people and bridging between diverse people, with norms of reciprocity (Dekker and Uslaner, 2001; Uslaner, 2001). Sander (2002) stated that “folk wisdom that more people get their jobs from whom they know, rather that what they know, turns out to be true.” Adler and Kwon (2002) identified that the core intuition guiding social capital research is that the goodwill that others have toward us is a valuable resource. As such they define social capital as “the goodwill available to individuals or groups. Its source lies in the structure and content of the actor’s social relations. Its effects flow from the information, influence, and solidarity it makes available to the actor (Adler and Kwon, 2002). Dekker and Uslaner (2001) posited that social capital is fundamentally about how people interact with each other.

It’s easy to extrapolate how the arts can and do contribute to building social capital, just as it’s easy to understand how building social capital can and does improve communities.

More on this in future posts.


  1. Larry Rothfield says:

    The more intelligent economic rationale for arts funding sees the arts as a magnet for human capital (and for the job creation that agglomerated human capital spurs), not just for tourism. And comparing the multiplier effect of the performing arts center vs. the sports stadium is standard operating procedure in cultural economics. The performing arts center wins if the acts that perform are primarily local, since that means the revenues stay in the city, unlike the enormous salaries paid to football players who usually live out of town and therefore contribute little to the city’s economy.
    That is not to say that the arts do not also build social capital, but then the question is whether all arts build bridging social capital. An unemployed ghetto-dweller is not going to be introduced at the opera to a businesswoman who alerts him to a job. A social capital focus on arts funding then means refocusing funding away from arts experiences that do not emphasize conversations with strangers, in favor of participatory arts that do not affirm a community’s identity.

  2. Sarah Stout says:

    I am curious if you could elaborate on where you see the economic rationale falling into disuse. It seems like everyday a different city comes out with their own creative economy report to demonstrate their economic heft. AFTA’s messaging at last year’s advocacy day was entirely focused on economic rationale, nailed down with Arts=Jobs buttons. All I heard from the speakers and participants at their annual convention in San Diego this year was “economic impact.” I HOPE this is going away! But it still seems like a dominant discourse.

  3. Well, I must admit here to a fuzzy answer. The “talk” among policy-makers (foundation funders, politicians, community leaders, and even arts leaders) has recently consistently included comments related to the “failed” economic argument. I believe this is in part a result of the inability of so many recently-built performing arts centers to sustain themselves in this post-recession economy. It’s also likely due in part to the post-recession drop off in public arts funding, and a realization that the economic rationale was flimsy.
    I’m not a policy wonk, but have always been fascinated with how policy emerges. I believe we’re in that pre-policy, pre-published research mode now, where the “talk” is around the failed rationale, and that concrete actions will soon be evident.

Speak Your Mind


an ArtsJournal blog