Only half an argument

Andrew Taylor

During my time in Anchorage with the leaders of state arts agencies, the subject of "public value" was still very much in play. Many state arts agencies had done extensive rethinking and planning around the public values they promote. And new communications strategies and publications were spreading this new word to legislators and constituents.

But it occurred to a few of us there that defining and exclaiming the public value of arts and cultural activity (i.e., the value to a broad public, even those who do not participate) was really only one half of an argument for public sector support of the arts. The logical progression we seem to assume is that once a public value is proposed and supported, the next obvious step is to sustain or increase public money to the cause.

That last step is no longer an obvious one to all.

Pretend for a moment that everyone agreed there was deep, rich, and enduring value in the availability of cultural opportunity — production, presentation, preservation, expression. There would still be plenty of reasons to reduce or eliminate public sector support. Many believe that it's not government's role to promote a great society, or to ensure equity and access to a better world. Rather, government is there to do as little as it can, to stay out of the way of the market and social-sector enterprise which are much better suited to the task (not my belief, but a common one).

From this perspective, we could easily see large groups of legislators say, “Yes, we believe the arts are a powerful part of our commu-nity. So important, in fact, that we shouldn't entrust them to the least effective and efficient sector. Best leave them to the private and social sector, where their health isbetter served.”

My point here is that even the best expression of the public value of arts and culture won't, necessarily, improve the state of public funding for the arts. Rather, we also need to emphasize the next part of the argument — when and why public sector action is truly the best way to support that value.

Andrew Taylor, posted September 26, 2006,at The Artful Manager