An Exchange Prompted by Gifts of the Muse
The fall 2002 issue of the Reader (volume 13, number 3) introduced an ongoing feature, "Why Art?" as a response to GIA's goal to strengthen the role of arts and culture in philanthropy and in society as a whole. This Reader feature aims to help members and others make stronger arguments for the support of arts and culture by sharing examples of arguments, case statements, insights, and stories that convey the multifaceted role that culture, the arts, and artists play in our society, neighborhoods, and individual lives. Because the roles are many, the ways of stating the case are many; no one encompassing argument will do.
Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts, was published in February 2005 by the RAND Corporation. Commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, the purpose of the study was "to improve the current understanding of the arts' full range of effects in order to inform public debate and policy." Through an extensive review of published sources, the researchers assessed a full range of both "instrumental" and "intrinsic" benefits. The report synthesizes the findings and describes an encompassing framework that, as the Wallace Foundation web site states, "argues for a recognition of the contribution that both types make to the public welfare, but also of the central role intrinsic benefits play in generating all benefits."
Almost before it was published, Gifts of the Muse stirred much conversation and debate that sometimes stays close to the report's topic but that often spins off in new directions. In keeping with GIA's "Why Art?" theme, we include some of the discussion in this issue. First is a long piece comprising excerpts from an online discussiona "weblog"on the web site of ArtsJournal, an online news digest covering arts and culture. This is followed by a short reflection by independent facilitator Jerry Yoshitomi and also by a review submitted by Reader reader, Hugh Culik of the Michigan Humanities Council. The discussion is far from finished. We encourage its continuation and welcome your contribution.
Notes about ArtsJournal's "weblog"
In March 2005, ArtsJournal presented a group blog discussion titled, "Is there a better case to be made for the arts?" Webloga contraction of "web" and "log," usually shortened to "blog"is a form of online writing consisting of dated entries and characterized in format by a single column of text with the most recent content at the top (reversed to chronological order for publication here). The blog, "Is there a better case for the arts?" was inspired by Gifts of the Muse and was presented with support from the Wallace Foundation. Invited, or "distinguished," bloggers included Ben Cameron (Theatre Communications Group), Adrian Ellis, (AEA Consulting, management and planning in the cultural sector), Bill Ivey (Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy), Joli Jensen (University of Tulsa), Jim Kelly (4Culture, King County, Washington), Phil Kennicott (culture critic, Washington Post), Glenn Lowry (Museum of Modern Art), Robert L. Lynch (Americans for the Arts), Midori (violinist), Andrew Taylor (Bolz Center for Arts Administration), Russell Willis Taylor (National Arts Strategies).
The blog was active for one week, after which posting stopped and responses were archived. In addition to approximately 30,000 words from the invited participants, another 32,000 words were posted by other interested blog "readers." As with any good conversation, many related and sometimes not-so-related ideas were pursued through the week. The complete archive with both sets of responses can be found in "Blog Heaven," under AJ Blog Central at www.ArtsJournal.com.
The piece here, a mere 8,000 words, is drawn solely from entries by invited bloggers, or, to use Adrian Ellis's term, the "blogotariat." The excerpts we've included afford only a partial view of the full discussion. We did not tap into the comments of the "readers" and didn't even manage to include comments from all invited bloggers; we missed the voices of Jim Kelly and Russell Willis Taylor. We encourage you to explore the weblog's full text onArtsJournal's web site, www.artsjournal.com.
Is There a Better Case for the Arts
A Public Conversation among People Who Care
Excerpts from a Weblog on ArtsJournal.com
Ever since the Culture Wars of the late-80s, arts advocates have touted the economic, educational, and social benefits of the arts in a flood of arts-impact studies designed to quantify and promote the arts' measurable benefits to society.
As a strategy, it seemed to work. Between 1993 and 2001, state public spending on the arts more than doubled in the US, from $211 million in 1993, to $447 million eight years later. The National Endowment for the Arts, which had been threatened with extinction, was stabilized. And the '90s saw an unprecedented boom in arts construction across the country, with billions spent on new museums, concert halls, and theaters.
But is it possible that the intrinsic benefits of the artsthose effects inherent in the arts experience itselfgot lost in some of these arguments? A new RAND study, commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Benefits of the Arts, argues that basing so much of the case for the arts on their claimed external benefitstheir utility in addressing public concernshas drawn us away from the true power and potential of the arts, and weakened the long-term position of the arts in the public mind.
Recently, the social good and economic impact arguments may have begun to wear thin, and government support has not recovered from sharp cuts made in the last few years. At the same time, much of the arts community is so focused on bottom lines that some argue that art and creativity have suffered in the struggle to grow and keep up. Indeed, it could be argued that basing so much of the case for the arts on economic benefits has made it more difficult to make a compelling case for the arts.
Has the emphasis on practical benefits warped our arts infrastructure, and caused us to neglect the need to strengthen demand for the arts? Have we neglected what Gifts of the Muse terms the "missing link:" the individual, private experience of the arts that begins with early engagement and intense involvement, and that is the gateway to other, more public benefits? Is there a better case to be made for the arts?
