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

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March 07, 2005

Making the Case...

At the outset of our conversation about making the case for the arts, we need to remind ourselves that we're not talking about THE ARTS, as in the whole spectrum of art making, but rather about that part of the arts system that makes a moral claim on philanthropy and public largess. If one subtracts most art galleries, boutique literary presses, independent film makers, record companies, cable and broadcast television networks, Broadway theaters -- all of which are for-profit and do not make much use of the kind of case making the Rand literature review is talking about -- we end up with a conversation about the needs of non-profit cultural organizations and the kinds of arguments that might encourage foundations and government leaders to give money. Gathering evidence and argument to justify public and philanthropic support for non-profit cultural organizations has engaged many smart people over the years, and the task remains an ongoing challenge, but it's important to remember that gifts to cultural nonprofits don't, in aggregate, possess the "oomph" required to really improve the character of our overall arts system. If we, as the subset of citizens most interested in culture, want to increase the vibrancy of the arts system in order to better serve the interests of artists and the public, we need to engage an entirely different set of issues than those that Rand is talking about. For example, we need to think about the FCC and media regulation, and about the way copyright extension does or doesn't work for artists and citizens, and why networks like HBO with "Angels in America" and other spectaculars are eating public television's lunch. Taking on these sorts of issues in order to insure the continuing vitality of the U.S. cultural scene requires plenty of case making, but these real issues, problems, and their solutions lie well outside the scope of what Rand is talking about. So, I guess I'm arguing that at some point we need a bigger conversation how we find ways to intervene in order to improve the arts landscape -- in this day and age, gifts and grants to nonprofits just won't do the job.

But, now that that's off my chest, I'm always willing to think about the needs of the non-profit arts. A question: why is the Rand report surfacing just now? Why did Wallace want to commission such a study? My guess is that there exists a widespread feeling in the non-profit cultural community that revenue streams have about topped out given the persuasive power of arguments used to date. Get me new arguments; these old ones are worn out! Well, ok, but the non-profit cultural sector has expanded dramtically since the 1960s, when the big NGOs, philanthropy advocates, and then government agencies began to encourage growth through gifts and matching grants. Yes, we may just need new arguments, but we also may be pushing against the outer limits of aggregated public sympathy for the demands of the non-profit community. Institutions, agencies, and individuals have plenty of worthy destinations for empathy and charitable dollars. And, yes, we're a good destination, but not the only one and probably not even the most deserving when we think about tidal waves, HIV, and the like. So, maybe our problem is bigger and more basic than what can be addressed by the quality of our case making.

And, just to continue my early-morning, post-four-martini-weekend rant, I'm not all that thrilled by a return to advancing "intrinsic value," even as it's been dressed up in a new outfit by the very smart folks at Rand. To me case making is about language and ideas that make sense to other people, not just to us. I've been in plenty of meetings in which the secretary of the symphony board from some midwestern city tried to convince a member of Congress that classical music "uplifts the soul." I prefer talking about economic impact and reading test scores, even if I cross my fingers and toes while I proudly "make the case."

And, by the way, do we think advocates who are trying to raise money for environmental protection or medical research only make completely documented claims? Give me a break! All's fair in love and war, and quite a bit is fair in fundraising...Bring it on!

Posted by bivey at March 7, 2005 06:53 AM


Last week I noticed and scanned the article about the Rand Corporation's recent study on The Arts. It's a good thing to focus attention on the arts, yet perhaps the real problem hasn't been and isn't being addressed. "The arts landscape" is definitely in need of help, but I think the problem has less to do with presentation (this show at that place earns 'x' amount of dollars) and more to do with education (creating interest and desire in the public - for whom artists create in the first place). By focusing on education people will become less intimidated by art (i.e. visual, performing, etc.), and so they will want to experience the art because they will understand and connect with it. I say educate the public (build it) and they will come.

real job of educating is to create interest.

Posted by: jonsson at March 7, 2005 09:40 AM

Stewardship- the foundation of a nonprofit charity seems to be lost in the desire to gain audience. I remember overhearing an arts manager discussing with a pier about who was "grantable." If the "arts" world is judged by who can fill a room or will look good on an application then we have lost the whole game. The "sports" world has many success' because they offer the best of their game. The public may not know all the reasons why an artist made something but in the end they sure will figure out what interests and excites them.

Is it not important to let the market decide what it wants? If a show fails then try something else or find a different audience.

Posted by: Charles Hankin at March 7, 2005 01:54 PM

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Ben Cameron
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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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