Why Art?

Ben Cameron, Lisa Cremin, Pat Cruz, John Kreidler, Rebecca Lowry, & Kary Schulman

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 15, No 3 (Fall 2004)


Following are a few excerpts from a lunchtime plenary forum at GIA's 2003 conference in Seattle. Melanie Beene led the discussion and encouraged conference participants to share their personal connections to the arts and the arguments they use for funding arts and culture. "There's no unified field theory on why we should fund the arts," she said. "One person's old stale argument might be fresh for somebody else."

John Kreidler

These days I work in the land of the Philistines, Silicon Valley. For those of you who don't know what Philistines are, the dictionary says they're people who are disdainful of intellectual or artistic values. Silicon Valley is a place that's driven very much by the instrumentalities of making money and technology, and it accomplishes these tasks brilliantly.

Many of us still believe that the arts are, in a way, like religion. Art, like religion, should not have to be justified on practical grounds. Art, like religion, does not easily lend itself to quantification. Would anyone take seriously a cost-benefit analysis comparing the Lutheran and Buddhist faiths, or mannerism and abstract expressionism? At their core, the arts, like religion, exist in the realm of intrinsic values, meaning that they are virtues in and of themselves, requiring no higher justification. In effect, both the arts and religion are ultimately acts of faith.

Many of the people I encounter in Silicon Valley are extraordinarily successful in business and technology, but few have had even minimal training in the arts. So, in my work at Cultural Initiatives, I have often resorted to instrumental, sometimes numerical, rationales that they can grasp. One of the most pervasively held beliefs in Silicon Valley is that high educational attainment is key to a successful life and career, so any justification that promotes a connection between the arts and advancements in education has some chance of gaining influence. Even among residents with no background in the arts, an awareness exists that the arts are important to a complete and balanced education. In addition, many understand that the arts are an element in the cognitive and social development of children, contribute to creative capacity for professional careers, and affect academic performance in other subjects.

To accept that the arts have practical benefits is not to deny that they are also of intrinsic value, and the same can be said of religion. We are not Philistines if we press arguments of both types.

Ben Cameron

So often we talk about the need for arts and about what we need and need, need, need. And the need emphasis can be wearying. At a conference session yesterday, Susan Trapnell (managing director, ACT Theatre) rallied the room when she said, "We have to stop talking about ourselves as the need, and position ourselves as the solution." We're increasingly living in a time when a no-taxation policy is creating communities none of us want to live in. And it is we who will be the solution to problems that the government and the corporate sector cannot fix.

Patricia Cruz

One of the things that has frustrated me over the years is that frequently the dialogue we have with one another is in a vacuum. We can talk about democracy and we can talk about the intrinsic value - and we should. But we're never linking ourselves to or making collaborations with people who share values with us - with people in education, people who are concerned with healthcare, people concerned with employment and economic opportunities in a society that is very wealthy but whose resources are not going where we as citizens want them to go. We have to link up with other citizens so it's not an either/or.

Whenever I'm in a room like this one, I can't not say this: I don't know how we can look at ourselves and look at the world and not look at America's activity in this war effort and at what it has done to this society. I don't know how we can not take a leadership role and be a voice against this activity. We have a larger role to play. [Applause]

Rebecca Lowry

I'm the youngest member of the board of GIA and this is only the third conference I've come to. What has impressed me is that I've seen movement and progress in these discussions. I have been particularly invigorated by opportunities that have arisen. At the Makah Nation pre-conference, this lovely person from New York and a traditional Makah carver talked about concepts of art, about there being no word for art in the Makah language, and about the room for innovation in traditional art forms. To have an edgy discussion that is respectful and productive and learning, really impressed me.

Lisa Cremin

One thing I want to talk about is having an active presence in the unglamorous area of civic leadership and the choices that we make about where to spend our time. I just spent a week at a regional leadership institute with county commissioners, urban planners, engineers, school board officials. In a week talking about regional issues of water and air and traffic, I expected to be the one who would have to say, "Okay, the arts have something to do with all this, too." But I found that by simply being present, I didn't have to bring it up. People are thinking about it, but with a little more visibility they will make the case on our behalf. It was very powerful.

Kary Schulman

What occurred to me, listening to all this, is a line from a film by Jean-Luc Godard in which there's a strike, a great deal of unrest. The people who are trying to address the situation are in despair, and they ask, "Where do we start?" And the answer is, "Everywhere at once." That's really the only answer for us at this time. I don't like the instrumentalist arguments for the arts, either. I don't like the economic impact argument. I don't like the keeps-kids-off-the-streets argument. But there's a place for them and we have to use them in those places. Art's been around forever. It's not going to go away because we make one wrong decision or get our priorities a little twisted. We'll get it right in the end.

www.giarts.org. Choose "conferences and meetings," then "2003 proceedings."

John Kreidler is executive director, Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley. Ben Cameron is executive director, Theatre Communications Group. Patricia Cruz is on the board of directors, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Rebecca Lowry is program officer for arts and culture, Humboldt Area Foundation. Lisa Cremin is director, Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. Kary Schulman is director, Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund.