Revisiting Research: Gifts Keeps on Giving

This article is part of the Revisiting Research series.

“As late as the 1960s and 1970s, the value of the arts was still a given for the American public.” This is the second sentence in the summary to the 2004 RAND study Gifts of the Muse, and it succinctly captures a chilling truth that the sector was just beginning to confront at that time. At one point the value of the arts was a given in American society, and then it wasn’t. What happened? The RAND study attempted to reclaim the value of the arts by returning to the intrinsic value the arts bring to individuals and communities.

Gifts of the Muse, and its focus on the intrinsic value of the arts for personal development and social and civil advancement, came at a time when the instrumental arguments the sector had been making — improved test scores, positive economic impact — were wearing thin. These arguments were losing power, in part, because they were not defensibly documented.

In addition, the “instrumental benefits” argument was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there was some agreement that the arts did indeed contribute to educational, economic, and social/behavioral outcomes. But as the primary rationale for supporting the arts, these arguments could not stand up without proof of causality, especially when other kinds of investments produced better (and more documentable) results. In times of reduced resources, the value of the instrumental arts would always be secondary — and therefore would leave them vulnerable to the threat of elimination. In the early 2000s, it became apparent not only that instrumental arguments were simply ineffective but also that they dangerously marginalized the unique value of the arts.

Although efforts have been made to implement the four recommendations made by this important study, they remain the critical challenges facing the arts today. We still struggle to talk about the intrinsic benefits of the arts without sounding elitist. We have made little — if any — headway in reintroducing the arts to youth. And while there is movement to figure out how to engage more of the public more directly and proactively in arts experiences, we are a long way from agreement on the kinds of adaptive changes that are needed by our traditionally structured cultural institutions. Almost a decade after its publication, Gifts of the Muse remains an important contribution to research in our sector and a valuable reminder of the core shifts we need to make for the value of the arts to become a given again.