AJ Logo


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

« More Reader Mail... | Main | So let's get real - continued... »

March 08, 2005

Let's Get Real...

It's only possible to "make the case" for a moral claim on public support or philanthropy if there's general agreement that the sector making the claim serves the public purpose by enhancing quality of life. "Arts people" certainly agree that the arts serve the public interest, but most of the gatekeepers are unconvinced. For sectors like transportation, health care, environmental protection, or defense there exists a general understanding that each contributes to quality of life and that an investment of government or NGO funds will serve the public interest. Gatekeepers and policy leaders share no such understanding of the arts as a priority, so case-making arguments are often delivered into an unreceptive void. Five or six years ago I was talking to David Obey, a fire-breathing House Democrat and big supporter of the NEA. Obey said, "Now that we've got the deficit under control, we can appropriate funds for some of the 'grace notes' in life." I was happy to have his support, but I cringed, 'grace notes' are not the heart of the tune and can be readily passed over when the basic melody gets tough. But Obey's metaphor was on target; he would never have called Medicare a "grace note," but the arts don't have the stature of other areas of public policy that are assumed to be important to the public interest. If we want to modify this reality, our sector needs research that links citizen contact with a vibrant arts system to overall quality of life, so the health of our cultural, transportation, and health care systems are one day considered to be of equal value by policy leaders. This is a daunting task but I have come to see it as essential.

Second, it is problematic to be in the position of asserting a moral claim for art in relation to the public and philanthropic wallet when we're almost always only talking on behalf of the kind of art we happen to think is best. After all, Americans are deeply engaged in art, but it's North African hip-hop on satellite radio, vintage jazz on an I-Pod, a cool new suit, a CD from Starbucks, the hot new band at the local pub, some nice looking dishes from Pottery Barn, a Saturday afternoon rehearsal of an amateur bluegrass band, and an argument at the water cooler about the relative virtues of "Sideways" and "Million Dollar Baby." Sure, sometimes it's a night at the non-profit theater or a museum visit, but those engagements with our non-profit world are not where most Americans, most of the time, make or consume art. Too often, our case making suggest sternly that all these everyday creative connections are not real art, or real art engagement. We want money and attention directed at our sense of what is important in the spectrum of art making, and we often come off like missionaries trying to convert the unwashed even as we try to get them to help pay our bills. America's cultural mainstream is profoundly vernacular, so changing our approach means rethinking basic assumptions about value and artistic hierarchies -- another daunting challenge, but if we are going to connect art and art making with quality of life in order establish sufficient agreement on value to support our case, we've got to derive meaning from the way citizens really engage art every day. That's where art connects with quality of life and the public interest.

Posted by bivey at March 8, 2005 07:08 AM


Bill Ivey writes "Americans are deeply engaged in art, but it's North African hip-hop on satellite radio, vintage jazz on an I-Pod, a cool new suit, a CD from Starbucks, the hot new band at the local pub, some nice looking dishes from Pottery Barn, a Saturday afternoon rehearsal of an amateur bluegrass band, and an argument at the water cooler about the relative virtues of "Sideways" and "Million Dollar Baby."" Mr Ivey also writes "Let's Get Real...".

OK, let's get real. During the duration of this public blog between "people who care", the public radio station in the nation's capital, WETA-FM, will, for the first time in approximately 30 years, no longer feature "NPR News and Classical Music", but will instead feature "24/7 news" from NPR, the BBC, and the "World". While NPR's weekly "SymphonyCast" program (delayed broadcasts from "the great concert halls" of Europe and America, and features "about the personalities behind the classical music world") and weekly delayed broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic (including this week's planned broadcast of Beethoven's Symphony #9 [that's the one with the "Ode to Joy"] coupled with John Adams's Pulitzer Prize and thrice-Grammy Prize winning September 11 memorial "On the Transmigration of Souls") have now been scrubbed, stays of execution have been granted for a popular Folk Music program, "Traditions", and the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday afternoon "global" broadcasts. Excuse me, Mr Ivey, but did the Metropolitan Opera broadcast even one American opera last season, or have plans to broadcast "globally" one American opera next season? I think not.

Satellite radio and iPod's (and those nice plates from the Pottery Barn) might encompass your idea of the place of art in American life in the 21st century; but, as William Osborne astutely points out here, it does not encompass the European idea of art and classical music in the 21st century (or the Chinese and Asian ideas of art and classical music in the 21st century, as witnessed by the high-quality public broadcasting of classical music in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia. [Singapore, with its stunning new performing arts center shaped like two durians, now aspires to be the "Switzerland of Asia" both through its wealth, and as a haven for artists -- including classical artists -- from around the world]).