At the risk of attacking the question we've all come here to talk about, I have to confess that the intense attention arts people spend on trying to get the wider world to pay attention to the arts makes me a little uncomfortable.
In covering arts organizations over the years as a critic and journalist, I have developed a "McLennan's Law." It goes: the effort an arts organization expends trying to get butts in seats is often inversely proportional to its overall health. That is: You can always tell a theater or symphony orchestra is in trouble when it starts worrying more about getting people in the seats than it does about inspiring audiences. That's when it has become a follower rather than a leader. On the other enda really successful company with a hot product doesn't worry much about how it will attract an audience, it pours its efforts into a product it believes in.
Maybe it's an instinctive distrust of those trying too hard to tell me they're cool. But the more I'm subjected to earnest arguments about why the arts are good for me, the more I'm turned off. Why does proselytizing for the arts so often sound too evangelical? This particularly applies to arts impact studies, of which there are now so many that they seem like just so much noise.
So, to whom are we "making a case for the arts"? Obviously the case changes depending on the audience (whether it's kids or legislators or Jo Q. Public). But isn't some of this effort a bit counter-productive? You don't see Hollywood constantly trying to convince us that "movies are good for us."
Whose muse blues
The RAND report is first and foremost a literature review. Its authors have painstakingly trawled through the vast and scattered resources that address why cultural activity isor more accurately may possibly beof value; classified that literature (economic, social, psychological, aesthetic, etc.); and then sought to give a broad account of how robust are the conclusions of the various studies.
The current preoccupation with re-grounding the arguments for the public support of cultural activity is a result of a gut-churning awareness by the arts policy community that the hard-won gains in arts funding have been, in large part, a result of aggressive but shakily-grounded lobbying. The re-grounding, as and when it happensincrementally, awkwardly, partiallywill bring with it not only changes in the gross level of arts funding but changes in the type of organizations and activities funded. This is no bad thing and indeed rather exciting.
My gripe with the current preoccupation with the vast literature is that it is something of a side show. This is not primarily because, as the RAND report demonstrates, the re-grounding of economic and social arguments in more analytically defensible research methodologies would take a long time and cost a lot of money that could be better spent elsewherethough this is undoubtedly the case. It is primarily because the cultural sector seems to feel the need to hold itself to higher (or maybe just odder) evidential standards than other sectorsfor example, health, environment, or education. In these sectors, the academic preoccupation is not with, for example, what health can do for urban regeneration or tourism, but with the policies required to ensure a healthy community.
If we stopped looking so neurotically for epiphenomenathe impact of the arts on X, Y, and Zand diverted our attention to what constitutes, say, a vibrant cultural communitywhat distribution of what art forms, what forms of participation, etc.and if we could come up with well-grounded answers to this question, I suspect that those answers would be significantly more compelling to the decision-makers we lobby than another damned economic impact study. We would spend less time waiting for the other shoe to drop as decision makers discover what we already knew and what the RAND report has spelled out in merciless detail. And we would address some of the patently daft misallocations of scarce resources that our shakily-grounded arguments for the arts have encouraged, such as the resource-draining building boom we are emerging from, which has left the sector over-expanded, under-capitalized, and with a fundamentally and adversely altered ratio of fixed to variable costs.
Making the case
A question: why is the RAND report surfacing just now? Why did Wallace want to commission such a study? My guess is that there exists a widespread feeling in the nonprofit cultural community that revenue streams have about topped out given the persuasive power of arguments used to date. Get me new arguments; these old ones are worn out! Well, okay, but the nonprofit cultural sector has expanded dramatically since the 1960s, when the big NGOs, philanthropy advocates, and then government agencies began to encourage growth through gifts and matching grants. Yes, we may just need new arguments, but we also may be pushing against the outer limits of aggregated public sympathy for the demands of the nonprofit community. Institutions, agencies, and individuals have plenty of worthy destinations for empathy and charitable dollars. And, yes, we're a good destination, but not the only one and probably not even the most deserving when we think about tidal waves, HIV, and the like. So, maybe our problem is bigger and more basic than what can be addressed by the quality of our case making.
And, just to continue my early-morning, post-four-martini-weekend rant, I'm not all that thrilled by a return to advancing "intrinsic value," even as it's been dressed up in a new outfit by the very smart folks at RAND. To me case making is about language and ideas that make sense to other people, not just to us. I've been in plenty of meetings in which the secretary of the symphony board from some mid-western city tried to convince a member of Congress that classical music "uplifts the soul." I prefer talking about economic impact and reading test scores, even if I cross my fingers and toes while I proudly "make the case."
And, by the way, do we think advocates who are trying to raise money for environmental protection or medical research only make completely documented claims? Give me a break! All's fair in love and war, and quite a bit is fair in fundraising Bring it on!
I am always amused by arguments for or against the instrumental value of the arts. Arts organizations in this country have learned to survive by making their case to mostly private and occasionally public sources of funding. They have used almost every argument imaginable and have been surprisingly effective at developing new strategies when necessary.
The RAND report's suggestion that arts organizations need to concentrate on articulating the intrinsic value of the arts misses the pointthe funding organizations to whom these arguments are being made need to change their criteria, not the arts organizations. Like anyone involved in the arts, I believe fundamentally in their intrinsic value and would argue that any other value that can be attributed to them is secondary and, ultimately, not all that interesting.
