[Createquity Reruns] Economics myths

(Happy Labor Day! For those of you who are wondering when the new Createquity is coming, never fear – we’ll have an announcement about that soon. In the meantime, our rerun programming continues with a series of posts about economics. Createquity has always loved exploring the intersection between the arts and various other fields, but if there’s one social science discipline that holds more sway over this site than any other, it’s econ. And yet at various points I’ve expressed intense frustration with conventional thinking around economics, the kind of textbook insights that free-market fundamentalists rely on when making arguments apologizing for selfishness. This post, written not long after I completed my first economics course in business school, is where that all started – and it’s pretty much a pure rant. But I enjoy it, and I hope you will too! -IDM)

When I first studied music theory approximately a decade ago, I was rather shocked to discover, unbeknownst to me and apparently every rock band whose music sent me into spasms of ecstasy when played on my headphones at high volume, that parallel fifths in music—not to mention octaves, cross relations, and leaping to a leading tone, among countless other infractions—are bad, bad, evil, bad. Of course, no one who writes music nowadays actually believes this. But that’s not what they told me at the time, and that’s not how my assignments were graded. To this day, as a composer, I have yet to encounter a situation in which the ability to write sonatas in authentic 18th-century style has come in handy. Anyone? Anyone? Maybe it’s just me.

This is not a case of running into some bad teachers. This is the way music students are taught introductory music theory. It’s a conservatory tradition that goes back hundreds of years, to a time when those parallel fifths actually mattered to people writing music professionally. It’s just that the pedagogy has fallen behind where the field is, to the tune of a decade or twenty.

I encountered this same feeling again this past semester when learning about economics for the first time. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there is still much about economics, as a field, that I do not yet know or understand. I’m sure that there are smart people out there developing models that take into account the concerns I detail below. For now, though, I want to take a look at the assumptions that underlie the very practice of economics, and the way that those assumptions are presented unchallenged in the standard introductory curriculum.

If all economics tried to do was observe and model human behavior, I wouldn’t be writing this screed. But economists apparently feel that it’s okay to make not just “positive” statements, about what is, but “normative” statements as well, about what ought to be. I often felt, in my introductory econ classes and while reading my textbook, like I was watching an advertisement for Republican fiscal policy. Our reference text, the popular Microeconomics by Robert Pindyck and Daniel Rubinfeld, does not shy away from applying classical economic theory to the issues of the moment. On the contrary, the book analyzes taxes, wage floors, price subsidies, and other attempts by the government to gain revenue or regulate prices for some social purpose. Each discussion is accompanied by helpful graphs that show you how each of these policies creates “deadweight loss” resulting from the reduction in the number of transactions. That’s right, they call it “deadweight loss.” Could they think of a more biased term? I mean, there’s no “happy joy gain” on the graph from the public benefits of fewer people smoking cigarettes or everybody having access to heat and hot water.

And that, friends, is the problem. Classical economics models have no reliable way to represent human happiness or suffering in a supply-and-demand graph. Little things like that are what economists call an “externality” – i.e., they don’t know how to make it into a formula, so they’re just sort of going to pretend it doesn’t exist. (The issue of externalities is first addressed on page 621 of the Pindyck and Rubinfeld textbook, in the 18th and final chapter.) On the other hand, any attempt to mess with the market causes measurable deadweight loss, so that means it’s bad. It’s all so simple and convenient!

I wouldn’t be harping on this except for the fact that there are actually people, seasoned professionals with jobs teaching economics to young minds, who think this way. Earlier this year, I attended a panel discussion (which was really more like a Lincoln-Douglas style high school debate on steroids) at the Yale Law School entitled “The Myth of the Rational Voter.” The guest star was an associate professor from George Mason University named Bryan Caplan, whose book was both the subject of discussion and the title of the event. Hoping to gain expert psychological insight into electoral politics, I was disappointed to find that the book was apparently an investigation into why “correct” economic policies generally become law despite a vast majority of voters holding “wrong” views about economics. And what were these “wrong” views, one might ask? Yup, you guessed it—tariffs are bad, taxes are bad, rent control bad, free markets good good good. Leaving aside the obvious methodological issues with such a survey (after all, government policies are generally designed to be of greater benefit to the average layperson than the average professional economist), what disturbed me was that there was absolutely no challenge to these basic assumptions from the other panelists. Caplan was allowed to present these opinions as foregone conclusions, as if economic science had shown them to be as obvious as the law of gravity. He also couldn’t help throwing in some smug digs at the (lack of) intelligence of his own students, which of course just made him all the more endearing.

I hear people talking like this and it makes me want to scream. Folks, there is no such thing as free markets in modern society. If markets were truly free, slavery would still be a booming industry in this country, as it was in the 1600s. If markets were truly free, we’d have paid bounty hunters roaming our cities, putting on hits for anyone who wanted to get rid of an inconvenient rival or former spouse. If markets were truly free, crime in poor areas would spiral out of control as public police departments were replaced by private security agencies who would charge more to serve high-crime areas because of higher costs. Heat? Electricity? Firefighting? Forget it, those would be private too. Can’t pay? Too bad.

The fact is, there is a basic tension in economics between efficiency and equality, which Pindyck and Rubinfeld readily acknowledge. Getting maximum productivity (from a profit standpoint) in a market means that people with lower incomes will be left out of the picture. Economists even have a name for these people. It’s “low-value consumers.”

There is an alternative way of looking at the above, which is that there is no such thing as something that’s not a free market. After all, the government systems we do have in place for human services, infrastructure, price regulation, and so on, are essentially the result of consumer action. They voted people into office to institute these reforms, a power no consumer had on his or her own. One could argue that these policies are the result of the “market” deciding, in aggregate, that prohibitions against certain industries might be a good thing. That environmental protection was worth setting limits on what large companies could put into the air or water. This view requires a broader conception of market activity that goes beyond merely buying and selling. It essentially says that whatever happens is part of the larger organism of humanity, that the actions companies and consumers take to affect the market are as much a symptom of the market as a driver of it. It says that markets will always be free so long as human beings are creating and living them.

To believe that, though, would invalidate the classical economic assumption that the only thing people are interested in is maximizing profit. Whoops!

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[Createquity Reruns] Supply is Not Going to Decrease (So It’s Time to Think About Curating)

(Our reruns this week have focused intensely on the competition among artists that makes it difficult to make a sustainable living as one. This exact issue blew up in the arts world some three and a half years ago, after then-NEA-Chairman Rocco Landesman dared to invoke the words “supply and demand” at a convening and suggest that reducing supply was more realistic than increasing demand. Many people in the arts disagreed, and we did too – but not for the same reasons. Leaving aside the moral arguments, we simply don’t think that decreasing supply is ever going to happen no matter what anyone does, so any strategy to deal with the issue needs to accept “oversupply” as a given. This response was originally published on the NEA’s Art Works blog. -IDM)

Image by Flickr user Waddell and Condor

I’ve been waiting for a while to respond to the controversy that erupted after Rocco Landesman’s comments on supply and demand in the arts at Arena Stage in January. (Createquity’s previous coverage, provided by Aaron Andersen, is here.) Most of the very thought-provoking commentary in the interim has taken issue in one way or another either with the notion that demand cannot increase, or the appropriateness of the supply/demand construct altogether. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I want to propose a slightly different way of thinking about the situation.

The first thing for us to understand is that Rocco’s comments did not come out of nowhere. People in arts policy circles have been grumbling about the dramatic increase in arts organizations for years. I had actually been collecting links on this topic all through last year in preparation for a post on oversupply when the news of Rocco’s speech hit. Here’s Michael Kaiser, for example, noting that “so many people” over the past two years have suggested to him that we must thin out the field (he does not agree). Jim Undercofler, arts management professor at Drexel and former CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, admitted recently that he was questioning his “initiating assumption” that there are too many nonprofits.1 Here’s former Mellon Foundation Associate Program Officer Diane Ragsdale with a post on oversupply 10 days prior to Rocco’s address at Arena Stage. And this past fall, Grantmakers in the Arts’s much-heralded National Capitalization Project Report ended up making a lot of people nervous, primarily because of the inclusion of this statement among its core hypotheses: “there is an oversupply of product in some marketplaces, and…current funding practices do not address this issue.”

I take the view that, whatever the merits might be of reducing supply, there is virtually nothing anyone—funders included—can do to actually make it happen. For one thing, conversation about supply and demand breaks down a bit when the suppliers have an intrinsic motivation to be in the marketplace. Classical economic models assume that suppliers don’t have any particular emotional attachment to what they’re supplying; all they really want to do is to make money. As a result, if they’re not making money, they’ll exit the industry, leaving more to go around for everyone else. As we see from Kirk Lynn’s contribution to the discussion, however, many artists (especially artist-entrepreneurs) have far too much passion for their work to consider exiting solely for financial reasons. The result of this lack of exit is a surfeit of fantastic art that few aside from its creators have time to take in.

Notice that I didn’t say in that last sentence “a surfeit of fantastic art that few want to take in.” An immutable fact of contemporary culture is that the volume of expressive content and product available for us to consume overwhelms not just our desire, but our physical ability to experience it all. The number of albums released on CD in 2008 is enough that a listener couldn’t get through more than an eighth of them even if he had his headphones on for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Users upload the equivalent of 176,000 full-length movies to YouTube every week. And that’s just the stuff that’s being released today! Meanwhile, every creator must compete not only with all of her contemporaries, but also with all of those who came before her whose work survived to the present—and that supply is not about to decrease anytime soon. (Unfortunately, creators cannot similarly count on dead audience members to be a part of their fan club.) Moreover, the phenomenon of oversupply—or, put another way, hypercompetition—is far, far bigger than the nonprofit arts sector. It affects industries ranging from video games to smartphone application stores, Facebook, cable TV, and yes, blogs. In many ways, it is existential in scope: our brains and lifespans are not built to withstand this onslaught of choices. The supply of artists, arts organizations, and even capital may increase with relative ease, but the supply of time in the day, last I checked, remains pretty constant.

