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Is there a better case to be made for the arts?

October 18, 200518 October 2005

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This ArtsJournal Forum, funded by the Wallace Foundation, brings together 11 artists, arts administrators, advocates, researchers and critics to discuss the main contention of a recent RAND report: that a better case can be made for the arts by focussing on intrinsic effects.

Douglas McLennan, moderator of the Forum, notes in his introduction that the strategy of touting the economic, educational and social benefits of the arts seemed to work well between 1993 and 2001, as demonstrated by significant increases in arts funding, especially at the state level. More recently, however, “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”.

The Forum contains a large number of interesting threads of discussion. On the whole, it appears that many of the participants agree that different arguments need to be made in different circumstances. Violinist Midori states that “the more cases that can be presented to support the benefits of music, the better.” Many participants also seem to agree that a strengthening of the operations of arts organizations is required, rather than major building projects or expansion in the number of organizations.

Given the diversity of opinions expressed in the Forum’s 44-page report, a full summary is not possible. Instead, some interesting quotes from participants are provided here:

  • We cannot take “public appreciation and understanding of the arts for granted…. In a world where the clamour for charitable contributions has increased – where 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 important” (Ben Cameron, Theatre Communications Group);
  • “The first rule of advocacy is: ‘to whom are you advocating’ and the second rule is ‘what do they care about’ not ‘what do you care about’.” (Robert Lynch, Americans for the Arts);
  • “Instrumental arguments might leak here and there, but they also contain some solid truths and they work” (Bill Ivey of the Curb Center and former Chair of the NEA);
  • “Whether we like it or not, in the public realm the instrumental arguments work best. Policy makers can be persuaded with good economic impact numbers”, with “arguments about educational benefits” or “improved test scores”, with the argument that “local festivals encourage people to interact with their neighbours. Since policy makers represent the public, they want to hear the public case.” (Jim Kelly, 4Culture, Seattle);
  • “There is no evidence that social good and economic arguments have begun to wear thin…. 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 industries.” (Robert Lynch, Americans for the Arts);
  • We need to use various arguments, “but use them with mastery, with insight, with elegance, and with care” (Andrew Taylor, University of Wisconsin-Madison);
  • “Advocacy is retail. It’s one-on-one. It isn’t making a good case, it’s making a personal connection.” (Jim Kelly, 4Culture, Seattle);
  • “Ultimately, it is great music and its appropriate presentation that serve music best…. We need more artists actively involved in all aspects of advocacy and fundraising…. Learning the technical skills of an instrument should not be separated from learning the methods of outreach.” (Midori);
  • “The RAND report’s suggestion that arts organizations need to concentrate on articulating the intrinsic value of the arts misses the point – the funding organizations to whom these arguments are being made need to change their criteria, not the arts organizations.” (Glenn Lowry, Museum of Modern Art);
  • “The multitude of donor demands and expectations forces arts nonprofits to take their eyes off the creative ball…. 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” (Midori);
  • “Let’s paint a picture of what we think a vibrant cultural system should look like, and then advocate on behalf of policies that take us there.” (Bill Ivey of the Curb Center and former Chair of the NEA);
  • “The cultural sector seems to feel the need to hold itself to higher (or maybe just odder) evidential standards than other sectors – for 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.” (Adrian Ellis, consultant);
  • “The arts don’t have the stature of other areas of public policy that are assumed to be important to the public interest.” (Bill Ivey of the Curb Center and former Chair of the NEA);
  • We should explore “how various forms of culture have meaning and value for various social groups” and “how cultural experiences vary or stay the same across forms of culture like crafts, hobbies and sports events, as well as the fine arts”. (Joli Jensen, University of Tulsa, author of “Is Art Good for Us?”); and
  • “You will never appreciate the intrinsic value of the arts if you’ve never experienced the arts. So let’s dedicate ourselves to increasing people’s exposure to the arts in all their permutations.” (Jim Kelly, 4Culture, Seattle).

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