Successful arts organizations know that their success depends on the daring and quality of their efforts and in their ability to differentiate themselves from similar organizations and to galvanize their audience's belief in their importance. Common sense suggests that the instrumental value of the arts is in direct proportion to their intrinsic value and the greater the former the more significant the latter. But even if arts organizations can and should work to be appreciated and understood for the quality of their programs and the value of their missionit also is naïve to assume that in a world that makes most of its decisions on instrumental values, funding organizations (either public or private) are suddenly going to make exceptions for arts organizations.
The culture wars for all of their divisiveness and destruction taught arts organizations how to compete in a hostile environment, to use the same tactics that other groups have deployed in order to convince those in power to support them, even when their activities seemed antithetical. This may have been a tough and unpleasant lesson, but it has been well learned and we would do well not to forget it in an effort to be recognized for the values we believe in most.
One of the greatest challenges of advocating for the arts is in designing the programs to fulfill our fundraising promises. In order to receive grants and donations, we wine and dine potential grantors; we dance and sing the benefits that the funding would bring, and we attempt to persuade funders of the potential worth of their donation. When the funding is secured (usually for a limited time only, as no funding source is ever a bottomless pit), it is only a beginning. The real challenge comes after the grant is received. It's now time to execute the promised activity/project and to prove its worth. Sharp development administrators must do even more. In order to be truly successful, they know they will require continued support; and to demonstrate the success of a given project, they must demonstrate the "results" in terms that funders understand and appreciate. Documents such as the RAND study are very helpful for fundraising purposes, not only before the funding is secured but afterwards as well.
For example, most funders like statistics and proven facts. They want an outcome that is expressed in business terms, like a scientific model. These are facts of life for those of us seeking funding and we have to live with them. In fairness, funders certainly deserve to know how their money is spent, but for an arts organization painful choices must sometimes be made between quantity and quality.
Numbers, seen concretely on paper, are easier to comprehend and more persuasive than descriptions and, for this reason, they have become extremely powerful in the nonprofit world. In reality, only a few of the decision makers in the granting organizations actually have the opportunity to directly observe the programs that seek their funds or to get to know an organization first-hand. The rest of the decision-making body therefore must rely partly on the appraisal of a few who have observed a program, and mostly on a funding application filled with hard facts and numbers. With individual donors, this can be less of a problem, but it remains difficult to grapple with the entire scope of an arts activity unless one has direct and ongoing involvement. As a result, numbers have taken on an even more powerful role.
In my own experience and that of colleagues who also advocate for the arts, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make an argument to potential funders for an increase in the quality of a program versus the raw numbers of individuals the program will reach.
For administrators (and artists), it's a Catch-22. We have to supply the numbers to prove ourselves so that we can get our projects funded. Without the funding, we can't deliver anythingincluding quality. But, in order to meet the huge quota demand, we risk having to spread ourselves thin, thereby reducing the quality of the programs we provide.
A feverish bloom
One of my fears is that the arguments developed and deployed to secure public funding for the nonprofit sector of the artsand that have indeed channeled significant sums into the sector and often against the oddshave left it expanded but weakened, with a feverish bloom on it rather than the deep glow of good health. Much of the funding, for example, that has gone into capital projects has increased the sector's fixed-cost base faster than it has increased its access to the earned or contributed income required to maintain that base; and the increasingly directive policy orientation of foundations and public funders (though not of individual philanthropists) has led to under-funded programmatic expansion in non-core areas.
The broadly "instrumental" arguments cut more ice both because they are quantifiable and because they align the arts to policy goals such as economic development and education that resonate more deeply with policy makers than does support for culture per se.
These arguments provide the rationale for forms of expenditure that may not actually encourage a vibrant cultural life but inadvertently weaken it. The net effect has been to leave the nonprofit part of the sector weakly capitalized and over-extended. Meanwhile, as the RAND report points out, the level of demand has not matched the expansion in supply, and the competition for audience grows ever fiercer, not just within the nonprofit cultural sector but between the sector as a whole and other demands on leisure time and discretionary expenditure.
Is not part of the preoccupation with re-grounding the arguments for funding for culture driven by our awareness that, uncomfortable though it is to say, the nonprofit cultural sector will inevitably need to contract if there is to be some sustainable equilibrium; and that the current arguments in support of culture do not appear to give us very nuanced criteria for managing that contraction and managing the tough choices with which arts administrators and arts funders are being faced?
A matter of relationships
The RAND report rightly, I think, distinguishes between those who have a deep relationship with the artsfor whom true intrinsic benefits like pleasure, captivation and the likeand those who infrequently attend the arts, if at all. For the former, Midori [in an earlier response] may be right: the music will be its own best argument (and what music lover could fail to be swayed by Midori any time she plays?); for the latter group, arguments need to be madearguments that RAND again rightly characterizes as extrinsic benefits, e.g. educational achievement, economic benefit, etc.
