Can you explain, in simple terms, how you or someone you know is changed by listening to music, watching a dance performance, looking at an artwork, or writing in a journal? I’d be hard pressed to manage a coherent response.
It’s not easy to talk about how art transforms or how we are different because of it. Many who work in the arts, including those of us who do so because of our belief in the transformative power of art, lack a vernacular for communicating its impacts.
Where is the language? Is there a secret wordsmith hammering away somewhere, forging a new lexicon? To whom should we entrust this important work, and when is their paper due?
All joking aside, it’s no one’s job but everyone’s job to ﬁnd and to learn a new language of value and beneﬁts. After all, if we can’t communicate clearly and persuasively what art means to us, how can we expect others to gain a clearer sense of why they should get more involved and support the arts at higher levels?
This essay suggests how and why we might begin to talk differently about the value and beneﬁts of arts experiences, and it suggests a framework.1 Nearly everyone who works in the industry has a stake in the conversation. Artists wonder about the consequences of their work. Administrators and board members struggle to demonstrate how their work creates value. Marketers and fundraisers hone the language they use to invite support and participation. Funders strive to better deﬁne and assess outcomes, and city planners look for better ways to rationalize their investments in cultural assets.
The more you think about it, the more perplexing it seems that the dialogue about the beneﬁts of the arts didn’t surface earlier, since so much hinges on our ability to shape how people think and talk about art.
The conversation about arts beneﬁts begun by the Wallace Foundation and RAND Corporation in Gifts of the Muse, Reframing the Debate about the Beneﬁts of the Arts is probably the most important dialogue that we can have as a ﬁeld because it cuts to the core of why we do what we do. A year has passed since the study was released.2 A lively policy debate ensued3, but I am left with the sense that some of the most important ideas in Gifts of the Muse have not yet had their day. Many artists, administrators, and board members, I suspect, saw the title and tuned out, not seeing its relevance to their daily work.4
Experience has taught me that much of the ultimate value of research comes from unintended outcomes – providing answers to questions that were never posed and raising questions that no one knew to ask. Like other important studies, Gifts of the Muse shines a light on a particular set of ideas and, in the process of doing so, reﬂects light on other ideas that were hidden or obscured. The policy argument advanced by the RAND authors overshadows an intelligent discussion about arts beneﬁts that, if allowed to continue, will pay dividends long after the policy debate subsides.
The RAND study describes the various arts beneﬁts as occurring along a continuum between private and public, and categorizes them as either “intrinsic” (i.e., of inherent value) or “instrumental” (i.e., a means of achieving some other end).5 While these are useful constructs, they were designed primarily to support a policy argument rather than to provide a tool for arts practitioners – that is, artists, administrators, board members, marketers, and funders. A different model might result if the goal were to illustrate how arts organizations create value or if the subject were approached from an artist’s viewpoint. In other words, there are various ways of thinking about beneﬁts, depending on whose lens you’re looking through. Consider, for example, how one might illustrate to parents tha ways that arts activities beneﬁt their children and families.
A good conceptual model of arts beneﬁts will work like a kaleidoscope, offering each viewer a slightly different picture. The language that brings the model to life – intuitive words that spring easily to mind – must resonate with people who are not immersed in the nonproﬁt or cultural-policy world, especially business leaders and public ofﬁcials. Think about how quickly and pervasively Richard Florida’s language about creativity and the workforce entered the lexicon of civic leaders around the world.6
The RAND work takes us a long way toward understanding arts beneﬁts, but stops short of suggesting new language. It is, after all, a literature review, and much about the ways people are changed by art remains to be researched and codiﬁed. Not surprisingly, the study’s lead recommendation in the concluding section is that new language should be developed for discussing intrinsic beneﬁts. The problem is that until the language has taken root and until it is lodged in a simple framework suitable for widespread use, the conversation about beneﬁts will be limited to academics and industry insiders.
To this end, I’d like to share the results of my own efforts toward creating such a framework. It owes a great debt to the body of knowledge found in Gifts of the Muse and is offered with much appreciation to the Wallace Foundation for allowing the conversation to continue.
Three ﬁgures are used to illustrate an “architecture of value” for arts experiences. Figure 1 illustrates a basic scheme for understanding beneﬁts. The arts experience itself is positioned in the lower left-hand corner at the intersection of the two axes, with the beneﬁts of the experience rippling outward like waves.7,8
The horizontal axis reﬂects the social dimension of arts beneﬁts, from individual through interpersonal to community. The “interpersonal” level acknowledges the importance of social beneﬁts such as bonding with friends, family cohesion, and building social networks.
