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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 11, 2005

Final Thoughts

I'd like to know more about Midori's 2002 project that contained music but had a "non-musical theme." We do tend to see art as always having to be the centerpiece and there may be something in the notion of sneaking it in as a surprising and meaningful sidebar. Jim Kelly's reminder of the importance of retail advocacy is good. Earlier Bob Lynch talked about advocacy on behalf of the NEA a few years back. In practice that advocacy was, of course, caring individuals meeting one-on-one with members of Congress. I had 230 face-to-face meetings with members myself when I was NEA Chairman, and they were fun, challenging, and absolutely critical to restoring good overall relations between the agency and the Hill.

After reading the entries and responses to this blog, I'm convinced that our real challenge is to decide if we can enter a kind of "rub-your-stomach; pat-your-head" period in which we work hard to craft and execute good casemaking on behalf of nonprofits, while, at the same time, we step back to assess our current approach to cultural intervention in order to figure out what we do now, in the 21st century, in order to help the arts system work better for citizens and artists. My initial notion is that modern-day intervention will find us taking on tax policy, access to heritage, balancing copyright against larger public intersts, and media regulation; grantmaking and public funding may not be, for the next few decades, "where the action is."

One example: The Curb Center's DC office coordinates a program called the "Arts Industries Policy Forum." It is a policy neutral, off-the-record, bipartisan rolling seminar on cultural policy subjects. Forum membership is restricted to senior career government staffers on Capitol Hill and with Federal Agencies. We now have 35 members, drawn from the FCC, the Office of the US Trade Representative, the Department of State, Trademark and Patents, the Justice Department, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Commerce Committee --- you get the idea. We commission background papers on topics the Forum selects, bring in guest speakers, maintain a listserve, and so on. Last year we looked at radio consolidation and the public interest; next month we'll have a guest speaker talking about the value of impact analysis as a component of policy work; other topics are in the pipeline. The Forum acknowledges that, in our system, many different agencies and Congressional committees own a slice of the cultural policy pie; we're trying to produce a backdrop for better cultural policy by getting these multiple actors gathered up around arts and cultural system issues. Just one small activity we are trying to take on the bigger questions.

Back when I was NEA Chairman, it was a great deal of fun to work with the good Endowment staff, Americans for the Arts, NASAA, members of Congress pro and con, in order to get the agency moving again. We accomplished that together, and it's great. But at the very same time we, as arts public intellectuals, were all caught up in issues surrounding government funding, the term of copyright was extended, the 1996 Telecommunications Act paved the way for media consolidation, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act criminalized digital duplication, and the USIA was rolled into the Department of State and basically eliminated. Now, it was nice to get an attitude shift in Congress and an additional $17 million dollars for our federal grantmaking agency, but those other actions (most initiated or strongly supported by the Clinton administration) really, really transformed the cultural landscape. If our goal is to advance quality of life by nurturing a vibrant arts system, we're going to have to worry less about a few million dollars in grants, and more about a range of laws and regulations that define and redefine the mechanisms of finance and control that give our cultural landscape its character. This is unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable territory for many of us who care about the arts, but if we don't jump in the pond, we'll be left fiddling while Rome burns. (I did that on purpose, just to let you know my skill with mixed metaphors hadn't flown the coop.)

Thanks for all the good ideas.


Posted by bivey at March 11, 2005 06:58 AM


How many Americans are educated in the arts? If one wants to construct a model of what the cultural landscape is I would thing that a good place to start might be with people. My estimate is a simple one, not having had statistics in art school, here goes.

1. Over 3000 art schools are listed by some on a quick Google.
2. 500 seems like a fair average per year taking classes.
3. 30 years, a conservative guess to balance the growth in art centers.
4. Result: 45,000,000 trained art lovers.

How many musicians and writers could one add to this number to get to the real Cultural Mass Potential?

How do Americans for The Arts or other groups bring together a cultural society? Most artists ask the simple question of advocacy groups, what are you doing for me?

How did soccer become the most popular suburban activity for children? Parents are given an activity for their children that is close to home, they participate in it as coaches, and it is fun. I taught art in an after-school program run by our local community college. The middle school children loved it. It would be good if there were more programs that went to where the people are. There is a roving nature camp here that goes to the parks. Why not develop an art version?

I know there are people here who have never been in the city. It seems foreign to them. Like many parts of our society trust seems to be lacking. Individual acts of art make culture.

Posted by: Charles Hankin at March 11, 2005 07:47 AM

I am glad to see that the BLS lists artists as a category. How many trained or self taught artists are not listed because what they do is a "labor of love"?

The same could be said for all the other arts.

Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition, Artists and Related Workers, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos092.htm (visited March 11, 2005).