The not-for-profit sector by definition relies on charitable support: on average $.47 of every $1 in a theater budget came from a contribution last year, not from the box office. And in a world where the clamor for charitable contributions has increasedwhere the competition is now the fire department, the school system, the AIDS clinic and more - we must be articulate about why supporting the arts is importantarticulate, as often as not, to people who are not necessarily arts patrons or arts afficianados.
I must take exception with our host about the worry of attendance as a harbinger of artistic failure. The not-for-profit was granted its status precisely because there was a visionary sense that there were worthy activities that the market could not supporthence the government's willingness to allow the charitable donation. With the erosion of the structures that created professional arts organizationswith the declines in state and local funding (when adjusted for inflation), corporate support, and with shifting patterns in socializing (see Robert Putnam), the pressure to meet expenses through earned revenuethe box officebecomes even greater, hence the worry about audiences.
I hope Doug does not truly mean to suggest that a "hot product" somehow is more worthydo we value Alien vs. Predator more than Sideways because it was #1 at the box office for many weeks? Does he really mean that movies don't spend time telling us movies are good for us? While the message isn't quite as overt, perhaps, the millions and millions spent on advertisingprobably the billions and billionsis exactly spent trying to persuade us that movies are good for our social life, for our entertainment and captivation, for our ability to be currentthe Must See TV line in television, for examplein other words, reinforcing the very intrinsic values that the RAND report urges us to add to our own vocabulary in advocating the fullest range of the arts.
The danger lies, not in worrying about the audience, but in anticipating their desires as the rationale for the work we create: as not-for-profit arts groups, at least, we aspire to lead our audiences by being just ahead of them, rather than following our perceptions of their tastes slavishly and tailoring work accordingly. Thank God that Tony Kushner didn't listen when people told him no one would attend a six-hour play on politics and gay issues, but went ahead and wrote Angels in America; that Ibsen wasn't deterred when audiences stormed from the theater and demanded his head; that Strindberg wasn't discouraged by the lack of audiences and more. Try to create a hot product and you're likely to end up with Joey on NBC. The true artist follows the inner voice in a very different wayand the organization, deeply supportive of the artist, is right to want to give that work the broadest and most powerful exposure.
I think we're essentially saying the same thing. I hadn't meant my comment of "a hot product" in terms of box office, but in terms of an artistic product. My point was that in focusing so much on the box office and in trying to make a product designed for maximum sell, that the art itself often seems to be following and passionless rather than leading.
The Hollywood reference is a flawed one, to be sure. I meant merely to suggest that you don't see Fox campaigning for the value of moviesthey're too busy trying to up the sizzle factor of whatever specific movie they're trying to promote. I think it might be an important distinction...
The big begged question
A quick hand grenade to Ben: I think it's been many years since the nonprofit sector has been able to claim any real across-the-board, categorical, artistic superiority when compared to for-profit arts companies. I think financial pressures are to blame, not the absence of artistic vision or lofty standards. For a minute just think about the number of Mozart festivals, the annual flood of Nutcracker productions, the search for yet another Impressionist blockbuster...and, even in theater, conservative seasons featuring one Sam Shepard and, of course, the requisite August Wilson in February. There are always sparklers that light up here and there, but it's pretty hard to characterize the nonprofit sector as a bastion of experimentation and creativity these days. And the same challenges, with slightly different causes, are right in the face of for-profit arts managers. They're being forced by parent companies to chase shareholder value and quarterly earnings to the exclusion of long-term artist development and risk taking. Everybody working for record companies here in Nashville complains about it. Years ago, when Goddard Leiberson was president of Columbia Records, he had sufficient creative elbow room to maintain a classical division even when it didn't help the bottom line. There are only a couple of executives left in the entire global record business who possess that kind of freedom today. That's why the HBO model is so interesting to me: they've basically created a demand for a modern-day "subscription series" by creating a powerful image of their brand as hip, cool, cutting edge, creative, etc. They have moved beyond ratings (beyond "butts in seats"), and seem to have freed themselves up to take some pretty heady programming risks. Maybe we can learn something here.
Hey, do you want to know what I think the most-significant future problem will be? Tax reform! How do we make certain that upcoming revenue-neutral tax reform doesn't eliminate deductions for cultural nonprofits on the basis that there's insufficient demonstration of public benefit? These policy conversations are beginning right now. How do we make certain our point of view is at the table early on?
Since the hand grenade pin has been pulled...
OK, I forget to log in one day and come back to see hand grenades thrown in my direction.
So, to Bill's point. In EVERY industry, growth implies greater reliance on more peoplea relationship that implies a move to the middle and, quite possibly, a more mainstream aesthetic take. To fault large theaters for more conservative fare is both a fairly soft point (in many cases) and not really indicative of what is going on in the FIELD. Putting the large institutions aside for a moment, these days the VAST majority of theaters in this country operate on $1,000,000 or lessand it is often in these smaller groups that a different kind of work is seeded and blooms. Long before Broadway, Angels in America started at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, who commissioned it. It's the not-for-profits who have given us Suzan Lori Parks, the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, the whole explosion of exciting young workElevator Repair Service, Big Art Group, Richard Maxwell, Rude Mechanicals. The list goes on and on and permeates the country.
