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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

The Big Begged Question

I think Glenn Weiss is right about not attending enough to the ways most Americans connect with the arts every day -- fashion, graphic design, architecture, and so on. It's interesting that these activities have mostly not organized themselves on a non-profit basis at all...Hence, perhaps, the lack of attention from those of us caught up in the well-being of cultural nonprofits.

A quick hand grenade to Ben: I think it's been many years since the non-profit sector has been able to claim any real across-the-board, categorical, artistic superiority when compared to for-profit arts companies. I think financial pressures are to blame, not the absence of artistic vision or lofty standards. For a minute just think about the number of Mozart festivals, the annual flood of Nutcracker productions, the search for yet another Impressionist blockbuster...and, even in theater, conservative seasons featuring one Sam Shepard and, of course, the requisite August Wilson in February. There are always sparklers that light up here and there, but it's pretty hard to characterize the non-profit sector as a bastion of experimentation and creativity these days. And the same challenges, with slightly different causes, are right in the face of for-profit arts managers. They're being forced by parent companies to chase shareholder value and quarterly earnings to the exclusion of long-term artist development and risk taking. Everybody working for record companies here in Nashville complains about it. Years ago, when Goddard Leiberson was President of Columbia Records, he had sufficient creative elbow room to maintain a classical division even when it didn't help the bottom line. There are only a couple of executives left in the entire global record business who possess that kind of freedom today. That's why the HBO model is so interesting to me: they've basically created a demand for a modern-day "subscription series" by creating a powerful image of their brand as hip, cool, cutting edge, creative, etc. They have moved beyond ratings (beyond "butts in seats"), and seem to have freed themselves up to take some pretty heady programming risks. Maybe we can learn something here.

But, it's hard to make the case for non-profit cultural organizations today by arguing that their non-profit status automatically positions them at the front line of American institutional artistry...

Hey, do you want to know what I think the most-significant future problem will be? Tax reform! How do we make certain that upcoming revenue-neutral tax reform doesn't eliminate deductions for cultural nonprofits on the basis that there's insufficient demonstration of public benefit? These policy conversations are beginning right now; how do we make certain our point of view is at the table early on?

Posted by bivey at March 7, 2005 02:14 PM


I suppose this is a bit of a digression but it has long been my belief that the arts in general could benefit from the sort of national advertising campaign the United Way crafted with the NFL. Seeing an athlete better known for his blocking and tackling prowess interacting with small children not only humanizes the athlete, it puts a face on and brings health and human services into our consciousness.
Approximately half of my school's income is derived through fundraising, but without advertising there would be no programming to support. Effective arts fundraising utilizes both economic and educational impact studies as well as the experiential enrichment gained from participation in any arts activity -- whether as a "do-er" or an observer. Think what the power of a national multi-media campaign could do in raising the level of consciousness of the necessity for the arts in a balanced, multi-faceted society. If we believe that the arts are the keepers and perpetuators of our society, we should ensure their success in the same way for-profit organizations do -- through strong marketing and advertising.

Posted by: Sally Everhardus at March 8, 2005 07:30 AM

Alien vs. Art

Perhaps we are too critical of the public because we perceive their motivations to be the same as ours. While I will not disagree with Ben Cameron (the acting was awful and the script was even worse for Aliens vs. Predator), no one is asking why the film was a hit. This was not a coordinated effort by anti-artists to detract value from other films. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most of the audience for the movie was let down by its dramatic aspects, but captivated by the visual. H. R. Giger’s Oscar award winning work designing the aliens and their spacecraft has endured two decades of scrutiny by the public for the very reason that it is quality art. The movie companies are simply milking what was once artistically daring as a source of continued revenue. This is not too different from how Bill Ivey characterizes much of the nonprofit community.

Implying that people who pay money to see a movie such as Alien vs. Predator do not appreciate art only creates a division and the sense that the self-proclaimed artistic community is truly elitist. No one learns to run before being shown how to walk. The practical arts advocate takes the positive and does not spend time bemoaning the artistically uneducated status of the populace. Introduce the visually-oriented Alien vs. Predator fan to the full body of Giger’s work, segue that into other surrealists, show them the full collection of your local modern/contemporary museum, ask them to volunteer at the next function, become a member, then a donor, etc…

The point is this: In today’s society, most people are inundated with pop culture and receive little exposure to that which is not market researched. Sometimes, nay most of the time, we are better off working the audience backwards from the commercial to the uniquely daring. Moreover, if it seems impossible to figure out why people value an experience, you are probably not experiencing it in the manner. We are all idiot savants in our own way; aliens to each other.

P.S. I agree that we are suffering from “wag the dog” when it comes to governmental policies. Here we are discussing philanthropy and individual involvement when political policies such as tax reform and Sarbanes-Oxley extended to nonprofits may make these all moot points for many organizations.

Posted by: Jack Bradway at March 8, 2005 08:51 AM

Yes, I agree with you Jack. For-profit films that succeed artistically and commercially have, as of late, found an ingenious way to engage and educate their consumers and audience.

The fully loaded DVD has made rather good film critics out of a large segment of the society. The director's commentary, deleted scenes, and the "making of" featurettes engage people to an incredible extent on just what filmmaking is.

It gives people an expanded lexicon and a way of constructively talking about how films are put together. Some of them are amazingly in depth.

Posted by: Art Hennessey at March 9, 2005 09:19 AM

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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

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President, Americans for the Arts more

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Director, Bolz Center, University of Wisconsin more

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President, National Arts Strategies more

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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.

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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
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