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Not So Fast Chairman Rocco: Arts Education Has A Marketplace Too

Okay, everyone is all abuzz about NEA (as in arts endowment, not the National Education Association) Chairman Rocco Landesman raising the issue in a recent blog of there being too much supply for the demand. In other words: there are too many arts organizations in America.

It’s tough to argue that point. I am just not quite sure what to do with it. Besides letting the marketplace have its way, which it will, what else can you do besides working to provide the best capacity building possible and work towards a better capitalization of the field? Other than that, I guess you can tell people to stop creating non-profit arts organizations. Good luck with that.
One of the things that Landesman did suggest is for organizations to focus more on arts education, for the proven ability of arts education to build audiences. This is based upon the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). Landesman states: “Exposure to the arts–early and often–builds future audiences.”

Sounds good.

But let’s just wait a New York minute.
I have my doubts about the conclusions drawn from that study, but I will reserve that discussion for another time.
So, for the moment, let’s just say that the study is valid, and a prime way to ensure the vitality of the arts sector in America, at least the portion the NEA is concerned with, would be to focus more of the efforts on arts education.
Well arts education, at least the K-12 variety, has its own marketplace. And today, the marketplace is in a very difficult state.
The arts in K-12 education are more marginalized than ever, as standardized test scores in ELA in math are the driving force in the marketplace. This will only increase, believe it or not, as the push to end teacher tenure and base hiring and firing decisions on value added measurements that do not include the arts further ratchet up a flat world driven by two subject areas.(When you hear the term student achievement, it’s code for ELA and math scores.) Additionally, the move towards merit pay and the heavily financed focus by the USDOE on STEM subjects (sorry STEAM proponents, that train has left the station), school turnaround, and more, again all buoyed by scores on standardized tests will undoubtedly make the ice even thinner for arts education.

For the portion of K-12 arts education that is connected to the arts and cultural sector (as opposed to school faculty, a distinction that underscores the complicated nature of arts ed), the overall calculus to the market forces is simple: schools purchase arts education services and the organizations raise funds to offset the cost of the services not covered by the fees from the schools. As the historic cuts to state budgets decimate education funding, prompting many to believe we are in a “reset moment,” contracted services will decline even further. Add to this, the declines in fundraising reported across the entire non-profit sector. Yes, some of the foundation funding will start to increase, as a result in the growth of the stock market. But not so fast; I am sorry to predict that foundation giving will not return to pre-2008 levels for the arts and arts education, as the tremendous growth in charter schools and other variants of school reform will cause a diversification in foundation, individual, and corporate giving. To be fair, many of my colleagues and friends tell me that particular prognostication is overstated and not based in data.

If you want to get a sense of how profound some of the state cuts will be, click on through to Ed Week’s coverage of what’s happening in Texas, and even if you can’t read the entire article as a non-subscriber, the tease is more than enough.

The “butts in the seats” rationale for arts education is quite paradoxical. In essence it tends to commoditize children. Yes, businesses like Mattel and Disney do a very good job at it, that’s true. So, yes, it can be done, in albeit a larger marketplace beyond schools. But, in the competitive marketplace of the K-12 public schools, the rational of students becoming future audience members doesn’t really float, but rather sinks like a lead balloon. Parents, and some arts educators as well, tend to turn a deaf ear to such arguments. 
Now, you might say that its possible to have as a guiding force the future of the arts while communicating a variety of other messages to school communities, thereby eliminating the self-dealing label that comes with arts education/butts in the seats principle. Well, I for one believe that originating intent counts, it’s the sort of thing that will permeate what you do and how, and ultimately is at cross purposes with why we seek to ensure that every child has a well-rounded education that includes the arts. 
Believe me, I have been there many times, at board rooms and other meeting places, where the “kids are our future audiences” sounded quite bully. Tell it to a parent, and see what happens. Parents aren’t wild about children viewed as a commodity.
Now, am I saying that we should just give up? Nope, not at all. But, what I am saying is that arts organizations need to embrace arts education not because their future audience depends upon it, but rather because a quality arts education is important for more fundamental reasons that may or may not lead to butts in the seats today or tomorrow. The more the arts field learns about the larger world of education, while continuing to seek its place in the larger context, the better off we shall all be.

We’re living in a time a extraordinary flux, and the greater field of the arts is feeling it in appropriately extraordinary ways. Whether it be the economy, technology, business models, tastes, generational shifts, most everyone recognizes the change and many are struggling to keep pace, while hoping to take advantage of it.

I believe the field of education may be even more dynamic right now, and as next year brings state budget cuts to education  the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 70s, there will be a super fuel added to the change that will present one of the greatest opportunity-challenges in a very long time.

If we’re to commit further to advancing arts education, at the very least we should do it the right way and make sure it is for the benefit of the kids (and ultimately society), and hope that it just might have some sort of ripple effect in arts participation some years down the line.



  1. Great post. Like you, I wish we could think about arts education in non-market terms. Perhaps we can/should view arts education not as a way to build future audiences but as a way to democratize arts participation. In other words, arts ed can help teach citizens, rather than mere consumers.

  2. Thanks for the great post. I agree that there is intrinsic value in arts education and I wish there was an easier way to include arts education in our test-heavy curriculums. I also think that the idea of “growing our future audience” would be a nice by-product of the arts education work that we do, rather than our goal.

  3. John Abodeely says

    RK, I’d love to see you write about the market arguments for various Ed reform ideas. Those arguments were used to pass the Creativity Index legislation in MA. And they’re driving Ed right now.

  4. Janet Brown says

    If “butts in seats” built audiences, our symphony halls and theatres would be over flowing. I keep waiting for the study that proves 30 years of free or really cheap children matinees have turned an audience kid into an arts consumer. That’s the grant application, right? Richard, you are so right that the time is now and the opportunity ours to support K-12 public arts education. And make the connection based on what children are learning and not how many of them are in the audience.

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