Judging a field by the behavior of seventy or so large groups, a fraction of the professional community but a fraction that thankfully provides deeply meaningful experiences and joyous encounters to those faithful audiences who have built them and attend in huge numbersis not the same as saying that a field has abandoned innovation and experimentation. The national theater community stands in stark rebuttal to that oversimplified, and unfair, assertion.
The nonprofit dilemma
Ben's response to my assertion that creativity and experimentation is being squeezed out of the nonprofit arts world encourages me to expand on those thoughts a bit. (See, don't answer back, it'll only encourage him!)
I agree with Ben that there is creativity and risk-taking in the theater, and, I guess, we could review the content of twenty or thirty subscription seasons presented by companies with varying budgets to make some judgment about the degree of experimentation that exists across the board. But, then, our opinions would be burdened with fact and the conversation would be less fun.
I'd rather point out the three converging tendencies that, to me, make it very difficult for nonprofits to use creative freedom as a compass with which to steer programming. First, as I mentioned the other day, the entire nonprofit cultural sector has probably grown to a point at which we're competing tooth-and-nail for every penny that gatekeepers are willing to assign to "culture;" popular programming becomes an essential survival strategy. I'm a card-carrying arts populist, so I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but we need to acknowledge the fact that in many museums and performing arts organizations programming decisions are driven by the need to feel confident about audience or donor support. And, because nonprofits are perpetually under-capitalized, they have much less ability to tolerate failure than, say, a for-profit record company that operates knowing that only one in eleven CD releases will make money. No modern nonprofit could tolerate the failure rates accepted in movies, TV, or record business.
Midori's very strong point about the tyranny of "results" also highlights part of the problem. The entire field of cultural funding has become more outcome-oriented in the past decade: corporate sponsors want exhibitions to actually sell products; foundations expect community transformation or youth development; everybody wants big audiences. As Midori indicates, the multitude of donor demands and expectations forces arts nonprofits to take their eyes off the creative ball. As we take money for projects targeting economic development projects or at-risk youth, we force ourselves away from core artistic values. Of course, we can walk away from promising big audiences, transformed communities, or smart, well-behaved kids, but we would do so knowing that our sector would instantly shrink, because the pot of philanthropic and public money available for a "pure" artistic agenda is a lot smaller than what's out there for social transformation.
And a third point: One challenge unique to nonprofits is the fact that organizational mission is always bigger than available resources. That means, of course, that if we have good years we always use excess earnings to grow programming, not to create reserves that would free us to invest in future experimental work. Oh, I'm certain there are exceptions, but I know I'm right on the rule. From time to time the NEA and other entities have funded the creation of cash reserves, and we all quickly learned that, after a couple of years, the reserves somehow migrated into operations. I believe this is a perpetual management issue that is an inevitable result of the accurate perception that a cultural nonprofit can always be doing "more." This is, of course, a noble aspect of nonprofit character, but one that keeps us in a fiscal backwater and forces too much emphasis on attracting big numbers and pleasing donors.
Some of these problems are the result of the way we are forced to "make the case" in a scramble for limited resources. Employ instrumental arguments, and your organization starts to serve somebody else's agenda; fall back on "intrinsic value," and your company might end up performing for quarters on the stairway leading down to the Flatbush Avenue Express.
Bill and Ben's riff on the relation between all this stuff and artistic risk is perhaps THE issue...
Many of the newer, more instrumental responsibilities that arts organizations have embraced are often inimical to the protection of informed artistic risk-taking, which I for one regard as a central responsibility of anything that deserves the name of a cultural organization. (How one defines "artistic risk" would require several more blogs but I'll assume we all have an overlapping if not identical ideas of what it is.)
There is, I think, an innately problematic relationship between the transgressive modus operandi of artistic expression and the agendas of community builders. They may well coincide on a given issue, and the coincidence can be a source of strength to both art and community, but an arts organization needs to be able to choose the terms of its engagement with power. Organizations that are weighed down by wider civic responsibilities and the financial obligations that are required to exercise them risk losing that ability to make choicesespecially when financial survival is dependent upon the ability to demonstrate effectiveness as an instrument of someone else's policy.
This dilemma has grown more acute as funders' criteria have become more explicit and the methodologies of evaluation more exacting, which in turn has led to a greater interest in areas that can be measured and a neglect of interest in many of the ineffable qualities that are the raison d'etre of artistic expression.
Whether the source of funds is the public sector, foundations, or corporations, they are all increasingly strategic in their purposes, increasingly willing to call the organizations they fund to account, and less and less willing to fund general operating costs as opposed to the variable costs of specific programs that further the funders' strategic agendas.
In seeking at least a partial escape from this dilemma, many organizations look increasingly to new sources of earned incomeexpanded retail and catering, licensing, partnerships with for-profit organizations, etc., etc. This can absorb considerable time and effort from senior management and board members, and displaces attention to core functions and pushes organizations into new and unfamiliar areas of riskthat as often as not tempt organizations down the path of imagined cross-subsidy that subsequently fails to materialize.
