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Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts

October 18, 200518 October 2005

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This report, through a literature review of the benefits of the arts, attempts “to engage the arts community and the public in a new dialogue about the value of the arts, to stimulate further research, and to help public and private policymakers reach informed decisions”. The report’s authors indicate that “current arguments for private and public investment in the arts emphasize the potential of the arts for serving broad social and economic goals”. The authors classify these arguments as “instrumental” because the arts are an instrument for social and economic goals, not artistic ones.

The literature review examines five types of instrumental benefits:

  • cognitive benefits, such as learning skills and academic performance (although the authors also classify cognitive benefits as an intrinsic benefit);
  • attitudinal and behavioural benefits, such as self-discipline, school attendance and general life skills;
  • health benefits;
  • community-level social benefits, such as community identity and social capital building; and
  • economic benefits.

The authors believe that more attention should be paid to “intrinsic” effects of the arts (those that “are inherent in the arts experience itself and are valued for themselves rather than as a means to something else”). Intrinsic benefits include effects that are largely private to an individual (such as captivation and pleasure), those that are of value both to the individual and to broader society (such as cognitive growth and expanded capacity for empathy), and those that are largely of public benefit (such as the creation of social bonds and expression of communal meaning). Given the relative lack of research into intrinsic benefits, the report recommends that language for discussing intrinsic benefits be developed.

However, the report’s authors do not demonstrate that research into intrinsic effects will provide more effective arguments for the arts, nor do they attempt to assess the effectiveness of current arts advocacy. They also do not examine the “demand” for arts advocacy, that is, the interests of politicians, policy-makers or funders. Rather, they focus solely on the “supply” of arguments for the arts. Presumably, arts advocates believe that they are making the most effective arguments possible given their circumstances.

The report contends that some of the research into instrumental arguments has shown conceptual and methodological limitations: weakness in empirical methods (such as lack of causal proof rather than just correlations); absence of specificity (“how the claimed benefits are produced, how they relate to different types of arts experiences, and under what circumstances and for which populations they are most likely to occur”); and failure to consider opportunity costs (that is, whether the arts have a comparative advantage in producing certain benefits when compared with other policy or funding options).

The authors recommend that the limitations of some of the research on instrumental benefits be addressed. However, given the nature of research into human and social phenomena, any new research (into intrinsic or instrumental benefits) would likely show correlations, not direct causality. The goal of examining opportunity costs – other possible policy and funding options – raises questions as to which of the myriad other possibilities should be examined (health care? education? environmental initiatives? a new sports arena? a new employment program? all of the above? others?). There are, of course, many other potential uses for scarce dollars, but asking researchers to examine all other options would, at a minimum, significantly increase research costs, time and effort.

The report’s authors also argue that current arguments for the arts place “undue emphasis on arts supply and financial support” of non-profit arts organizations. Given this, the report recommends that greater attention be paid to “spreading the benefits of the arts by introducing greater numbers of Americans to engaging arts experiences”.

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