Posted by: Charles Hankin at March 11, 2005 08:45 AM

Thank you to Doug and all of the participants in this fascinating and engaging discussion. We could use a lot more of this kind of exploration of the many issues we face in the arts.

I make no comment on the serious questions raised by the Rand Report, including its' disturbing flaws. And while the participants raised numerous important issues, I would like to comment on just one aspect of the overall picture of advocacy and making the case for the arts.

The studies we have done are unquestionably valuable in trying to convince foundations and other funders to increase their support for the arts, and valuable to the long range goal of convincing the public that the arts ought to be a core investment for society; thus far, however, their primary application has been in support of arguments to convince government decision makers to increase funding.

Government decisions about funding are "choices"; more often than not, difficult choices between competiting benefits. Those decisions are historically, and today, increasingly, impacted by political considerations. The arts community makes a critical error by assuming that all we have to do is make the best possible case, and we will then be victorious. It just doesn't work like that. Sometimes it doesn't matter how good a case you make, or how worthy and beneficial your cause is; it doesn't matter how much value you add - the decisions are political. Those interest groups (and that's what we are, an interest group)that raise the necessary funds to support major lobbying efforts (including contributing to campaigns) have access and an advantage we do not, and, as often as not, they succeed in getting more of what they want than we do. We simply don't bring to the lawmaker's table the same potential benefits that they do.

I am not disparaging the extraordinary efforts the thousands of people in the arts field have made in past advocacy efforts - volunteers all of them - and I acknowledge and salute their success and effectiveness in making the case. Nor am I dismissing or marginalizing the growth of countless organized efforts - from the leadership of Americans for the Arts to scores of other organizations. And I am not suggesting we abandon efforts to make the case as we have been (and as this panel has so insightfully noted, as we might yet do).

But until the arts community accepts advocacy as a core management function, and digs into its own pockets to pay for professionally run, full time staffed advocacy / lobbying efforts, AND avails itself of all of the tools and options (lobbying firms, candidate support etc.) that the private sector uses, we will remain at a distinct disadvantage and find ourselves more often than not on the short end of the stick.

The more arrows you have in your quiver, the more you increase your chances of bringing home food, and so we should, of course, continue to make the case, and we should continue to lobby the public, organize ourselves and do whatever else we can, but we need to play the political system by the rules that exist, whether we like them or not (and yes, 501 c 3 nonprofits CAN do all of this if they will incorporate 501 c 4 structures, establish PACs and Section 527 organizations / funds and abide by the rules just like the private sector does).

One final point - we need to somehow strengthen the connection between arts administors and artists. If artists were more involved in the struggle to make the case, if they were, for example, willing to do benefits to help fund real advocacy, the arts could raise literally millions of dollars and fund a formidable national, state and local advocacy / lobbying presence that would help us to protect what we have, and to meaningfully engage in all those areas Bill Ivey and Bob Lynch suggest (and more)as part of our strategy to achieve our victories.

This subject is far more complex than the space allows here. Thank you again to all of the particpants in this blog.

Posted by: Barry Hessenius at March 11, 2005 09:06 AM

It is a mistake to ask artists to give their work for good causes when they are at the bottom of the heap. While some artists are wealthy many live and work at or below the poverty line. An engineer graduates with the expectation of earning $70,000 per year. Artists are told "get a job."

I look forward to reading the Rand report on the visual arts to see how truthful we can be about the needs of artists.

The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation has a book "On the Needs of Visual Artists" that should be read.

I love Arts Journal because it opens the arts world to all.

Posted by: Charles Hankin at March 11, 2005 09:51 AM

To Bill Ivey's "final thoughts" in this stimulating discussion (for which I thank Doug McLennan), let me add a few of my own regarding the key term of the question guiding it—"the arts." Most will agree that we are not talking about the culinary arts here—or the martial arts, industrial arts, or graphic arts. We are discussing the "fine arts," as I noted in my post of March 9. One of the problems in making a case for "the arts" is that the term has become so debased that it no longer has any real meaning.

The American Society for Aesthetics (the professional association of philosophers of art), for example, begins its definition of "the arts" by citing some of the traditional forms, then a few "[postmodern] additions," plus "various aspects of popular culture." "Aspects of popular culture"?—how did that get into a purported definition of "the arts"?

These days, "the arts" can refer to virtually anything. But don't take my word for it. In the words of Thomas McEvilley, a noted professor of art history at Rice University: "It seems pretty clear by now that more or less anything can be designated as art. The question is, Has it been called art by the ‘art system' [the artworld]?" And Roberta Smith, a senior critic at the New York Times, has declared: "If an artist says it's art, it's art."

