Identification, please

Show me your structural modelWhat are the keys to success in the art world? Some combination of hard work, smart early career choices, artistic talent, access to the connected and the gate-keepers, and a bit of serendipity. The same could be said of many professions. But it’s very hard to discern the relative importance of these ingredients. Research finds that those who have attained the greatest successes in creative fields tend to be more likely to think that merit is what got them there (in this they are not much different from the successful in other arenas), while the less successful think luck and other factors have more to do with it.

An optimistic view tends to believe that for all the random factors that influence success, in the end the very successful must in fact be the most worthy. Although the QWERTY design of keyboards arose from an effort to avoid the keys jamming in manual typewriters, and that a more rational arrangement of letters might better serve the key-less computer age, it might well be that QWERTY survives because it’s really not so bad,  and that if it really were bad, we would have moved on to some other keypad. The pessimist thinks we get stuck with all sorts of mediocre outcomes because of what happens to get adopted first – that QWERTY is crummy, that Justin Timberlake is a star because of the cumulative advantages that accrue to his childhood lucky breaks.

We have divergent views because we don’t have a good way of modelling success that could distinguish between the “actual talent” and the “lucky breaks” hypotheses. In the parlance of empirical social science, our models are underidentified, and the results we observe are consistent with multiple explanations. This is not really a problem that so-called “big data” can solve. Obtaining data on hundreds of thousands of artistic careers won’t get us around the fundamental problem. That many artists with a lifetime of success tended to have early success does not indicate why they had early success.

And so the recent publication in Science by a team of five data scientists, “Quantifying reputation and success in art”, has to be read with the caution that although they work with an immense data set on artists’ careers and the galleries that show their work, finding that “early access to prestigious central institutions offered life-long access to high-prestige venues and reduced dropout rate”, they haven’t actually solved the question that opens this post. This is not to say that some artists do not face genuine barriers – geographic, socio-economic – in gaining access to the art world, or other professions that have a structure of gatekeepers, and that policies to help level that playing field would be just, and inspire more young people to higher aspirations. But the paper (which after all, is by specialists in analyzing networks and data, not the specific deep culture of the gallery world) doesn’t delve into who has that early access, and why were their works chosen for exhibition. That’s not a criticism of the methods used in the paper, which are truly innovative (their visual of the “coexhibition network” of galleries and museums is quite something) in terms of what they are trying to illustrate. But for now, we haven’t resolved the optimist vs pessimist question; that would require not even bigger data sets on artists careers, but a different sort of data altogether.

What the doctor ordered

after your water break, time for 20 Goyas, you can do it!Doctors will be able to prescribe visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art for their patients, reports the Gazette:

Doctors will each be able to assign up to 50 museum prescriptions over the course of the pilot project. Each prescription will allow entry for up to two adults and two children age 17 or under.

“There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health,” said Dr. Hélène Boyer, vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada and the head of the family medicine group at the CLSC St-Louis-du-Parc. “It increases our level of cortisol and our level of serotonin. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being. People tend to think this is only good for mental-health issues. That it’s for people who’re depressed or who have psychological problems. But that’s not the case. It’s good for patients with diabetes, for patients in palliative care, for people with chronic illness. Since the ’80s we’ve been prescribing exercise for our patients because we know exercise increases exactly the same hormones. But when I have patients who’re over 80, it’s not obvious that I can prescribe exercise for them.”

“In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century,” said MMFA director general Nathalie Bondil.

I do not think Ms Bondil is correct, nor is there any evidence anywhere that visits to the museum or attending a concert is a substitute for regular physical exercise, save maybe, as the doctor notes, for patients over 80. They are all good things, but they are good things in very different ways. Going to the museum might well be good for your health, but there’s no need to explain how going for a run or swimming laps or doing yoga regularly affects your health to a very different magnitude.