Remember team, "a great nation deserves great art". Just don't expect American citizens, old and young, to hear the musical component of this creativity on public radio stations. Or maybe the foundation world and the U.S. Department of Education can begin to distribute satellite radio receivers and iPods to inner city public students across the nation (beginning, of course, in select communities), as well as Concert Companions to middle-class teenagers. Or maybe Sony Entertainment, under its new Irish CEO, will be the first to develop a combined iPod, cell phone/television, and Concert Companion classical music hearing aid. (Concert Companions are a god-send to American executives and professionals attending classical music concerts, because they can now more easily sneak peaks of their television-cell phones while pretending to be consulting their Concert Companions.)

Tonight, instead of WETA-FM's Choral Masterpieces evening (including American choral masterpieces), perhaps I should try to find some North-African hip-hop on WPFW, before WPFW, a Pacifica station, also goes "news 24/7". [I will grant that WETA-FM, during its day-time hours, did use pre-21st and 20th century music as a drug to help listeners "get through the day when you're having one of those days". "Thank you" WETA-FM, for the abuse, of classical music].

Happy International Women's Day.

Posted by: Garth Trinkl at March 8, 2005 08:38 AM

Or perhaps you could tune into Minnesota Public Radio's KCMP 89.3 The Current, which recently went through a programming change, but not to all news. To an eclectic blend of independent pop and world and folk music. Music that is not readily heard on commercial radio. Exactly, in my opinion, what public radio is intended to do; provide a gateway and plug to a kind of artistic market gap, to art we couldn't find otherwise, because the market won't bear it as a consumer item.

And, yes, I would readily acknowledge my iPod, Satellite radio, and public radio as gateways to all kinds of creative expression, as are locally funded community radio stations like WORT 89.9 in Madison Wisconsin. The staid and canonical view that the lack of classical music on the dial indicates some kind of cultural gap or slide is exactly the kind of high brow snootiness that increases the gap between the non-profit arts and the general cultural consumer. Yes, sure, Mozart was a great artist, but so are Bill Frisell, Dr. Dre, and Tom Waits. And the latter three, arguably, as speaking more loudly and strongly to the general cultural consumer than our old friend Wolfgang is.

Posted by: David Pausch at March 8, 2005 11:56 AM

David, I guess you don't care that WETA-FM, in the nation's capital, also jettisoned "Creators from Carnegie Hall", "Music from Washington", "Music from the Hearts of Space", and "Millennium of Music"? (Love that "Car Talk", huh?) Or that Wayne Horwitz's new oratorio "Joe Hill" (featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, as well as Robin Holcomb, Danny Barnes, and Rinde Eckert) will join Raphael Mostel's and Stephen Paulus's new memorial works for the 60th anniversary of the Allied and Soviet liberations of Europe and the Central European Nazi Death Camps in not receiving broadcasts on public radio in the nation's capital. As for any forthcoming memorial works to U.S. service personnel killed in service overseas, those classical works, too, will not be broadcast on public radio in the nation's capital.

I stand by my staid and canonical view that classical music, especially the world premieres of newly composed American classical music -- whether full-evening works; symphonic works with electronics, non-Western instruments, or experimental acoustic instruments; concertos; orchestral song-cycles; overtures; and children's and family oriented works -- deserves exposure on our national system of public radios.

And at least Amadeus, unlike Dr Dre, kept his obscenity to his private letters.

Posted by: Garth Trinkl at March 8, 2005 02:04 PM

For good reason it is commonly understood that public sectors such as transportation contribute to the quality of our lives and serve everyone’s interest. After all, a bus is a bus and a train is a train, and everyone knows perfectly well that both are modes of transportation that enhance our daily lives. But what of art? What is it, and what role does it play in our lives?

Who can blame policy makers, not to mention ordinary citizens, for not fully appreciating that the arts are worthy of support when when virtually any object or activity is considered art just because someone in the artworld declares it to be?—which is what Bill Ivey does, in effect, when he implies that purchasing a “cool new suit” or “nice looking dishes from Pottery Barn” are among the ways people “engage art.”

Should not the present discussion on making the case for “the arts” be based on an understanding of the term “art” that is rooted in logic (not to mention common sense) so that we all know, really know, what it is what we are talking about, just as we do when we use the term “transportation”?

Posted by: Louis Torres at March 8, 2005 02:14 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

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:

Participant Entries (~880K, pdf)
Full text of the posts of our 11 invited participants.
Reader Comments (~900K, pdf)
Full text of reader comments posted to the site.

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

· Weblog Home
· The Question
· Participant Bios
· Reader Comments

Developed in partnership with
The Wallace Foundation

rss feed
(rss 2.0)

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.

Copyright ©
2005 ArtsJournal. All Rights Reserved