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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 07, 2005

The public view

I head a local arts agency, funded by county government, serving one of the largest counties in the country by population and land area. At its cultural center is Seattle, known for its high tech, biotech, aerospace, caffiene fueled, creative economy. Seattle is surrounded by sprawling suburban and rural communities. Those to the east are fairly prosperous; to the south, not. We are a Pacific rim community with a richly diverse population. In one small neighborhood is south Seattle, more than 40 distinct ethnic populations, with different languages and traditions, co-exist.

Our community is a microcosm of the national blue-red divide. The rural areas are anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government. The urban areas are much more tolerant and liberal. Seattleites tend to support school levies, parks levies, and transportation projects. The more conservative surrounding areas tend to question the wisdom of every tax-funded program. This is my world.

I agree with Bill Ivey that there's a whole host of policy issues that could positively benefit the arts that are not being addressed in our usual discussions, but, at the risk of being overly mundane, I must say that the one issue that is of paramount importance to our cultural community is funding. Private and public support for the arts are in decline, and we need to make a better case for arts to reverse that trend.

To me this isn't an esoteric or intellectual discussion. My agency is currently mired in a battle in the state legislature regarding the future of arts funding in King County, Washington. Every day I have to respond to inquiries from legislators about the value of the arts. I have to be very pragmmatic in my approach.

We have used all the familiar arguments: economic benefits, education benefits, life-long learning, improved test scores, providing creative opportunities to at-risk youth, enhancing sense of place, community building, exploring creativity as a path to personal fulfillment, the value of memorable experiences.

Whether we like it or not, in the public realm the instrumental arguments work best. Policy makers can be persuaded with good economic impact numbers. They respond well to the arguments about educational benefits. They like hearing about improved test scores; they understand that local festivals encourage people to inteact with their neighbors. Since policy makers represent the public, they want to hear the public case. So we give to Caesar what is Caesar's.

I don't believe the "case for the arts" can be made to the general public. Our duty to the public is not to explain to them why they should enjoy the arts, not to tell them the many ways it will improve them as individuals. Our duty is to involve them in the arts on some level in the belief that they too will experience the benefits of the arts first-hand and will become new advocates for the cause. In other words, we have stop talking about the arts and start doing art.

We have limited public dollars at our disposal, but we're constantly asked to support another study, plan, reseach project, etc. Instead, my agency made a conscious decision to support art projects that increase audiences exposure to and participation in the arts. Most of us agree that you will never appreciate the intrinsic value of the arts if you've never experienced the arts. So let's dedicate ourselves to increasing people's exposure to the arts in all their permutations.

Several years ago, we began sending Seattle-based dance artists to rural and suburban communities to perform in high school auditoriums, community centers, and performance venues. We believed that the best way to recruit new audiences was simply to show them the work.

This fall we are launching a site-specific performance festival. A local playwright is creating a theater piece to be performed in department store furniture showroom. After all, you already have a living room set, bedroom, kitchen, dining room. The actors can easily move from "set to set." The departments store is crowded on weekends, an instant audience for new theatre work. If it's as brilliant and creative, as I suspect it will be, maybe, just maybe, some will say, "hey, that was fun; let's go to the theatre on Friday night!"

Sometimes the case has to be made one at a time.

Posted by jkelly at March 7, 2005 11:42 AM


The skill that we don't have in engaging audience is a deep sense and methodology for collaboration. We are trained and know from experience that great art is often made inspite of obstacles like "Angels in America". Our methodology as artists and producers grows out of that experience, but it often fails in the fact that the we don't know our audience and potential audience well enough to engage as collaborators in the creative process. In bringing our work to them, we have to also bring to them the potential that we will allow them into our process, that we will see them as an equal shareholder in what we can create. Since collaboration is a secondary value in the American artist ethic even between artists, we have a hard time even discussing what it would mean to be in a collaborative relationship with the public that are or could be audience.