My problem with these sorts of stories, though, is not just the hyperbole. It’s about what it says about “art”. The story has not one single mention of any work of art these doctors’ patients might encounter at the MMFA (save for a photo indicating there is a Calder retrospective currently on exhibition). The actual works have no importance, it’s just “art”, or, as they say, whatever. The museum is a place with hallways and rooms that have framed pieces of canvas with paint on them hung from the walls.

And we can see why this is the approach, for what if we did pay attention to what art? What happens if researchers discover (as we know they ultimately will) that impressionist works increase the viewers’ levels of cortisol and serotonin more than do works of post-expressionism? That landscapes generate more hormone secretion than abstract works? Will doctors then start to advise the museum on its curatorial policies? Will the arts council?

Arts advocacy through making claims about instrumental benefits – to our health, our sociability, our empathy, our labor productivity – neglects that if the arguments were actually highly persuasive, it’s a very short step to evaluating different genres or individual works of art on that basis. “Some Bach would do you good; avoid the Shostakovich, especially right before bed.” A part of the hidden, evil genius of “economic impact” studies was to embed the claim right from the start that the actual art itself doesn’t matter at all, so long as money is spent on it. But I don’t see how advocacy on health benefits, or empathy, or entrepreneurial creativity, would be able to get away with that. If, “In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century”, artists and curators will need to mind how they go, as they may one day regret ever opening this box.

Back to school – a cultural planning syllabus

do we have to do *all* the readings?So after a stretch in university administration, I am back full-time in the classroom this fall. One of my classes is in Cultural Planning and Community Development – i.e. “place-based” cultural policy – and though I’ve taught bits and pieces of the subject here and there, have never had the course actually assigned to me until now.

So, this is what I’ve put together. It’s a lot of reading, with some preliminaries on what’s going on in the economy right now (since I don’t think anyone can do “placemaking” policy without a good understanding of current economic and social trends specific to different places)

Hopefully readers of this blog interested in the subject find something of interest here they hadn’t seen before!


August 21: Hors d’oeuvres (I’m using video conference for this first class, from Tallinn)

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) chapter 1.
Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) chapter 1.
Edward Glaeser, The Triumph of the City (2011) Introduction.

August 23: Introduction to Cultural Planning (guest lecturer Professor Woronkowicz)

Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa “Arts and culture in urban or regional planning: a review and research agenda” Journal of Planning Education and Research 29(3) 379-391.
Ann Markusen “Creative cities: a 10-year research agenda” Journal of Urban Affairs 36(S2): 567-589.

August 28: Urbanization and Economic Transition in the US

Edward Glaeser, The Triumph of the City (2011) Chapter 2
The Economist “Nice change” (July 21, 2018)

August 30: Urbanization and Economic Transition abroad

John M. Quigley “Urbanization, agglomeration, and economic development.” In Spence, M, Clarke Annez, P & Buckley, RM (Eds.), Urbanization and growth: The International Bank for reconstruction and development, The World Bank (2009) chapter 4
The Economist “The bitter generation” (May 5, 2018)
The Economist “Villas and slums” (June 16, 2018)

September 4: Employment, Education, Technology, and Trade

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (2008) Introduction.
Enrico Moretti, The New Geography of Jobs (2012) chapter 3 “The Great Divergence”
Anne Case and Angus Deaton “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century” PNAS 112(49) (December 8, 2015): 15078-15083.
David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson “When work disappears: manufacturing decline and the falling marriage-market value of young men” IZA Institute of Labor Economics (April 2018)
The Economist “Left-behind places” (October 21, 2017)

September 6: Inequalities in Cities

Edward L. Glaeser, Matt Resseger and Kristina Tobio “Inequality in cities” Journal of Regional Science 49(4) (2009): 617-646.
Neil Lee “Inclusive growth in cities: a sympathetic critique” Regional Studies (2018)