The vertical axis introduces time to the model, in the general sense of proximity in time to the arts experience. This allows for discussion of beneﬁts that occur concurrently with the arts experience (i.e., “real time” beneﬁts), of beneﬁts that kick in immediately before or after the experience (especially when there is dialogue about meaning), and of longer-term beneﬁts that accumulate or accrete over time. Accretion – that is, “to grow or increase gradually, as by addition” – is a key concept here, underscoring how repeat experiences lead to higher-order beneﬁts, a theme of the RAND work.
Between these two axes one can place all of the beneﬁts described in the RAND study, plus a few others that I’ve added, drawn from a variety of sources. Figure 2 places ﬁve overlapping “value clusters,” or overarching categories of beneﬁts, within the two axes.
The ﬁve categories of beneﬁts are brieﬂy described below:
Within each of the ﬁve overarching categories are a number of beneﬁts, thirty altogether, that are illustrated in Figure 3. Most of this language comes directly from the RAND report. Terms that are not self-explanatory (i.e., “ﬂow,” “social capital”) are described at length in Gifts of the Muse. There is a much to discover about each of them.
At some level it seems pointless to try to characterize the complex and variable impacts of arts experiences in a simple diagram with only two dimensions. Many factors affect the creation of value, and a next step would be to gain a better understanding of the full range of factors and to connect them with specific benefits.
Experiences within different artistic disciplines induce different combinations of benefits, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to generalize about arts benefits. The physical benefits of dancing are fairly obvious, for example, but physical and mental health benefits are also associated with playing an instrument, such as drumming. The sensory pleasure of watching a live dance performance, sometimes with an added erotic dimension, can be intensely rewarding. Theater can be a vehicle for intellectual engagement, political dialogue, and empathy, not to mention the more devious pleasures of peering into the intimate details of other people’s lives. Music holds great value as an emotional conduit, and the ease with which people are able to act as curators of the music in their lives makes the benefits of music widely (and instantly) accessible in a range of settings. Musical theater offers broad value by speaking to people on many levels (musical, narrative, visual) and, because of the wide appeal, the venues that present musicals and operas tend to assume symbolic importance as vessels for civic pride.
Another dimension affecting value is the specific way people participate, although we lack a clear picture of how the various modes create different benefits. In The Values Study, Rediscovering the Meaning and Value of Arts Participation,9 five modes of arts participation were identified, based on the level of creative control that an individual exercises over the activity. The five modes are:
Consider how these different modes of participation might lead to different benefits. For example, how might a person benefit differently from visiting a museum or collecting art for the home or taking an art class? Intuitively, we know that these different activities cause different benefits, but how? Downloading music and making one’s own music compilations at home is a widely-embraced form of curatorial participation, especially among teens. How can the value of this sort of activity be increased? To answer this question, we need to understand a lot more about benefits.
Ambient participation is another mode with benefits that we don’t understand very well yet. Why do some people seem to extract enormous value from the vistas of everyday life or see aesthetic beauty in ordinary objects, while others see nothing and gain nothing from the same experience? How can one activate the benefits that might be available to passers-by when public art or fine architecture surprises them on a city street?
Another dimension affecting value is the social setting. The beneﬁts that arise from solitary and home-based arts activities, such as arranging ﬂowers or playing music with your family, tend to be overlooked. Out of sight, these self-directed creative activities fall off the radar screen of cultural groups and funders. I have a general sense, though little research to support it, that many more people than we realize, both children and adults, are self-actuating their own creative potential. Technology that enables this creativity is becoming more ubiquitous and consumers are learning to embellish their lives with inexpensive, well-designed products.
Many people who would not be classiﬁed as “culturally active” in an arts participation survey are, in fact, highly creative individuals whose avenues of expression are dressing creatively, cooking, gardening, creating attractive living spaces, and collecting objects for the home – what I like to call “the living arts.”10 Clearly there are real beneﬁts here, and not just for individuals, but for neighborhoods and communities as well. Solitary and home-based arts activities may not have obvious social beneﬁts, but they contribute signiﬁcantly to the creative fabric of our society and deserve more attention.
The future of the arts will be considerably brighter if we can learn to talk honestly and openly about beneﬁts, starting in the board room. I hope for a time when board members of arts organizations sit down on a regular basis with both administrative and artistic staff and talk about the beneﬁts they seek to create for their communities. Then, perhaps, board and staff will have something more to talk about than fundraising. Most board members are unprepared to participate in artistic decision-making – that’s not their job – but they are eminently qualiﬁed to set overarching guidelines for how their organization can respond to community needs and create value. That is their job.