Many of the organizational and physical means required to dispatch the newer, more instrumental ends that arts organizations pursue are often themselves inimical to risk-taking. The inclusive, often cumbersome, structures of governance; the generally consensual and process-heavy nature of the managerial paradigm that has become received wisdom for nonprofit management in the United States; and the rapacious demands of planning, constructing, occupying and maintaining high profile civic buildings (a.k.a. the edifice complex) all militate against the maneuverability and entrepreneurial opportunism that is the breeding ground of artistic innovationand indeed of commercial success.
Expressive logic and the garage-band sensibility
I'm thrilled we're all talking about instrumental arts-support logic. I've tracked this instrumental logic back to Walt Whitman and up through the culture wars (see the review of Jensen's Is Art Good for Us? in the GIA Reader, Winter 2003, 14.1) and I really believe it is ultimately harmful to our cause. Assuming that our common cause is fostering and sharing the arts that we love, how do we best make our case? I want us to give up instrumental logic, and adopt a more expressive logic in support of the arts. Expressive logic is based not on extrinsic or intrinsic benefits, but on the value of aesthetic experience. If we adopt it, we'll have a much easier time getting non-arts types to try our favorite forms. But to adopt expressive perspectives, we'll have to let go of our self-serving assumptions about the powers of art to uplift, refine, transform, empower etc.
If we are to adopt expressive logic, and define the arts as public goods, like parks and libraries, then we need to explore how and why the arts, natural spaces, and information collections offer us valuable, worthwhile experiences. Historically, the presumed instrumental value of public parks and libraries was what got them fundedboth were seen as ways to assimilate and uplift immigrants and the unwashed masses. Such hopes may have helped convince philanthropists in the late 19th century, but libraries and parks (at least here in the heartland) are too often dismissed as "frills," compared with other social services. I'm all for the arts, for parks and for libraries, but not because I think they will uplift, civilize or refine anyone. They are good things that I love, and I want to make them happen, and I will support them when they do, and I yearn to share them with my fellow citizens.
Which brings me to a garage-band model of cultural performance. Sometimes you don't need to be widely popular or prosperous to exist and do well. All you have to do is keep things really cheap. My husband has a small theater company here in Tulsa that has successfully staged four oddball plays a year for the past five years. He started it with $2000 and he still has $2000 in the bank, which he uses to stage mostly terrific shows that need no more than about 25 people per night (at $10 a person) to break even. Some shows lose money, some make it, but he has never assumed that he needed or deserved extra funding to put on the stuff that he likes, and that other local theater companies can't or won't do. His is the garage-band model for theater, and it offers quirky but high quality cultural experiences to all participants.
The most frequent question he gets when people call for tickets is "what should I wear?" A subset of them ask about food, and most have clearly have never heard of a black box theater. But when they show up for Beckett or Havel, they find out that there's something other than musical dinner theater, or Our Town that can be called theater. And they don't have to wear fancy clothes, and even weird sounding plays done by local actors can be worth going to.
Obviously symphonies and operas can't be garage bands (of course we shouldn't be lumping museums with orchestras with local theater groups, as has already been pointed out). But we need to remember that garage bands (and many forms of fine art) don't need a very big audience to exist and to continue. Maybe we shouldn't spend so much of our energies seeking revenue streams to help us grow bigger and more popular and more prosperous. Maybe we should just keep doing our oddball stuff in our own passionate ways, and do our best to help other people see why we're so dedicated to the cultural forms we call "the arts."
The RAND report mentions in passing the role that the arts play in the creation and maintenance of social identity. Instrumental logic too easily fosters an elitist and pedantic identity for the arts, an identity that rightly puts off all kinds of people. Expressive logic, and a garage-band sensibility, fosters an arts identity that is more open, democratic, egalitarian, and experimental. With it, the arts can become more welcoming and inclusive, without commercializing or pandering. And that can only help the artsand all of usfrom here on in.
Does milk do a body good?
Sorry for the sidebar, but I can't resist the comparison. Just as we're all wrestling with the RAND study, the dairy industry has been smacked with a literature review that questions the positive health benefits of milk. Says one news story: "'Evidence linking bone health with dairy product consumption is weak,' said the researchers... 'Under scientific scrutiny, the support for the milk myth crumbles,' wrote lead researcher, nutritionist, Dr. Amy Joy Lanou."
So, we can move on from the fallacy that we're the only industry struggling to prove broader public value for what we offer. Perhaps we should invite a few dairy advocates to compare notes.
From the "media" perspective
One element we haven't really addressed directly yet is the role of the professional argument makers in addressing the value of the arts. That would be journalists - arts journalists who regularly attend and review performances and exhibitions, and journalists who are engaged with improving civic life through editorializing and opinion columns. I've spent some time doing both kinds of work, reviewing music, and working for the editorial page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, making arguments for maintaining architectural landmarks, supporting arts groups, and rebuilding the fabric of downtown life. As an editorial writer, I often fought a kind of blank despair. We would craft arguments (using every rhetorical resource we could muster, instrumental, intrinsic, etc.) that seemed crushingly convincing, we'd send them out into the world, and nothing would change. It was good training in the frustrations of a one-sided conversation, which I imagine is what many in the business of promoting the arts feel, day to day. As a music critic, I rarely engaged with anything so bluntly promotional as a direct argument about the merits, uses, values, of great music. It seemed to me that my role was to demonstrate the relevance of music, rather than argue for it. And that demonstration came in the form (I hoped) of lively, regular reviewing. Which leads me to the one real point I have to add to the previous entries about the experimental vitality of the nonprofit arts sector. There are a lot of "arguments" with the public about art going on at every level, in all sorts of different media. Television advertisements that make an evening out at the theater a glamorous thing are a kind of argument. And reviewing is an argument as well. If you want to harness the demonstrative power of the critical "argument," you have to provide critics something interesting to talk about. There's a reason why critics rarely cover community choruses, dinner theater, and so forth. Not because we think the world would be better without them, but because they give us so little material with which to engage a thinking public.
