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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
A Public Conversation Among People Who Care

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Daily Archive: March 06, 2005


At the risk of attacking the question we've all come here to talk about, I have to confess that the intense attention arts people spend on trying to get the wider world to pay attention to the arts makes me a little uncomfortable.

In covering arts organizations over the years as a critic and journalist, I have developed a "McLennan's Law" test. It goes: the effort an arts organization expends on trying to get butts in seats is often inversely proportional to its overall health. That is: You can always tell a theater or symphony orchestra is in trouble when it starts worrying more about getting people in the seats than it does about inspiring audiences; that’s the point it has become a follower rather than a leader. On the other end - a really successful company with a hot product doesn't worry much about how it will attract an audience, it pours its efforts into a product it believes in.

Maybe it's an instinctive distrust of those trying too hard to tell me they're cool. But the more I'm subjected to ernest arguments about why the arts are good for me, the more I'm turned off. Why does proselytizing for the arts so often sound so evangelical? This particularly applies to arts impact studies, of which there are now so many, they seem like just so much noise.

So, to whom are we "making a case for the arts"? Obviously the case changes depending on the audience (whether it's kids or legislators or Jo Q. Public). But isn't some of this effort a bit counter-productive? You don't see Hollywood constantly trying to convince us that "movies are good for us." There, it's all about the product...

posted at 08:07 AM | Comments (6)

Music is the Best Advocate for Music

To me, the beauty of the arts, including music, lies in its multitude of reactions, impacts, and benefits. As a result, it is not so much of a problem that there are various “findings” and "ways" being chanted to advocate for the arts. In the past, together with my students, I have examined “how” we can advocate for the arts, and music in particular. I have emphasizes this because I believe that anyone pursuing a career in music, has a responsibility to know about the business: its history, its trends, its outlook, its leaders, and its issues. Whether or not one agrees with certain ideas or opinions, it is important to know what they are. Our conclusion on this “how we can advocate for the arts” question was that we need to acquire the skill to communicate and the knowledge of data, so that after effective assessment of the situation, we can put forward the most persuasive arguments. Thus, there is no specific or single method towards supporting the arts; the best argument must be suited to the situation. But there is more. We present the argument (hopefully the right one) so that we can present an even better, convincing one.

We are not a generic mass of people. Each one of us has different histories, needs, values, priorities, tastes, desires, etc., which, over time, are all malleable, interacting with the environment. Why then, do we all have to agree all the time? Certainly, there are some shared experiences we all have or certain groups of people have, that may result in shared reactions. There are largely-shared experiences as well as selectively-shared ones. However, the less popular does not necessarily mean less valid, invalid, or worthless.

Advanced modernization seems to have taken a chip off individuality and emphasize on the rational objectivity. Technological advances have made communication more accessible and easier to use to influence others. Objective reasoning for an activity is a must. But the trend of believing in the best as the sole reason-solution to an issue simply will not do with the arts, and discovering a thousand facts to “prove” the benefits of the arts is really only sidestepping the subject.

For me, the more cases that can be presented to support the benefits of music, the better. It gives us a more diverse vocabulary and expression for the cause. And we should all learn what is being said, so that we can take advantage of it. But the real, core issue at stake is this: Why do we have to advocate for the arts in the first place? Why do we have to validate ourselves? Why do we continue to struggle to find a meaningful argument in support of the arts? How did we arrive at this slump?

Certainly, the delivery and the presentation of music must be re-examined. The case for music can be most effective when presented at the highest level (which is not quantifiable with numbers or adjectives) and granted maximum accessibility. Whatever it takes to make that possible, outreach or whatever we wish to call it, is an asset. Knowledge is power, and awareness is seductive. Different facts should support and enable us to spread the music in a way that has the strongest impact both on the community and on the individuals within it, because they may give us an opportunity to find or create the right situation (like securing funding so that we can deliver music in different places). However, ultimately, it is great music and its appropriate presentation that serve music best.

posted at 05:11 PM | Comments (2)

What we say / what we do

There seem to be two tracks for this conversation about the Rand study, about intrinsic/extrinsic benefits of creative experience, about the limits of instrumental arguments for the arts: one track follows what we say, the other follows what we do.

