What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

Watching the local news recently, there was an article about public art funding being in jeopardy in the state of Washington. The reporter ended the story by implying the big losers here would be the artists who have received funds from the program. This was a reminder to me of how we are losing the public relations war about the importance of the arts in our lives and communities. Actually, it is not the artists who are the big losers (although they are one loser). It is all the people who live and visit the state of Washington.

We are in a political and social environment of special interests. Unfortunately, the arts have become one of those special interests. I’m not sure if there is any way to extricate the arts from this whirlwind of competition for resources and priorities. But I do think we can do a better job describing why artists and arts organizations are important. Right now, if you asked anyone on the street if they think artists should get public or private grant money, chances are the answer would be “no.” But if you asked them if they would like to live in a world without music, dance, film, television, theatre, graphic images and artistic treasures, they would also say “no.” Who gains from the society where artists are vital contributors to the social and educational infrastructure? It seems to me like everyone gains.

I guess the question is: do we support artists for their own sake or do we support making the world a better place for everyone and artists are the means by which we accomplish this?” It seems the world around us is demanding the latter. I think if every artist, arts advocate, organization and funder were to look beyond the art to articulate why and for whom art making is important, we might have a society that better understands that our special interest is of wide interest. If communities or states (like Kansas) proclaim there is no value back for the dollar in this investment, then we haven’t made the case for the greater good.

There is a societal impact of artists on their communities. There is a reason Chicago feels differently from Seattle that feels differently from Miami and much of it has to do with arts and culture. Even in small towns, support for creative endeavors raises the bar and rallies the communal spirit. When we communicate why it is we support artists and arts organizations, let’s make sure we include who benefits most from the results of their work. It is the people who drive by that artwork everyday or who find themselves humming that music after a concert or taking home a poster to hang in their home. It is the chamber of commerce that reaps the rewards of a vibrant community filled with cultural nightlife and an appreciation of beauty. It is the homeowner whose property values haven’t dropped but risen and it’s the parents who decide this is the kind of place they want to raise their kids.

Let’s not fail to communicate that they are the reason we support artists and they are the biggest losers when artists aren’t valued in our communities, our states and our country.