So to me, the conversation we should be having is not about reducing supply. Instead it is about defining the responsibilities of cultural institutions to provide stewardship for a world in which supply of creative content is exploding and will never shrink. In this era of infinite choice, there is a desperate need for guidance as to how we should allocate the precious few hours that we have to experience something that will feed our souls, make us think differently, or incur a hearty laugh. In other words: for curation. We need someone to listen to, watch, and view all of the chaff so that we can confine our own time to the wheat. But quality curation-that is to say, curation that results from independent, original research and informed, critical judgments-is not just good for us as consumers. It’s just as important for the artists. In particular, in a hypercompetitive environment like this one, we need to look out for the artist with the talent and drive to make great art, but without an income stream that will support her as she makes it. The voices of these artists—the gifted but resourceless—risk getting shut out unfairly because many others have the capital and connections to bring their work to the attention of gatekeepers, even if that work is inferior.

I believe it’s critically important that, as we seek to impose structure and sanity on this world, we do not cut off the flow of new ideas and new voices in the name of triage. The main reason why we have this proliferation of nonprofits, I think, is because artists think it’s the only vehicle they have available to them to do their work. But as Adam Huttler points out, it’s not – in particular, fiscal sponsorship provides an attractive and immediately available alternative structure in which to accomplish one’s artistic goals. With fiscal sponsorship, there is no assumption of perpetuity; no mandate to form and submit to a board that may not understand or share the founder’s agenda; and much less in the way of paperwork and reporting requirements.

So why would anyone form a nonprofit? A nonprofit still makes sense, in my view, if its focus is not on a specific artist or group of artists. Any organization that provides infrastructure - presenters, community arts organizations, arts education providers, local arts councils, service organizations, and the like – is a good candidate for the nonprofit form. Rule of thumb: if an organization would have no reason to continue on if its founder(s) left tomorrow, it probably shouldn’t be a nonprofit.

If I were a funder, I would be thinking about how to focus my support on organizations that are nonprofits for the right reasons. Funders can accomplish more impact by supporting institutions that work with and involve a wide range of constituents, be they artists, audience members, community members, etc. And yes, that does suggest—as both Rocco and Grantmakers in the Arts have suggested—larger grants to fewer organizations. However, this only works with the other pieces of the puzzle if all of the following three things are true about the organizations receiving grants:

  1. They actually pay the artists. This is how we can get away with not supporting artistic producers directly. There needs to be a mechanism for those producers (i.e., dance and theater companies, musical ensembles, individual painters, sculptors, etc.) to make money through the system that is being set up. If grantees that present the work of artists to the public are not compensating their creative collaborators proportionately with the support they’re receiving, this strategy is undermined.
  2. They’re performing their curatorial duty. If all the organizations that hire artists and ensembles are too lazy or hamstrung by commercial pressures to seek out new voices and instead simply work with the same narrow pool of established names, there will be no room for innovation and the field will stagnate. Many funders’ well-intentioned focus on butts in seats in the name of community relevance creates incentives counter to providing good curation, while failing to instigate widespread increases in arts engagement. Institutions already have all the incentive they need to maximize butts in seats – it’s called earned revenue. By accepting charitable support, I would argue, organizations have an obligation to seek out work that isn’t guaranteed to put butts in seats. And if an institution’s cost structure won’t allow for that, even with subsidization, that is a telling sign that it may be overbuilt.
  3. They play well with others. At this time of extreme pressure on philanthropic and especially government support for the arts, the field needs to make efficient use of scarce resources like buildings, equipment, real estate, and attention. There’s no sense in pouring millions of dollars into a new facility only to have it sit dark three-quarters of the time. That’s not only a huge waste, it is deeply uncharitable. Donors (including institutional funders) should demand accountability on this point.

Much has been written about the increasingly blurred line between creator and consumer of art. With plummeting production and distribution costs, unprecedented levels of global interconnectedness, and nearly 50% of the United States population engaged in some form of personal creation, it’s no surprise that we are faced with art all around us – more than at any previous point in history. Abundance of creative expression isn’t going away; it is our future. Maybe what really needs to be “fixed” is not supply and demand – since, with due respect to the NEA, that issue is a whole lot bigger than us – but rather, the processes and rationales we use for determining how to distribute public subsidy.

*

1 All of the “too many nonprofits” talk reminds me of how differently we treat nonprofits from businesses for no good reason (after all, donors are customers too). You never hear anyone saying “there are too many small businesses”—by contrast, private-sector entrepreneurship is recognized as a critical mechanism for spreading innovation and a key source of real economic growth, especially in a recession.

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[Createquity Reruns] Artists not alone in steep climb to the top

(For all the talk of how artists face challenges making a living, they’re not alone. Former Createquity Fellow Jena Lee takes a look here at how individuals in other fields, including fashion and even law, are singing the winner-take-all blues. Some of the lyrics might sound surprisingly familiar. -IDM)

A mural by street artist Scotch 79 reads "Will Work 4 Food." Photo credit: carnagenyc

“Will Work 4 Food,” a mural by New York street artist Lord Scotch 79. Photo credit: carnagenyc

Philip Glass drove a taxi, Patti Smith was a bookstore clerk, and William Faulkner worked the night shift at a power plant. It’s an old story: when they aren’t working in their studios, recording, or rehearsing for upcoming auditions, many, if not most artists spend their time at another job that brings in a steady income. Some take what few teaching positions they can at colleges and universities – an increasingly unstable source of employment. Others land full-time jobs in the commercial arts. They set aside their own visions and projects in service of students and clients, while earning a salary that no doubt inflates the $43,230 median wage of U.S. artists reported in a 2011 NEA study. Offering limited opportunities for recognition and financial growth, these gigs can seem like consolation prizes in a field where few ever achieve stardom. However, for those artists lucky enough to make it big one day, the financial rewards can be enormous.

The arts labor market has been called one of the oldest examples of a “winner-take-all” economy, a term popularized by Robert Frank and Philip Cook in their 1995 book, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. The hallmark of this kind of market is extreme income inequality, whereby a small number of the bright, talented, and fortunate generate the majority of economic value. Case in point: according to the New York Times, 56 percent of all concert revenue in 2003 flowed to just a handful of pop music stars like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. That left less than half the year’s proceeds to be divided amongst all other performers.

But the arts aren’t the only field in which a huge number of aspirants compete for few professional gigs, often choosing between what will sell and what they really want to do. Here we take a look at two other examples of “winner-take-all” economies and consider a future in pursuit of superstardom.

Fashion Models

In 2012, Gisele Bündchen earned $45 million. In addition to working her typical modeling gigs, the Brazilian thirty-something is a spokeswoman and endorsement queen contracting with big name brands such as Pantene, Esprit, and Versace. Her commercial success and business savvy have made her the Andy Warhol of the modeling world, although he never made nearly as much while alive. Gisele leads her supermodel pals in yearly earnings by a cool $36 million, with Kate Moss in distant second place.

Supermodel Gisele Bündchen reportedly earned $45 million in 2012. Photo credit: Tiago Chediak

Supermodel Gisele Bündchen reportedly earned $45 million in 2012. Photo credit: Tiago Chediak

The allure of such multi-million dollar salaries, the jet-set lifestyle, and the promise of beauty immortalized on the cover of Vogue has inspired many young women to pursue a modeling career. Popular TV shows like America’s Next Top Model have steadily increased the number of new hopefuls into the industry. Unfortunately, that has only made the dream harder to attain. Ed Razek of Limited Brands puts into sharp perspective just how tough it is to be one of 140 women to have strutted the catwalk for Victoria’s Secret over the years:

“There are seven billion people on the planet. That makes each of them not one in a million, not one in five million, not one in ten million. That literally makes them one in 50 million humans.”

All Bündchens aside, success in the fashion world is extremely difficult to attain. In fact, the median income for an American model in 2009 was $27,330. How is that possible? According to sociologist and ex-model Ashley Mears in her book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, the sheer number of women competing for modeling opportunities today has caused pay rates to drop. A few years back a runway show would typically pay $1,000 to $5,000 a day. At this year’s New York Fashion Week, one model made between $800 and $1,000 per show and sometimes was only compensated in trade such as clothing, jewelry or makeup. She was also expected to front the expenses for her transportation to and from gigs, as well as for hotel stays. After all that, her agency still took a commission. A model can quickly find herself in debt if the jobs don’t line up – and they very well might not. It’s common for a model to go weeks without another opportunity. So why does she suffer through it all? For the exposure. Sound familiar?

Just like artists, models will often spend their own money on projects and ply their craft for next to nothing for the sake of exposing their work to a broader audience in hopes that they will eventually be “discovered.” If that moment never comes, the model may have to find a more reliable means of support. These jobs are usually less glamorous than shooting couture magazine spreads in exotic locations. In Pricing Beauty, Mears identifies the highest earner at one New York agency: a perfect size 8 who can charge $500 per hour for fittings with major American retailers. For all the cash she brings in, there’s little prestige in this type of work and agencies actually frown upon these jingle-makers of the fashion world.

MAandWAGE

The Bill of Rights (left) drafted by Model Alliance and W.A.G.E.’s “wo/manifesto” both advocate for fair pay and ethical treatment of industry workers.