What we say revolves around persuasion...convincing decision-makers or gatekeepers that influence the richness, depth, and access to creative experience. This isn't just about bolstering direct state and federal funding, but also engaging school districts looking for deep budget cuts (often in the arts), or convincing cities formulating 'smart growth' plans that arts activities have an integrated place in their decisions.

As we all know, persuasion isn't always about deep and nuanced truth, but about arguments that work.

On the other track is what arts organizations, arts managers, arts supporters do, that is, how we ensure deep and lasting connections between our creative efforts and the larger world. In this track, it's essential that we have deep and nuanced knowledge of how the world values what we offer, or what benefits or connections they seek.

The Rand effort, and other explorations of value or benefits, speak to both tracks...even though we tend to focus most on the first.

I'm pleased and honored to be among such a great group to discuss both tracks (and others as they're found). To me, this issue is not just about forming an argument, but it lies at the core of all things in policy, management, marketing, subsidy, outreach, education, and on and on.

posted at 06:43 PM | Comments (0)

A Matter of Relationships

All of us who work in the professional not-for-profit arts arena probably wish that we didn't have to make the case for the arts. How much more delightful life would be if we could spend the time currently consumed in fundraising, government advocacy (including championing the NEA, for example), foundation meetings, etc., on the art itself. I know no manager who wouldn't rather be in the performance hall or the rehearsal room than in a meeting with a corporation, pleading for arts support.

Unfortunately, that's not the way life is, at least these days. And if those culture wars--aren't you amazed that it's an early posting and they've already come up?--taught us anything, it was the liability of taking public appreciation and understanding of the arts for granted.

The Rand report rightly, I think, distinguishes between those who have a deep relationship with the arts--for whom true intrinsic benefits like pleasure, captivation and the like--and those who infrequently attend the arts, if at all. For the former, Midori may be right: the music will be its own best argument (and what music lover could fail to be swayed by Midori any time she plays?); for the latter group, arguments need to be made--arguments that Rand again rightly characterizes as extrinsic benefits, e.g. educational achievement, economic benefit, etc.

The not for profit sector by definition relies on charitable support: on average $.47 of every $1 in a theatre budget came from a contribution last year, not from the box office. And in a world where the clamor for charitable contributions has increased--where the competition is now the fire department, the school system, the AIDS clinic and more--we must be articulate about why supporting the arts is important--articulate, as often as not, to people who are not necessarily arts patrons or arts afficiandos.

The loudest voices I hear asking for arguments that will rally support often come from Board members--passionate supporters of the arts who are often frustrated by the own inability to convince their friends and business associates about the importance of the arts. And why do managers try to raise such record sums of money? Because, I think, they love the art--and want to provide optimal conditions and better loves for the artists who change our lives. Arguments about the importance of the arts ultimately serve that end.

On a closing note, I must take exception with our host about the worry of attendance as a harbinger of artistic failure. The not for profit was granted its status precisely because there was a visionary sense that there were worthy activities that the market could not support--hence the government's willingness to allow the charitable donation. With the erosion of those structures that created professional arts organizations--with the declines in state and local funding (when adjusted for inflation), corporate support, and with shifting patterns in socializing (see Robert Putnam), the pressure to meet expenses through earned revenue--the box office--becomes even greater--hence the worry about audiences.

I hope Doug does not truly mean to suggest that a "hot product" somehow is more worthy--do we value Alien vs. Predator more than Sideways because it was #1 at the box office for many weeks? Does he really mean that movies don't spend time telling us movies are good for us? While the message isn't quite as overt, perhaps, the millions and millions spent on advertising media--probably the billions and billions--is exactly spent trying to persuade us that movies are good for our social life, for our entertainment and captivation, for our ability to be current--the Must See TV line in television, for example--in other words, reinforcing the very intrinsic values that the Rand report urges us to add to our own vocabulary in advocating the fullest range of the arts.

