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

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March 08, 2005

Other comparisons

Bill Ivey makes an excellent point that those of us in the public arts arena, to our constant frustration, encounter almost daily: the implication that the arts are simply not as important or deserving of public support as other "essential" services. While we in the arts field believe the arts serve a public purpose, "most gatekeepers are unconvinced."

And it's precisely because of this attitude that we are engaged in this blog. The gatekeepers are policy makers, like David Obey or my own county council members. They love the arts, ...as long as health and human service needs are addressed first. And of course, we hear, they have to deal with education, affordable housing, law, safety and justice, transporation, and water management. After those essential, more important services are taken care of, they'll see what's left for the arts.

I have a colleague, the director of a municipal arts agency, who made his agency's annual budget pitch to his City Council immediately following a group that was working to reduce infant mortality rates in minority populations.

Do the arts have a moral claim for public support? And if, so, what is the basis of that claim?

I suggest we examine two other publicly funded activities: libraries and parks. The benefits of both are instrumental and intrinsic. Few would argue that libraries and parks are not important services of government. Democracy cannot flourish without an informed, discerning, educated citizenry. And everyone needs recreation, a place to play ball, picnic, gather, exercise. Reading and exercising primarily benefit the individual, but in subtle, intangible ways, each contributes to the collective health of a community.

I have never heard a public official suggest that we have too many libraries, or that libraries should raise significant portions of their budgets in the private sector. Libraries may have to absorb budget cuts when city budgets get tight, they may have to reduce hours of operation, or lay-off staff, but they are acknowledged to be important community assets. Last year, Seattle tried to eliminate its bookmobile to cut costs, and the public outcry was immediate and loud. The bookmobile was funded.

Three years ago, King County told its residents that it could no longer afford to operate its extensive parks system. Voter approved initiatives had stripped the county of much of its discretionary revenue and the county simply lacked the resources to keep the parks open. Once again the outcry was immediate. The county was accused of punishing voters for approving the tax reducing initiatives. Hours of operation were reduced, the ownership of some parks was transfered to suburban cities, but no parks actually closed.

Where was the outcry when California practically eliminated its state-wide arts council?

The arts should have the same claim to public support as libraries and parks. Maybe more so. Libraries open our minds, parks keep us physically healthy, and the arts fuel imagination. How can we possibly address the challenges of the future without the power of creativity. Who's helping us exercise that muscle?

Posted by jkelly at March 8, 2005 02:34 PM


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Ben Cameron
Executive director of Theatre Communications Group more

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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

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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

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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