Not all models are willing to accept current wage inequities within the industry. Model Alliance is an unofficial union formed by supermodel Sara Ziff that aims to establish ethical standards and fair pay for its workers. Their interests mirror those of labor advocates in the arts, such as Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), a New York-based group fighting for regulated payment of arts workers at nonprofit institutions. While both industries remain wholly unregulated, these labor organizations give voice to an under-paid and under-represented workforce. Which brings us to…

Lawyers (the curveball)

Practicing law has long been touted by many a family member as one of the most lucrative, and therefore reliable, careers. However, a shift in economic climate and rise in digital technology and information access has eroded this old standard. Once upon a time in 2008, recent law graduates had a job placement rate of 76.9% in positions that required passing the bar exam. Since then many changes have swept the industry, including automation of once labor-intensive work, the outsourcing of mid-level clerk positions, an increase in price competition, and a trend towards doing away with the billable hour structure. Last year, the American Bar Association (ABA) reported that barely half of law school graduates had found work in comparable full-time positions. Couple this high level of unemployment with the enormous amount of debt incurred by students—the average is about $125,000 for private law school—and the situation starts to seem a little desperate.

Andrew Carmichael Post, a “boy-genius” who passed the California State Bar at the age of 22, still wasn’t exceptional enough to land a job with a firm after graduating. He resorted to living with his parents, wearing Goodwill, and working four jobs as a computer programmer while taking on small business clients just to afford his $2,756 monthly loan repayment. His total debt of $215,000 far exceeds the national average. Post is not alone in having to adjust his career expectations. Above the Law recently stumbled across a job post on Boston College Law School’s website with an annual salary of $10,000. Not only is that below the minimum wage, it contrasts starkly with the $6,500,000 earned by the highest paid general counsel in 2012 – and that figure doesn’t include his stock option. Incidentally, the law office that posted the listing defended the low salary, citing “valuable experience” as a perk of the position. Thirty-two hopefuls applied.

Detail of an epic flow chart created by Connecticut attorney Samuel Browning based on the book Don’t Go to Law School (Unless) by Paul Campos.

Detail of “Bad Reasons to Go to Law School,” an epic flow chart created by attorney Samuel Browning based on the book Don’t Go to Law School (Unless) by Paul Campos.

The legal industry has begun to respond to the changing shape of the marketplace. The ABA recently presented a report calling for education reform that would help reduce the time investment needed to obtain a law degree and promote lower tuition costs. It suggests training non-legal professionals in limited services and lowering requirements for taking the bar exam. Some law schools have already reacted by reducing class sizes. One has even lowered acceptance standards in an attempt to boost admissions after a drop in enrollment. A number of schools have opened nonprofit law firms to give graduates a little income and real world experience, while also addressing a growing need for affordable legal services. Dozens more plan to offer similar programs for alumni in coming years.

It’s uncertain whether changes within the legal field are here to stay, but for the moment they threaten to upend the lawyer’s traditional career trajectory from student to clerk to firm associate. They also hint at a future with more affordable basic legal services provided by lesser-paid specialists, while the talented and ambitious few in Big Law continue to command eye-popping salaries. Reflecting on the results of the 2013 Law Firms in Transition Survey, Tom Clay of Altman Weil wrote, “Firms are beginning to think more strategically about growth – trading up to improve profitability, rather then bulking up to drive gross revenues.”

Artists (home plate)

The rise of nonprofit law firms provides an interesting comparison to the arts. What would happen if arts schools now examined the law school model of running spaces where alumni gain experience, earn income, and provide a service to the community? Would this model temper dreams of art world superstardom and promote a more sustainable career path? Would it also provide a means of lowering education costs for artists, an issue the arts sector has debated heavily as more and more artists enroll in MFA programs, some with tuitions of nearly $100,000?

Many of those artists, just like Andrew Carmichael Post and his classmates, will likely have difficulty repaying their student loans. In “Artists in the Winner-Take-All Economy,” sociologist Mark Stern surmises that income disparity in the arts is representative of overall trends in our society, and we ignore it at our own peril. He also paints a rather pessimistic picture of an economy that perpetuates the culture of superstars ad infinitum once it takes hold. The outcome is a country wholly divided by income and accessibility, a depressing thought. However, if the arts are in any way representative of the rest of the system, then working to transform its micro-economy into a healthier and sustainable one may provide clues as to how to pull our society out of the superstar spiral.

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[Createquity Reruns] TEDx Talk

(By 2011, I was writing pretty frequently on the issue of how high-quality curation connects to the distribution of opportuniteis for professional artists. My views were encapsulated most fully in this talk for TEDxMichiganAve at the Chicago Symphony Center’s Club 8, May 7, 2011, which discusses rationales for subsidizing the arts, the debilitating effects of hypercompetition facing artists, and how all of this adds up to a huge class issue that we don’t discuss nearly enough. The talk is printed below, or you can watch the video here. -IDM)

 

“Never Heard of ‘Em”: Why Citizen Curators (not Daddy’s Money) Should Decide Who Gets to Be an Artist

For the past few months, you’ve probably been besieged with emails and Facebook posts asking you to convince our politicians not to cut public funding for the arts. Often these appeals will include a link to some news story about how the arts will suffer if government grants are reduced. And if you click through and read the comments, invariably you’ll come across something like this:

The government—at whatever level—has no business funding the arts, especially so, when much of that art is mediocre or worst. Why should my tax dollars go to fund the fun of someone who thinks himself or herself the next Picasso? Exceptional art will find funding, as it always has.

In my arts policy coverage, I find this argument comes up a lot, and there’s a good reason—it’s difficult to parry.

Our first response to such arguments is usually to talk about the value of the arts. But note that the commenter is not saying that art itself doesn’t have value. The dispute is about the value of subsidy to the arts. The commenter claims, and quite rightly so, that art would still happen if the government didn’t help pay for it. In fact, that’s exactly what took place in this country for the first 175 years or so of its existence, before a real infrastructure for government arts funding came into being.

So why would we want to subsidize the arts anyway? I mean, if the deli on the corner is losing customers because its meats are stale and the service is slow, we don’t say that the government should subsidize the corner deli. We say good riddance! So is it really such a big deal if the arts are left to fare for themselves?

The way I see it, there are basically two reasons to subsidize the arts:

  1. To give us cool art that the market wouldn’t otherwise support
  2. To give access to the arts to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it

Each of these reasons assumes a market failure when it comes to the arts. The first suggests that, while the market can determine which art or entertainment makes people happy in the here and now, it is bad at judging the long-term value of art. It’s pretty easy to come up with examples of people who we now consider to be Great Artists who were not recognized as such in their day. The only reason their work has survived until now is sheer luck. Often, an artist’s real value to society comes not so much from the direct experiences that audiences have of his or her work, but rather from the profound influence that the artist has on other artists, some of whom may eventually reach a wider public.

The second reason is a straight-up class argument. Just as with many other services, because art has value, people shouldn’t be denied access to art just because they are poor, or happen to live in a rural area, or are confined to a nursing home or mental institution. The same argument applies to kids – just because their parents can’t afford to provide them with access to art, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have it.

I’m going to focus most of this talk on the first argument: that it’s important to subsidize art because the commercial marketplace is not good at judging art’s long-term value to society and future generations.

So we are agreed that the commercial marketplace is not so good at judging the long-term value of artistic product. But if you’re not going to let the marketplace decide who succeeds and who fails in the arts, then who should decide?

To be honest, I don’t have a great answer to this question. But the best that I can come up with is that I would want the people deciding to really know their shit. I expect that someone who has studied the arts, or even better, my specific discipline, or better yet, my specific genre and subgenre within my specific discipline, will have a better idea of the long-term value of my work to society than some schmoe off the street. That’s not elitism, that’s just common sense.

But you know, art is still a matter of taste. And people always have personal agendas, scores to settle, and so on. One of the really nice things about the commercial marketplace is that no one person really has that much power to determine what happens on their own. But the problem with the commercial marketplace is that most of the people in it are not the experts we want judging the long-term value of the work.

What we need is something I call an artistic marketplace: a system of buying and selling artistic products and services in which the currency is not money, but instead the respect of experts. In which success is determined not by how many butts in seats you have, or how many records you can sell, but by the extent to which your work impresses people who really know their shit.

So who are these people? They are anyone who experiences a lot more art than the average person, and thus has a basis for informed opinion. Professional critics are probably the most obvious exemplar of this category. But it also includes anyone who judges artistic work samples for a living: publishers, artistic directors, booking agents, record company execs, gallery curators, and the list goes on. It even includes, I would argue, people like this guy. [Slide: grocery store clerk who’s watched and ranked over 7000 movies] These people collectively form the demand curve within the artistic marketplace.

As we said earlier, the currency of the artistic marketplace is the respect and endorsement of experts. The problem is this: that respect does not exchange properly with the currency of the commercial marketplace: money.

This is important because the whole purpose of subsidy is to make that exchange possible. Remember, with subsidy we are actively intervening in the commercial marketplace because we don’t agree with the choices it is making about which artists and institutions should stand the test of time. And yet I am sure that any of us in this room, or any of us watching, can point to examples of brilliant artists working today, who are well-recognized by their peers, who nevertheless struggle to make ends meet. This wouldn’t happen if the artistic marketplace were functioning the way it’s supposed to.

So why is it that philanthropic subsidy isn’t more effective at helping critically acclaimed artists make a living? Well, for one thing, we can’t talk about this phenomenon without mentioning the intense competition for attention between artists of all stripes. I don’t need to tell you that the past 20 years have completely revolutionized our society’s level of access to art of all kinds. Production costs have fallen drastically, making it possible for amateur creators and performers to use equipment that only professionals could have taken advantage of a generation ago. And because of the internet, distribution costs have nearly disappeared entirely, particularly for film and electronic media, recorded music, and writing. Finally, storage costs – with the transfer of so much information to digital format and hard drive capacities metastasizing every year – are dropping through the floor as well. The net result of all of these changes is that it’s easier than ever before for people to create art that can “pass” for professional; it’s easier than ever before for these amateur artists to enter the public sphere by distributing their works to the world; and those works get preserved in the public sphere, accessible by anyone at any time, rather than languishing in the attic or in the creator’s imagination.