The danger lies, not in worrying about the audience, but in anticipating their desires as the rationale for the work we create: as not for profit arts groups, at least, we aspire to lead our audiences by being just ahead of them, rather than following our perceptions of their tastes slavishly and tailoring work accordingly. Thank God that Tony Kushner didn't listen when people told him no one would attend a six hour play on politics and gay issues, but went ahead and wrote ANGELS IN AMERICA; that Ibsen wasn't deterred when audiences stormed from the theatre and demanded his head; that Strinberg wasn't discouraged by the lack of audiences and more. Try to create a hot product and you're likely to end up with JOEY on NBC: the true artist follows the inner voice in a very different way--and the organization, deeply supportive of the artist, is right to want to give that work the broadest and most powerful exposure.

posted at 07:49 PM | Comments (4)

Creating Value

I was delighted to see that Kevin McCarthy and his co-authors have once again got all of us talking and sometimes arguing about what we care about the most -- the meaning and value of the arts.

It is right to say that works of genius create their own audiences, but not without help in many cases. In an era when investment in long term benefits for the public good is unfashionable, such as research that may not commercially pay off for 20 years and so must be funded by government, or education programs that help children who will not be able to vote for some time, trying to push the intrinsic benefits of the arts is a tough job. And this is the reason that we should all be doing it.

The economic arguments alone simply do not hold up. If they are a useful starting point for conversation, by all means we should use them. But they should never be the reason that we give for doing the work that we do -- as the report acknowledges, some of these benefits could be achieved by a more direct route. In addition, being prepared to discuss why the arts improve the quality of lives, why they create societal value, should not be a matter of whining or banging the drum. It should be part of the lexicon of every arts leader who wants to have a place at the civic table.

posted at 08:48 PM | Comments (0)

Whose Muse Blues

One of Editor Doug’s pieces of advice to us novice bloggers was: keep it short! I am going to try.

The RAND report -- which is truly worth the detour -- is first and foremost a literature review. Its authors have painstakingly trawled through the vast and scattered sources that address why cultural activity is -- or more accurately may possibly be -- of value; classified that literature (economic, social, psychological, aesthetic etc.); and then sought to give a broad account of how robust are the conclusions of the various studies.

They conclude, as others have before them, but never with such crushing evidential force, that the recent literature is a bit flaky, and that the wilder claims for the social and economic impact of the arts are overblown. This is not surprising. Much of the literature was generated in the context of the ruthless pursuit of money rather than the fearless pursuit of truth. Its purpose is not to increase the sum of human understanding but to persuade particular constituencies (usually public sector funders) in particular contexts (a capital project, a fiscal crisis) to maintain or increase levels of financial support.

I doubt many of the authors cited thought they were carrying responsibility for the intellectual underpinning of the Enlightenment. Their job was to play on the sensibilities of a particular group of decision makers. The arts constituency has been extremely successful in raiding the budgets of adjacent and better funded policy areas – education, urban renewal, tourism etc...

Some of the instrumental arguments are obviously a bit of stretch. Others are obviously true. But the arcane and (pace RAND) flawed methodologies employed rarely generate conclusions that are not accessed more easily, convincingly and cheaply by the application of common sense.

The overall ‘impact’ of the instrumental enterprise has been to leave the sector over-hyped, over-extended and cowering as it waits to be found out. Hence the reaction within the sector to the RAND report - “So whose side are you guys on then?” I got the same reaction to the debate on the same issues that we got going in the UK in 2003 and referenced in the right-hand sidebar to this blog. My perspective, like Midori’s, was that it’s not ‘either instrumental or intrinsic’ but that there are a wide range of arguments that apply differentially to a wide range of cultural activities and seeking to fit the whole of cultural endeavor into a single straight-jacket is both uncomfortable and unhelpful.

