Green Leaves - by Flickr user Thangaraj Kumaravel, Creative Commons license

Green Leaves – by Flickr user Thangaraj Kumaravel, Creative Commons license

(For the most up-to-date version of our healthy arts ecosystem definition, please see this page.)

At its core, Createquity is a research-based investigation of the most important issues in the arts and what we can do about them. That description sounds straightforward enough, but it belies a complicated dilemma: how can we decide what issues are most important? To guide us, we’ve invested quite a bit of time reflecting on what a healthy arts ecosystem looks like. This conception, and the gaps between that healthy arts ecosystem and the status quo, underlie all of our research and advocacy work.

Our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem is rooted in several core principles:

Improving Lives. In our view, a healthy arts ecosystem maximizes the arts’ capacity to improve the lives of human beings in concrete and meaningful ways. While the evidence base for the benefits of the arts is continually developing and evolving, we feel confident in our core operating assumption that participation in the arts offers value to a large majority of human beings, and that arts participation (especially more active forms of participation such as creation or performance) can in some cases be deeply consequential or even life-changing. The nature of these benefits is wide-ranging, and can be as fuzzy as acquiring new perspectives on the world or as concrete as more money in one’s bank account. In particular, we see the arts as a uniquely effective tool for many people in the pursuit of self-actualization (conceived in the popular sense as the drive to reach one’s highest potential). We also recognize that the arts have a role in addressing other human needs, such as health, safety, and belonging, and that participation by some people in the arts can impact others who do not participate directly – for example, by fostering tighter community relationships or creating new economic value.

Pluralism. Experience and research alike tell us that different people relate to the arts in vastly different ways across different contexts, and for that reason our approach focuses on matching individuals with the opportunities that are most appropriate for them. While we do not assume that everyone will or needs to benefit enormously from having the arts in their lives, we do believe that the only way to determine who can benefit the most is through widespread and varied exposure to the arts.

Net Benefit. Our approach considers the arts to be in dialogue with the rest of the world, and as such we do not consider participation in the arts to be its own justification. Depending on the situation and people involved, cultural products and experiences can provoke boredom, contempt, or worse; in other circumstances, their production and consumption can contribute to bigotry, inequality, and other social ills. Even when arts experiences are harmless, they may not always represent the best use of anyone’s time and resources – especially when such resources are scarce. We don’t ever want to be in the position of supporting the arts at the expense of the rest of society, and we don’t think the arts ecosystem can be considered healthy unless people’s lives really are being improved in concrete and meaningful ways as a result of their participation in it.

People, Not Institutions. Unlike many discussions of a healthy arts ecosystem that place a heavy emphasis on nonprofit institutions, our definition focuses almost exclusively on people. We make this choice because it is not hard to see how the interests of institutions and their allies could (and perhaps do, regularly) come into conflict with the interests of other elements of the ecosystem, including those of professional and nonprofessional artists, audience members, donors, and the broader community. By maintaining a consistent focus on people, we still recognize the value of institutions – but only insofar as they facilitate or make possible the all-important task of improving people’s lives in concrete and meaningful ways.

The Definition

With all that in mind, in a healthy arts ecosystem…

  • Each human being today and in the future has an opportunity to participate in the arts at a level appropriate to his/her interest and skill:
    • “Common” opportunities (like participating as an audience member, getting a basic arts education or attending a class as an adult) are available to all
    • “Scarce” opportunities (like creating or performing art for a living) are available to those for whom it matters the most and who have the most to contribute
      • Who has the most to contribute?
        • People whose work connects to a large audience
        • People whose work wins unusual acclaim from experts
        • People whose work adds something unique to the cultural diet of humanity or whose culture is deeply marginalized in society
        • People whose work improves people’s lives in other concrete and meaningful ways
  • The best possible mix of cultural products and experiences is available for the enjoyment, appreciation and use by human beings today and in the future
  • Every opportunity is taken to improve the lives of human beings today and in the future through the arts, whenever the arts (alone or in combination with other practices) offer the most promising pathway for doing so
  • Effective mechanisms or infrastructure exist as needed to help accomplish the above goals

Common vs. Scarce and Who Gets to Decide

This concept of “common” and “scarce” opportunities to participate in the arts is an invention of ours, and since it plays an important role in our healthy arts ecosystem we felt it would be useful to define it more completely. The notion of common and scarce opportunities proceeds from an acceptance of two realities: first, that we live in a world of limited resources, and second, that certain forms of participation in the arts require more of those resources than others. Opportunities that are easily provided (aka “common”) should be distributed widely, while more resource-intensive (aka “scarce”) participation opportunities should be concentrated to the extent possible with people who contribute or have the potential to contribute a lot of value through their artwork to the rest of society. To facilitate that idea, we’ve created a more detailed taxonomy outlining where various kinds of activities fall on the common vs. scarce spectrum.