September 11: The Economics of Diversity

William Easterly and Ross Levine “Africa’s growth tragedy: politics and ethnic divisions” (1997)
Gianmarco I.P. Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri “The economic value of cultural diversity: evidence from US cities” Journal of Economic Geography 6 (2006): 9-44.
Alberto Alesina, Johann Harnoss and Hillel Rapoport “Immigration, diversity, and economic prosperity” CEPR VOX (August 22, 2013)

September 13: Politics, Class, Culture, and “Bubbles”

Pierre Bourdieu “The forms of capital” in J. Richardson (ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (1984): 241-258.
Tak Wing Chan et al “Understanding the social and cultural bases of Brexit” Institute of Education, University College London (December 2017)
Aaron Reeves and Robert de Vries “Can cultural consumption increase future earnings? Exploring the economic returns to cultural capital” British Journal of Sociology (2018)
Alisa Moldavanova, John C. Pierce and Nicholas P. Lovrich “Sociopolitical sources of creative cultural capital in U.S. counties” Journal of Urban Affairs 40(4) (2018): 518-542.
Klaus Desmet and Romain Wacziarg “The cultural divide” NBER Working Paper 24630 (May 2018)
Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica “Coming apart? Cultural distances in the United States over time” NBER Working Paper 24771 (June 2018)
New York Times “An extremely detailed map of the 2016 election”

September 18: Why place-based policy?

Amartya Sen “Equality of What?” The Tanner Lecture on Human Values (1979)
Edward L. Glaser “Should the government rebuild New Orleans, or just give residents checks?” The Economists’ Voice 2(4) (2005)
Randall Crane and Michael Manville “People or place? Revisiting the who versus the where of urban development” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Land Lines (July 2008)

September 20: Accessibility, Inclusion and Disability

Guest lecturer Professor Beth Bienvenu

September 25: Measuring Arts Participation

National Endowment for the Arts, “Measuring cultural engagement: a quest for new terms, tools, and techniques” (2014)
National Endowment for the Arts “A decade of arts engagement: findings from the survey of public participation in the arts, 2002-2012” (2015)
Jennifer L. Novak-Leonard, Michael K. O’Malley and Eileen Truong “Minding the gap: elucidating the disconnect between arts participation metrics and arts engagement within immigrant communities” Cultural Trends 24(2) (2015): 112-121.

September 27: The Arts and Happiness

Carol Graham, Soumya Chattopadhyay and Jai Roberto Lakhanpal “Using new metrics to assess the role of the arts in well-being: some initial results from the economics of happiness” Working paper, Brookings Institution and National Endowment for the Arts (2014)
Chris Hand “Do the arts make you happy? A quantile regression approach” Journal of Cultural Economics 42(2) (2018): 271-286
Kate Oakley, Dave O’Brien and David Lee “Happy now? Well-being and cultural policy” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly 31(2) (Summer 2013): 18-26.

October 2: The Arts and Togetherness

Robert Putnam “The arts and social capital” from Better Together (2003)
Stephen Marche “Is Facebook making us lonely?” The Atlantic (May 2012)

October 4: The Arts and Empathy

Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley, Jennifer dela Paz and Jordan B. Peterson “Bookworms versus nerds: exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds” Journal of Research in Personality 40(5) (2006): 694-712.
Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman and Jordan B. Peterson “On being moved by art: how reading fiction transforms the self” Creativity Research Journal 21(1) (2009): 24-29.
Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson (excerpt) (1995).
Joshua Landy “Corruption by literature” Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 1(2) (2010).
Michael Rushton “Thinking outside the empathy box” Cultural Trends 26(3) (2017): 260-271.

October 9: Should Cultural Policy Serve “Instrumental’ Ends?

Kevin F. McCarthy, Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras and Arthur Brooks, Gifts of the Muse: reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts, RAND (2004)
Steven Hadley and Clive Gray “Hyperinstrumentalism and cultural policy: means to an end or an end to meaning?” Cultural Trends 26(2) (2017): 95-106.
Kate Oakley and Jonathan Ward “The art of the good life: culture and sustainable prosperity” Cultural Trends 27(1) (2018): 4-17.