Bottom line: a lot more people are entering the artistic (and commercial) marketplaces on the supply side—they engage in personal creation or performance for public consumption. And because the same technological innovations apply to retired artists – even deceased artists!—not only does each new playwright or composer or painter have to compete with all of her peers, she must also compete with every artist who came before her. Unfortunately, she cannot similarly count on dead audience members to be a part of her fan base.

So there is a tremendous amount of competition in the artistic marketplace—a marketplace in which the currency is respect. But in order to get respect, one of the “experts” in the artistic marketplace has to give you their attention – which means they have to give you their time. They have to listen to your piece, read your play, look at your slides, be present at your audition. And time is becoming – for all of us – a really, really scarce resource. Our lives are being filled up – not least by all of this content that we are bombarded with every day. In fact, we are producing so much art in this world these days that we are overwhelming the human capacity to evaluate it all. Let’s say you are a music fan. If you decided you wanted to listen to all of the albums released in the United States in a given year – say, 2008 – you could put your headphones on for every hour of every day of every week of the year – and you still wouldn’t get through more than an eighth of them! So now it’s 2009, and you have seven-eighths of the previous year to listen to – plus all the albums from 2007, and the albums from 2006, and you get the picture. Or let’s say you enjoy hunting for videos on YouTube. Guess what: there are 35 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s the equivalent of 176,000 full-length Hollywood movies every week!

So you see what I mean when I say that we don’t have the capacity to evaluate it all. And more to the point, those experts in the artistic marketplace don’t have time to evaluate it either. So they triage. They take some shortcuts.

Let’s take an example – an example from music, since that’s the world I know best. If you review the rosters of major classical music presenters around the country, you will start to see a lot of the same names over and over and over again. The fact is, the first instinct of anyone awarding a high-profile gig will be to choose proven commodities: names that audience members are familiar with, excited by, and motivated to buy tickets for. There is a powerful incentive for these curators to make that choice: it’s called earned revenue! Even though presenters operate in the artistic marketplace, they also operate in the commercial marketplace, and the commercial marketplace demands that one take advantage of star power.

But let’s say that in this particular case, a presenter has decided to take a chance on a chamber ensemble that is not so well-known – in fact, it’s the first gig they’ve ever had at this level. But are they really unknown? For that programming decision to happen, the work of those musicians has to be brought to the attention of whoever is doing the artistic programming for the presenter. I’m telling you right now that it didn’t happen because that person was reviewing unsolicited work samples that came in through the mail or over the internet. The tidal wave of submissions is in all likelihood so massive that they can’t possibly give their full attention to each one. So what do they do instead? They are probably plugged in to the next level down of presenting opportunities, and may get out and see shows on a regular basis. They monitor what their peers are saying in their local community and around the country about particular artists, keeping an ear out for those that are generating buzz. And it is on this basis – career momentum, essentially – that programming of “new” artists actually happens.

So for an unknown chamber ensemble to get a major opportunity like this, they have to already be generating buzz and getting smaller performance opportunities. Here’s where it gets tricky. Those smaller performance opportunities don’t really pay the bills. Maybe the musicians are self-presenting, and thus sees their income swallowed up in production costs. Maybe they’re doing a lot of unpaid gigs as favors just to get exposure. They might even be doing club shows where the payout at the end of the night is $50 per musician if they are lucky. That doesn’t go very far toward paying for instruments, practice space, or the van rental if they’re on tour.

And how did they get those smaller gigs anyway? It certainly helps if they had a killer demo – the kind that it takes money to record. It helps if they had a lot of time to practice together, which means they have a dedicated rehearsal space. These things cost money.

And finally, in all likelihood, those musicians paid a lot of money for conservatory training, at the bachelor’s and possibly the master’s level. And during that time when they were getting trained, they probably weren’t making money either.

So we’ve just outlined a number of problems standing in the way of an unknown artist or group of artists getting a gig that pays them enough money to live on.

  • There’s the problem of profile: in order to get that gig, people have to already know who you are.
  • The problem of curatorial capacity: in order for people to know who you are and to stand out from the crowd, you need some career momentum.
  • The problem of presentation: in order to get that career momentum, you need public showings and documentation of your work which you have to either pay for or subsidize.
  • And there’s the problem of uncompensated time: in order to get and make those presentation opportunities successful, you need to spend thousands of hours in training and practice, which are thousands of hours that you’re not earning a living.

Do you see where I’m going with this? This process of getting attention presents us with a HUGE class issue. Is it any mystery why our arts organizations have trouble connecting with less affluent members of society? It’s not because they can’t afford the tickets. It’s not because they can’t get to the venue easily. It’s not because the genre as a whole isn’t “relevant” to them. Okay, I lied – it is all of those things. But I don’t think any of them are the main reason. I think the main reason is because these less affluent populations don’t know anyone in their communities who is a professional artist with those organizations. Because how could you be, if you grew up poor and couldn’t afford conservatory training and weren’t given lessons in school and anyway now you have to work two jobs to put food on the table and feed the kids? We talk a lot about cultural equity in the arts, and we typically frame it in terms of audience access: who has the opportunity to see one of these amazing artists perform, or witness their creations? But as more and more of us turn to creative expression as a way of affirming our identities in an increasingly connected world, I think the most importantcultural equity issue of our time isn’t who gets to see the amazing artist, it’s who gets to be the amazing artist.

I’ve almost reached the end of my time, but I want to leave you with a few thoughts about where to go from here.

One of the big problems with the current system is that, of all the “experts” we identified way back in the beginning of this talk, only a few of them can back up their opinions with more than token amounts of money. I gave you the example of a presenter earlier, and others, such as grantmakers and some artistic directors, share this privilege. But that leaves out most critics, booking agents, and radio station programmers. It leaves out superfans and aficionados. Doesn’t their opinion count too? Apparently not, if you follow the money.

What we need to do is pretty clear. First, because supply in the artistic marketplace is increasing so dramatically, we need to bolster the demand curve to meet it, by getting more people who really know their shit to evaluate unknown artists. This will address the problem of capacity. And second, we need to do a better job of making sure that people who know their shit can back their opinions up with money, so that those who succeed in the artistic marketplace can also succeed in the economy more generally.

In “Audiences at the Gate,” an article published in Edward Clapp’s 20UNDER40 anthology last year, Daniel Reid and I discuss a model that aims to accomplish both of these goals. We suggest that one or more foundations could funnel some of the money that they give to the arts each year through a community of citizen curators who interact with each other via a web-based platform. These citizen curators could be anyone, really, but their influence on the foundations’ decisions – and thus their ability to direct the flow of philanthropic capital – would depend on their ability to build a reputation among their colleagues for knowledgeable, fair, and thorough evaluations of artistic proposals and work samples uploaded to the site.

This approach increases the number of people participating on the demand side of the artistic marketplace, and it explicitly directs philanthropic subsidy into the hands of experts. And there’s a third advantage as well: by consolidating discussions about which artists to support into one place, the model transforms curation into a team effort, avoiding needless duplication and saving everyone precious time.

I’m sure there are other approaches that might work too. But I do fervently believe we need to do something. As it stands, because the artistic marketplace isn’t functional, less affluent individuals get shut out, and we don’t get a chance as a society to benefit from their talents or perspectives. Thus, the first goal of artistic subsidy—cool art that we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience—is not fully met.

But if you’ll recall, the second purpose of artistic subsidy is to give people access to the arts who wouldn’t normally have it. And we’ve just said that access isn’t just about experiencing art as an audience member, it’s about getting to be in the show as well.

So if we can someday reform the artistic marketplace, we’ll actually be serving both goals of artistic subsidy at once – not to mention addressing the most important cultural equity issue of our time. Not bad, right? Let’s just hope that our government funding survives until then.

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[Createquity Reruns] What Do I Mean By An Artistic Marketplace?

(Individual artist week continues with the introduction, in March 2009, of the concept of an “artistic marketplace” – a parallel marketplace “in which the currency of trade is respect from one’s peers rather than the ability to draw a big-spending crowd.” This idea ended up serving as the intellectual foundation for a number of subsequent articles at Createquity and elsewhere, and this is probably one of articles that I’ve linked back most frequently over time. “What Do I Mean By An Artistic Marketplace?” lays out the importance of curation to the individual artist’s livelihood, and argues for the wisdom of treating the act of curation itself as a form of marketplace activity. -IDM)
In a recent post here, I threw around this idea of an artistic marketplace, as distinct from the market itself. I had thought I came up with the idea in one of my Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy posts from last year, but perhaps not surprisingly, I discovered that Adam Forest Huttler had articulated it much more clearly than me in a response to that post:

The most important decision I ever made at Fractured Atlas was our late 2001 shift from a curatorial strategy to a wide open one. By accepting that I lacked the vision or wisdom to reliably identify the next Jackson Pollack or even Richard Foreman, I democratized our whole approach to supporting the arts community. The new goals were about leveling the playing field by providing resources and tools that reduced the likelihood that real talent would be squashed by bad luck or poor access to vital services. Ultimately Fractured Atlas helps our industry’s “market forces” function more effectively by limiting the often significant impact of non-artistic factors (e.g. healthcare, funding, technology).