Speaking of the Times—one would expect its daily section entitled "The Arts" (especially the front page of that section) to be devoted to the forms traditionally subsumed under that term, and to the (bogus, in my view) modernist and postmodernist forms that have been invented in the name of art. Well, one would be wrong. How about articles and reviews on non-fiction books, documentary films, and television programs covering such subjects as history, politics, sports, business, and science (with no connection to the arts)—in particular, on baseball, child molestation, Hitler, and cystic fibrosis, among other topics? (For further examples, search for "Appendix C" in Aristos, at www.aristos.org.) "The Arts, Briefly," a recently instituted column in the Times, also includes coverage of such non-arts topics.

Then there is the legislation that established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, which began with the phrase "The term ‘the arts' includes, but is not limited to"—an "open-sesame" if ever there was one—before citing a laundry list of such "major art forms" as costume and fashion design, television, radio, and video, in addition to the traditional arts.

In 1950, when defining one's terms was still somewhat in vogue, the philosopher Lionel Ruby advised in an introductory logic textbook: "If we desire to avoid obfuscation and discussions which move at cross-purposes, we must give definite and precise meanings to our terms." Advocates for the arts ought to heed Ruby's exhortation before attempting to make a "better case for the arts."

Posted by: Louis Torres at March 11, 2005 01:34 PM

I happened upon this discussion only yesterday and pressed print to kill a few more trees. I took it home and read the comments of the many panelists without realizing that I had failed to get most of the earlier commments so my references miss the starting point from most of those contributing.

Several big picture comments come to mind, but for brevity I will offer only a couple of short comments.

1. The conversations continually uses an outdated and pejorative term "nonprofit". Several years ago I started challenging all who would listen on this point. Our legal documents do mention "not-for-profit" but the real term of art that is embedded in the 501c3 letters is that we are "public benefit" corporations. Allowing our field to be known by the negative is digging the proverbial trench that we must first crawl out of before we make our case. I encourage all to remember that Ford Motor, Microsoft, and General Electric are legitimately "not-for-public-benefit" corporations. Let's claim the public benefit sector that is ours to claim.

2. Several comments pit the arts case against the case of other groups. I doubt the Transportation Dept. assails the arts when seeking thier own support. We must make our points on our own turf, and not focus on what else is being held up as "higher needs". We should also avoid overstating our case. In one instance a contributor wrote that the public was either passionate, mildly interested, or not acquainted withthe value of the arts. Our objective to this writer was to find those minimally acquainted and show them the values they have missed. It is also possible that many who do know of our programs and products are not interested. We need not appeal to all. Making the case that we are right for all is arrogant. America is an incresingly pluralistic society and the breadth of our intersts color the arts and culture as we know it. The heritage of the past still has great merit for some and little interest to others. Our programs reach across many boundaries but there are those who find all of them lacking when set aside a golf game or a backpacking trip or gardening. It is a disservice to say that we can serve all people. We serve many people well and often, but not all. The niche we fill is huge and the numbers that Rand is loath to accept do defend a scale of support that needs to be rational. We should stand along with other programs not on top of them.

3. The comments that I read failed to address vituosity. Innovation and pluralistic service recieved significant comment, but excellence can be an end unto itself as well. The ability to present extraordinary high standards isan achievement and should be honored and promoted.

4. The arts is a social commerce activity between an originator/creator/interpretter and a receiver/audience. The experince of that commerce is unique to each experience. When pressed for outcome-based defenses, we shortchange the very field we engage in. We are generally in the first camp, but the vast majority of those served by the arts are on the back side - the receivers - we should be loath to control how they view the arts.

5. Program expansion and growth are not objecitves but options that extends the need for resources. A sound case can be made that the arts have a great deal to offer within the macro scale they now operate at, and that imminent future growth is not an attractive option. The arts need to serve within their means. Development costs in organizations need to shrink to allow the arts, not expand.

Alwin Nikolais gave a now famous speech many years ago to Dance/USA's national roundtable in which he noted that the emergence of government funding sources during his lifetime may have hurt the developmnet of the arts. The demands for "accountability" embedded in public support created cost centers he did not previously have. In the end when he looked over a 20-year span of his activities, he felt he had more creative options before the support arrrived. He now felt the obligations of an institution rather than the drive of a creator. He challenged the audience of artists to take bakc their field, unfortunately for him the national Roundatable on Dance was populated almost entirely by artists managers, those utilizing the resources that might have gone to the dnacers. It is fair to say that, prior to the growth of local arts support, government support never kept up with the cost structures that they imposed. It cost more to take the money than the grant value.