October 11: Inequalities in the Art World

Mark Taylor and Dave O’Brien “’Culture is a meritocracy’: why creative workers’ attitudes may reinforce social inequality” Sociological Research Online (2017)
Orian Brook, David O’Brien and Mark Taylor “Panic! Social class, taste and inequalities in the creative industries” (2018)
Michael Rushton “Women’s wages and employment at the top of the art world” (November 27, 2017)

October16: The Creative Class

Richard Florida “Bohemia and economic geography” Journal of Economic Geography 2(1) (2002): 55-71.
Edward L. Glaeser “Review of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class” (2002)
Karol Jan Boroweicki and Kathryn Graddy “Immigrant artists: enrichment or displacement?” Working Paper, Brandeis University (2018)
Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2009) chapters 1 & 2.

October 23: The Consumer City

Sharon Zukin “Urban lifestyles: diversity and standardization in spaces of consumption” Urban Studies 35(5-6): 825-839.
Edward L. Glaeser, The Triumph of the City (2011) chapter 5 “Is London a Luxury Resort?”

October 25: Gentrification

Sharon Zukin “Gentrification: culture and capital in the urban core” Annual Review of Sociology 13 (1987): 129-147.
Meghan Ashlin Rich “’Artists are a tool for gentrification’: maintaining artists and creative production in arts districts” International Journal of Cultural Policy (2018)
Lance Freeman “Five myths about gentrification” Washington Post (June 3, 2016)
The Economist “In praise of gentrification” (June 23, 2018)

October 30: Culture and Economic Development

David B. Audretsch, Erik E. Lehmann and Nikolaus Seitz “Cultural amenities, subcultures and entrepreneurship” (2017) Working paper.
Peter Campbell, Tamsin Cox and Dave O’Brien “The social life of measurement: how methods have shaped the idea of culture in urban regeneration” Journal of Cultural Economy 10(1) (2017): 49-62.
Desislava Hristova, Luca M. Aiello and Danielle Quercia “The new urban success: how culture pays” Frontier in Physics 6 (article 27) (April 2018)

November 1: Creative Placemaking – Concepts

Amanda Johnson Ashley “Beyond the aesthetic: the historical pursuit of local arts economic development” Journal of Planning History 14(1) (2015): 38-61.
Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa “Creative Placemaking” White Paper for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, National Endowment for the Arts (2010)
Anne Gadwa Nicodemus “Fuzzy vibrancy: creative placemaking as ascendant US cultural policy” Cultural Trends 22(3/4) (2013): 213-222.

November 6: Creative Placemaking Programs in the US and UK

Jamie Bennett, “Creative placemaking in community planning and development: an introduction to ArtPlace America” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Community Development Investment Review (December 2014): 77-84.
National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town”
The Kresge Foundation “Arts and Culture”
Arts Council England “Creative People and Places”
Mark Robinson “Faster, but slower; slower, but faster” Thinking Practice (2016)
Michael Rushton and Joanna Woronkowicz “Now does the arts council know what it is doing?” working paper (2018)

November 8: Cultural Planning in Small Towns

Wendell Berry “The work of local culture” Iowa Humanities Lecture (1988)
Anne Gadwa “Small is beautiful: creative placemaking in rural communities” Grantmakers in the Arts Reader 25(2) (Summer 2014)
Timothy R. Wojan and Bonnie Nichols “Design, innovation, and rural creative places: are the arts the cherry on top, or the secret sauce?” PLOS ONE (February 28, 2018)

November 13: Cultural Districts – Planned

James Doeser and Anna Marazuela Kim “Governance models for cultural districts” Global Cultural Districts Network (2018)
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, chapter 8
Indiana Arts Commission “Statewide Cultural Districts Guidelines”

November 15: Cultural Districts – “Organic”

Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert “Cultivating ‘natural’ cultural districts” University of Pennsylvania (2007).
Ji Youn Kim “Cultural entrepreneurs and urban regeneration in Itaewon, Seoul” Cities 56 (2016): 132-140.