Posted by: Ed Noonan at March 7, 2005 12:36 PM

The plan to perform a site-specific “theater piece” in a department store furniture showroom as a means of exposing people to the arts is an ill-conceived gimmick at best—especially if it is thought that it might cause some people to exclaim, “Hey, that was fun; let’s go to the theater Friday night!” People go to the theater to see a play because they have reason to believe that its setting, plot, characters, and theme will engage them. They go for the heightened sense of psychological reality that only a well-crafted play can provide. They may legitimately wish to be entertained as well, but never that alone. They do not ordinarily go to see plays to have “fun”—an important part of life, to be sure, but one that for good reason is more likely to be found in such locations as amusement parks and playgrounds.

Posted by: Louis Torres at March 7, 2005 02:41 PM

I think that the KEY, as you eloquently discover is "we have stop talking about the arts and start doing art."

As far back as the late 1970s, when I was an art student in Seattle, there was already a "divide" and not just rural but also urban (the most famous example of which was that Wallingford neighborhood that "rebelled" against the Seattle Arts Commission "mandated" public art in their neighborhood and erected their own).

Inviting and having the public participate in the arts is indeed the road to bridge that and any divide. In other words, we have stop talking about the arts and start doing art.

Posted by: F. Lennox Campello at March 7, 2005 03:09 PM

Louis Torres comments:

"People go to the theater to see a play because they have reason to believe that its setting, plot, characters, and theme will engage them. They go for the heightened sense of psychological reality that only a well-crafted play can provide. They may legitimately wish to be entertained as well, but never that alone."

I would argue that Louis goes to the theatre for those reasons, even that I often go to the theatre for those reasons-- but not always. Sometimes I go because a friend is in the show or works for the theatre presenting the play, sometimes I go because my job requires it, or because I'm starting to feel ashamed that everyone has seen this show and I haven't. And I'm a "theatre person"

Until we stop assuming that our reasons for loving, attending and participating in the arts are the only valid reasons for loving, attending and participating in the arts, we will continue to miss great opportunities to show people what the arts can mean to them-- on their terms.

Posted by: Maureen at March 7, 2005 03:38 PM

Perhaps Jim's choice of “Hey, that was fun; let’s go to the theater Friday night!” wasn't quite what Louis would hope for in terms of drawing an audience, but what if the furniture shopper's response was "Hey, I just experienced a heightened sense of psychological reality - let's go to the theater for more"?

I don't think there's anything wrong with using gimmicks to expose people to the arts. The reason that some people aren't interested in the arts is that they don't know what they're missing. Giving them a sample is a much more effective way to expand your audience that trying to convince them that the arts are good for them.

Posted by: David at March 7, 2005 05:31 PM

Yes, you're exactly right. I find people are often "afraid" of their own creativity and imagination. If they can become engaged in some way (whether by performance in a furniture store, embellished fiberglass animals on the street, musical performance in a hospital lobby) in a quality experience, they may develop an interest and gain the confidence to participate. But it has to have substance, be good. Who said art has to be on in a theater or museum or concert hall?

Posted by: Jane Deschner at March 8, 2005 07:02 AM

On the contrary, I only ever go to the theater, concert, opera, ballet, or museum because it is fun - and I am a regular subscriber to all of the above. Perhaps a "heightened sense of psychological reality" is what is fun about the experience in the first place. I don't think fun and entertainment need to be divorced from the other intrinsic benefits discussed - I think they enhance them. I don't think we will ever convince new audiences to experience the arts because it is enlightening, spiritually moving, etc. if we can't also say "by the way, it will be fun."

Posted by: Briana Flinchbaugh at March 10, 2005 08:56 AM

I'm quite pleased Jim Kelly's organization focuses on increasing audiences exposure to and participation in the arts. Living in Seattle, I see the results of his labor every day. And I'm thankful to live in a vibrant and cultured community.

Posted by: Misti Hickling at March 10, 2005 02:40 PM

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