Here’s what a functioning artistic marketplace doesn’t look like: in 2005, the heyday of my experimental rock band Capital M, I booked a total of nine gigs at well-known small clubs such as the Knitting Factory, the Bowery Poetry Club, and the Zeitgeist Gallery up in Boston. To give you a bit of context, my band has some serious firepower in its lineup, musicians who have played with the likes of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Bruce Springsteen, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. These concerts included the release party for our debut CD, a CMJ Music Marathon concert, and the 21st Century Schizoid Music Festival, and included appearances with Elliott Sharp and Todd Reynolds among others.

Our revenue from these concerts averaged less than $65 a night. Take out the show at the Zeitgeist, which is misleading because we had to rent the space in order to play there, and the average is closer to $40. That’s $6.67 for each of the six members of the band. But wait! In order to prepare for these gigs, I had to rent rehearsal space at an average cost of $86 per show. So rehearsal expenses alone were enough to put the band underwater without subsidy, and that’s not even considering equipment, recording expenses, publicity, or anything else. In total, the band cost about $7,000 that year and took in less than $600 in concert revenues.

After 2005, I changed Capital M’s business model to one in which we played fewer concerts, but the concerts we did play included an annual World Premieres Extravaganza for which I conducted extensive fundraising. For the second World Premieres Extravaganza at Tonic in April 2007, I received grants from Meet The Composer and the Manhattan Community Arts Fund which enabled me to pay each band member a respectable fee of $300 and (thankfully) still break even. All that donor largesse, however, didn’t do much for Tonic; the venue closed forever less than two weeks later.

Our experience with this system is by no means unique. All presenters within the arts ecosystem, even nonprofit ones, must develop programming based on a blend of artistic considerations and market considerations. The problem is that some of the best art is, by its very nature, anti-market. Jazz guitarist Marc Ribot has written a must-read essay on the plight of small independent music venues in New York City, a number of which have failed or been forced to move in the last several years. In it, he diagnoses the problem:

”Do It Yourself” is a lovely idea, one which leaves its believers with a comforting sense of control over their destiny. the only problem is that when the “It” is running a business capable of treating musicians fairly and the “Yourself” is the musicians themselves, it doesn’t work, for the same reason that kibbutzes haven’t globally replaced private farming, food co-ops haven’t replaced supermarkets, housing co-ops haven’t (as their original proponents theorized) provided massive havens of low income housing and workers co-ops haven’t replaced private industry: Businesses need capital. People who work gigs for a living, by definition, don’t have it.

Without capital, venues either eventually fall back on the old strategies of musician exploitation, abandon new music priorities, fail or all three. If those venues are ‘artist run’, the only difference is that we get to exploit ourselves. Hooray for progress.

Ribot reveals that the reason jazz has survived at all in this country is largely thanks to subsidies from across the pond.

In truth, our belief that the market could fund new music was always as illusory; European touring, heavily state subsidized, has been the real economic motor of experimental jazz/new music for decades, the light at the end of the tunnel of months of scarce and/or poorly paid NYC gigs. […]

I’ve spent close to two months a year on tour in Europe since 1984, playing over 1,000 gigs. For years, I’ve asked presenters how their funding was structured. I was often surprised at the answers: even some of what I thought were private clubs were in fact administered by jazz or new music societies or co-operatives. The European gigs were almost always subsidized: usually by the city or state government completely donating the performance space itself.

Note the method of intervention here taken by European governments. Rather than directly subsidizing Ribot’s ensemble and those like it, they instead lowered the costs for the organizations that present the ensemble, enabling those organizations to pay Ribot a decent artist’s fee. This, to me, is a key element of a sane and sustainable artistic marketplace.

The basic elements of cultural production are the creator, the performer, the producer, and the presenter. In our current arts funding system, different public and private donors might be providing assistance at any and all points along this chain. It’s extremely haphazard, and it can lead to bizarre juxtapositions like the same musicians getting paid $600 one night at Merkin Hall and $6 the next night at Zebulon, or one composer receiving a $5,000 commission in connection with the premiere of a new piece at a concert and another composer receiving zilch for another premiere at the same concert.

Wouldn’t it be simpler if all performers could have a reasonable expectation of getting paid by virtue of being booked at a venue that programmed noncommercial work? So that the only thing the ensemble would have to worry about is proving their artistic worth and relevance to the curator, rather than whether they can afford to go deeper into debt in hopes of greater exposure? For this to happen, arts funders would need to focus their resources on lowering the cost of cultural production and distribution for everybody, rather than trying to pick and choose who gets the spoils. In other words, they would outsource the curatorial role to those who do it for a living: bookers, artistic personnel, and artistic directors. It’s almost like giving a mini-regranting program to each presenter, and endowing them with the autonomy to dole out the funds as they see fit.

In the context of my writing on philanthropy, the idea of enabling a self-functioning and self-regulating artistic marketplace has one important implication: namely, that funders would not worry so much about the quality of the art that they’re funding. That sounds counterintuitive and scary to a lot of donors, but if you think about it it makes some sense. Funders are not necessarily in the best position to judge artistic quality, relative to other people who might be able to do the same. Unless they’re ready to commit to sending staff to performances every night, listening to every CD and watching every video that comes in through the door whether solicited or not, and generally pounding the pavement scouting new talent, they’re not going to be in that position. (This is why many already partially outsource this expertise by regranting funds to discipline-specific service organizations and/or convening rotating peer review panels to make the decisions.) Most importantly, arts funders wield a disproportionate amount of power due to the resources they hold, yet the aesthetic tastes of their staff, no matter how well-informed, are no less subjective than anyone else’s.

By funding artistic systems instead of artistic producers, funders can distribute those resources to a much broader network of informed decision-makers, each of whom will make their own judgments about the artistic merit of individual players on the scene. Their aggregated decisions, awarding this date to that band and that residency to this performer and so on, collectively represent the artistic marketplace of which I speak: a marketplace in which the currency of trade is respect from one’s peers rather than the ability to draw a big-spending crowd.

I’ll end with this quote from the Marc Ribot essay that I linked to earlier. I think it nicely sums up the importance and potential of thinking about the arts in this way.

The idea behind European public arts subsidies, the reason why NYC jazz/new music artists for at least the last 40 years have played Paris, Cologne and Zurich many more times than they’ve played Hartford (and how many have ever played Des Moines?) is a doctrine called “the European cultural exception”, a set of government policies based on the concept that, even within a market economy, art/culture is to be treated differently from other commodities.

This concept asserts that some music deserves to exist even if the market says it doesn’t. That the best string quartet isn’t necessarily the one that plays the most TV commercials. That the best composer isn’t necessarily the one George Lucas picks to score his film. That the best band isn’t always the one most favored by a large radio network’s advertisers. […]

That enough Europeans have chosen to value this social benefit, to codify these values into law and fund the laws into being…is why about half the music I care about exists.

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[Createquity Reruns] Professionals vs. Amateurs (part 2)

(Welcome to individual artists week at Createquity! The plight of the non-superstar artist has been a common theme here over the years, and this site in some ways rose out of the ashes of a failed artistic venture founded by yours truly. Today we have one of Createquity’s earliest posts on the topic, originally published in the spring of 2008. In it, you can see me grappling with the paradox of why so many people are trying to be artists when being an artist is so hard to pull off financially. Attempting to explain and deal with this tension is at the center of much of our later work on the topic. -IDM)

One of the reasons I’ve found it challenging to keep up with Createquity at times is the sheer volume of material that my RSS reader brings me into contact with every day. Knowing that my colleagues in the blogosphere are generating so much high-quality material themselves makes me feel that much more pressure to make sure that my own contributions live up to their standards and are not overly duplicative. Merely sifting through the dozens (hundreds, if I’ve been away for a while) of posts takes an immense amount of time, and that’s not even considering the comment threads on each of these entries that can become quite lengthy in their own right. The 24-hour nature of the Internet tends to impinge uncomfortably on things like class time and girlfriend time. I certainly don’t earn any remuneration for the effort and time I put into the blog. And yet I keep on, as do many, many others who find themselves in this exact situation and still feel they have something to say.

In my last post, I talked about how suppliers of creative content are (for the most part) declining to exit the industry despite extremely strong competition and unfavorable odds for financial self-sustainability, to say nothing of massive success. The standard explanation of this is that artists, writers and the like are “driven to create”—they can’t imagine doing anything else with their time. That may be true at least in some cases, but a class from my business school core curriculum provides a more interesting way of looking at it. The dean of the school, Joel Podolny, and my Competitor professor Fiona Scott Morton co-authored a study of California wineries and found that hobbyist suppliers—basically, rich people that wanted to run their own winery—concentrated so heavily on the high end of the wine market that they collectively made it less profitable for businesses that were interested in maximizing profit. As a result, businesses that wanted to make money would concentrate more on lower-end wines. Podolny and Scott Morton called these hobbyist suppliers utility maximizers and suggested that these winery owners consumed the quality of their own wines (in other words, were willing to accept a lower profit level in order to possess the identity of a high-quality wine producer). Another study found that investment banks with the best reputations actually did not need to pay top dollar relative to their competitors to attract their targeted employees, because the employees to some degree consumed the status of their employer (and were willing to accept less money in exchange for the prestige of working for a top firm).

Basically, I think that the reason we don’t see more exit from creative industries is because most creative content producers are also consumers of their own status as such, and are therefore willing to put up with a boatload of bullshit—including a very high likelihood of making next to no money—in order to be able to call themselves composers or directors or actors or artists. Because, let’s face it, being a creative professional is fun. It’s virtually guaranteed to get people’s ears perked up at parties, and can serve various aphrodisiac functions (though the whole poverty thing can just as easily kill the mood). The undercurrent of ego is strong, particularly for something like composing—you’re getting other people to pay their own money for the privilege of experiencing something that you created for the fun of it. Not only that, many creative professionals retain a massive degree of control over the final feel and execution of their vision, making the satisfaction level at the end of the process that much higher.

