Barry’s Blog has thoughts on this. He points out, correctly I think, that while individual airline companies – Delta, Virgin, Qantas – try to create a brand image of their own, there is also in the public mind an idea of the airline sector as a whole. When one airline treats a customer badly, it does not just reflect on that one airline, but also affects the public perception of airline travel on the whole. And so he asks:
What is the Arts Brand – not that of any individual arts organization – but the whole of the arts? I admire his taking this on, an interesting question. In the end though, I’m not convinced as to the recommended direction.
I think over the past couple of decades we have succeeded in increasing the brand’s image as a sector that has an economic component valuable to both the local and national economy; as responsible for jobs and economic benefit.
But that’s not branding, since every sector, if is a sector at all, has a valuable economic component, and employs people. It doesn’t distinguish the arts as such, at all, though there seems to remain an awful lot of people around the arts who think it does. But it’s like saying part of the brand of the Coca Cola Corporation is that it is a corporation. He continues:
We’ve moved the dial in the perception of the brand as valuable to placemaking, and as an important part of overall education. We’ve expanded the brand somewhat to include a wider consideration of creativity and its importance. And there has been much discussion of the wisdom of the brand emphasizing the ancillary values of art over the intrinsic values. Both are part of our brand. While audience attendance may be down in many situations, online involvement is up and the choice of arts experiences has never been deeper.
But in whose mind do these things represent The Arts? Among arts lobbyists (or, to use the preferred genteel term, advocates) these are factors that are brought to the fore when public dollars are at stake, but it does not represent what folks who read novels, go to plays or movies, or gallery walks, are primarily thinking about. I certainly don’t, and I work in this policy arena. Barry writes:
But despite those developments, we still suffer from our brand being regarded as a frill; something elitist and exclusive and, the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, as not a priority item when it comes to support – both financial and otherwise. While we may legitimately think of the arts as essential to the very fabric of society, alas, that’s not our brand image.
And here we are getting to the core of the issue. Who sees it as a “frill”? The branding question here is all about the politics of it – how do we persuade governments and foundations to give more to the arts. But that will necessarily pull the dialogue into considerations of the (often dubious) instrumental benefits of the arts, with presenters valued as to how well they contribute to placemaking, or for providing demand for local hotels, or for generating a more empathic public. He concludes:
It would be helpful if the challenge itself were taken up by a wide variety of our national service organizations and funders. There have been occasional murmurs about trying to strategize about the challenge, but nothing ever seems to come of it. That’s a shame.
Re-branding on that level would be of invaluable help in making our advocacy efforts easier, and might well help overall marketing efforts of our thousands of organizations, including, ultimately increasing audiences. When we talk about increasing public value of the arts, we are talking about a re-branding effort.
The alternative is to simply let the Arts brand mean what it has meant (not to me, not to you – but to far too many) – an elitist pursuit that while valuable, is a luxury society can often ill-afford when compared to higher priorities – despite its contributions to society on other levels, and despite its theoretically widespread public support. (I say theoretically, because while public opinion sampling polls invariably show substantial public support, the perception of us as an elitist frill still dominates decision making on every level.) People say we are important, but rarely translate that belief into actions.
But I think this is risky. It asks arts presenters to divert attention from the experiences they actually present – a play, a film, an exhibition – into trying to convince someone (who?) about the “public value” of what is going on. But what other sector would ask of its constituent firms to do this?
In fact, agencies like Americans for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, have been involved in trying to brand The Arts for some time now, as some all-inclusive thing with all manner of instrumental benefits. There’s not a lot of evidence of success on this front, and I cannot see how enlisting all the thousands of arts presenters in this same cause is going to turn the effort into a success. What will save arts presenters, in the end, is people wanting to attend what they present. Without that no efforts at branding the sector will succeed.