Common – proactive steps should be taken to make opportunity available to all

  • Participating at least once as an audience member in all arts disciplines
  • Receiving basic exposure to the arts as a child in all arts disciplines
  • Attending an arts class as an adult

A bit scarce – opportunity should be available to all, with the understanding that a minority will take the opportunity

  • Exploring at least one arts discipline in depth during childhood
  • Taking ongoing classes/lessons for one’s own enjoyment as an adult
  • Participating regularly as an audience member, e.g. as a subscriber or superfan
  • Informal curation such as remixing, maintaining a collection, etc.
  • Creating or performing regularly in private

Scarce – opportunity should be available to as many as possible, with those who have the most to contribute receiving priority

  • Participating in a pre-professional training program
  • Creating or performing regularly for a public audience but not for money
  • Creating or performing regularly as a side project or part-time job (part-time by choice)
  • Having a public identity as an arts critic

Very scarce – opportunity should be concentrated with those who have the most to contribute

  • Creating or performing art for a living
  • Making a living as an arts critic

The notion of “the most to contribute” is likewise a new concept, and undoubtedly one with potential for controversy. We should stress that we are not proposing to put ourselves, or any other individual or group, in the sole position of deciding “who has the most to contribute” or what constitutes “the best possible mix of cultural products and experiences.” A close look at the definition reveals a dialogue between consumers writ large and the opinions of “experts” – meaning professional critics, artistic directors, knowledgeable fans, grantmakers, and others who regularly perform a curatorial role of some kind – in determining the composition of the “most to contribute” group. It’s important to recognize that this dialogue already exists in practice and that all we’re doing is putting a name to decision-making processes that happen every day all around us. Indeed, we would argue that every concept that’s described in our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem is also present in our current arts ecosystem – just perhaps not arranged or distributed in a way that serves everyone’s needs and interests as well as it could.

Scope Limitations and the Territory Ahead

Finally, we should close with a few caveats. The scope of our work at Createquity, and by extension our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem, is perhaps arbitrarily constrained in two ways. The first is that, after much debate, we have decided to use a conventional, discipline-based definition of arts and culture for the time being. The industry boundaries that include most of our audience can be described relatively simply as the confluence of the visual arts, dance, film and electronic media, music, theater, and literature, along with support structures for activities in those disciplines. A case can be made for expanding our definition more broadly to include creative pursuits in other fields like the culinary arts and various design fields, and/or mechanisms for cultural exchange such as humanities and heritage traditions that don’t involve one of the disciplines mentioned above. We’re not quite ready to do that, but it’s something we’ll continue to explore, and we feel reasonably confident that our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem can adapt to any such expansion. Second, Createquity’s primary focus is on the arts in the United States. While we are interested in developments and conversations in arts and culture around the globe, we don’t want to pretend that we know more about the international context than we actually do. Again, this is a decision for now rather than forever, and we will give consideration to opportunities to expand our focus as they may come up.

We know this definition of a healthy arts ecosystem won’t necessarily resonate with everyone. Nevertheless, we’ve tried very hard to design it to be capable of speaking for as many people as possible, and are eager to improve it in any way we can. We consider this definition a living document and welcome critical feedback and debate, either on specific details or the entire premise. We plan to pose some of our open questions to our Createquity Insider feed, and asking good questions or pointing out things we haven’t thought of yet are both great ways to get invited to join our editorial team. And we’re always grateful to be made aware of opportunities to explain our thinking more clearly. We look forward to hearing from you!


  • Kiley Arroyo

    Congratulations to the whole team behind Createquity’s relaunch! Thanks for sharing this progressive framing the cultural ecosystem. I particularly appreciate your proposed orientation towards people and the creation of enhanced public value. For too long has general discourse in the field hovered between too few players, namely organizations and the funders who support the. When in reality, it’s people that actually legitimize whether value has in fact been created through creative experience. So here’s to the future, both of Createquity and our field’s evolution.

    Long time reader, second time commenter.