There’s a cultural shift going on in which more and more young people are graduating from high school and college and wanting to do interesting things with their lives, something that reflects who they are and what they think about the world. In previous generations, most young adults would end up working in agriculture, manufacturing, or other labor-intensive mega-industries and form their professional identities around a career that might have been set in stone before the child was even born. Now, having been weaned on a Baby Boomer-influenced education emphasizing self-expression and -actualization, Millennials want creativity to be a part of their professional identity, and more and more that means working in some kind of creative industry.

That leads in to the other side effect of this shift: as more and more people decide that it’s not enough to be an audience member or a reader or a listener and decide to express themselves as well, they have less time to consume the work of others. In other words, as the number of suppliers of creative content increases, their average audience decreases (even if the total audience might be increasing dramatically). Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes is proving ever more prescient in the Internet age. As universal awareness becomes more and more difficult to achieve and a minimal level of awareness easier and easier, the lines between amateur and professional content creators are becoming increasingly blurred. It may be that we are all pursuing vanity projects to some degree.

Some kind of massive aggregating system will undoubtedly pop up to organize all of this content for us and keep it manageable. What I’m less sure of right now is what it will look like. Until then, I’ll try to keep up with my RSS reader.

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[Createquity Reruns] Mood affiliation and group loyalty in the arts

(With all of the skepticism expressed in Createquity’s Uncomfortable Thoughts week, one might reasonably wonder whether Createquity really believes in the value of the arts at all. In fact, that’s something we’re intentionally open-minded about. This 2012 post explains why we believe it’s important to offer “a perspective on the arts that is independent of a rooting interest, other than an interest in reality.” -IDM)

Some food for thought as we navigate public debates about gun control, taxation, and the value of the arts (emphasis mine):

[T]he study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups.

To put that in Cowenspeak, both sides are guilty, the smart are guiltiest of them all, and the desire for group loyalty is partially at fault.

When I was in college and shortly afterwards, my hometown Boston Red Sox were locked in a dire rivalry with the ascendant New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers may have had the better pedigree, having racked up 26 baseball world championships including four between 1996 and 2000, but we surely had the better story: no World Series title in 86 years, despite a dozen or more excruciatingly close calls, bad breaks, and missed opportunities. In the early 2000s, when both teams were among the best in the sport, every Red Sox game against the Yankees, no matter how early in the season, was high, high drama. The players felt it too, getting into several on-the-field fights and various wars of words in the press. Every time one of these would happen, Red Sox fan websites and bulletin boards would light up with the indignity of it all, painting the Yankees as the “Evil Empire” and lampooning their greedy, entitled, cheating ways. I felt like I couldn’t even talk to people who were Yankees fans and avoided them like the plague (which was easier living in New York than you might think). It felt so good, so comfortable to be among a crowd of people “on my team” – people united around a common enemy, cheering and booing the same events, occupying the moral high ground with me. So comfortable that it was easy to overlook the things that my team did that were rather like the very things I was booing the enemy for – like spending lots and lots of money to try and buy a title, or relying on the contributions of stars who may have been using performance-enhancing drugs. “It’s different,” I would tell myself about these transgressions, when I bothered to think about them at all. The fact is, I was a Red Sox fan first, and nothing would (or likely ever will) change that.

It’s one thing to be a die-hard fan of a sports team. My mood affiliation with other Red Sox fans creates instant community whenever I visit Boston again, and provided for some of the most thrilling moments of my life when they finally won it all while vanquishing the Yankees in dramatic fashion in 2004. But more and more, lately, I see us following political developments with all of the nuance of the guys in the bleacher section wearing body paint on their chests. Defeating the other guys takes precedence over all other priorities, including careful consideration of facts on the ground. I know I don’t have time to thoroughly research every political issue that comes up on my radar. So instead I rely on filters to do the hard work of reporting and interpreting the news for me. I imagine most other people are in the same boat.

As mainstream, reporting-driven news media loses power and influence, it’s becoming easier and easier to process information inside a bubble with its own facts, talking points, and agendas – a bubble made up of like-minded people as surely as the sports bar outside the ballpark. This has been true on the right for years with talk radio and Fox News, and increasingly on the left as well. Social media like Facebook, providing as it does an ideal platform for advocacy via images, video, and sound bites, only turns up the volume. Bright spots like Nate Silver’s election projections aside, it’s hard to find filters who share your values (especially when those values are distant from the political center) yet allow those values to remain subordinate to the pursuit of facts and truth.

We see this phenomenon in the arts as well. I’m not just talking about descending upon Capitol Hill to root, root, root for more NEA funding, or circulating online petitions decrying cuts in arts education. To my mind, any time we attempt to universalize the “uniquely human” experience of the arts or its capacity to “heal the soul” – any time we imply that people are living a spiritually impoverished existence because they don’t regularly get to the gallery or the symphony – any time, in short, that we assume that people we don’t know are just like us – we are committing the sin of mood affiliation. And if you think you’re too smart to fall into that trap, the study quoted above suggests that you’re wrong – because the smartest people are the ones least likely to see the trap coming.

Why is that? If I may be permitted a bit of speculation here, I’d say it’s because smart people can rationalize anything, and I would guess are more likely than others to trust our own instincts and reasoning. If we can always rationalize new information to fit a predefined narrative about who’s right and who’s wrong, well then, we never have to be wrong. And it sure does feel nice to be right all the time.

That’s why, officially, Createquity takes no position on the value of the arts. I wouldn’t have created this site and be doing what I do if the arts hadn’t had a profound impact on my own life. But I can’t rely only on the experiences of the other people at the ballpark with me to know what it’s like for folks who root for the other team – or who don’t follow sports at all. Posts like our Arts Policy Library analyses and our Uncomfortable Thoughts pieces are intended to provide a perspective on the arts that is independent of a rooting interest, other than an interest in reality. That’s a high standard to hold to, but I hope you’ll hold me and the site to it.

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[Createquity Reruns] Uncomfortable Thoughts: Are We Missing the Point of Effective Altruism?

(It was just nine and a half months ago that Talia Gibas published this awesome post responding to the hullabaloo around Peter Singer’s op-ed in the New York Times arguing that a donation to a blindness charity is morally superior to a donation to a museum. Talia places Singer’s article in the context of the movement known as “effective altruism,” and shines a light on some of the important and very real questions the movement’s core arguments raise for anyone working in this or any other field. For what it’s worth, I like to think of Createquity’s new editorial direction as modeling an effective altruist approach within the context of the arts. -IDM)

"I want change" by m.a.r.c.

“I want change” by m.a.r.c.

Toward the end of the summer, bioethicist Peter Singer raised the hackles of art lovers everywhere with a New York Times op-ed that considered a hypothetical dilemma: should you donate to a charity that combats blindness in the developing world or should you spend that money instead on an art museum? After running through a cost-benefit analysis of each option, he determined that the charity addressing blindness “offers [donors] at least 10 times the value” of the museum.

Ouch.

To no one’s surprise, the arts community didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for the piece, calling Singer’s argument “a shocker,” “absurd,” and “tyrannical.” Another round of alarm ensued recently when none other than megaphilanthropist Bill Gates threw his support behind Singer’s thesis. The responses from our field to date have generally coalesced around two broad counter-arguments:

As satisfying as these rebuttals may feel to arts advocates, they unfortunately miss the point. The crucial assumptions behind Singer’s argument are that

  1. there are objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more good in one [sector] than in another,” and
  2. we have a moral obligation to make choices that do as much good as possible.

It’s important to understand this perspective in the context of “effective altruism,” a relatively nascent but growing area of applied ethics that has been featured more than once on this blog, not to mention a recent edition of This American Life. Besides Gates, fellow philanthropic heavyweight and past Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest has declared himself a fan. “Effective altruists,” or EAs, are on a quest to “do good” by way of hard-nosed rationality. “Doing good” doesn’t mean recycling a little more, or occasionally doling out spare change to a beggar on the street. It doesn’t mean foregoing a high-powered corporate career to work for a nonprofit. It means taking the time to analyze how to do the most amount of good possible with the resources available – or, to use a more nerdy turn of phrase, to “[use] science and rational decision-making to help as many sentient beings” as they can.

Most funders are already in search of a big “bang for your buck,” but in trying to identify the objectively best causes to support, effective altruists stray from the conventional wisdom of mainstream philanthropy. EAs cast a global net when determining where to focus, and often settle on supporting causes in faraway parts of the world, the results of which they may never see in person. They also believe that while human lives are created equal, philanthropic causes are not. Those causes that can save or improve the most lives must take first priority.

How does this play out in practice? Let’s say you donate to the free medical clinic in your area. You do this for good reasons: you care about inequities in the American healthcare system, and want to give back to your community. You like the feeling you get when you walk by that clinic every day. Maybe you even know people who benefit from the services the clinic provides. The clinic gets its donation, and you get warm fuzzies. Everybody wins. Right?

Not so, an EA would counter. Despite your good intentions, your donation amounts to a near-waste of resources:

We understand the sentiment that ‘charity starts at home,’ and we used to agree with it, until we learned just how different U.S. charity is from charity aimed at the poorest people in the world. Helping people in the U.S. usually involves tackling extremely complex, poorly understood problems… In the poorest parts of the world, people suffer from very different problems…

We estimate that it costs [Givewell’s] top-rated international charity less than $2,500 to save a human life… Compare that with even the best U.S. programs… over $10,000 per child served, and their impact is encouraging but not overwhelming.