6. During the "culture wars", I felt we should have lobbied to kill the NEA rather than keep it alive. It represented so minor a piece of the support puzzle that its ficasl impact would not have been noticed, but we allowed those wars to give voice to the nay sayers about the arts when they had "no skin in the game". We hurt the image and status of a profound vocation by letting it wallow in the muddy wake of those politicians who chose to make it the whipping boy of other issues. We lacked field leadership. We lacked field integrity. I read the note about Wily Coyote and thought that amusing note was actually not totally accurate. We are more often the Road Runner - focusing more on racing with all our might to avoid being hit, rather than getting something done.

There I went on far too long. I enjoyed taking time to think about the topics and appreciate the input of the many who put this togehter andc gave of their time to share the ideas.

On the main point I would revert to the FDR Fireside chat straegy. When FDR discovered the power of radio, he recognized a medium where he could share his message to the masses, but that the masses were not receiving it that way. They were alone or with their familiy in their living rooms. It was an intimate one-on-one approach to mass communication. We win our battles by doing great work, being honest, sharing the outcome, and having audience/recievers tout our accomplishments andprograms for us wherever possible. We are bit players in live, but what is life for but to have all the components. Let's be content to find our share of the whole and make great use of it.

Posted by: Andrew Bales at March 11, 2005 02:25 PM

Barry has a point, but the reverse is also true. What if more arts administrators were artists? Then we could volunteer our artwork to support the cause. Or, we could use our elevated salaries to join The Arts Action coalition at Americans for the Arts and get some real lobying going. Barry is also right that one chief recipient of the arts message must be local and federal elected officials. Jim points out that they give to their constituents, so it is important that we make ourselves known to the politicians and that we donate to their campaigns in any way possible. One person said that, in their county, a strange pickup truck in the parking lot of a school board meeting meant there was a serious issue to discuss. We need to be that unknown voice that makes sure it is heard.

Posted by: Bitsy Bidwell at March 11, 2005 02:53 PM

I think there have been some excellent suggestions so far. It seems most potential solutions have been geared towards a national scope. I'd like to encourage all to read Jim Kelly's post on retail advocacy (if you haven't already). Maybe the best way to reach more people, and particularly get more youth involved in the arts, is to take what been offered at the national and applying the same concepts through local efforts. I think most of us engage in the arts, and engage others in the arts in our communities. You can't set a star atop the Christmas tree without the tree, and we don't build buildings from the top down (although it would be interesting to see someone try). Local leaders know (or should know) their communities, and want to serve to make them better. We can engage in policy decisions at the national level, but perhaps the easiest way to do this is to work our way up from local communities. Communities exist in all sizes, whether it be a small rural town to a large urban city, each with its own levels of arts development. Some communities may not be able to support anything more than a small organization whereas other may support several very large arts organizations and many smaller ones. Maybe all we need is a little shift in the why of why we ask for the funds we do. Working from the local to state to federal levels can help broaden the base of political leaders supporting the arts and create an upward drive for greater support of the arts. If local leaders become arts supporters, and convey what the arts are doing in their communities and how state support would help the communities and therefore, the state, your more likely to get state leaders on board. The same principle applies moving from state to national. Conversely, using a top-down push could potentially result in state and local leaders feeling pressured to find a way to support the arts without knowing how they are or can truly affect their communities (people can also get very defensive about their turf if prodded or pushed). Support provided to the arts will not likely be used as effectively as it could in this scenario. If we want to have the arts be a larger part of American culture, government support (through financial support or legislation) is a key part of conveying its importance to the American public.

Some further thoughts on influence. If Alan Greenspan were to say the dollar is weakening and will decline over the next year, people would listen. Maybe some would rethink their travel plans overseas, others may convert their U.S. dollars into a stronger foreign currency. If the government allocates more funds to the arts and has more arts advocates, the public will see, listen, and react accordingly. Many in the public might not have a clue if next year the arts got more funding (even a large amount like $25Bn), but there would individuals or groups that would notice who have access to the public. Eventually, people would get the message, what the message would be depends on who delivers it. The public would then respond (either taking a closer look at the arts and maybe the arts would become more important in culture or protesting and arts funding would drop back down). If we start at the community level and develop a broader base of arts supporters, the likelihood a positive reaction would occur in the public from an increase in arts funding is much higher than starting at the national level and seeing how the public reacts (guessing and hoping they will be supportive and take a closer look at the arts).

Posted by: Derek at March 11, 2005 03:29 PM

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This weeklong weblog is now closed, but will remain on-line as an archive of our conversation. In addition, the entries and reader comments are available for download in Adobe Acrobat format, suitable for reading on-screen or printing. You will need the free Acrobat reader software to open the files below:

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Ben Cameron
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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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