November 27: Earmarked Taxes for the Arts

Michael Rushton “Support for earmarked public spending on culture: evidence from a referendum in Metropolitan Detroit” Public Budgeting and Finance 25(4) (Winter 2005): 72-85.
Salt Lake City
Columbus, Ohio

November 29: Buildings for the Arts
Carl Grodach “Beyond Bilbao: rethinking flagship cultural development and planning in three California cities” Journal of Planning Education and Research 29(3) (2010): 353-366.
Joanna Woronkowicz et al, Set in Stone: Building America’s New Generation of Arts Facilities, 1994-2008 (University of Chicago, 2012)

December 4 and 6: Student presentations

Week of December 10-14: Final Exam


Let’s move before they change the parking rate

vibrant!No, I cannot quit writing about economic-impact-of-the-arts reports. Let’s try something a little more focused, and talk about … parking.

Parking is part of the cost of attending a show, if it takes place in an area without free parking and you don’t live nearby. Economists think charging for parking is ok because your car is taking up scarce space that has to be allocated somehow. Free parking means space is allocated on a first-come-first-serve basis, which is not all that efficient (people have to arrive much earlier for events than they otherwise would, in an effort to secure a space). It’s a cost of living in one place but wanting to see things (or go to work or go to school) in a different place, the need to rent a space to put one’s vehicle.

“Economic impact” studies of the arts include spending on parking – see the Americans for the Arts, or a recent study posted by (which seems to think these studies are all worth passing along…) from Chicago. In one sense, the “impact” studies have something right: people often spend money on parking when they go to a show, and parking is a legitimate part of the measured economy.

But consider. People walking to a show therefore have less “impact”, as do people who take public transit. If we include parking in “economic impact” it also makes sense to include gasoline, and increased maintenance and depreciation on vehicles (to be honest I don’t know if they do include these things). If I run into a deer on the way to see a show in my home town (a not unheard of occurrence), the “economic impact” is really big.

And I just cannot help but ask … Why? Why is one of the benefits of the arts that people pay for transportation and parking? Why do we think the arts in the Chicago Loop are especially valuable because. in part, it costs a small fortune to park there? The way “economic impact” is measured, it would rise if parking lot owners decided to increase rates – why would we see this as a good thing? A sign of the importance of the arts?

Until next time…


Is there an ethical case against deaccessioning by museums? Updated

In response to a post by blog neighbor Lee Rosenbaum on proposed sales of works by the Berkshire Museum and the Lasalle University Art Museum, I asked via Twitter whether there was a coherent case to be made that deaccessioning is unethical, and not simply (sometimes) a case of bad management and oversight, or indeed sometimes simply a rational and defensible adjustment to changes in circumstances and/or mission. Ms. Rosenbaum replied to me on Twitter saying “deaccessioning is not unethical. Certain kinds of deaccessioning are unethical”, and with an article from the New York Times she wrote back in 2005. I need more than 280 characters to respond, so…

Let me start with where I think we agree. Sometimes, sales of art have come about because the museum has not done sound long term financial planning, has overcommitted itself, and is reaching for a safety net. That is bad management and oversight, and is rightly criticized. Norms against deaccessioning might induce management to take more care, and reduce this case of moral hazard.

I think we also agree that sometimes museum leadership might be pursuing something new for its own sake, and be placing too low a value on long-held art works enjoyed by patrons, and too high a value on new infrastructure or new works of art. She writes (in the Times column):

Curators use such sales to bankroll their shopping sprees. Major building projects accelerate this trend. As cultural institutions expand and modernize, they not only seek to outdo one another by commissioning the eye-popping or suavely elegant work of superstar architects, but also hope to redecorate their shiny new edifices with some appropriately breathtaking acquisitions. Since donors are already tapped out by the capital campaign, the collection becomes an irresistible source of financing for flashy new trophies.