Know your audience
Robert L. Lynch
Every year Americans for the Arts consults the National League of Cities for their annual survey of elected officials, which highlights the top issues that concern their 1,600 city members. This year, like all years, among the top ten are (only the order changing from time to time) city economic conditions, health, housing, unemployment & jobs, racial & economic inequalities. The arts are never on this list, but the arts make a contribution to each and we need more research to more effectively draw the connections.
Anyone making a case for the arts to a public decision maker who ignores the full spectrum of arguments necessary to reach the full spectrum of decision makers in today's environment of minuscule vote margins will lose. And private sector decision makers are no less tough. There is no evidence that social good and economic arguments have begun to wear thin. To research this all anyone needs to do is look at the congressional record and at voting records of state legislatures, local city councils, and county commissions. It will be an eye opener.
Then here are a few random thoughts. We need not decrease or de-emphasize any arguments we have but new arguments are very much welcome and needed. The landscape varies. The rise and fall of state government funding has risen and fallen in direct relationship to local state economies. The rise and fall of federal monies has been more ideological and political, and the pretty steady rise of local government funding has been directly linked to issues of community development. So there is no one size fits all. As Tip O'Neill said "all politics (insert arts politics) is local."
There are suggestions that economic, educational, and social benefits of arts arguments are new since the late '80s and '90s. Not true. The United States evolved from very practical roots. Practicality and self reliance are still core values. Think of the John Adams quote we all know about the number of generations of practical endeavors it would take before the arts and letters could be a key part of peoples lives. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr in the first Nancy Hanks lecture produced by Americans for the Arts reminds us that the WPA Arts Projects in 1935 were for jobs creation.
The NEA itself came out of the House Committee on Education and Labor (note education and labor) and I myself was sitting across from Governor King of Massachusetts as early as the late '70s arguing to keep him from eliminating the Massachusetts State Arts Council budget of then $2.3 million when he instead chose to actually increase the budget based pretty exclusively on new economic impact data that we brought fresh from a young Tom Wolf at the New England Foundation for the Arts.
The reason that public money, private money, and earned income for the arts have all been challenged over the last four years has very little to do with the arguments and a whole lot to do with Sept. 11th, the stock market decline, and the earlier erosion of the dot com industries.
It is important to recall that the 1995 slashing of the NEA by 40 percent for the FY1996 budget was part of a three-year phase-out plan voted by the Newt Gingrich Congress that most people pretty much thought was a done deal. Elimination of the NEA was turned around by enormous national advocacy efforts focused on instrumental arguments that gave moderates reasons to support federal cultural funding that were compatible with party policies, and compelled the Senate to keep the NEA alive.
Then in 2000 we won for FY 2001 the first increase for the NEA in nine years because of continuing enormous national advocacy efforts and the fact that some twenty moderate republicans crossed party lines and voted for the arts based almost entirely upon economic impact arguments because they could defend this rationale to their own constituents. The Endowment's increase was by three votes but signaled a major policy shift.
Looking for solid ground
Creative industries of all typeswhether commercial or nonprofitare currently seeing the ground under them shift and their business models needing to be reinvented. Mass culture is dissolving before our eyes, and aggregated audiences seem to be declining across the board for TV, music, movies, books, sports Some ventures, like the recording industry, cling desperately to their traditional model, evolving only when forced. Others are trying to grow new models, sensing opportunity in change. It's not that there are fewer people consuming culture, it's that their access to more things has expanded exponentially. In this context, the arts seem to be doing very well indeed at holding their own when compared to popular culture.
Are there opportunities in this change for "the arts"? Much of this conversation has been about the language we use to "make a case." I'm wondering if (moving beyond the language) anyone has practical ideas or strategies? Something solid to take away from this at the end?
After reading the entries and responses to this blog, I'm convinced that our real challenge is to decide if we can enter a kind of "rub-your-stomach; pat-your-head" period in which we work hard to craft and execute good casemaking on behalf of nonprofits while, at the same time, we step back to assess our current approach to cultural intervention in order to figure out what we do now, in the 21st century, to help the arts system work better for citizens and artists. My initial notion is that modern-day intervention will find us taking on tax policy, access to heritage, balancing copyright against larger public interests, and media regulation. Grantmaking and public funding may not be, for the next few decades, "where the action is."
The long goodbye Adrian Ellis
Here are some thoughts that this blogathon prompted.
