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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 11, 2005

The Long Goodbye

Difficult to keep up with the sheer volume and hold down the day job. It’s also difficult to respond in a considered fashion to points raised by fellow bloggers, rather than using them as the pretext for pre-cooked and deep-frozen reactions. But I tried, honest…

I am convinced that the territory covered over the past few days, both by the Doug-anointed blogotariat and by the people in the right hand column who have been heckling us, is of fundamental importance. And artsjournal, simply by aggregating English language hard news about the arts internationally in the way it does, has afforded all of us over the past few years the opportunity to observe trends in a way that would not otherwise have been possible without vast research capacity. Certainly my view of these issues has been profoundly informed by having artsjournal hit me in the face every day when I log on. Mmm…not another mid-western orchestra in trouble; not another new museum feasibility plan by the Guggenheim repudiated by local politicians etc. etc.

Equally, I am sure that, because most news is bad news, headline stories tell an overly down-beat tale. As someone once said to me: “Can you imagine anything worse than being trapped inside the world described by the headlines in your local newspaper?” Well, artsjournal is my local newspaper.

Doug suggested on Wednesday that there was a diagnostic consensus in our ramblings and then asked whether any of us had prescriptions to hand. Here are some thoughts that this blogathon prompted.

First, policy wonks like me should to be better able to define that vibrant cultural community than we are. And we should have a better analytical understanding of what the drivers are: why capital investment is unhealthy for us unless matched by operational funding, like carbohydrates without vitamins; why there needs to be a balance between investment in amateur and professional activities; what levels of investment in arts educational activities etc. etc. constitute a balanced cultural ecology. We lack the causal models that help other policy communities hone and explore areas of agreement and contention. The data we collect always seems to be for advocacy rather than analysis, leaving advocacy under-served by the absence of analysis. So one thing that the policy wonks can do is improve the technical understanding of the sector. We are, to use Bill’s analogy the ‘stomach rubbers’ and we need to rub more vigorously.

Second, there seems to be a consensus that lobbyists and advocacy bodies -- Bill’s ‘head patters’ -- need to find a more compelling public language for the core experiences that we know are what draws us towards cultural activities and that also engage many if not all funders and they get a bit more rigorous in their impact methodologies.

Head patters and stomach rubbers alike know that much of the current language of legitimation sets the bar of public accountability low and at a clumsy angle to the core purposes and value of many cultural organizations. A language that more accurately reflects why cultural activity engages is also more likely in turn to engage decision makers. The less authentic it is, the more likely it is to generate expectations than cannot be fulfilled in the longer term – and risk a backlash for which I fear the head patters will blame the uppity stomach rubbers.

Third, arts funders, public and private, should be more responsible and more attuned to the long term impact of different forms of cultural support. Foundations, who are supposed to be society’s thought leaders, could lead the way on more of this stuff. I do not necessarily mean commissioning RAND XIV. Rather I mean thinking through the long term impact on the ecology on the sector of different forms of cultural investment. In particular they should think through the infantilizing impact of overly directive funding and the destabilizing impact of the emphasis on program funding rather than core activities, and the resulting under-funded expansion.

Fourth, arts administrators should not be as easily seduced as they have been by the trappings of the civic agenda; have the self-discipline to remain focused on their core mission; and be a little more leery than they have been of seeking roles and responsibilities (and a scale of operation) that diminish their ability to take the risks that creative endeavor requires.

It is very difficult for any of us to do any of these things if the climate of opinion is hostile or indifferent. The value of this sort of dialogue is that it helps climatic change. As John Maynard Keyenes famously but succinctly put it “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back… Sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

Over and out.

Posted by aellis at March 11, 2005 06:32 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:

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

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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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