Now it’s a rare thing when I say, regarding museum policy, that someone is maybe being overly conservative, but I will in this case: I’m not sure we can generalize this far when it comes to building projects, some of which really are justified, and to finance new acquisitions, which I’ve always understood to be a generally accepted (perhaps the only generally accepted) rationale for selling works.

Where do we disagree? She writes:

If an institution really has no use for certain works that are worthy of public display, it should give or lend them to other public institutions that would gladly show them. Museums’ permanent collections belong to all of us. The public has, in most instances, paid for these works through the tax deductions given to private donors. And those donors bestow such works on the public expecting them to be valued for their aesthetic, not financial worth. If a museum doesn’t regard a particular gift as worthy of display or study, it shouldn’t accept the gift in the first place.

There’s a lot in this paragraph; let’s break it down:

“Museums’ permanent collections belong to all of us” is not true in any meaningful sense. Nonprofit museums are independent entities, and I have no claim on their works, any more than I have claims on the assets of any other organization. It is sentiment, but nothing more than that.

That there were tax deductions to the donors does not change matters. All donations, cash or in kind, to registered nonprofits receive a tax deduction, but that doesn’t mean the organization surrenders the control of its assets to “all of us.” The tax policy in place with respect to charitable donations is designed to encourage donations to charity, but does not imply any general public say in the management of assets.

Do donors expect works to be valued for their aesthetic, not financial worth? Sometimes, maybe. A couple of years ago I was moving house, and ended up donating a couple of van-loads worth of books to my school library and local public library. They might put some on the shelf, and they might sell some where they think they could use the money to acquire books better suited to the library’s purpose. I don’t care – I just want to help out my library, and they can use my donation as it best benefits the library mission. I don’t see a moral difference between a gift of $500,000 cash to a museum and the gift of a work of art that doesn’t really fit its mission or collection but could yield $500,000 at sale that could be used on other purchases that would fit its mission. A donor could say “I insist that you never sell this work, for any reason”, I suppose. But I would want to ask that donor: Why?

And as to the final point: my impression in most deaccessioning cases is not that a gift was accepted that the museum didn’t find worthy, but rather that it was once worthy but that circumstances have changed. Must any work accepted be held in perpetuity?

And so in the end my ask for an article that gives a persuasive moral case that “certain kinds of deaccessioning is unethical” has not been met. I don’t see it in the Berkshire case she is now covering.


A correspondent writes:

Neither of these really go to the core question of the “morality” or ethical basis for the strict museum association standards on deaccessioning, but might be worth taking into consideration.  First, the tax code does reflect some policy favoring the aesthetic as opposed to financial value of gifts of art by making a distinction that your blog doesn’t: a gift of tangible property, including art, to a nonprofit, is only entitled to a fair market value deduction if the gift is intended to be used, and is used, by the nonprofit, to further its nonprofit purposes, which does not include selling it to raise cash for nonprofit purposes.  If the property (an artwork, your books example, etc.) is given so that the nonprofit can sell it to raise cash (i.e., as a financial asset), the donor’s deduction is limited to her basis.

Another factor that often comes up in museum concerns about deaccessioning is that museums fought for a financial accounting policy that allows them to exclude the value of artworks in their collections from their balance sheets, the argument being that they are NOT financial assets available to be used for operations, capital or other purposes.  Whether realistic or not, there is fear that a widespread change in museum practice will result in a change in the accounting rule, requiring nonprofit museums to reflect billions of dollars on their balance sheets as assets – and unrestricted assets at that (unless donors have obtained contractual restrictions), which could have negative effects – contributing to what you identified as a moral hazard.  Boards of Trustees might be more inclined to look to collections rather than their own pockets to support capital projects; donors of cash might be less inclined to give if the organization’s financial statements and tax returns reflect billions of dollars in assets; and the presence of those assets in the financial statements might well mask serious financial weaknesses.