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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

So let's get real - continued...

I take all Bill’s points about the partial view of cultural life that an overly narrow focus the nonprofit sector implies. Bill’s insistence both on a more plural definition of cultural activity and a commensurately deeper understanding of its political and social context is salutary. But the nonprofit arts sector is still a big area of cultural life and of civic life and one we need to get right.

One of my fears is that the arguments developed and deployed to secure public funding for the nonprofit sector of the arts – and that have indeed channeled significant sums into the sector and often against the odds – have left it expanded but weakened, with a feverish bloom on it rather than the deep glow of good health. Much of the funding that has gone into e.g. capital projects has increased the sector’s fixed cost base faster than it has increased its access to earned or contributed income required to maintain that base; and the increasingly directive policy orientation of foundations and public funders (though not of individual philanthropists) has led to under-funded programmatic expansion in non-core areas.

The broadly ‘instrumental’ arguments cut more ice both because they are quantifiable and because they align the arts to policy goals such as economic development and education that resonate more deeply with policy makers and their stake-holders than does support for culture per se.

But they provide the rationale for forms of expenditure that may not actually encourage a vibrant cultural life but inadvertently weaken it. The net effect has been to leave the nonprofit part of the sector weakly capitalized and over-extended. Meanwhile, as the RAND report points out, the level of demand has not matched the expansion in supply, and the competition for audience not just within the nonprofit cultural sector but between the sector as a whole and other demands on leisure time and discretionary expenditure, grows ever fiercer.

Is not part of the preoccupation with re-grounding the arguments for public and philanthropic funding for culture driven by our awareness that, uncomfortable though it is to say, the nonprofit cultural sector will inevitably need to contract if there is to be some sustainable equilibrium; and that the current arguments in support of culture do not appear to give us very nuanced criteria for managing that contraction and managing the tough choices with which arts administrators and arts funders are being faced?

Posted by aellis at March 8, 2005 08:28 AM


Kudos to Adrian Ellis for bravely turning some of the blame for the arts’ current justification struggles back on the arts themselves. After all, it’s not just the success of those instrumental arguments with funders that has led to the overbuilt, undercapitalized situation he observes—it’s also the mysteriously widespread conviction among trustees and leaders of arts organizations that the right move is always, if you can somehow pull it off, to expand.

The museum building boom of the last decade or so may be the most visible sign (see Eric Gibson’s piece this week in the Wall Street Journal), but theater and dance companies have also been adding spinoff spaces and moving to larger houses, and orchestras continue to press their musicians for longer seasons even as they struggle to sell the tickets to the current ones.

Adrian and the Rand report note that demand hasn’t kept pace with supply, and the audience literature cements the point: the NEA’s 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that the percentage of adults attending the arts held pretty steady over the last 20 years (“no statistically significant differences,” except in literature). It’s just that that audience is being diluted in our ever-filling cup of culture. But we still hear arguments, even from this terrific cyber-assemblage, which locate the problem outside the arts (extrinsic benefits, why not extrinsic blame?): that the decline in government and corporate support and private donations has left arts orgs on shaky ground and forced them to take the battle to earned revenue, and that the “demands on leisure time and discretionary expenditure” (this from Adrian) have taken their toll on arts groups’ balance sheets.

Is it possible that it’s simpler than that? If we take Adrian’s own point seriously, don’t we have to ask whether the growth of the arts is, in a sense, the only problem? If the funding sources which fueled (but perhaps didn’t motivate) the tremendous growth of “product” in the arts marketplace over the last few decades hadn’t done so—in other words, if growth had been constrained by, or at least proportional to, audience demand and earned revenue—then the arts today wouldn’t need to worry about how to make the best case for themselves in order to attract even more support.

I’m sympathetic to the obvious point that nonprofit arts organizations shouldn’t have to wait for audience demand to validate their plans. And it’s only natural to get excited about the expansion of a sector we all love. But Adrian reminds us that sustainability matters too, and in the long run matters more.

Meanwhile, to the wish-list of research called for by some of the panelist-bloggers, let’s add that somebody ought to quantify the growth on the supply side and try to put in a historical context. Where’s the foundation willing to support that?

Posted by: Peter Linett at March 9, 2005 09:46 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
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.

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