This past Wednesday I participated in a symposium at Indiana University, as part of the opening of its new Center for Cultural Affairs. Among other programs, the Center features a new Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation Lab launched in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts; and will also help to support a new a doctoral fellowship program.
It was a terrific day of discussions aimed primarily at surfacing possible areas of future research for the Center. I was on a panel moderated by Doug Noonan, Professor at the O’Neill School at IU. Others on the panel were Will Miller, President of the Wallace Foundation, Michael Orlove, Director of State, Regional and Local Partnerships at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Bronwyn Mauldin, Director of Research and Evaluation at the LA County Arts Commission. Our broad topic was “Demonstrating Impact of the Arts in Society” and we were asked (among other reflections) to identify questions that, if answered, would enable tangible progress in the arts and culture sector.
As we discussed on one of our planning calls, each panelist was approaching the topic from a different perspective. My own was, for better or worse, informed by having worked in a variety of roles: from being a practicing theatermaker early in my career, to working in various administrative and leadership roles at nonprofit cultural institutions, to being a philanthropoid at Mellon with Susan Feder, and finally to being an academic directing two programs in cultural leadership, as well as a blogger and ponderer and provocateur at large.
I’ll let my comments speak for themselves but will leave you with the following reflection from Iris Murdoch which was on my mind when I wrote my remarks:
A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.Iris Murdoch (1997)
Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, p. 18.
Panel Remarks by Diane Ragsdale at the May 9, 2019 “New Frontiers in Arts Research” symposium at the launch of the Center for Cultural Affairs at Indiana University
It is a pleasure and privilege to be here. My sincere thanks to Joanna Woronkowicz, Doug Noonan, Michael Rushton, and others at the O’Neill Center at Indiana University for the invitation and opportunity to be here. And congratulations on the launch of this new Center!
I have wrestled for the past decade or so with, essentially, two sets of questions in my own research practice.
One set underpins my doctoral research, which examines the relationship between the nonprofit and commercial theater in the US. Essentially, I’m seeking to understand how interactions and distinctions between these two types of theater have evolved since the mid-twentieth century and how, in particular, artistic control and aesthetic values have shifted.
A second set of questions stems from having taught a course in beauty and aesthetics for business school students, aimed at helping them see the world (and valuate experiences in life) through something other than an economic lens–through, essentially, an aesthetic lens.
The enduring questions arising from that experience have been:
- What is the relationship between beauty and human development?
- Can developing the capacity to form aesthetic judgments help business leaders and other professionals approach critical decisions holistically and contextually?
- If so, how do you cultivate such a capacity? What are the practices in the classroom, in the cultural center, in life?
I give you this context because it informs my opinions on the topic at hand.
Without further ado, here is an odd assemblage of six or so observations, provocations, pet peeves, and wishes.
First, an observation. I recently attended a small confab in Montreal organized and co-hosted by the Metcalf Foundation and Canadian musician and academic David Maggs who is artistic director of Gros Morne Summer Music in Newfoundland. The topic was art and social impact. One of the questions Maggs gave us to think about in advance of the meeting was this:
Who is authoring this expanding [“social change”] role the arts are expected to play? Artists? Researchers? Activists? Funding and policy personnel?David Maggs, Phd
It’s a really good question. Anecdotally, it feels like quite a bit of arts research in the US that succeeds in getting traction is done by consultants hired by private foundations, government agencies, trade associations, or large organizations. This has no doubt skewed the kinds of problems and questions that are pursued.
Second, a pet peeve: I wonder if we could consider removing the term “intrinsic impacts” from our lexicons? As the sculptor and blogger Carter Gillies has schooled me, this pairing is incongruous (and also just awkward) as “impact” is “already the language of instrumentality and … denote(s) an effect … what something can be good for.”
In other words, not belonging to the nature of the thing itself.
Third, like others I have been critical of the widespread use of economic impact studies to justify investments in the arts. I have lately added to this lament an additional ethical concern about undertaking economic impact studies in the arts without additionally undertaking what are often called cultural impact assessments. I am following Arlene Goldbard in this who has been a fierce advocate for the adoption of such studies. As the people-powered US Department of Arts & Culture website states (for which Goldbard is Chief Policy Wonk):
Community development policy is marred by a widespread proclivity to see communities of color and low-income communities as disposable in the face of economic “progress.” Longstanding neighborhoods and cultural and social fabric are demolished to make way for new freeways or sports stadiums.STANDING FOR CULTURAL DEMOCRACY
THE USDAC’S POLICY AND ACTION PLATFORM SUMMARY
Of course, it’s not just new freeways and sports stadia that harm the local culture. Things done in the name of arts-related “community cultural development” can do as well.
Fourth, and related to this, it seems we spend so much time these days trying to justify the value or worth of historic investments in what we’ve still got (and significant parts of that picture are enduring flagship institutions) we seem to be failing to assess the cultural consequences of what has been lost.
What is lost in the culture when the only theater company in the region dedicated exclusively to new plays is extinguished?
Or when mergers happen in the arts and entertainment industries?
Or when vital (but often smaller) experimental or community-based arts organizations are weakened and sometimes made redundant as large flagship institutions expand their footprints or get hefty grants to essentially co-opt their missions?
Or when that flagship institution itself collapses?
Fifth, I wonder if we might undertake more research seeking to understand how the arts work on individuals over a lifetime; or on communities over generations. Mark Slouka once wrote of humanities scholar Danielle Allen, a trustee at the Mellon Foundation when I was there a decade ago: “[She] patiently advances the argument that the work of the humanities doesn’t reveal itself within the typical three- or five-year cycle, that the humanities work on a 50-year cycle, a 100-year cycle.”
I’ve long been compelled by this statement as it also seems to speak to the way “the arts” work.
Are we examining this 50-year cycle? This 100-year cycle? Cultural centers, arts ed programs, public arts programs, independent cinemas, bookstores, small shops and clubs that make a town distinctive, etc.—these all “work” on their communities over time; they “work” on the hearts and minds of individuals over time, as well.
And by work I mean a number of things but one of these arguably has something to do with influencing values–aesthetic values, economic values, and social or ethical values.
But philanthropy is impatient and so is government and we seem to abandon initiatives every five years sometimes because they haven’t shown results and this is in large part because we don’t have a realistic idea about how long this work takes.
And at the same time is it possible that some of the resource-and-energy-intensive institutions started 50 or 100 years ago may be coming to the end of their cycle? And, if so, now what?
Sixth, something woolly that is not yet clearly formed.
It seems we now have sufficient data going back 50-70 years on various global, national, and local (city, neighborhood, school district) cultural policy regimes to undertake historical comparative research aimed at understanding the relationship between divergent cultural policy approaches (including the aesthetic values prioritized or problematized by them) and any number of social dimensions. For example, cohesion, division, tolerance, trust, corruption, cognitive empathy, oppression, racism—all the stuff some of us are desperately worried about in the US these days.
Finally, two wishes.
Wish One: alongside seeking to measure the “impact” of “the arts” on the economy, on well-being, or on other social goods, I wish “the arts” could be understood and treated as one of several measures of a “good” society.
Wish Two: After presenting at a conference on “the arts” and well-being at University of Wisconsin Madison last year that pulled together philosophers, economists, medical scientists, sociologists, religious studies scholars, artists, anthropologists and historians I wish there were more such conferences.
Thank you for your kind attention.