Reality is Not Perception

What do you think the general public thinks these days when they hear the words “the arts?” Does it conjure up images of what they do on a daily basis: listening to music, watching television, singing in church choir, reading a book, attending the theatre? Or do most people think of an elite special interest group for people with money? I’m thinking about language again because it gets us into so much trouble.

Over the years, the nonprofit arts sector has been defined with terms like “high arts” and “low arts” “fine arts” and “folk arts.” I’d argue that none of it has made much sense to most Americans who are not directly involved in the making or administration of the nonprofit arts world as we know it.

There doesn’t seem to be this kind of confusion in other fields. Take baseball, for example. Nobody confuses or attempts to make excuses for the “high teams”….the professional teams. Nobody is even making any fuss about how much money is paid to professional athletes, which could, in some people’s opinions, be likened to that of Wall Street hedge fund managers or bank CEOs. And no one seems to be complaining about how much it costs these days to go to a professional baseball game despite the fact that most stadiums and teams are subsidized with our tax dollars. Everyone accepts the value of baseball from little league teams to the pros and that it has benefits to human physical and mental development complete with huge entertainment opportunities, community pride and, at the professional level, economic drivers.

So why do I have this nagging feeling (no research involved here) that when we talk about “the arts” most people think of expensive and out of reach institutions that offer programming that the average American does not attend or appreciate. But when we talk about music, dance, drama or being “artsy-craftsy,” this relates directly to something we all do as individuals.

The phrase “the arts” is an insider term that is usually perceived as being lofty and unaffordable for most Americans. Think of asking this question at your next family reunion: “Do you enjoy the arts?” Now, think about asking it this way, “Do you play or listen to music?” “Do you like going to plays?” “Do you like dancing or watching professional dancers?” “Do you read books?” These are the kinds of questions asked in those big surveys where it’s determined that a huge percentage of all Americans participate in some kind of art form, either as an art maker or as a consumer of art.

So “the arts.” What does it mean to you? What does it mean to your elected officials, your donors, the community you are attempting to serve? I have always contended that there is a great disconnect between the reality of how art affects our communities and our individual lives and how most people perceive “the arts” when we (arts people) talk about it. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have an artistic preference, specialty or passion. So maybe we need to figure out how to tap into the language used by people who are not artists, arts administrators or arts funders and then we can begin to narrow the gap between reality and perception.