EAs advocate making evidence-based decisions even if they don’t resonate on an emotional or intuitive level:

Effective altruism is consistent with believing that giving benefits the giver, but it’s not consistent with making this the driving goal of giving. Effective altruists often take pride in their willingness to give (either time or money) based on arguments that others might find too intellectual or abstract, and their refusal to give suboptimally even when a pitch is emotionally compelling. The primary/driving goal is to help others, not to feel good about oneself.

If this approach leaves you with an empty feeling in the back of your throat, it is by design. “Opportunity costs” – the costs of choosing not to behave in a certain way – weigh heavily on EAs. Every time you make a donation, considering where your money could have gone is as important as considering where it will ultimately go (emphasis mine):

In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease… Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people … But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.

Weighing choices isn’t limited to how we spend our money – it also applies to how we spend our time. Just as EAs dispute the notion that people should support whichever charities they feel “passionate” about, they question whether channeling those passions into a nonprofit or medical career is the best way to make a difference. Many suggest instead that people “earn to give,” saying they “might be better off…in a high-earning job and making a deliberate commitment to give a large portion of what [they] earn away.“ The organization 80,000 Hours, founded to “become the world’s number one source for advice on pursuing a career that truly makes a difference in an effective way,” elaborates,

Working at a non-profit can be a great way to make a difference. But it’s no guarantee. Amazingly, lots of non-profits probably have no impact. And do workers at [a] non-profit have more impact than the people who fund them? The researchers who push forward progress? The entrepreneurs who transform the economy? Policy makers? Maybe. No one stops to ask.

Putting ideas like these on the table is a great way to make those of us in the arts squirm. While there are echoes of the effective altruism movement in some recent trends within our field, like the “universal call” for better data on the impact of the arts and the pointed questions about who ultimately benefits from arts funding, the arts are chock-full of people – artists and arts administrators alike – who were drawn to their work by that same passion that EAs claim clouds our judgment. The idea of allowing cold rationality to dictate and limit our quest to “do good” flies in the face of our artistic sensibilities, and challenges the assumptions many of us made when we entered the nonprofit sector in the first place – even those of us who have a sincere desire to address social inequities.

Tempting as it may be, it would be short-sighted to dismiss the EA movement as the pet project of a bunch of aesthetically stunted curmudgeons. It’s hard to dispute the notion that we could improve the human condition if only we could get our act together and commit our resources to a data-driven approach. After all, the nonprofit darling of the moment, collective impact, is based on the same premise. What effective altruism does is counter our cause-specific argument for the arts with a dizzying moral appeal for cause agnosticism. And to be honest, it’s hard to see how the arts win if they play the game by the EAs’ rules. The “both/and” argument mentioned previously is unlikely to sway an effective altruist who weighs each decision as a choice between two different futures, one in which a museum gets funded and some lives get saved and one in which the museum struggles and more lives get saved. Even if the museum shut down completely, its patrons could probably find or create an alternative “creative outlet and emotional oasis,” while the people dying of malaria can’t very well make the mosquito nets themselves. The “we give lives meaning” argument likewise rings hollow when we’re talking about lending privileged lives (anyone living on more than $2 a day is privileged in a global context) a dose of incremental “meaning” at the expense of giving others a shot at basic survival. It also comes across as incredibly condescending to those others considering that they would likely never get the opportunity to visit or benefit from Singer’s hypothetical museum. In any case, art is hardly the only possible delivery mechanism for meaning. In the words of one effective altruist,

Trying to maximize the good I accomplish with both my hours and my dollars is an intellectually engaging challenge. It makes my life feel more meaningful and more important. It’s a way of trying to have an impact and significance beyond my daily experience. In other words, it meets the sort of non-material needs that many people have.

Whether the EA movement sputters or gathers steam, taking the time to engage with its principles, even critically, is a healthy exercise. The bottom line is that EAs may actually be onto something when they argue it’s possible to make a bigger dent in one sector than another. Rather than insisting otherwise or dodging the argument altogether, we could heed the call to examine how altruism really manifests in our work, particularly when examined through the lens of what benefits the people we engage, rather than what benefits our organizations or our donors. Might we, too, have objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more “good” in one program, or with one population, than in another? Do we, too, have a moral obligation to maximize that good? How would that change how we operate and who we serve? Do we want to change how we operate?

If the effective altruism debate makes anything clear, it’s that to be able to make art, not to mention argue about it, is to be fortunate. Taking a hard look at our assumptions about what draws and keeps us to this work may not be easy, but if we squirm a little, so be it. In the grand scheme of things, a little squirming is a luxury too.

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[Createquity Reruns] The Myth of the Transformative Arts Experience

(Arts marketers and advocates are fond of invoking the arts experience that changed their lives, and the one that presumably could change yours if only you came to this next show. But are most arts experiences on has as an audience member really like that? In this post from three and a half years ago, I argue no, and that if we’re searching for transformation we might be looking in the wrong place. -IDM)

Punchup mirage

“mirage” by Flickr user Punchup

For a long, long time (as in, literally, months now), I’ve been meaning to respond to an essay by Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer lamenting what he sees as “the greatest sacrifice arts workers make” – the inability to recapture one’s first, “innocent” experiences of the arts, the ones that presumably convinced the person in question to pursue a life in the arts in the first place. Here’s the crux of his argument, succinctly:

No, I think the more significant – and unique – sacrifice arts workers make is that we lose the capacity for full, innocent and glorious enjoyment of the very art that our passion for drove us to make our life’s work in the first place. What do I mean by this? Think about your earliest experiences with the arts, your first encounter with Matisse, or Chuck Close; your first time in the audience for Sondheim, or Verdi; that time you first saw Baryshnikov on stage, or Judith Jamison. Remember that childlike joy – even if you were not a child – that total immersion in the art where the whole world disappeared and you were unaware of time, of the person chewing gum next to you? Now tell, me when was the last time you felt that? Sure, you are still passionate about the art form or all art forms, you still go to museums, or opera, or theatre, but something has been lost. Admit it.

Culturebot’s Andy Horwitz had more to say here. Gary’s essay drew a strong and enthusiastic response from more than two dozen arts professionals on his own blog and Huffington Post, with much agreement that the arts experiences those individuals were having were by and large uninspiring. Most commenters seemed convinced that this phenomenon was the result of their own position, a casualty of getting so caught up in day-to-day drudgery that they could no longer take a step back and let the art work its magic like it always did before.

Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that at all. I don’t think the problem is with us, or our jobs. I think it’s with the art. Or to put a finer point on it, I think the problem is with our expectations for what art can do for us.

My memories of my earliest experiences with the arts are a bit fuzzy, but I can tell you with certainty that they were not that special or amazing. I recall being taken to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts a couple of times and finding it utterly boring. I had some mild enjoyment of and fondness for The Nutcracker, but otherwise classical music left me cold. During my tween years, my older sister was involved in a few dance performances and a family friend participated in a play or two; I attended them or watched videos, but remember being more confused than inspired.

I didn’t really experience the arts’ magical properties until much later, when I was a senior in high school. I’d had no formal musical training up to that point, although my violin-maker downstairs neighbor did teach me how to read music at the age of 12 when I was looking for cool songs to program into my computer’s internal speaker. But previous music appreciation classes and a lot of singing in the shower had been enough to convince me to try giving music more of a role in my life, at least for that year. So all at once, I enrolled in a music theory AP class, joined the high school Glee Club, and started composing on my own (to the point where I decided to spend my independent senior project – a five-week stretch of no classes during which most students completed an internship – composing and recording a primitive “rock symphony”).

That year completely changed my life. First of all, I loved singing in chorus. Hearing the music come together from the inside, over time, was a totally different experience than listening to the finished product from a seat in the audience. I felt like I gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation of each piece by virtue of so intimately being a part of it than I ever could as a spectator. But even more than that, I loved being a composer. I loved the process of imagining a sonic landscape, articulating it in a common language, working with other people to bring it to life (I found that music was a wonderful vehicle for helping this socially anxious soul make new friends), and most of all, hearing my creation in my own ears, given breath by a community of people who were inspired to share their time and talents with it.

For me, that was magical. But none of it involved being in the audience for anything. It involved doing art: actively involving myself in the creation or production of an arts experience. (Not to say that all of my early experiences with that were magical either. I acted in a school play around the same time and hated it. Why? Because I sucked at acting, that’s why. I enjoyed music in no small part because I was good at it, and part of the magic no doubt lay in self-validation.)

When we limit our discussion of arts experiences to ones in which we participate passively, I imagine that the bar for something “transformative,” something magical, is far higher. It does happen, don’t get me wrong. But how often, really? The first truly transformative live arts experience that I can remember in which I was solely involved as an audience member did not occur until I was 21 years old – long after I’d already decided that the arts were going to play a big role in my life. I was traveling in Europe for a couple of weeks on a summer fellowship, and happened to catch a Japanese guitar-bass-drums trio called Altered States at an experimental record store in Rotterdam. They played a two-hour, 100% improvised set of jazz-rock fusion that was unlike any music I had ever heard before, and I can honestly say it changed my life in profound ways. Some months later, I saw renowned Polish conductor Jan Szyrocki perform with the Szczecin Technical University Choir at Yale in a concert that just blew me away and totally reframed my concept of what was possible in choral music. Since then, I can report that I’ve had deeply moving or inspiring arts experiences like that as an audience member at a rate of perhaps one every other year. To be sure, that’s a lot more than I experienced during my teenage years – but it’s also only one out of every several dozen events I attend!