The current preoccupation with re-grounding the arguments for the public support of cultural activity is a result of this gut-churning awareness by the arts policy community that the hard-won gains in arts funding have been, in large part, as a result of aggressive but shakily-grounded lobbying. The re-grounding, heralded by the RAND authors and others like John Holden, as and when it happens – incrementally, awkwardly, partially — will bring with it not only changes in the gross level of arts funding but changes in the type of organizations and activities funded. This is no bad thing and indeed rather exciting.

My gripe with the current preoccupation with this vast literature and its methodological shortcomings is that it is something of a side show. This is not primarily because, as the RAND report demonstrates, the re-grounding of economic and social arguments in more analytically defensible research methodologies would take a long time and cost a lot of money that could be better spent elsewhere - though this is undoubtedly the case. It is primarily because the cultural sector seems to feel the need to hold itself to higher (or maybe just odder) evidential standards than other sectors – for example, health, environment, or education. In these sectors, the academic preoccupation is not with, for example, what health can do for urban regeneration or tourism, but with the policies required to ensure a healthy community.

If we stopped looking so neurotically for epiphenomena -- the impact of the arts on X, Y and Z -- and diverted our attention to what constitutes -- say -- a vibrant cultural community: what distribution of what art forms, what forms of participation etc. -- and if we could come up with well grounded answers to this question, I suspect that those answers would be significantly more compelling to the decision-makers we lobby than another damned economic impact study. We would spend less time waiting for the other shoe to drop as decision makers discover what we already knew and what the RAND report has spelled out in merciless detail. And we would address some of the patently daft misallocations of scarce resources that our shakily-grounded arguments for the arts have encouraged, such as the resource-draining building boom we are emerging from, which has left the sector over-expanded, under-capitalized and with a fundamentally and adversely altered ratio of fixed to variable costs.

Sorry Doug. Shorter next time….

posted at 10:27 PM | Comments (0)

Is there a better case to be made for the arts? more...

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Ben Cameron
Executive director of Theatre Communications Group more

Adrian Ellis
Managing consultant of AEA Consulting more

Bill Ivey
Director of the Curb Center, Former Chair, NEA more

Joli Jensen
Professor, University of Tulsa, Author: "Is Art Good for Us?" more

Jim Kelly
Director, 4Culture, Seattle, WA more

Phil Kennicott
Culture critic, Washington Post more

Glenn Lowry
Director, Museum of Modern Art more

Robert L. Lynch
President, Americans for the Arts more

Violinist more

Andrew Taylor
Director, Bolz Center, University of Wisconsin more

Russell Willis Taylor
President, National Arts Strategies more

Doug McLennan
Editor, ArtsJournal.com

Gifts of the MuseGifts of the Muse
Free access to the full RAND study at the core of this conversation, funded by the Wallace Foundation. An executive summary is also available. Other Wallace Foundation publications and reports are available through its Knowledge Center.

Top arts researchers will come together to present and dissect the latest data at Measuring the Muse, an unprecedented National Arts Journalism Program-Alliance for the Arts conference at Columbia University.

The Values Study
A collaborative effort of 20 Connecticut arts organizations, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and facilitator/author Alan S. Brown. The effort trained arts leaders to interview key members of their constituency, to discover what they valued about the creative experience -- in their own words. The process was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation's State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation (START) Program.

Valuing Culture
An initiative of London-based think tank, Demos. This effort brought cultural and policy leaders together to discuss the public value of culture in the UK. Resources include (with a downloadable briefing report by Adrian Ellis), a collection of speeches from the event in June 2003, and a summary report by John Holden called Capturing Cultural Value.

The Arts and Economic Prosperity
The 2002 report and related resources assessing the economic impact of America's nonprofit arts industry, based on surveys of 3,000 nonprofit arts organizations and more than 40,000 attendees at arts events in 91 cities in 33 states, plus the District of Columbia.

The Value of the Performing Arts in Ten Communities
A project of the Performing Arts Research Coalition, researched by the Urban Institute, exploring measures of value in specific cities across the United States. Reports are available for download.

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