First, policy wonks like me should to be better able to define a vibrant cultural community than we are. And we should have a better analytical understanding of what the drivers are: why capital investment is unhealthy for us unless matched by operational funding, like carbohydrates without vitamins; why there needs to be a balance between investment in amateur and professional activities; what levels of investment in arts educational activities etc. etc. constitute a balanced cultural ecology. We lack the causal models that other policy communities use to hone and explore areas of agreement and contention. The data we collect always seems to be for advocacy rather than analysis, leaving advocacy under-served by the absence of analysis. So one thing that the policy wonks can do is improve the technical understanding of the sector. We are the "stomach rubbers," and we need to rub more vigorously.
Second, there seems to be a consensus that lobbyists and advocacy bodiesBill's "head patters"need to find a more compelling public language for the core experiences that we know draw us towards cultural activities and that also engage many if not all funders. Head patters and stomach rubbers alike know that much of the current language of legitimation sets the bar of public accountability low and at a clumsy angle to the core purposes and value of many cultural organizations. A language that more accurately reflects why cultural activity engages is also more likely in turn to engage decision makers. The less authentic it is, the more likely it is to generate expectations than cannot be fulfilled in the longer term - and risk a backlash for which I fear the head patters will blame the uppity stomach rubbers.
Third, arts funders, public and private, should be more responsible and more attuned to the long-term impact of different forms of cultural support. Foundations, who are supposed to be society's thought leaders, could lead the way on more of this stuff. I do not necessarily mean commissioning RAND XIV. Rather I mean thinking through the long-term impact of different forms of cultural investment. In particular they should think through the infantilizing impact of overly directive funding and the destabilizing impact of the emphasis on program funding rather than core activities, and the resulting under-funded expansion.
Fourth, arts administrators should not be as easily seduced as they have been by the trappings of the civic agenda: Have the self-discipline to remain focused on their core mission and be a little more leery of seeking roles and responsibilities (and a scale of operation) that diminish their ability to take the risks that creative endeavor requires.
It is very difficult for any of us to do any of these things if the climate of opinion is hostile or indifferent. The value of this sort of dialogue is that it helps climatic change. As John Maynard Keynes famously but succinctly put it, "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back Sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."
Over and out.
I would like to thank everyone - bloggers and readers - who participated in this weeklong public discussion. There have been so many ideas and observations, it's rather dizzying to try to keep up.
A personal observation: One of our real challenges today is finding ways to have debates about culture in public. Politics is endlessly debated. So is sports. But where are the frank public conversations about art and about culture? Not just someone spouting an opinion. Not just another self-promotion or evangelical sermon. How do we get the public engaged in talking about art? We have to promote the conversations wherever we can.
To me, art is about wrestling with ideas, about engaging with creativity in a vigorous back-and-forth that leaves me changed in some way. I love that an encounter with really good art usually provokes more questions than answers and sends me out looking for more.
Maybe that's one reason that arriving at clear answers and an action plan from a conversation like this is impossible. Yet I think it is crucially important to try. How great to see people engage and talk about art as if it mattered. As demonstrated over and over, passion is one of the most attractive and effective ambassadors for art.
ArtsJournal: The Daily Digest of Arts, Culture & Ideas is a weekday digest of arts and cultural journalism from more than 200 English-language newspapers, magazines, and publications. Short summaries and direct links are posted every weekday beginning at 5 am (Pacific time) on the ArtsJournal news pages on its web site. ArtsJournal's editor-in-chief is Douglas McLennan, formerly an arts columnist and arts reporter with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Weekly. Senior editor is Jack Miles (senior advisor to the president, J. Paul Getty Trust) and assistant editor is Sam Bergman (violist, the Minnesota Orchestra).
I was very excited to hear in March that ArtsJournal would be hosting a blog about Gifts of the Muse. A few caveats to start:
- I consider Gifts to be one of three pillars of unprecedented new thinking and research that help practitioners build participation AND that reveal the personal benefits and public value of the arts;
- Gifts is consistent with and supported by the recent work of Gerald Zaltman, Howard Gardner, and Alan Brown as well as by George Lakoff's classic, Metaphors We Live By;
- ArtsJournal is a tremendous daily resource; and
- I have the deepest respect for the experience and intelligence of each of the ten "distinguished bloggers."
However, as I read the comments, I found the posts much less valuable than I had hoped. I wondered why?
Was it the limited number of people (ten) invited to be distinguished bloggers?
Was it the lack of diversity in those selected (gender, age, race, geography, seniority in the field)?
Was it a lack of understanding by the invited bloggers of the purposes and utility of Gifts and recent corollary research?
Was an inability to discuss complex research built into the blog methodology?
Was I expecting too much?
Was it because it's "difficult to alter one's mind as the years pass"? (Gardner)
Was it because Doug McLennan posed the wrong question"Is there a better case to be made for the arts?"
Was it because it wasn't contextualized and introduced by those who use the findings to build participation and reveal the personal benefit and public value of the arts?
Was it all of the above?
While I know that I could be leaving a reader guessing at the reasons for all my questions, I hope they will serve as an invitation to respond. In the next month, I will reflect on and write more about these questions and I would like to include comments about Gifts of the Muse from others. Please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the Reader editors if you'd like to contribute.