I think that the people who had transformative arts experiences as youth of the kind that Gary talks about – where they heard Verdi or saw a Matisse and were hooked right then and there – just got lucky. They were in the right place at the right time and were bringing to the table just the right cocktail of personal background, talent, and curiosity to have a magical moment. I bet if you polled arts professionals more broadly, though, the vast majority would report having their minds first blown by the arts during an active state of engagement. Laura Zabel, now executive director of Springboard for the Arts, just recently wrote a lovely thank-you note to the Tulsa Ballet for visiting her small town in Kansas when she was growing up and getting her hooked on the arts. Not by performing, mind you – though they did that as well – but by welcoming her into their production of the Nutcracker.

Getting out and seeing a show now and then is always nice. But getting to be in the show – that’s what’s truly transformative about the arts.

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[Createquity Reruns] Uncomfortable Thoughts: Is Shouting About Arts Funding Bad for the Arts?

(One of Createquity’s hallmarks has been its willingness to entertain questions that many cheerleaders for the arts would prefer not to touch with a ten-foot pole: questions about the effectiveness and relevance of arts programming or advocacy strategies, about the appropriateness of the ways in which we amass knowledge, even about whether the arts really matter all that much after all. In honor of that propensity for navel-gazing, Uncomfortable Thoughts week begins here with a 2011 guest post from Margy Waller, who focuses on strategic communications and creative connections to promote broad support of the arts at Topos Partnership. -IDM)

This all started with a throwaway comment I made to Ian when I was dropping him off at the airport. Sharing an idea that you’ve been mulling over for awhile, but never said aloud and aren’t sure you’re ready to discuss, is best done when the sharee is dashing for a flight and won’t really engage. Or so I thought.

Ian said: 1) Now that’s worth discussing. 2) I’m not sure whether I agree with you. 3) Maybe you should write a blog post about it.

Ha.

So – now you know how I ended up here.

The Theory: Shhhhhhh

Public Art Paris

Shhhhhhhh

Here’s the theory I pitched at Createquity that day: Advocates for the arts might be better off doing their work under the radar than trying so hard to get a lot of media and public attention when fighting for public funding of the arts.

Createquity readers get regular updates on public funding of the arts. So we all know this was an especially rough year for many state arts councils.

But is this unique? Nope. We all have examples in our catalogue of “can-you-top-this” horror stories about arts advocacy experiences from over the years.

Like this.

When President Obama proposed including funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in the stimulus legislation, the media covered the topic in typical he-said-she-said style with headlines like “Stimulus funding for arts hits nerve: Some doubt it would create jobs.

The arts are often used as a way to politicize and undermine bigger issues (like the stimulus bill), because the public tends to erupt with charges of elitism like this one:

“Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact one of the things the working class likes to do for leisure is go to professional wrestling? And if I suggested we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of the ticket, people would think I’m insane….” — Catholic League President Bill Donohue speaking of an exhibit at the Smithsonian in 2010.

Media coverage like this encourages a debate over the “facts.” Unfortunately, rebutting the doubts with our research findings means that arts supporters have to stay in our opponents’ frame.

They Aren’t Listening Anyway

A debate that lives within the position of a critic (like arts jobs aren’t really jobs or the arts should be supported by the rich) does little to shift the public landscape of a widely-shared belief, such as: the arts are a low priority for public funding.

Unfortunately, facts and research we’ve accumulated to prove the value of the arts as a public matter of concern, and then worked hard to get reporters to cover, are too often dismissed or ignored when seen through the lens of an idea that’s not new and about which people have already made up their minds.

Most people will simply ignore the rest of the story (where all our snappy facts live) once they’ve seen the headline. We all filter the barrage of information in today’s info-heavy world, paying little attention to all but those matters of deepest interest to us. A headline that presents an issue we’ve already decided for ourselves is likely to be read as: “Oh, that again. I know what I know about that. And I don’t need to know anymore.”

Worse Even: The Backfire Effect

But even worse is the possibility that a public debate makes things harder for arts advocates in the long run because, as Chris Mooney explains, “…head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect” where people react by defending their position and holding onto their views “more tenaciously than ever.”

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

It’s true that in the end, Congress included some funding for the NEA in the stimulus bill. But it took a very heavy lift — well executed by Americans for the Arts — to set up hundreds of conversations between constituents with influence and members of Congress. It’s certainly sometimes possible to overcome bad press and the fear felt by elected officials that they might doom their own careers supporting an unpopular cause. But it’s seriously labor intensive and asks a lot of our supporters — not an ideal way to ensure success year after year. And it forced us to revive an old debate – possibly making things harder for arts supporters next time around.

An Alternative: Don’t Try to Change Minds, Change Perspective

One solution to this dilemma is to craft a new communications strategy —one built on a deeper understanding of the best ways to communicate with the public about the arts—that would increase a sense of shared responsibility and motivate public action in support of the arts. That’s what we’ve done at ArtsWave.

Instead of reviving an old debate, we sought a new way to start the conversation – based on something we can all be for, instead of something we’re defending against an attack. And importantly, we aren’t trying to change people’s minds, but present the arts in a way that changes perspective. Therefore, we held the message accountable to factors such as whether it prompts people to focus on certain aspects of the topic (such as broad benefits) rather than others (such as personal tastes); whether a message is coherent and memorable; whether it promotes the idea of public/collective action; and so on.

After a year of investigation and interviews with hundreds of people in the our region and surrounding states, this research—conducted by the Topos Partnership for ArtsWave (happy disclosure, the writer is affiliated with both) —found that public responsibility for the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions. Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong. But how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns that ultimately obscure a sense of shared responsibility in this area.

For example, it is natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment. In fact, it’s how we want people to think when we are selling tickets or memberships. But, in this view, entertainment is a “luxury,” and the “market” will determine which arts offerings survive, based on people’s tastes as consumers of entertainment. Consequently, public support for the arts makes little sense, particularly when public funds are scarce.

Perceptions like these lead to conclusions that government funding, for instance, is frivolous or inappropriate. Even charitable giving can be undermined by these default perceptions. People who target arts funding, as they did in the stimulus bill, know that these dominant ways of thinking about the arts will work in their favor. Our investigation identified a different approach, one that moves people to a new, more resonant way of thinking about the arts.

What is it? The arts create ripple effects of benefits, such as vibrant, thriving neighborhoods where we all want to live and work. This is not only compelling, but it also sets an expectation of public responsibility for the arts.

However, even though most people agree with this view already (so we don’t have to change their minds), we know that it will take time, repetition, and many partners across the nation to bring this way of thinking to the forefront of people’s minds.

Stay Off the “Front Page”

So — back to my theory about arts advocacy – until we effect that change, the better strategy, when possible, may be to keep stories about public funding for the arts off the front pages and out of the media.

To some this may seem counter-intuitive. Or at least uncomfortable. If we care about the arts, shouldn’t we be shouting about it? Getting people to pay attention to our facts and our data.

Well – it depends. Is our advocacy goal a widely seen news piece outlining all sides of the issue? Or, do we want a successful budget outcome?

I think it’s the latter. And when it can be achieved with a quiet effort, making sure to begin modeling this new way of thinking about the arts in our meetings with decision-makers, that is preferable to another big public debate. Because the big fight in the default way of viewing the arts is very losable. And in our efforts, we’re forced to expand a precious resource: the time and energy of staff and key supporters who have to work so hard to convince public officials that they won’t suffer consequences in the next election.

Moreover, every time the fight is public, we’re likely to be reinforcing the dominant ways of thinking about the arts that are getting in our way now. When attacked, we rebut with facts, and the media covers the issue as a political fight with two equal sides – both seen through a lens that sets up the arts as a low priority on the public agenda. And as we know, this can have the effect of making people defensive and hardening existing positions. Of course, it should be no surprise that even officials who are friendly to arts funding are reluctant to be in the middle of that kind of coverage.

The Ohio Success Story

This past year, I watched closely as our state arts advocates at Ohio Citizens for the Arts carefully managed what seemed to be a stealth campaign to retain funding for arts and culture through the Ohio Arts Council. Despite an initial proposed cut by the newly elected Governor, the final outcome was an increase in funding over $4 million more than the previous budget. Each step of the process brought an increase in the proposed funding level — the House vote, the Senate vote, and the reconciled proposal sent to the Governor, resulting in $6.6 million more than the proposed executive budget. And it went forward without fanfare or comment when signed into law.

Compare this scenario with the nightmare that was Kansas. Of course, the Governor started a fight there — and there’s some evidence that this battle to the death did bring out supporters. But it clearly brought out opponents too.

As a little test, I tried two Google searches: One for blogs mentioning ‘“Ohio Arts Council” budget’ and the other for ‘“Kansas Arts Commission” budget’. In both cases, I limited findings to the first six months in 2011. The Kansas search revealed over 1000 posts, compared to only 42 in Ohio. An even greater disparity than I had imagined.

It appears that the Ohio advocates strategically sought to keep the campaign under the radar. And it worked.

To be sure, I called Donna Collins – the executive director of the Ohio arts advocacy organization. And she confirmed my theory.

“We didn’t want to be in the headlines,” she said. “We didn’t want to see masses of people on the statehouse lawn with signs about funding the arts. We wanted people on message, talking with their own elected officials at home, as well as in Columbus. Our advocates, from the smallest rural community to the large urban centers, all had compelling stories about the positive impact of the arts.”

Collins credits long-term investment in relationship building with state decision-makers and encouraging a consistent message: the value citizens place on the way arts make places great. She organized a meeting about this message for partners on the morning of a well-attended statewide Arts Advocacy Day in the capitol. There was no big public fight, no need to defend a position in the media, no risk of the opposition hardening in place – and therefore little reason for politicians to fear supporting the increase in funding for the arts.

So…this is a theory, and one deserving of more study. But until we have a new landscape of public understanding, it seems a theory worth testing again.

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