Clearer language and a better framework for discussing beneﬁts will help boards to exercise their purview over artistic output at an appropriately high level. The lack of such language today leaves a costly void, in terms both of unrealized potential and of continued stalemates between artistic leadership and boards. Too often now, boards seek refuge in the comfort of benchmarking, unwittingly falling into a pattern of rote imitation of other organizations that themselves may be unhealthy or unresponsive to their communities. Breaking this lockstep will require leadership from service organizations and openness to new ways of tying missions to a higher level of accountability for speciﬁc individual, interpersonal, and community beneﬁts.
Consider, for example, if the board of an orchestra or theater company directed its staff to plan a season, or part of a season, around a theme or an idea that responds to their speciﬁc community, such as racial healing, bridging generational divides, or spiritual awakening. The staff could be asked to articulate how speciﬁc program choices serve that agenda. Then, programs could be evaluated on their effectiveness at ﬁlling those needs and creating those beneﬁts.11
Beneﬁts, not dollars, are the real outputs of nonproﬁt arts organizations, and ﬁnancial audits paint an incomplete picture of organizational performance. To complete the picture, we need a widely accepted method of assessing the beneﬁts created. I envision a time when a “value audit” is an integral part of an organization’s report card to the community, and when community representatives are regularly consulted about what beneﬁts they seek from an organization that exists, ostensibly, for public beneﬁt.
The usefulness of a good beneﬁts model lies not only in its ability to illustrate how existing programs create value, but also in its ability to expose other “value opportunities” (i.e., new program ideas) that were previously unseen. Healthy introspection of this sort can wipe away years of ﬁlm from ossiﬁed missions and lead to the sort of organic change that can transform organizations and communities. I’d like to see local arts agencies in every community offer workshops on arts beneﬁts for board members, so that attendance becomes a rite of passage.
A good, shared framework might help arts groups build more coherent and compelling case statements, and would help fundraisers and marketers make more resonant and productive appeals for participation and contributions. Arts managers clearly stated this need at early presentations of the RAND work.
Engaging in a conversation about the beneﬁts of their art could be extraordinarily useful to artists, especially young artists in training at colleges and conservatories. They might gain a better sense of the impact of their art, thereby fertilizing the creative process. Also, the discussion might reveal how shifting values may be changing artists’ roles in society and why artists who can communicate about their art and awaken creative potential in other people will be in higher demand.
In the very largest sense, a new framework might serve as the basis for a new approach to community cultural planning, an approach that takes stock of cultural resources in terms of the beneﬁts they create and helps to identify gaps in the system. This way, policymakers in different cities can invest in programs and facilities that create speciﬁc beneﬁts for their communities, rather than modeling themselves after a mythic ideal or allowing nonproﬁts to act as the sole purveyors of arts beneﬁts. Similarly, funders would gain a better sense of how and where to intervene in the arts system in order to create speciﬁc beneﬁts. Here we come full circle with the RAND study and its recommendation that cultural policy should be informed by a wider array of beneﬁts.
Gifts of the Muse is an important synthesis of existing knowledge. It is the start of a new and more sophisticated dialogue about the value of arts participation. The Wallace Foundation, with RAND, has provided us a new prism through which to view ourselves and our work, and has opened the door to a new way of thinking about the arts. Just as I have extended RAND’s work, I invite others to use mine as a stepping stone.
Imagine if we found a reliable method of assessing the imprint of a single arts experience or of understanding how repetitive imprints, such as seeing the same work of art on the kitchen wall for twenty years, changes lives. Similarly, imagine how we might take stock of the cumulative impact of an arts organization on its entire constituency, or evaluate how a community’s whole arts system beneﬁts its citizenry. More credible evidence and new methods of assessment are just around the corner if we can sustain the dialogue about beneﬁts and invite others to join us.
Attempts to measure intrinsic beneﬁts are likely to be met with resistance. Artists may see it as an affront to their autonomy, and administrators may bristle at the suggestion of being held to a higher level of accountability. But there are ways of assessing even the most subjective and qualitative attributes of the arts experience without compromising the integrity of the art or undermining the role of the artist. Art works in mysterious ways that can never be fully understood, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, especially if it leads to new standards of effectiveness. As we come to better understand beneﬁts and how to create them, more funders, artists, arts administrators, and board members will cast themselves as architects of value, bonded together by a common language and empowered by a new clarity of purpose.
An Architecture of Value (198Kb)