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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 10, 2005

Beginning to Wrap Up...

Thanks to Adrian for the reminder that the global cultural system is being transformed and we don't know what the system will look like in a few years. I would reiterate that the for-profit arts industries are also being transformed, mostly to no good end. Global media companies have gobbled up all but a handful of the book and music publishers, record companies, film studios and the like. Consolidation is always accompanied by claims of synergy and efficiency but you end up with research diving out creative insinct, too much aversion to risk, too great an enforced concentration on quarterly parent company earnings and stock price, and too many crucial decisions made in places distant from the issue at hand. Industry leaders who need to invest in and nurture new talent and innovative material are walking around with their hands tied. The symptoms are the same as in the non-profit world where too many leaders have to make creative decisions that appear to insure financial outcomes. If I could wave a magic wand and give arts exectives in all our arts companies one thing, it would be a year of freedom from external financial pressure; not total freedom, perhaps, but enough elbow room to put creativity and artistry back in the room.

Andrew's right about a new ecology; I wonder what our system would look like today if we had devoted funding to "small versus large," rather than "non-profit versus for-profit?" The rarely-spoken conceit of our current system is that quality or excellence is the exclusive asset of the non-profit world, and that doesn't stand up to research or even to anecdote, and maybe if we'd sliced off what was worthy of support in a different way, we'd be better off. But we are all headed for a new landscape and nothing is either inevitable or eternal about the symphony orchestra or the bluegrass band. Adrian points out that changing demography is menacing the Refined Arts; in many ways the U.S. started this trend 100 years ago by using techology to empower film and recording industries capable of shoving the refined arts into a corner.

A couple of specifics in response to Doug's note:

Let's paint a picture of what we think a vibrant cultural system should look like, and then advocate on behalf of policies that take us there. In my experience, arts advocates tend to ask for "more," rather than for a specific outcome. If we want a drawing teacher in every fourth grade classroom, let's talk that way. I think policy leaders and funders like to know exactly what will happen if they support a program. The challenge, of course, is that once we get where we say we want to go, we have to be willing to stop, and not ask for more...That's been hard for us to do.

And what about a big idea? Say, let's put a guitar in the hands of every 13 year old in the country. (Don't groan, I could have said "banjo!"). It would take about $500 per kid, but would probably generate at least the level of lifelong pleasure that will be there from the $500 savings accounts somebody in Congress is talking about. Oh, I know, half of the instruments would end up parked in closets, but, hell, three-quarters of the trumpets and clarinets played in high school bands end up in closets, so we'd be ahead of the game. (And that thought sends me off on a mini-rant: How did we end up with a music ed system that functions, for the most part, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of high school athletics? The guitar and piano have competed for the number one position among American instruments for the past 100 years; they're the basic tools of American composition and performance, and the glue of informal music making at home and around the campfire; they're just now creeping into schools...Give me a break!)

We need to pay close attention to research on happiness and research on quality of life. Our population is aging and over the years whenever I've watched an Isaac Stern or BB King or Doc Watson or Martha Graham, I'm struck by the way art making youthfulizes old age. Right now culture is a second or third-tier component of quality of life, but I am convinced that it can be right up there beside health care, food, and shelter; the need to define and maintain quality of life into old age offers an opportunity.

Also, art offers a secular spirituality that can be a healthy companion to the kind of spirituality that is available through organized religion. There is clearly a spiritual search and a spiritual void in the U.S., but not everybody can or will resolve that search by going to church. There is a very healthy and I think logical way to establish value in this way, and even an opportunity to propose public policy that addresses spiritual longings through art (There's no separation of art and state in the Constitution, don't you know.), but many of us are instinctive secular humanists and so spiritual value may feel to some like a bridge too far.

And I do think the arts world needs to be willing to take on issues like copyright, mergers of arts industries, and consolidation of radio. We think of these as outside our domain but 1)they're not, and 2) they're the big factors shaping the character of our arts system. I mean, why didn't we, as a sector, work with unions 30 years ago to help keep American classical recording viable? There are plenty of ways to improve the cultural landscape that don't involve grantmaking.

I've got a few more ideas but I can't share absolutely everything...

Posted by bivey at March 10, 2005 02:42 PM


Here are a couple of elements of my vision for the future. First of all, I desire comprehensive, sequential arts education K-16 that results in EVERY student being at least minimally competent in one art form. This provides future artists and future audiences.

Secondly, I embrace the formation of a working coalition of the arts that ranges from the banjo player in the kitchen to the sculptor in Central Park; from the pow-wow grounds to the concert stage. Right now we cordon ourselves off into splinter groups, then tend to shoot at each other. Just as the word 'business' includes everything from home-based industries to giant corporations, 'arts' should include a large continuum of styles, qualities and methods. Inherent in this idea is that we should, then, think in this larger framework and act in ways that are good for the entire field.

Posted by: Bitsy Bidwell at March 10, 2005 03:34 PM

This discussion has been great. There are some questions that I have been wondering about.

1. Where are all the Arts managers that one might have expected to be reading this web-log?
2. Does anyone know what the economic impact of working artists is? I have tried to find studies and the few that exist are for NY and show incomes of $15,000 on average. Artists that enter exhibits in non profits or play for small fees in local parks don't seem to be counted. While there are reports of high auction sales there is little known about the economic impact of the gallery sales. Public mural programs have a large impact on the art economy. Are they counted.

I respect the hard work local art centers do for arts. How are the fees they collect from artists accounted for on a national scale?

About the respect for artists in europe that was mentioned in an earlier post. The only time I was able to visit Florence I went to the Medici Chapel and after sketching for about ten minutes the attendant asked me if I wanted a chair. He then later allowed me to visit a cellar room, alone. This level of trust and respect would never happen here.

The value of non profit arts organizations like museums and concert halls are the major league flagships. What we need to do is promote the players and develop the minor leagues. Artists may end up being some of the few who "work with their hands" left in America one day. Craftsmanship may disappear in this faux world along with illuminated manuscripts.

Posted by: Charles Hankin at March 10, 2005 07:00 PM

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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

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Andrew Taylor
Director, Bolz Center, University of Wisconsin more

Russell Willis Taylor
President, National Arts Strategies more

Doug McLennan
Editor, ArtsJournal.com

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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
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